One Night in Bangkok

Thai Dancers and Patron
 
Bangkok.  What an exciting, vibrant place.  And, we spent our first night off the ship since January 4th.

The ship docks about 2½ hours from Bangkok, so we decided to spend the night in the city.  The ship ran a bus into town both days we were docked there, but they also allowed us to leave and return on separate days for the same price.  It was slightly more than a taxi, but it left us very close to our hotel and was very convenient.

The ride into Bangkok was uneventful, although the closer we got to the city, the more we sat in traffic.  At this point it reminded us of the congestion on LA’s freeways—moving freely one minute, then inexplicably bottlenecked the next.

The bus dropped us at a sprawling shopping mall, CentralWorld, and after a short walk on the Skywalk we were at our hotel.  We had arranged for a private guide to spend the day with us, and she was waiting in the lobby.  We dropped our bags in our room and hit the ground running.

Before I take you down to the lobby, let me tell you how great our room was.  We were on the 16thFloor with an incredible view.  The room was huge, and after being in a ship’s cabin for 3 months it was a welcome change.  The bathroom was a walled-in clear-glass construction, visible from every inch of the room, and had a gigantic marble bathtub, a nice square sink, a toilet, and a glass enclosed shower, complete with several shower heads, including a wonderful drench fixture set directly overhead.   It was the toilet that was bothering me.  I doubted I could use it while being seen.  I wouldn’t do well in prison.  Mercifully, however, we found the button that lowered the shades for privacy.  Whew!

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g293916-d3935855-Reviews-Nok_Thai_Tour_Private_Day_Tours-Bangkok.htmlOur tour guide, Nok, who I found on trip advisor, was great.  She is an absolutely gorgeous young woman who is dating an English teacher, so her grammar was better than ours.  She asked us what we would like to see and we, not knowing how to answer, suggested she chose the highlights for us.

Nok was not expensive, 1,800 baht for the day, which works out to be about $56 dollars.  We paid our own way into the sites and we paid for the transportation, but it really worked out to be very inexpensive.  Also Nok, as a native Thai, was not charged admission to the sites.  Negotiating taxi and tuk tuk rates is an art form, so it was great to have Nok do the bargaining for us.

We jumped in a cab and headed for The Grand Palace.  Traffic in Bangkok is unbearable, so the ride was slow.  The streetlights have very long waits.  Many cars just turn the motor off for a few minutes and bake in the sun for a while.  We finally made it to The Grand Palace in about 20 minutes, and the cab cost a whopping $3.

Me and the boys at the entrance to The Grand Palace
Nok took us near the entrance and told us to “wait here and not talk to anyone”.  She returned a few minutes later with two bottles of cold water, and brought us onto the grounds. 

Entering the Grand Palace is not unlike entering OZ.  It looks impressive from the outside, but you walk through the gates and the wonders keep unfolding before you.  Everywhere you look there is something beautiful to see.  You turn a corner and your eyes are drawn to the building that just came into view.  Or you look behind you to see where you just came from, and the new angle makes it seem like it was magically transformed into something new but equally wonderful.

We spent about two hours at the Grand Palace and it didn’t seem like enough time.  Unless, of course, you are my stomach, which was telling me we needed to go.  We asked Nok to take us to a typical restaurant, and we were happy to learn that we were the only round-eyes in the place.  Delicious.  And not unlike the Thai food we get in New York.

Nok negotiated with a tuk tuk driver to take us to the canal for a Long Boat ride.  The tuk tuk was very inexpensive, and it was fun to be amidst the noise and hubbub of the street.  After paying our fare, we had about an hour’s ride on the canals, just the driver, Nok and us on a boat that could fit 20 or 30 people.

It was really amazing: People living on the water in what we would consider squalor, but these are the lucky people– they have a house.  Next to a dilapidated pile of tin could be a gleaming temple or a solid teak home.  At one temple Nok bought two loaves of bread and handed them to us, instructing us to tear it into big pieces and toss them to the fish.  Scores of catfish rose from the murk, jumping over one another to grab a mouthful.  There were so many that it looked like you could step of the boat and walk on their backs to the shore.

