ROME to DUBAI (Part 3) – April 2013

Please Note – I am currently editing the travel journal I started writing in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback and encourage my readers to post comments.

Next Around the Bend – New York & Boston

The Body in the Bath

Once back onboard, after our night in Luxor, we found that our cabin stewardess had been up to her tricks again.

I walked into our bathroom and jumped in shock. Lying in the bath was a ‘man’ dressed in a bathrobe wearing Huck B’s slippers. Once I calmed down and I recovered full use of my legs, I saw that the ‘man’ was, in fact, a life vest.

Stepping closer still, I noticed that the bath robe wearing life vest was holding a note, which read:

“Welcome home we missed you so,

But on your tour you had to go,

I hope that you had a super time,

And also that you enjoyed my rhyme.”

Not wishing our cheeky stewardess’ efforts to go to waste, I asked Huckleberry B to join me in the bathroom because there was something she had to see. I tried to maintain a serious face lest I give away the surprise. It worked because my wife looked very co

ncerned.

Upon entering the bathroom, I think Huckleberry got a bigger shock than I did! Priceless!

As it happened, we had not finished our Arabic dessert at lunch time, so we requested that it be backed and presented to our stewardess with the following note:

“We are back, yet it’s true,

Back in room nine twenty two.

We saw your rhyme, which made us laugh,

But why is he wearing a robe in the bath?

Whilst in Luxor, out in the heat,

We thought of you and brought back this treat.”

It has been a fun holiday and our fun stewardess has only enhanced the enjoyment.

Sinai Shenanigans (The Calamitous Caravan to St Catherine’s)

We awoke just before 6am and the trouble started just after 7…

Our trip to St Catherine’s Monastery, on the Sinai Peninsula, will always be remembered for the world’s worst tour guide; certainly the most insipid and inept we have experienced.

Given that what follows is deliberately – and deservedly – defamatory, I shall obscure the identity of our guide by calling him ‘Ramesses the Turd”.

We told our tour operator, who sub-contracted Ramesses, that our ship would arrive at 6am. For reasons which are unlikely to ever be properly explained, Ramesses seems to have assumed that that meant we would somehow magically appear on the dock immediately and that we would be driving away from the port a couple of minutes past the hour. However, as anybody experienced with cruise ships would know, this was impossible. First the local authorities must come onboard and clear the ship’s passengers to come ashore before the tender boats start to operate. This all takes time.

We were well prepared and narrowly missed catching the first tender vessel to shore. We had invited the Bostonians to join us for the day. The four of us caught the second tender instead. By this stage it was well after 7am.

After looking for our guide, we eventually found him 200 metres away at the gates to the port area. Other tour operators had made their way down to where the tender boats arrived, but not Ramesses.

In any event – obviously keen to make a good first impression – the Ram immediately started bleating about how had had been waiting for us since 6am. We and the Bostonians just smiled and followed the guide to the waiting mini-van.

I think it’s fair to say that Ramesses immediately put Robin off-side, by addressing us as ‘guys’. Of sufficient age to be his mother, not to mention him being a complete stranger, she found this form of address overly familiar. We would have to agree.

What did pique our interest, however, was the presence of a third Egyptian in our vehicle. In addition to Ramesses and the driver, there was a man in a suit introduced to us as being from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism. It later emerged, following direct enquiry from Robin, that the suited gentleman was armed with a semi-automatic weapon! He was more than happy to show it to us upon request. In fact, the way he waved it around with an uncomfortable degree of relish was somewhat disturbing. I remain unsure whether his presence, and his armoury, made me feel more secure or less!

It also raised the question; why was an armed escort considered necessary? Robin –always the inquisitor – asked this very question but never received any satisfactory answer.

The drive to St Catherine’s Monastery occupied some three hours. Whilst similar to the drive from Safaga to Luxor, the scenery was more dramatic. At one point, with St Catherine’s approaching, the desert of dark brown and yellow rock and stone, gave way to the light yellow sand familiar from Hollywood movies. The scenery here will long live in the memory; the graceful sand dunes swept across the rolling hills; punctuated by dramatic sandstone escarpments which rose sharply from the desert floor.

Unfortunately, we left the desert behind and we arrived at St Catherine’s. It was here that Ramesses’ true incompetence came to the fore.

There are three attractions at St Catherine’s Monastery; the church, the burning bush and the library.

We now know that only one of these attractions had an imminent closing time. Given his conduct, Ramesses was equally ignorant of the fact that the door to the library – and her priceless relics – closed firmly shut at 12 noon.

Between the Monastery gate and the Monastery proper, there is climb of some 500 metres. Ramesses could have casually glanced at his watch, noted that the library was about to close, and suggested we take one of the available taxis to save time. Indeed, we now know why follow cruise passengers were being ushered to the available vehicles with some urgency by their (better informed and more competent) guides. Rather than rush, we trudged up the hill and meandered towards the Monastery – waddling like four lazy Egyptian camels after a month in the desert – as valuable minutes flew by.

Once at the Monastery, the fog of ignorance in Ramesses’ brain thickened. The library, with its fascinating artefacts, lay to our left and the church lay directly ahead. A course to the left would have seen us enter the library with ample minutes to spare, yet we were ushered forward into the Church instead.

Further valuable time was wasted as Ramesses paused by the burning bush for photographs and reminder of tales we already knew from religious studies at school. The burning bush could have waited.  When we came back, it was still yet to burst into flame, so it’s not like we missed anything.

Finally, we strode with purpose towards the library door, only to see it moving inexorably to a closed position. All attempts to persuade the custodians to allow us entry fell on unsympathetic ears. Not even St Catherine, herself, could intervene to cause the library doors to miraculously open!

The real tragedy was soon to reveal its face. Everybody who made it into the library in time was heard to remark about how simply marvellous it was. What made the whole experience truly aggravating, however, was the way Ramesses looked so utterly baffled when we told him that we had been denied entry.

“What”, Ramesses raised a perplexed eyebrow, “They told you it was closed?”

He just had no idea.

Further aggravation was soon to follow.

Next on our tour was snorkeling at a reputedly spectacular coral reef at Dahab, on the Red Sea coastline, followed by lunch.

Despite our disappointment, we climbed back into the mini-van with renewed vigour. As the vehicle trundled down the hill, Ramesses raised the subject of the lunch menu. He offered fish and we accepted on the condition that it was fresh.

The concept of ‘fresh fish’ – like most abstract concepts – confused Ramses. Explaining to him that we only wanted to eat fish if it was caught that day and cooked no more than five minutes before it was placed on the table to be consumed was akin to demanding that he immediately part the Red Sea.

Robin resorted to saying that we wanted to see the fish before it was cooked and watch it being placed on the grill.

“Huh”, Ramesses chuckled in abject befuddlement, “you want to see the fish?”

Further discussion about the ancient mysteries of fresh fish, however, was soon swept aside as the true drama of the day began to unfold.

Our driver – probably, himself, dreaming about the lunch which awaited him – brought the mini-van to a halt at the security check-point at the exit from St Catherine’s. Suddenly, animated discussion in Arabic filled the air.

The suited gentleman from the Ministry of Egyptian Tourism – and his semi-automatic weapon – left the vehicle and stood face to face with the security guards. Those of us in the vehicle who did not speak Arabic, watched the drama unfold in hushed silence. A black cat was seen stealthily crossing the road ahead.

Our confusion, and rising tension, was not eased when the driver moved the car to the side of the road and Ramesses – in his state of perpetual baffledom – muttered that he would go and see what was going on. What he learned (if anything) remained unknown as he was next seen smoking a cigarette and fiddling with his mobile phone.

The four of us were left in the car, unsure of what was happening, for over half an hour. The gallows humour which dominated our transit of the Gulf of Aden returned.

Eventually, Huckleberry B urged me to go and request particulars from the man who called himself a guide. To date, the contents of his head had been as barren as the surrounding desert, but we figured he was as good a source of information as any.

Once I found him, Ramesses told me that we could not leave until the security convoy gathered at 1pm. Not wishing to be ostentatious in a land of professional beggars, I had left my watch on the ship, so I asked Ramesses to tell me the time. He said it was 12.43 (although I later learned that he had inflated his answer by almost one third; it was only 12.33).

I cross-examined him as to why he had not told us what was going on and he shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about the government.

Back in the mini-van the mood had turned hostile.

Robin proposed we seize the available weaponry and take charge of the vehicle. Peter was more circumspect. Eventually, we agreed to invite Ramesses back to the mini-van to discuss the options available to us. A small band of UN peace-keepers were seen hovering nearby, to be deployed if necessary.

Truthfully, we had all had enough. We told Ramesses that when the convoy commenced we wanted to go back to the ship. It was already almost 1pm and a three hour journey lay ahead of us. Given that we had to be back onboard by 5pm, there was simply no time for either lunch or snorkeling. All it took was some further unexpected delay and we would have been compelled to spend the night in an abandoned shipping container at the bleak port of Sharm-el-Sheikh. Whilst the company would have been fine, I feared casualties by dawn’s morning light.

Given the way the day had unfolded, we may have been detained at one of the five police checkpoints which lay between us and the safety of our vessel. A militant herd of diseased Egyptian desert goats may have impeded our progress. That black cat was still lurking, threateningly, by the side of the road, inspecting us closely through the corner of her evil yellow eyes.  Who knew what dangers lay ahead?

Jokes aside, the presence of an armed escort in our vehicle and the need to travel in a convoy implied genuine security concerns. It was time to go home.

Despite the passion of our appeal and the strength of our argument, Ramesses the Turd remained bemused and befuddled.

“What”, he asked in conspicuous consternation, “You want to change the program?”

This was too much for Robin. She abandoned her shy and introspective demeanour and cut loose. Why didn’t Ramesses know about the convoy? Why weren’t we offered lunch at the Monastery whilst we waited for the convoy to gather? Did Ramesses have an IQ greater than the stray dog which just trotted by? Who the hell doesn’t know the difference between fresh fish and pre-cooked, once frozen, inedible muck?

I sense that at this point Ramesses had lost control of the conversation…

In an extremely ill-advised move, he resolved to fight back and blame us, his clients, for the calamity. He argued that if we had joined him at 6am, all of the problems which befell us could have been avoided.

Suddenly, all four of us were provoked into a less than civil rhetorical ass-kicking.

In short summary, we pointed out that unless he expected us to swim ashore it was simply impossible to arrive at the port before the tender boats started to operate after the ship had been cleared by the Egyptian authorities. We got there as soon as we could.

Peter concluded the combined verbal battery with words of profound understatement; “We are not happy.”

Incredibly, Ramesses responded by stating that he, too, was unhappy and proceeded to slam the door of the mini-van shut.

When the convoy was eventually ready to commence its treacherous journey across the Sinai Desert – and faced with the choice of either re-joining us or seizing the nearest camel to ride back – Ramesses skulked into the back of the mini-van and sat behind us. For the entire, extended journey back to Sharm-el-Sheikh, Ramesses remained mute and declined to further interact with us.

Even when safely at the Port, our host remained in the vehicle after we had climbed out. It was only after Huckleberry B enquired whether he proposed saying goodbye that Ramesses said through clenched teeth, and with lashings of sarcasm; “Bye guys”.

He would have been better off remaining silent. The use of ‘guys’ only invited Robin to deliver a further rebuke for his lack of respect and courtesy. I can only imagine what Arabic swear words filled the mini-van after we left.

Ironically, it was a memorable day.

Over six hours in a mini-van and nothing to show for it but five minutes in a church, a burning bush which looked no different from our shrubs at home, some admittedly stunning scenery and a story we will doubtless be telling for many years to come.

Moonriver

 

 

DUBAI to ROME (Part 2) – April 2013

A Birthday of Note

I have, so far, only hinted at the main reason we have taken this trip at this time.

Huckleberry B is celebrating a significant birthday!

Let’s just say it’s the 29th anniversary of her 21st birthday…

We began celebrating shortly after leaving Oman. Not ( just) because Oman was now behind us, but also because 6pm in Salalah equated to midnight in Sydney and the commencement of my beloved’s natal day.

The next day, celebration continued in earnest. I had managed to arranged for a classical guitarist to visit our room, mid-morning, and play two of B’s favourite tunes for her: ‘Moon River‘ and ‘The Very Thought of You‘. In some ways, this gift was payback for Huck B surprising me with a violinist on Valentine’s Day…in my office…with my colleagues present…!

After a relaxing massage in the onboard Spa, and an afternoon nap, we celebrated with a birthday dinner. In attendance were Peter and Robin, whom I mentioned earlier, and two other friends we had made, David and Ann.

With our dinner of Maine lobster salad and lamb, we enjoyed some bottles we had brought from home: Mount Mary Triolet 2006, Hensckhe Hill Of Grace 1992 and Grant Burge Mesharch Shiraz 1994. Each of our guests enjoyed the wine, including Robin who has a very good palate and has written professionally about ‘new world wines’.

When we returned to our stateroom, we found that our stateroom stewardess had decorated the room with balloons  and left a cheese platter on our table, together with a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

All in all, I think it was a nice way to celebrate a birthday of significance. I certainly enjoyed myself on my wife’s behalf!

Tragedy in Boston (Born to Run)

I was about to embark on a run in Seabourn Odyssey’s gym when I saw the news.

The TV screen set into the treadmill displayed the Sky News channel. I saw the Newsflash screaming that at least two bombs had exploded near Boston Marathon’s finish line. I read that three were dead and a vast number were injured. Some of the injured had lost their feet or suffered severe injury to their legs.

I am a distance runner.

I have enjoyed neither the stamina nor the courage to embark upon a full marathon, however, I have completed five half marathons (all whilst north of the age of 40).

I know what it feels like to have found a rhythm as you pound along. Whilst your body hurts, it’s not too bad. There’s a quiet determination in your eyes. Your heart is pumping, but your brain is singing. In those moments, I feel like I’m 18 again.

I also know what it feels like to be approaching a half marathon’s finishing line. Most of the hard miles are now behind you, as are the long hours of lonely training which you needed to even contemplate embarking on a 21.1 kilometre run. Your body is screaming in pain, but you know that if you can just keep going for a few more minutes, the pain will go and elation will flow through you aching body.

I can only dream about what it must feel like to close in on a distant 42.2 kilometre finishing line.

When I watched the images on TV, I was not surprised to see one of the marathoners (wearing an orange T-shirt), having been knocked over by the blast, get up onto his feet and continue, with iron will, towards the finish line. At the beginning of a long run you do anything from listen to music to think of loved ones to plan the rest of your week in order to distract yourself from the gruelling task ahead. As you close in on your destination, however, all you think about is how overjoyed and relieved you will feel to have seen the race through until its end. By that stage, nothing will deter you. In the case of the man with the orange T-shirt, not even a terrorist’s bomb was going to stop him from picking himself up and finishing his race.

As I write these words, what has happened is still new to me and very raw. As yet there are no answers to ‘who’ and ‘why’.

This morning I feel only outage. My mind is numbed by sorrow for those runners who were experiencing the heightened emotions I have attempted to describe above, only to have loved ones – who were there to cheer them in their quiet moment of personal glory – killed or maimed.

Huckleberry B and I also feel so sorry for all Bostonians, like our friends, Peter and Robin.

The Bumpy Road to Luxor

Following our four sea days, and having come to terms with what happened in Boston, our journey continued in Safaga, the port closest to the wonders of Luxor.

I am compelled, however, to commence with an apology. Usually when I visit a place of personal interest, my mind is like a Tim Tam dunked in a hot cappuccino; it absorbs everything.

I did my best in Luxor, I truly did. However, I found that my brain was overwhelmed with so much information about Pharaohs, dynasties, constructions methods and varieties of rock that it all began to resemble hieroglyphics in my mind’s misty eye.

Our guide, Mahmoud, was fantastic. I admired his enthusiasm and he is clearly passionate about Egyptology. However, he delivered his narrative with such breathless energy that it was hard to keep up. He might pause briefly to allow a photograph or a short video. Yet he would lie in wait and, when you were finished, he’d be in your face again, assaulting you with a further barrage of Egyptian trivia. After a period of resistance, my holidaying brain ultimately defended itself by shutting down. The fault is mine not Mahmoud’s.

I write these journals for fun. It was never meant to be a chore. So, I am sorry but if you want more information regarding the temples we visited, readers are reminded that Wikipedia and other websites lie close at hand.

Notwithstanding the failures of my waning brain, our two days in Luxor were memorable. The visit began with a two hour plus drive from the port at Safaga, across the desert, between the arid hills, along the bumpy road to Luxor. After touring during the afternoon, we spent the night away from Seabourn Odyssey at the Luxor Sheraton, on the banks of the Nile. The next morning was occupied by more touring, before the return journey across the desert, along the bumpy road, back to Safaga.

The Nile valley is extraordinary.

What strikes you about Egypt, as soon as you arrive, is that it is so very dry. As we drove across the desert, there is simply no vegetation. None. We were told that it may rain on two or three days in the year and, even then, the rain is fleeting.

However, after two hours of nothing but yellow dirt and rock, you come over a crest in the road and see, in the distance, a narrow strip of greenery, with more desert beyond. As you get closer, the majestic Nile River comes into view. It’s an extraordinary sight!

Mahmoud told us that 90% of Egyptians live in that narrow band of fertile ground on either side of the beautiful Nile.

On the first afternoon in Luxor, we visited two temples on the East Bank of the Nile. First we visited Karnak Temple and then Luxor Temple. As already canvassed, much of the details regarding these temples – whilst doubtless truly fascinating – left Mahmoud’s mouth and flew, upon outstretched wing, past my ears and off into the distance, never to be seen again. However, I did marvel at the remarkable constructions, whether they be statues, pillars or temples, particularly given that the source materials were often located vast distances away. It is extraordinary what can be achieved with an unfettered power to raise taxes and an unlimited supply of slave labour.