A lady selling souvenirs and Cokes drifted by, but a stern look from Nok told us not to buy.  She explained that these floating shops were too expensive in her opinion, and we obeyed.

Monk selling bread to feed the catfish

Catfish enjoying a meal

Cokes and souvenirs
 

The Long Boat left us at the Temple of the Dawn, whose main feature is a tall, very steep Temple that you can climb up to see the remarkable view.  The stairs were not only steep, but very narrow as well. 

Monks at Temple of the Dawn

The Temple of the Dawn

George climbing the steep steps.  Going back down was the challenge
Nok loaded us on a ferry, total cost thirty cents for all three of us, which took us across the Chao Phraya River where we picked up another tuk tuk to take us to the Temple of the Reclining Buddah. 

This Buddah is a big boy!  He’s fabulous.  We had heard he was enormous, but I really wasn’t ready for this.  

Big Buddah

 
There is a Thai Massage School here, in fact they claim that Thai Massage was invented here, so off we went for a half hour massage, for only $9 each.  It was not only a great massage, but it was exactly what we needed.  I could have spent a week there.

Our final stop what the flower market, which was outstanding. Stall after stall of flowers piled high lined both sides of the street.  Flowers play an important part of daily life, mostly offerings (and everyone has a shrine or a “spirit house” in their home).  Marigolds are abundant—they are often used in honoring the dead.  And, by New York standards, they are extremely inexpensive. 

Marigolds

More Marigolds

Woman stringing flowers

Orchids heaped on a table
Exhausted, we fell into our room, taking enough time sit a bit and finally enjoy a shower in which we could actually turn around in.  We headed to the lobby bar for a cocktail and to plan our evening.

Nok had recommended a restaurant, and said it was about a 15 minute taxi ride from the hotel.  I spoke with the concierge at the hotel, and he confirmed that it was a great Thai restaurant.  He made us a reservation for 7:30, and he called us a cab for 7:15. 

Our cab driver did not seem to speak English, so I confirmed with the doorman that he was given the name and address of the restaurant.  Off we went, about 20 feet without traffic, and then waited about 15 minutes until the traffic broke enough for us to pull out into the street.  Before we even left the grounds of the hotel we were late.

Traffic in Bangkok is like the LIE on a Friday afternoon the summer.  Picture this: you are sitting in a cab, it is not moving. Nothing is moving.  Talk radio is blaring, in Thai, and the driver is making repeated phone calls, having to shout over the speakers to be heard.  In front of you is a screen that shows a series of Thai commercials, which you had figured out how to mute but not how to shut off.  You’re late, it’s warm, and you can’t ask the driver if this is normal because he does not speak English.  He probably could not hear you anyway.  Your head is starting the throb.  And you’re hungry.

Stop lights are long here, very long.  I’ve seen a red light last as long as 10 minutes.  The driver, who is clearly prepared for delays, has whoever he is calling to talk to.  We have each other, but we are so anxious that we don’t say much. 

After about a half an hour, he decides to give up and go another way.  In his defense, the protests had begun again all over the city, so most of the city was stuck in traffic.  We were lucky:  We had a guy who knew how to get around it.  Unfortunately he could not explain this, all we knew was that we were driving in a big loop.  Still not worried, and the cabs are so inexpensive that it didn’t really matter anyway, we were glad to be moving.  At this point we had been in the cab for 45 minutes.

He made one of his phone calls, and I thought I heard him ask me what time our massage was.  I showed him the printed reservation, and said we were already late for our restaurant reservation.  He took the address from me and studied it a bit, handing it back without a word.  He called his friend again as the car turned and took us into a different neighborhood.