The next morning we visited the Valley of the Kings; another extraordinary experience. Our entrance fee only allowed us to enter three of the tombs. Mahmoud recommended the tombs of Ramesses II, Merenptah and Ramesses IV. He advised against visiting the tomb of Tutankhamen – which attracted an additional entry fee – given that all his treasures were in the Museum in Cairo.

We enjoyed visiting the tombs of the Pharaohs. Each one was carved out of the sandstone cliff faces which ran along either side of the narrow valley. Despite being cut into the side of a hill, we had to walk down (sometimes on a quite steep incline) towards the burial chamber. In each tomb, the walls were adorned with intricate hieroglyphics which recorded the history of the particular Pharaoh. It was a privilege to be able to walk into these tombs and gain some insight into how the Egyptian Kings sought to defeat death.

Incidentally, Mahmoud told us that a recently discovered tomb is likely to turn the thinking of Egyptologists, the world over, into a tail spin…

Evidently, archaeologists have found a tomb in the a Valley of the Kings which belonged, not to a Pharaoh, but to a belly dancer.  This is not a joke. I repeat: this is not a joke.

The theory is that the belly dancer was extremely rich and could afford to pay for a tomb to be constructed for her in the Valley of the Kings. This revelation has resulted in consideration being given to renaming the area as ‘The Valley of the Rich’; although I think that ‘The Valley of the Kings and their Belly Dancers’ has a better ring to it.

Okay, that last part was a joke…

After the Valley of the Kings we visited the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.

This was an extraordinary place; the Temple having been cut into the side of a barren mountain, within viewing distance of the Nile, but just beyond its lush irrigation area.

Mahmoud told us – and this is one part of his machine gun narrative which my ailing brain was able to digest – that the storyline from the Opera, Aida, was drawn from the hieroglyphic tale depicted on the walls of the temple.

So that was Luxor, done and dusted. After lunch, we re-entered our air conditioned mini-van and headed back across the desert, through the hills, along the bumpy road to Safaga and our stateroom onboard Seabourn Odyssey.

Moonriver

DUBAI to ROME (Part 1) – April 2013

The Bostonians 

(Miracle at the Boat Drill)

For Huckleberry B and me, our cruise holidays start when we have fully unpacked and the much dreaded boat drill is behind us. Whilst a necessary evil, boat drills are typically a tedious affair.

On this occasion we tramped downstairs to the main dining room where the ship’s safety procedures were to be explained. Looking around, we saw that most of the seats had already been taken, except two at a nearby table. A couple walked towards the vacancy before inexplicably turning away. As it transpired, their ill-advised decision turned out to be our profound good fortune.

We sat down and introduced ourselves to the couple already occupying the table; Peter and Robin. We soon began chatting and continued our chat after the boat drill had concluded and everybody else had returned to their rooms.

Not since meeting the Texans in the Galapagos Islands had we created such an instant rapport with two fellow- travellers.

We liked Peter and Robin very much. Peter is engaging and tells a good story in his measured English accent. Robin is more brash and outspoken but also a compelling story teller. We were soon to learn that she does not suffer fools either gladly or with even the mildest hint of patience. She’s a quick and accurate judge of character and will immediately dismiss a fool from her presence. This aspect of her character makes us feel vindicated because she seemed to warm to us immediately.

Like the Texans before them, we anticipate spending much time with the Bostonians on this cruise.

Oh Man! Are We Really in Oman 

(Speaking Frankly About Frankincense)

After two idyllic days at sea – onboard Seabourn Odyssey – we found ourselves in Oman.

I have described in a previous journal that one of the benefits of a cruise holiday is that sometimes your boat takes you somewhere you would never, in a million years, whimsically allow your wandering mind to even casually contemplate visiting. If memory serves, I made that observation about a previous trip to Tallinn in Estonia.

Oman clearly falls into the same category.

When discussing our ‘Travel Randomly And Valiantly Embrace Leisure’ List, I am 100% sure neither Huckleberry B nor I have ever spoken enthusiastically about an intense desire to visit Oman. Doubtless, even an ambivalent acquiescence to visit the place has likewise never passed our lips.

Our initial view of Oman was shared by others, including our new friends, Peter and Robin, who declared that this represented their second visit Oman: namely “the first and the last”!

All I really knew about Oman, prior to this voyage, was that it bordered Saudi Arabia and Yemen – other places which oddly do not feature on our TRAVEL List – and that the Socceroos are regular visitors to the Omani capital of Muscat for World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers.

Rather than venture to Muscat, however, Seabourn Odyssey took us to the Port city of Salalah.

I would have to say that Salalah is the Murmansk of the Arabian Peninsula. The city itself is of very little appeal, despite the potential created by its natural setting, particularly the steep, arid escarpment which runs parallel to the coast.

However, there are some hidden treasures nearby.

Our guide took us to Job’s tomb, high in the mountains outside Salalah. It has since been suggested to us that the tomb may be a fake, however, the visit remains memorable for its solemnity.

We then proceeded down the west coast, which was quite simply stunning. After a long beach where waves from the Indian Ocean rolled in to ripple effortlessly on the Omani shore, we visited a blow hole at a nearby headland. The blow hole, itself, was not as impressive as her cousin in Kiama, New South Wales, but the coastline in each direction was spectacular. To the west an angular escarpment rose sharply from the sea and presented a dramatic backdrop.

Other than the natural beauty surrounding Salalah, the other highlight of our visit to Oman was learning about Frankincense.

Are you aware that Oman is “the land of Frankincense”? Well, before this visit, neither were we.

Do you know what Frankincense actually is? Nope, us neither until now.

Prior to visiting Oman, I knew that Frankincense was of sufficient importance to warrant being offered by one of the wise men to Mary and Joseph at the birth of Christ. However, neither Huckleberry nor I had any inkling whether Frankincense was animal, mineral or vegetable.

Frankly, I had a lazy ten bucks on ‘mythical’, if I were to be honest.

It transpires that Frankincense is, in fact, the sap of a tree of the same name. We were taken to see two Frankincense trees in the hills around Salalah. We also saw different varieties of hardened Frankincense in the local Souk. We were told that there are kinds you can burn to create a pleasing aroma. Others can be dissolved in water for the treatment of various ailments. We happily purchased a couple of bags. Let’s see what use we put them to!

Overall, our short visit to Oman was worth undertaking. We have no particular reason to come back, but can, at least, say we have been.

The Gulf of Aden

After our vessel left the Port of Salalah – and ‘the Land of Frankincense’  disappeared over the horizon – we took a deep, relaxing breath and looked forward to four straight days at sea, as we headed to Safaga, Egypt.

Huckleberry B and I love sea days.

We have always treated our cruises ships as the primary destination of our travels. Should there be pleasing ports along the way, all the better!

Onboard Seabourn Odyssey, our sea days adopted a familiar pattern. We were extremely virtuous in the morning; getting up at 6am and spending an hour in the gym before breakfast. As the day progressed, however, we became progressively more slothful. Other than attending the team trivia quiz at noon and enjoying a light lunch, our afternoons were typified by lying in bed either watching a movie or sleeping (and quite often both simultaneously!).

These afternoons of frolicsome leisure reminded me of the song early in the Pirates of Penzance, when the Major General’s daughters are climbing over the rocks towards the shore:

Let us gayly tread the measure,

Make the most of fleeting leisure,

Hail it as a true ally,

Though it perish by-and-by.

We just pray that our blue and golden days of fleeting leisure are not interrupted by a Somalian pirate climbing onboard singing, “I am a Pirate King!” whilst followed by a small band of musical acolytes.

We joke about the prospect of out ship being overrun by pirates regularly, but there’s always a touch of gallows humour involved.

After Oman, we sail through the Gulf of Aden; the State of Yemen to our north and Somalia to our south. Many thousands of ships sail these water each year, so the truth is that our quiet enjoyment is unlikely to be rudely interrupted by Somalian pirates with evil on their minds. However, Seabourn has employed four security guards, armed with semi-automatic weapons and high pressure hoses, to ensure that any risk to our safety is further minimised.

They say that the security guards – former SAS officers – walk amongst us. That certainly makes us feel more secure; unless one of them is the elderly gentleman I saw earlier; falling asleep whilst working on a crossword puzzle, a Suez Canal of saliva leaking from one corner of his mouth. If that guy’s been sent here to protect us, then we’re all in serious jeopardy!

After the Gulf of Aden, we sail north-west along the Red Sea, towards the Suez Canal. On our right, just over the horizon, lies Saudi Arabia. On our left, we pass Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan, before reaching Egypt.

Moonriver

 

 

MYANMAR – January 2013

The Pagoda Fields of Bagan

We arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) late on the 5th of January. After spending one night in the former capital, Huckleberry B and I flew to Bagan where our week- long tour of Myanmar was to begin.

Whilst churches may have been the main attraction in Europe, our journey around Myanmar was dominated by temples, monasteries, stupas and pagodas. We learned, early in our trip, the difference between these religious structures.

A stupa is shaped like an immense, ornamental bell, with its circular base on the ground and its handle pointing to the heavens. Unlike a temple or a pagoda, one cannot enter a stupa. Whilst religious relics may be placed inside, there are no doors permitting entry once the stupa is sealed.

Pagodas come in a various sizes, but are a similar shape to a stupa. We saw – quite literally – hundreds of pagodas during our week in Myanmar. The vast majority were constructed of red brick, but some were painted white or gold. Unlike a stupa, a pagoda includes one of more open archways which allow one to enter and see the Buddha placed inside. Some are sufficiently large to allow a visitor to walk upright. Others necessitate the visitor to crouch whilst negotiating the entry point.

Neither a temple nor a monastery requires further explanation.

We saw several temples in Bagan, a monastery and a very impressive stupa. However, what made Bagan extraordinary was the vast number of pagodas which had been constructed in the fields outside the small city. Standing at the summit of a tower at our resort, at sunset, we could see dozens upon dozens of them in all directions. Some were only marginally taller than a tall man, others were the size of a two storey house. They dominated the vista in all directions.

There was something both mystical and peaceful about the scene.

We inquired why so many pagodas had been built in this area. Our guide said that Bagan was a major point on the Silk Road and it was important that the weary traveller have a place for spiritual refreshment.

We were fortunate, whilst in Bagan, to stay at the Aureum Palace Resort, which was truly exceptional. Our private villa was spacious and far in excess of our requirements; which is not to say we did not take full advantage of the perks made available to us.

One of the best features of the resort, which will long remain in the memory, was the outdoor dining area. We sat at table adjacent to an infinity pool which reflected the image of two illuminated, ancient pagodas which sat just outside the resort precincts. In the distance, a golden stupa stood proudly on the horizon. It was the perfect setting to enjoy our Tom Yum soup, Thai chicken with basil and Myanmar beer.

Remembrance on Taungthaman Lake

Huck B and I spent two days in Mandalay, the second biggest city in Myanmar.

Of our three Burmese destinations, we would have to say that Mandalay was our least favourite. In many respects, it was similar to many other Asian cities we had visited. However, we did, nevertheless, enjoy our tour of more temples, pagodas and stupas. We were not as thrilled by the uncomfortable ride in a small, horse-drawn carriage, over a bumpy road from one site to the next; however, it was another ‘experience’.

The highlight of our time in Mandalay came at sunset on the first day.

The U Bein bridge straddles the Taungthaman Lake. Stretching 1.2 kilometres  in length, the bridge rests upon 984 teak pillars. Each set of pillars is only two or three metres apart. It’s a sturdy structure which has survived over 200 years, having been completed in 1784 (although we understand that part of the bridge collapsed under the weight of revellers one Burmese new year, but was quickly restored).

We arrived at Taungthaman Lake shortly before sunset and were quickly ushered to one of the long boats on the shore. Minutes later we were out on the water. The vista which greeted us was iconic south-east Asian. As the sun hovered just above the horizon, beyond the wooden bridge, those traversing the boardwalk above were reduced to hazy silhouettes which drifted gracefully across our field of vision. To add to the idyllic scene, the image of the bridge, and those upon it, was now mirrored on the surface of the glassy lake. Though there were several dozen fellow travellers in close proximity, the reverent silence we shared was only broken by the lapping of water against our long boats and the clicking of cameras.

As our oarsman paddled us back to shore, it was only natural that my mind’s eye took me to Blackwattle Bay, near Sydney’s fish markets, under the ANZAC Bridge, where B and I had spent countless hours enjoying the exertions of dragon boat training.

I could hear the voice of our coach, S, yelling out “one – two – three – four – that’s it – stretch it out“, as our boat surged forward.

My beloved told me later she had the same thoughts that evening at U Bein Bridge.

As the sun finally set, and we helped each other out of our long boat – as we had done so many times at Blackwattle Bay – I wondered how S was. He had been battling cancer for some time, but I understood the outlook was bleak. Tragically, Boh and I received an email from our niece, three days later, to let us know that Simon had passed away on Christmas Eve.

We will never forget S; a friend of the clan and ever present in Sydney’s Chinese community, we have never known anybody so willing to give up his time, for no reward, to help others. Whether it was dragon boat training, lion dance tuition, charity work, or simply offering sage advice to Chinese youths marching towards adulthood, S just never knew how to say “no”.

Gone at just 43, S has left us far too soon. We are glad we both thought of him as we enjoyed that enchanted scene on Tuangthaman Lake in Myanmar.

The Students at Phaung Daw Oo Monastic School

Our second morning at Mandalay was dominated by an extended boat ride; this time on a reasonably large vessel, similar in size to a maxi-yacht.  Not surprisingly, the scene at the end of the boat ride was another stupa and another pagoda. It must be said, however, that these ones were special.

The stupa we saw was distinguished by the fact that it was incomplete. Had it been finished it would have been the biggest stupa in Myanmar. The pagoda was unique because it was white in colour and surrounded by a series of seven wave shaped circles which bordered the central structure.

After the return boat ride, we did something truly special.

We had learned that there was a monastery school in Mandalay which a vast number of students attending. In Myanmar, parents are required to pay fees in order to send their children to government schools. Those families who are poor – of which there are many – send their children to schools run by the local monastery. These schools relied entirely on donations to operate. They have no government funding.

My darling, Huckleberry B, directed our guide to take us to a store selling rice and purchased five 50 kilo bags to be delivered to the monastic school. In the scheme of things it was probably a small offering, however, it was something.

We took the receipt to the school and gave it to the vice-principal. We were privileged to sit with the monk and chat for a while. We subsequently met his brother, the principal of the school.

When the invitation of a tour was offered, Huck B was quick to accept. We were shown some of the class rooms and were ultimately ushered into a room where the PCP students were taught. B asked what `PCP’ stood for and we were told they were preparing for college. We spent some time with these bright and enthusiastic teenage students and, among others, met a girl who wished to be a tour guide, a boy who wanted to work in construction engineering and a girl who harboured the worthy ambition of being a doctor.

One of the students asked Huckleberry how she succeeded in becoming a lawyer. This gave her an opportunity to address the class about the importance of education. B outlined how her upbringing was similar to those in the class. She had been sent to the bus station in Johor Bahru to sell lottery tickets, with her sister, when she was just six years old. She wasn’t much older when her parents routinely sent her to the markets to pick vegetables out of the rubbish bins; the still edible items would be included in the family dinner whilst the rotten bits would be fed to the family chickens.

However, despite the deprivations experienced by a Chinese family in Malaysia in the 1970’s, Huck recognized that education was the key to a better life. She worked hard and obtained a scholarship to attend high school in Canada. Though, at that time, she hardly spoke English, she was suddenly studying Hamlet. Yet she graduated with honours and was accepted into university in Iowa.

At this point in the narrative, I looked around the class and saw that many of the students were transfixed. I could see the spark of inspiration in their eyes.

Huckleberry B continued by describing how her university career in the USA was brought to a premature end by illness. However, she persevered and successfully applied to study law  in Sydney. Twenty years after graduating, she now has a comfortable life which permits her to travel the world, including Myanmar. Education was the key.

When she had finished, the teacher thanked my beloved for her inspirational speech. Undertakings were made to keep in touch by email.

I was very proud of my wife that afternoon in Mandalay. Though the meeting was brief, it was obvious that she had inspired some young minds. Standing before the class was a woman who was once like them, but had climbed up the societal ladder armed with little more than her own determination.

Doubtless, B’s words were even more valuable than the 250 kilos of rice which had just been delivered to the principal’s office.

An Episode of Unwanted Attention

Our time in Mandalay was capped off by a leisurely dinner at a local restaurant.

It turned out that our charming Burmese guide’s sister had owned and operated a thriving cafe not far from the monastic school. Our guide and our driver agreed to join us. We had enjoyed our two days with them and we all got on well. So well, in fact, that before dinner, our guide introduced us to her mother, sister, niece and nephew, who all lived in a comfortable house across the road from the family restaurant.

The restaurant, itself, was very well set up. We opted for dining in the garden area on the block next to the building housing the restaurant. We all enjoyed the food and the pleasant ambiance.

As it transpires, however, it appears that one of our party enjoyed the dinner more than he should have.

When we were preparing to leave for the airport the next morning, the phone rang. It was our guide to explain that the driver’s car had broken down and another driver would be coming to collect us.

We now believe that what we were told was a cover story.