It didn’t register right away, but it slowly began to dawn on me that most of the shops we were passing had young women sitting on the steps, maybe three of four for each shop.  We were starting to get really concerned, until he ultimately pulled into a long driveway with a huge, white mansion set back from the street.  The windows were smoked glass, and a statue of a massive white stallion was on the lawn, standing on his hind legs.  The sign next to him: PEGASUS GENTLEMANS CLUB.  The madam was just starting to open the door to come greet us.

 
“Restaurant!  Restaurant! We are supposed to be at a restaurant!  What are we doing here? RESTAURANT”.  I was foaming—and he quickly dialed his friend and started yelling at him in Thai.  He was clearly upset, and I think the friend just assumed we were in town for what most people are in town for in Bangkok, so directed this poor kid to drop us here.  He certainly had us pegged wrong.

The driver pulled out into the street, and looked at the address on my reservation again.  He looked confused, and rolled down the window, asking a passer-by for directions. 

George and I had a quick confab in the back of the cab.  Should we get out?  Where are we?  Prostitutes were everywhere.  Are we on the wrong side of town?  Are we an hour’s cab ride away still?  What, on earth, were we doing here?

We weren’t exactly afraid of the neighborhood.  Prostitution is legal here.  It wasn’t seedy and it felt safe, we just didn’t know where we were or how we would get back.

As we discussed whether we should get out of the cab or not, he drove the three short blocks to the restaurant and we were relieved.  Talk about an anxiety ridden hour and fifteen minutes!  We sat down at our table and ordered a double.  Once we calmed down, we had a really good laugh.  We’re still laughing about at three days later.

Bo Fridsberg told me a story when he was once in Bangkok on business.  He left his hotel and a young girl stopped him and offered him a “special price”.  He said “no, thank you.”  She said “Are you looking for Thai Girl?” and he said “No”.  “Thai Boy?” she asked, the only obvious follow up question available, but he kept walking and said “No”.  She looked at him quizzically and said “So, what are you doing in Bangkok?”

By the time we finished dinner the protesters had all gone home, so the drive back was the original estimate of 15 minutes, which made us happy.

We woke up early and ate breakfast in the hotel. 

We took a taxi to Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall to see the Arts of the Kingdom Exhibition.  They did not allow cameras in the exhibition, which is a shame because it was one of the most fabulous exhibitions I have ever seen.

I remember when I worked at The Plaza Hotel a Thai Princess came to stay for a month.  I only remember two things, that she rented a whole floor of the hotel, and every day she had to have a brand new mattress to sleep on, which the hotel was happy to sell to her at a mark-up, then put her throw away into circulation the next day.  A far cry from todays “In order to save the environment, we will only change your sheets if you somehow remember to place this card on your pillow” placard. 

Which brings me back to the collection.  I consisted of works of art commissioned by the royal family to celebrate various milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries of being on the throne.  You know, the things we usually go to Carvel for.  These works would be made of pure gold, encrusted in rubies and diamonds, and set on hand carved pedestals.  We were in awe. 

What is most impressive is that these are not ancient works of art, most have been made in the last 10 years!

We thought Bangkok, the previous night’s joy-ride aside, was pretty fantastic.  Yet another place we want to return.

We met our bus at the appointed place and time and returned to our ship.  Singapore was waiting for us, it was time to set sail.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Night_in_Bangkok

Koh Kood, Thailand

 
Caviar in the Surf, Koh Kood, Thailand

Seabourn has a “Signature Event” called Caviar in the Surf.  It’s actually very nice; they rent a beach and set-up tables and chairs in very close proximity to one another.  Then they take a surfboard and cover it with a sheet, onto which they have placed large bowls of caviar, and they float this apparatus in the surf.  The staff is forced to serve caviar and pour champagne in about three feet of water while fully clothed.  The passengers, who are not fully clothed, then attack the caviar as if they just escaped from six months of weight-loss camp and drove directly to a Dunkin Donuts.