Later in the day, B received an email from our guide. Whilst she did not want to disturb her, our guide saw Bo as a mentor. She therefore wanted to tell her that the driver who had joined us for dinner the night before was ‘not a good man’. Our guide explained that after dropping us at our hotel – and despite having a wife and two children – the driver had made a pass at her!

It seems to us that the driver enjoyed dining with the young, charming guide with whom he worked…and wanted more than was being offered.

The Fisherman of Inle Lake

The lean and athletic fisherman stood at the front of his fishing boat, in the middle of the mile-wide lake, as the sun set behind the distant mountain. His boat was as shallow as it was narrow; probably only half the length of a dragon boat.  He wore three-quarter pants and a small straw hat.

The fisherman balanced adroitly on his left leg whilst he wrapped his right leg around a long paddle which was braced against his right shoulder. As his right arm controlled a net, the fisherman propelled the boat forward by manipulating the paddle through the water; employing a rounded running motion with his right leg.

There was something remarkably graceful about the fisherman’s ancient technique.

Not far away, but still far from the distant shore, another fisherman used his paddle to break the surface of the lake. His intention was to scare the fish below and cause them to swim towards his net, which lay silently in wait. A third fisherman poked his paddle deep into the water, with the same cunning plan in mind.

All the fisherman dragged behind, deep under the surface of the lake, a large conical net constructed of bamboo and wire. The more methods employed, the greater the daily catch. As the fish were caught they were placed in shallow pool of water in the centre of the fishing boat. Later, the fisherman would fetch whatever price he could obtain.

These fishermen – and scores of others on Lake Inle – were employing the same fishing methods which had been used by their forebears for centuries. They spent hours on the lake, demonstrating remarkable agility, as they patiently went about their trade.  Whilst balancing on one leg, they moved their centre of gravity instinctively to counteract the small waves caused by motor boats traversing the vast lake. Not once did we see any of them lose balance.

Sometimes they would sleep on their small boats; for the early fisherman catches the morning fish.

We will long remember the image of the fisherman of Inle Lake.

The Canals of Inle

The two days we spent at Inle Lake were probably our most memorable in Myanmar.

The lake itself is immense. When in the middle, the shore on each side looks a long, long way away. A multitude of villages are positioned around the lake; the houses constructed high above the water on stilts. Some look strong and stood tall and proud. Others seem to be less well constructed and lean either left or right.

Like Venice, there are no roads in these villages, only canals which run off the main lake and multiply the deeper you travel into the village.

What made our time in Inle special was our mode of transport. For two days we travelled everywhere on a long boat – in much the same dimensions as a dragon boat – which was propelled by something akin to a lawn mower motor attached, through the means of a long pole, to a propeller.

On our long boat, there were three wooden chairs placed in single file along the centre of the boat. We simply climbed on and sat down and away we went.

It was simply sublime to zip across the water – the sun on your face and the wind in your hair – from one site to the next. Some of the journeys occupied over half an hour; more than sufficient time to get lost in your own thoughts as you watched the life on the lake go by.

The most memorable of these journeys was on the second afternoon, when we were returning to our resort, on lake’s edge, shortly before the sun went down. The water was cast in a beautiful shade of blue and the sky had turned crimson.

When we reached the middle of the lake, our boatman stopped the motor so we could talk to a nearby fisherman. Huckleberry B wanted to purchase some fish to be divided between our guide and the boat driver, on the understanding that they would describe, the next day, how the fish had been cooked.

Answering a call in Burmese, the fisherman wrapped his right leg around his paddle and stoked his way across to our stationary boat. He was a striking figure as he balanced on the front of his narrow boat, towering above us as we sat in or chairs. The purchase made, the motor was re-started and we were, again, on our way.

Huckleberry B and I agree that our boat rides around Lake Inle were the highlight of our time in Myanmar. We hope to return again soon to explore other parts of the lake as yet not seen.

Moonriver

THE GREEK ISLES – October 2012

 

Back to Istanbul

It was only this time last year that Huckleberry B and I spent a short time in Istanbul, after our pilgrimage to Gallipoli. However, we really did not see the city.

Our stay would again be short. However, on this occasion, our day in the Turkey’s largest city will remain long in our memory.

For starters, Huck B had arranged for us to stay at a charming little hotel – the Neorion – in Istanbul’s old city. Unlike our hotel last year, which stood along a reasonably wide boulevard in the central business district, the Neorion was nestled in a nondescript laneway amongst the maze of narrow streets which meandered down from the Hagia Sophia Mosque to the shore of the Bosphorus. As part of the old city, both the small hotel and the location boasted genuine character.

What made our day in Istanbul so special, however was the time we spent with our friend, F, who had returned to Turkey for several months to finalize the affairs of her late husband.

We met F at the ferry wharf and, after hugs all around, set off on a delightful ride across the Bosphorus. Never has the journey from Europe to Asia been so easy and so short. It was lovely to sit on the benches on the outside of the ferry and watch the expanse of Istanbul drift by, its hills covered by small dwellings punctuated by the domes of a dozen or more mosques with their minarets reaching for the heavens.

Before long we were joined by F’s sister, B, and it was off for a leisurely lunch at a fish restaurant by the ocean. Unfortunately, getting to the leisure of the lunch was less than leisurely. If there is one thing about Istanbul which has not changed it’s the traffic. Getting anywhere on Istanbul’s roads is traumatic. We have never seen such smothering congestion. For much of the time, it is thrilling to achieve a walking pace. For the majority of the time, our vehicle was stationary.

To make matters worse, on this particular journey, our taxi driver was not sure of the exact location of the restaurant for which we were looking. He would stop periodically and stick his head out the window to ask somebody strolling by for directions. Invariably, the helpful individual would point in a direction opposite to our travel and in contradiction to the last helpful individual.

Happily, we finally found our restaurant and sat down to a spread of mezze followed by some delicious fresh fish. The location was lovely. Adjacent to a marina and overlooking the ocean, we had the place much to ourselves.

After lunch, we strolled out to the main road to look for a taxi. However, to our surprise, we were greeted, instead, by a slim Cavalier King Charles spaniel trotting happily towards us with her master. Huckleberry B and I instinctively smiled and waved at the charming little dog. Noticing this, the CKC’s  master smiled at us and stopped so we could say hello. We soon learned that the dog’s name was ‘Chico’, who was almost one year old. Whilst fondling her ears, Chiko jumped up and placed her front paws on Huck B’s thighs and craned her neck forward to give my wife a kiss on her cheek. I told Chico that she was a good girl.

Later in the day, after I had overcome a bout of Chico-inspired homesickness,  we did some shopping. However, this proved more difficult than may first have been anticipated. We were, specifically, looking for business shoes for me, to go with the ones I had purchased in Istanbul the previous year (with which I was pleased).  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the sister store by taxi, we discovered that the shop had closed. The bright side was that this gave us an ideal excuse to sit down at the adjacent Godiva shop and enjoy a round of coffees and iced chocolate milk.

Next, we were back in the taxi to another shopping district in search of the elusive shoe store…

With the store located, shoes sampled and  purchases made, it was (obviously) time for more coffees and Turkish delight. We sat down in a bustling market area where, we were told, only locals ventured. The place was teeming with Turks of all shapes and sizes. At a nearby table, I could see a mother listening intently to all the excited words which were spilling from her son’s mouth whilst her husband sipped quietly on his drink. Meanwhile a rotund young man strolled by with his arm draped around his girlfriend’s shoulders.  Across the alleyway, a mother and adult daughter sat in contented silence.

In every direction we looked, we could see the colours of the local football team. F explained that there was a game that night and the spectators were having a quick meal and a drink before heading to the stadium. When I observed that only one team’s jersey was in evidence, F stopped a supporter pushing past our table and asked who they were playing that night.

The supporter spat out a word in Turkish and F explained that the opposing team was also from Istanbul and ‘those people don’t come here’. I made a mental note to avoid the stadium that night; sounded like some bitter rivalry might by playing out.

As the sun began to set over the Bosphorus, we headed back to the wharves and took a ferry back to our corner of Istanbul. It had been a wonderful day. We felt as though we had sampled some of the ‘real’ Istanbul. A day to remember.

Silver Spirit

After our memorable day in Istanbul, we boarded Silver Spirit and looked forward to our seven day cruise among Greek and Turkish ports.

Of all the vessels we have had the privilege of experiencing, there is no question that Silver Spirit is the most impressive. Our standard verandah suite was spacious and very well appointed.  I adored the wooded paneling on the feature wall.

Entering the room for the first time, I was very pleased with what I saw, but wondered where the television was. I soon discovered that it was set inside the mirror opposite our bed. Once activated, part of the large mirror became a TV screen.

Outside our stateroom, the rest of the ship had its attractions too. In particular, there was a speciality Japanese Restaurant which we frequented regularly. On the first night, we enjoyed a Japanese degustation menu. Most of our lunches involved a seemingly endless stream of sashimi and sushi.

Across the aisle from the Japanese Restaurant was a speciality French Restaurant. Whilst very pleasing in its own way, we preferred the Japanese.

There were other dining options too. In addition to the main dining room, we could enjoy a hamburger or a hot dog around the pool. The area used for buffet breakfasts and lunches was converted to an Italian Restaurant  in the evenings, which we also sampled on one occasion.

What makes the dining options so remarkable, is that Silver Spirit is only a small ship. Its capacity of some 540 passengers compares favorably with Sapphire Princess‘ guest list, which exceeds 2,000.

Overall, the food on board Silver Spirit was simply outstanding, as was the high level of service.

 

`Capitalism Will Kill You’

With deep regret and a very heavy heart, we left Silver Spirit on the morning on 15 October.

It was so sad to close the door on our Stateroom and leave the vessel for the last time.

Soon enough, we were on a bus for a day tour of Athens, before being dropped off at the Sofitel Hotel at Athens Airport, where we would stay for one night before flying to Cyprus for my birthday.

We spent about 90 minutes being guided around the Acropolis. That was quite a thrill. We had seen images of this ancient structure so many times on TV and elsewhere. It was wonderful to finally see it in person.

Our tour also took us through the streets around Constitution Square. We saw some evidence of the recent ‘troubles’ in Greece over the government’s austerity measures. A small group of protesters were positioned on  a street corner, albeit not vocal when we passed. Some riot police vans were parked around the corner. Graffiti was splashed on some government buildings including the message: “Capitalism will kill you”.

However, the Greek Capital appeared to be at peace during our short city tour. Two major unions were, ominously, planning protests on the coming Thursday. Worryingly, that is the day we are scheduled to fly out of Athens on our long journey home. As we headed to the airport hotel we crossed our fingers and hoped that the protests would not interrupt operations at the airport.

Whilst the day of protest remained two days in the future, it turned out that the driver of our bus was about to stage a personal protest in the next 15 minutes.

When the bus pulled up at the departure hall of Athens Airport, we dutifully disembarked with the other passengers and collected our luggage which included three large bags and three small ones.  From where we stood, we could see the Sofitel. However, to get there meant dragging our bags across a road, down some stairs, across another road and over to the hotel.

We had told our guide that we were going to the hotel rather than the airport. Very helpfully, she approached the driver and asked him to drive us to the front door of the hotel, representing a detour of five minutes max.

Whilst we are illiterate in Greek, we are both fluent in body language.

It was obvious that the driver was resisting the guide’s requests. He looked at his watch and slouched his shoulders. Then we pointed to our bags, with the implication that he was not minded to put them back on the bus. The guide resorted to reaching into her pocket and thrusting ten euro towards him, however, his truculence triumphed. Thinking that our tour was over, I handed the guide our ten euro tip, comprising two five euro notes. She immediately took one note and handed it to the driver. Finally, his threshold of resistance breached – evidently valued at 15 euro – the driver angrily heaved our bags back onto the bus and climbed into the driver’s seat. As they say: ‘capitalism will kill you’!

Less than five minutes later we were at the hotel’s front door and our bags were unloaded again. The driver had the last say though. As he reversed the bus, the front swung around and knocked two of our bigger bags over. We’ll never know whether this result was achieved by design. Either way, the driver’s attitude and conduct certainly stood in stark contrast to the exceptional service we enjoyed on board Silver Spirit. It reminded us of our last visit to Athens when a taxi driver insisted on a 20 euro fare to take us the length of the cruise port.

A Birthday in Cyprus / Austerity Strikes Back

After a night in Athens, we rose early to fly to Cyprus. It was 16 October and my last day as a 43 year old.

We landed in Lanaca mid-morning and found our driver without any difficulty. Our luggage loaded, we set out – for the second time on this trip – on a journey to traverse the breadth of an European island. First it was Dublin to Galway, now it was Lanaca, on the east coast of Cyprus, to Polis, on the west coast. Our destination was the Anassa resort. When we arrived the view of the Mediterranean Ocean was stunning.

An afternoon swim, a beautiful dinner and, come the next morning, by birthday had arrived!

Unlike last year, I didn’t celebrate my birthday by swimming in the Dead Sea in the morning before being serenaded by Bedouins singing Arabic love songs in Wadi Rum in the evening. However, I remained a very happy, dimple-cheeked birthday boy whilst enjoying the day with Huckleberry B at the Anassa Resort in Polis, Cyprus. The location was stunning. Standing on our balcony on the second floor, we looked across a garden to some white washed villas with the azurre blue Mediterranean Ocean a short distance beyond.

Unfortunately, the mood of the day changed when, early afternoon, we received an email from Olympic Airlines which caused B to gasp in horror. The email said that our 10am flight back to Athens would now be leaving at 12.00 noon and arriving at 2pm. Ordinarily, the extra hours’ sleep in the morning would be welcomed. However, the problem was that our connecting Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi and then to Sydney was scheduled to leave Athens at 2.35pm and we had no chance of being their in time.

A google search of `Athens strike’ revealed that – amongst a large number of protests – the Air Traffic Controllers and firemen at Athens Airport were walking away from their radar screens and hoses at 10am and would not return until 1pm; hence the forced delay of our Olympic Air flight.

The rest of the afternoon was spent variously googling updates on the strike, checking whether our Etihad flight was also going to be delayed and calling Olympic Air and Cyprus Air to see whether there were seats available for us on an earlier flight at 8.10 am. After much frustration, Huck B finally convinced Olympic that we would miss our connecting flight if forced to remain on their flight and we secured two of the last seats on the Cyprus Air flight. Even then, we were not out of the woods, given that our driver was scheduled to arrive at 6.30 am to drive two hours across the Island of Cyprus to Lanaca airport. Thankfully, he was most accommodating and agreed to collect us two hours earlier than planned, at the horrific time of 4.30am.

Our revised plans now in place, all that remained was to enjoy my far from austere birthday dinner and brace ourselves for the 3.45 am wake-up call.

Moonriver

 

DUBLIN, IRELAND – October 2012

Good Irish Jokes

The Irish jokes began even before we even left our plane at Dublin International Airport.

After unbuckling our seat belts and retrieving our carry-on luggage, we stood and waited – with unrestrained anticipation – for the doors to be opened so that we could spill out of the plane and head for customs and immigration, Dublin-bound.

However, as the moments passed, it became apparent that something was amiss. Huckleerry B had the best view from her position by the window. She saw the airbridge jerk forward, stop, jerk forward again and come to a permanent halt.

Soon enough, the head purser announced that the airbridge was broken and the ground crew were looking for some stairs so we could exit onto the Tarmac.  Looking out the window it appeared confusion abounded. After an impatient minute or two, a couple of likely looking lads hastily wheeled a set of steps to the rear door of the plane…

Welcome to Ireland.

As our driver – who I would describe as both sounding and looking ‘typically Irish’ – explained;

“There’s two ways of doing anything. First there’s the obvious and easy way, which will get the job done. Then there’s the Irish way.”

He added later that, “the Irish are only good at two things; drinking and fighting!”

When Huckleberry B looked out the car window and saw some dark clouds gathering, she made a polite enquiry about what we could do in Dublin on a rainy day.

“It never rains inside the pub…“, came the inevitable reply.

So far, Ireland had lived up to expectation. And we weren’t even at our hotel yet.

Speaking of hotels, Huck B had booked us in at the Fitzwilliam, in downtown Dublin. She chose very well.

Standing opposite Saint Stephen’s Green and immediately adjacent to the bustling shopping mall in Grafton Street, the historic buildings of Trinity College and Temple Bar were a short stroll away.

Entering our room, I was immediately drawn to the view from our window on the third floor. Below  us, pedestrians approached a light rail station with varying degrees of speed and enthusiasm. Beyond, the scene was dominated by the trees lining Saint Stephen’s Green. To our left, we could see the stately buildings of Merrion Row and the colourful shopfronts below.

I suspect that, in the future, when I think of Dublin, that view from our third floor window, overlooking Saint Stephen’s Green, will come immediately to mind.

The Pub Crawl

As an Irish philosopher – of little notoriety – once observed; it never rains inside the pub

Soon after arriving in Dublin, we found that we could experience four seasons in as short a time span as one hour. One minute, we might be standing in brilliant sun light and feeling hot. Ten minutes later, a chill wind would bring with it some steady drizzle. Soon enough, the rain would pass and the sun would come out, but it would remain cold.

Given this constant threat of rain, we applied our new found wisdom and spent much of our evenings inside a pub.

We had come to Dublin for the annual International Bar Association Conference. One of the major attractions of these Conferences – other than the engaging speakers at the various sessions – is that there are a series of cocktail parties each night hosted by the local major law firms or the local legal societies.

Unlike Dubai, where most of the parties were dry, there was no risk of the alcohol running out in Dublin.

Shortly after arriving in Dublin’s early evening – and despite a serious lack of sleep – we hastily ironed our formal wear and headed to the opening gala dinner. It was there that we met up with our dear friends, DR, and his wife, Dr MD.

The following night we embarked on our first pub crawl. First was a reception hosted by local firm, William Fry, at the Mansion House (which, fortuitously was an easy stroll from our hotel). Thanks to a mumbled introduction, we failed to recognise that we were meeting the Mayor of Dublin at the end of the reception line. I suppose the heavy gold chain anging from his neck should have given away his identity. I thought he was just a rather extravagant sommelier.

We tagged along to two further functions, both hosted by local tax attorneys. The first was at the Shelbourne Hotel, where Oscar Wilde reputedly used to misbehave. The next (and last) venue for the evening was a short distance away in a local pub. It was there that Huckleberry B and I each downed a pint of Guinness. It seemed like the right thing to do!

The next night’s entertainment promised to be a highlight, but ended up being a disappointment. Another local firm, Mason Hayes, had hired the dining room at famed Trinity College for a cocktail party. I was looking forward to this event very much. I envisaged quiet and stimulating conversation in sumptuous surrounds, whilst wine flowed and canapés floated by in a continuous stream.

The moment we were herded into the wood paneled room, however, I realized my expectations were misguided. So many people had accepted the invitation issued by Mason Hayes that the atmosphere inside the dining hall more resembled the bar at a packed football stadium than a dignified cocktail party. The chatter was so deafening that we adjourned to an austere area adjacent to the dining hall of unknown purpose.

After a day in the country – described below – we attended the final leg of our week-long Irish pub crawl; a function hosted by Allen Ovary at the Four Seasons Hotel.

We certainly enjoyed our pub crawl in Dublin. And our driver was right; not once did we suffer any rain inside the pub!

Galway

Wednesday,  3 October, saw Huckleberry B and I join DR and MD on a drive across Ireland to Galway. I was somewhat surprised to find that it only takes three hours to traverse the Emerald Isle. We were there by lunchtime.

After lunch we drove along the coastline of Galway Bay before heading north across the countryside.

Whilst the drive across Ireland offered us some pleasing views of rolling green hills dotted with sheep and other livestock, I felt, at times, as though we were driving  from Sydney to Bowral.  The landscape north-west of Galway, however, was like nothing we see in Australia. The land had now turned dark green and where once there had been grass there was now moss. The hills were more ragged than rolling and were punctuated by rocky outcrops. Streams gurgled hither and yon.

When we visited the Falkland Islands in 2010, I remarked to Huckleberry B that the  landscape looked ‘British’ and not ‘Argentine’. I am now able to provide evidence to back up my statement.  The landscape near Galway was very much in keeping with what we saw outside Port Stanley in the Falklands.  All that was missing was the rusty remains of a deceased helicopter.

 

Kings of the World

During our road trip, we observed a strange phenomena.

Perhaps we were unlucky; perhaps we simply came across every slovenly miscreant in Ireland. However, everywhere we went, men were treating the Irish countryside as their personal toilet.

The first such sighting occurred not long after leaving the heart of Dublin. Whilst at a set of traffic lights, we saw an oddly dressed gentleman approaching a bus stop. At first we thought he was simply engaging in an ‘adjustment exercise’. However, before we could look away, the man whipped ‘it’ out and relieved himself on the grass. The odd thing was that there were some trees and low lying shrubbery only five or so stumbling steps away. The disturbing thing was that there were some teenage girls waiting at the bus stop.

Later, whilst driving along the picturesque road north of Galway, we saw an ambulance parked casually by the road. Again, there was the driver standing nearby with a torrent streaming in a graceful arc onto the ground. There was much mirth in our vehicle at the second sighting of the day.

Minutes later, we rounded a bend and saw a man standing on a mound adjacent to the road, overlooking a small lake.

DRs asked, “what’s he doing up there?” before exclaiming, “oh no, don’t tell me…!

Yes, this brazen fellow had chosen the most prominent position possible to unzip and proclaim his dominion over nature.

For the record, none of those in our vehicle decided to adopt the “when in Ireland…” approach, preferring to prudently take advantage of the available facilities at each opportunity. Doubtless, you are pleased to hear it.

My Favourite Dubliners

On one morning during the IBA Conference, Huckleberry had some errands to run, whilst I embarked upon the 25 minute walk from the Fitzwilliam Hotel to the Conference Centre alone.

I took the opportunity of grabbing my iPod before I departed and listened to the distinctive sound of U2 as I walked. Dubliners all, their music never sounded so good.

On another afternoon, I went for a walk around Saint Stephen’s Green and Merrion Park. After a lengthy walk, I found what I was looking for. In a corner of Merrion Park sits a large rock. Lounging on the rock, in his iconic green overcoat, is a statue of my favourite Irish story-teller, Oscar Wilde.

Across from the statue were some columns upon which some of Oscar’s perfectly phrased quotes had been written, including my favourite; “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I don’t know whether Oscar ever said “it never rains in the pub” , but I am sure that he wishes he had!

After bidding Oscar farewell, I walked across the road and saw the house he lived in before his move to London where he made is name as one of the world’s leading playwrights and satirists.

I don’t know whether the band members of U2 are Oscar Wilde adherents or whether Oscar would have been enthused by U2, but I like them both.

Moonriver

ALASKA, USA – September 2012

 

North to Alaska

As I write this account, I am sitting in our Stateroom on-board Sapphire Princess as our vessel cruises around Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Our voyage began five days ago in Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada. Joining us are our semi- regular cruise companions; Huckleberry B’s brother Y and sister ML and their spouses, C and D. We’ve had a rollicking good time; days full of food, trivia quizzes, food, laughter and more food. Huckleberry B and I have even made it back to the gym for some long overdue cardio- vascular exertions. If we disembark without having gained any weight, it will be a good result.

Speaking of food, I will long remember our welcoming dinner  when the six of us met up in Vancouver, the night before our cruise began. Huck B and I had been in town for about nine hours – and had slept for most of them – when we stumbled down to the lobby of our hotel to meet up with the others. Such a strange thing seeing familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting.

Huckleberry B had done a marvellous job making reservations at a restaurant lying a maximum of 25 meters from the front door of our hotel, called Cardero’s. Just as well she did because it was Friday night in Vancouver and the Harbour-side restaurant was packed.  We strode happily past a long queue of impatient would-be diners as we were shown to the table which had been sitting in wait for us since it was reserved some six months earlier.

Not long after sitting down, we were disturbed by a loud clanging noise and the sight of some nautical flags being hoisted towards the ceiling. After this startling event occurred a second time, we asked our waiter to explain the significance. It turns out this was the method Cardero’s deploy to advise those still languishing in the queue that their table was now ready. Upon arrival, waiting diners are given a flag to carry. Once he or she espies the replica flag hanging proudly on high, it’s safe to exchange the flag for the pleasure of a seat at a table and some eating utensils.

Having not eaten for almost 24 hours – desire for sleep having trumped desire for food both during the second half of our flight and upon arrival in Vancouver – I have rarely suffered such ravenous impatience whilst waiting to place my dinner order. My affliction was so obvious that Huckleberry was compelled to apologise to her siblings, on my behalf, for my restless fidgeting. The immense New York steak which eventually landed in front of me was, therefore, hugely welcomed and soon devoured.

My stomach full and my hunger sated, I looked forward to the week ahead. The Sapphire Princess would take us ‘way up north’ along the Canadian west coast to Alaska, where we would visit the ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan as well as fabled Glacier Bay.

Why Alaska?

There are two reasons.

Firstly, because we heard it was well worth the visit. Secondly, and more importantly, to silence our cruise-loving critics.

Every fellow cruise lover we meet – particularly American ones – react with limitless shock and unrestrained horror when Huckleberry B and I convey that we have never traveled to Alaska. Apparently, voyaging along the Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage in South America, on the way to the Northern Peninsula of Antarctica, is insufficient. The Fjords of Norway and the Island of Spitsbergen also, evidently, fall short of the wonders of Alaska in American eyes.

And so we finally embark upon the most popular cruise route on the planet. It will be interesting to see how it compares to the majestic wonders which have enthralled us elsewhere on the globe.

The Iceman Cometh…

Our Alaskan experience got off to a truly memorable start.

On 24 September 2012, we walked across the frozen expanse of a glacier.

That morning, we docked at Juneau, which we were surprised to learn was the State Capital of Alaska. We had always assumed that it was Anchorage. What makes this piece of trivia even more remarkable is that there are only two means of accessing the Alaskan Capital; by air or by sea. Even now – in the 21 st Century – there is no road access. In Alaska, no roads lead to Juneau.

Yet when in Juneau, do as her Juneau-ites do…

Actually, I have little idea what a Juneau-ite would do other than eat salmon, hunt bear or sell tacky gifts to tourists. So we did something else instead.

And that ‘something else’ was spectacular.

Huckleberry B had arranged for Y, C and I to travel 15 minutes by helicopter, over a nearby mountain, and land on an immense glacier. Once the helicopter made its somewhat tentative landing, we unbuckled and walked on the ice. Thankfully, we had been given some ice shoes which fitted over our sneakers to permit reasonably confident walking. However, even with the these shoes, there were some spots which remained slippery and careful treading remained well-advised. I concentrated on taking short steps and even ensuring one foot was secure before lifting the other.

The view was spectacular!

Whilst we had flown over the length of the glacier, we landed at the bottom, near ‘the toes’. Looking up, we could see a crest and the remainder of the glacier rising majestically beyond. We were told that the snow which fell at the mountainous peak would freeze into ice, join the remainder of the glacier, and then begin its immensely slow slide down the mountain to the valley far below. The entire process would take over 300 years.

The ice we were standing on, in September 2012, had fallen from the sky – as snow – at the top of the mountain over 250 years ago; before Captain James Cook sailed the seven seas.

The ice beneath us still had another 50 years or so to reach the bottom, before it would finally melt and be released as water. Unless I live to beyond my centennial year, it is unlikely to occur in my lifetime.

Looking around, the glacier was mostly a grayish white color. However, there were a multitude of blue streaks which emblazoned the vista. Not far from where our helicopter landed, a small river had carved a sharp ravine in the ice. Despite the fact that the ravine was just wide enough to accommodate a falling man and deep enough to make escape very difficult (but not impossible), we were not warned to stay away. Indeed, every man with a camera had congregated around this spectacular sight.

I, however, remained a safe distance!

After 15 minutes on the glacier, we were reluctantly ushered back to the helicopter to make our return to Juneau.

On the ride back I happily reflected that Alaska had already given us an experience which Antarctica and the Norwegian Fjord had not.

The Train to White Pass

The day after Juneau, we awoke to find ourselves in the gold rush town of Skagway.

Our port information sheet informed us that the original name of the small town was, in fact, Skaguay. However, the local post office unilaterally deleted the `u’ and substituted a `w’.

The town itself was very quaint and was reminiscent of the wild western towns seen in Hollywood movies, complete with buildings with pastel coloured facades and saloons with swinging doors. During its heyday, whilst the Alaskan gold rush was at its most rushed, Skagway boasted a population upwards of 30,000 people. However, the permanent inhabitants now number several thousand at best. Temporary residents arrive during summer – otherwise known as `cruise season’ – to man the jewellery shops, but head to the Caribbean during winter. Even during the height of the tourist season, the arrival of two or three cruise ships triples the population for the day.

Incidentally, during our voyage we were tailed, for the most part, by one  or two Holland America vessels. We were told that most of the Alaskan ports could accommodate as many as five ships at once, resulting in the small, isolated towns being swamped by as many as 10,000 tourists!

In any event, the six of us only spent a short period strolling along the streets of Skagway, before boarding a train to make the journey into the mountains to White Pass and the Canadian border.

Huck B and I had enjoyed a similar train journey last year at Flaam, in Norway. Once again, the view was spectacular as the train made its way slowly towards the heavens, past water falls, and through the pine forest.

On this occasion, we were tracing the path plodded by the gold rush pioneers from Skagway to the Yukon Territory. At the Canadian border, we paused whilst the engine of our train detached, chugged its way to the other end of the string of carriages, before being re-attached so that it could commence the long journey back down the mountain…

Sled Dog Training

Our afternoon in Skagway saw Huck B and I  head back up the mountains surrounding the  bay for a truly extraordinary experience.

During the Alaskan winter, the local sled dogs compete in long distance races across the unforgiving snow clad landscape. The most famous race is the Iditarod, which traverses a grueling  1,100 miles across Canada’s central territory to  the Bering sea and back.

During the summer, the sled dogs train for their winter racing season. Today, we gave them our assistance!

The sled dogs we met were not the beautiful, cuddly grey and black Huskies we had seen on television. They were lean and hungry beasts, mostly cross-bred with greyhounds and labradors. The ideal sled dog, we were told, had the long legs and strength of a racing dog and the coat of a Husky to withstand the cold.

At first I felt a little guilty making the dogs run. After all, we are used to our adorable, but lazy, CKCs, whose ideal afternoon was a long snooze after chewing on a big bone. However, it soon became apparent that our sled dog training partners were anxious to get the training underway…and not a moment too soon was soon enough…

Our job was to provide the weight for the dogs to pull. Upon arrival in the forest training camp, Huckleberry and I were hastily ushered onto a trolley with wheels and a number of seats. No less then sixteen sled dogs, coupled in pairs, were already strapped to the front of the trolley. It was clear from their restless and incessant barking that they were impatient for the fun to begin. Even their trainer was anxious for us to sit down and put on our seat belts as quickly as possible.

Suddenly we were hurtling through the forest at breakneck speed on a narrow dirt track which weaved its way through the tall pine trees. At first, I was alarmed to find that there was nobody steering the trolley as it proceeded at terminal velocity along the barren path. Remarkably, however, the female dogs at the head of the pack knew the way. They even knew how to adopt a `race line’ by cutting the corners and running the shortest distance to each bend.

Some of the sled dogs liked to gallop. Others preferred taking quick steps. Some dashed forward facing the direction of travel.  Others found it easier to pull at a forty-five degree angle. Most remained quiet during the run, but one dog, in the fourth pairing from the back, enjoyed barking at the dog next to him and to the rear as he ran. Faster! Faster!

Our four laps of the training track were a thrilling experience. At the end we laughed whilst the dogs panted and waited for the next group of training `partners’ to arrive. They wagged their tails as their trainer introduced us to them in pairs. Some wore a green badge on their collars to signify completion of the arduous Iditarod.

And, as quickly as it began, the training was over. Alaska had given us its second unique experience.

Now I’m wondering how I can implement what I have been taught at the sled dog training camp in Alaska. If only there was a way I could strap our four girls to my lawn mower and teach them to run in circles…

Misty Fjord

After a day of scenic cruising in Glacier Bay – where we saw two majestic glaciers – we arrived in drab Ketchican; the world’s salmon capital.

Our visit saw us, once more, take to the air; this time upon a sea-plane. B had arranged for us to enjoy a scenic flight over Misty Fjord, which proved to be another very enjoyable experience.

Given the noise created by the small plane, we were given headsets to wear during the flight, which allowed our amiable pilot to pump some music into our ears in between stints of commentary. His choice of songs, however, was both  intriguing and somewhat daunting.

As our sea-plane bumped across the water and bashfully took to the sky, we were listening to the 80’s classic ‘Forever Young’, the lyrics of which posed the timely question: ‘Do you really want to live forever? Forever  young?

Successfully airborne, and the outskirts of Ketchican below us, the wistful lyrics of ‘Life in a Northern Town‘ filled our ears.

Not long afterwards, as the small plane soared between two mountain peaks  – whilst being buffeted by a mischievous alpine air stream – Tom Petty began wailing about the joys of ‘free falling‘!

Finally, as our sea-plane descended and skipped to a landing on the surface of Misty Fjord, as song of unknown pedigree was heard to include a chorus about being ‘surrounded by cold water‘.

As I climbed down the stairs to stand on one of the sea-plane’s floats, I asked the pilot whether the remarkably apt playlist was designed on purpose to fit the circumstances and he gave every indication of having no earthly idea what I was babbling about. Huckleberry – who had independently reached the same conclusion as I – assisted to explain. The pilot just chuckled and said it was a coincidence.

We don’t believe him. It was such a stitch-up!

Standing on the float, we were able to enjoy the fresh air of the remote fjord and marvel at the beauty of the vista. Not far from our position on the water, a waterfall loudly disgorged a mountain stream into the otherwise tranquil waters. The surface of the fjord itself was so clean that it gave the appearance of being protected by a thin film of glossy black oil. Though tempted to dive in, I held on tightly to the wing of the sea-plane to avoid being immersed in the freezing water.

Before long – and inevitably too soon – the pilot politely asked us to re-enter the plane in order to return to Ketchican. I wondered out loud what music awaited us on the return journey; ‘Living on a Prayer‘ perhaps? ‘El Condor Pasa‘ maybe?

The End of the Journey

As our voyage nears its conclusion, and a return to Vancouver, I also return to the question I posed earlier; why Alaska?

Whilst the scenery from our stateroom balcony was pleasing, it was not as dramatic as what we saw in Norway. I even wonder whether Fjordland National Park in the south western corner of New Zealand’s South Island is more spectacular. Doubtless, Antarctica remains our most memorable cruise experience and is unlikely every to be vanquished.

Thanks, however, to Huckleberry B’s careful research, Alaska did provide us  with a number of new experiences, which we are unlikely to ever forget, particularly walking on a glacier and helping some very enthusiastic sled dogs with their training.

Greatly enhancing the experience was the company we kept. I am indebted to Y and C, D and M for their cheerful company and entertainment. The thought of parting at cruise-end makes my heart heavy.  However our reunion in Sydney will not be too far away.

Moonriver