Our two little chairs were surrounded mostly by Germans.  I don’t know if you realize this, but the fashion crimes committed by them go way beyond black socks and sandals.  Today’s interesting attire consisted of teeny tiny bathing suits straining under the pressure of a lifetime of too much beer and bratwurst.  I doubt they can see their feet.  But that was not the problem; the problem was that we were sitting in the blue haze of their chain smoking.

After about 30 minutes (we’re a bit slow) we did a little soul searching and realized that 1) we can get caviar at any time on the ship and 2) the ship was pretty empty with most of the passengers currently devouring fish eggs at a pace not much slower than a hot-dog eating contest and 3) we cannot change our seats, as there are no more, to get out of this ashtray and, finally, 4) we live at the beach, a very quiet beach, so sitting packed together like the 7 train at rush hour during the US Open makes no sense.  We did what you would have done: We returned to the ship and sat by the very-quiet smoke-free pool, ate a sensible lunch and played scrabble.  We were in heaven.

Here is what Caviar in the Surf looks like, according to Seabourn:

 

Here is what it actually looks like:

 

 If the staff wore bathing suits and the passengers were fully clothed, they might actually have something. 
Koh Kood is a beautiful beach
 
(Note: OK, this was bitchy.  It didn’t start out that way, but there you go.   I think I’ve been on the ship too long.  It’s actually a very nice event and most people came back glowing.  It just wasn’t for us.  And it was great to get away from the throngs of people and enjoy our ship.)

Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City (Hoi An and Saigon)

Monk in Hoi An using a mobile phone
We arrived in Da Nang without fanfare.   George and I took our time eating breakfast and getting ready.  Some ports take a while for the ship to clear customs; I think it depends on how organized the country’s bureaucracy is.  Needless to say Vietnam falls into the slower category, so we were a bit late getting ashore for our 8:30 tour.

The ship would be docked here for less than a day, so we had to choose between Da Nang and Hoi An, and we decided to visit Hoi An.  Downtown Da Nang would have to wait for another visit.

Every tour has a chaperone from the ship.  Usually it’s a staff member who has volunteered for the job in exchange for a free tour.  They count everyone from time to time, and are generally there in case there is a problem or an emergency.  The bulk of the work is left, as it should be, to the local tour guide.  Today our tour guide was a very nice Vietnamese man whose name is Tank.

Sometimes the chaperone is not a staff member, but rather one of the passengers that get a free cruise in exchange for services.  These are the most annoying chaperones to get—they think their stint as bus-monitor means that they have to take over and order the tour guide around.  Let me be clear: The staff members sit quietly in the background in case they are needed—the non-revenue passengers think they are running the show.

Today, we got the Rabbi.  I’ve already told you about him in the entry titled “After Perth”.  He is so inappropriate he makes everybody cringe.  Our friend David, Toby’s husband, is also a Rabbi and he asked us not to let the ship’s Rabbi know that he’s a Rabbi.  Are you following this?  Our friend the Rabbi is in the rabbinical closet when it comes to the ship’s official Rabbi.  Sometimes closets are good.

We get on the bus and he takes the microphone out of poor Tank’s hand and makes a lame joke about his name, something about “Tanks for the Memories”.  I was really trying to shut him out.  He then thanked everyone for coming on the tour.  Tank was trying to regain control, but no matter what he said he was interrupted by our overbearing chaperone. 

 
China Beach
We had a quick stop at China Beach.  George was stationed here, and he remembered the beach and the army base nearby.   The beach is a long, narrow strip of beach, mostly used as a launching point for fishing boats. 

After China Beach, he again took the microphone out of Tank’s able hands and asked “Who wants to hear me singing in Vietnamese?” and, despite the deafening silence from my fellow passengers, he proceeded to play a recording of a random person singing from his iPhone into the speaker system.  Then he explained that he goes up to little kids and tells them he can sing in Vietnamese, then he lip syncs to the recording.  I’m sure even 3-year-olds roll their eyes.

We soon arrived at a marble factory for look around the gift shop and then we were fitted with bicycles and helmets for our 15 kilometer ride into Hoi An, a preserved historical section of the city.

The ride was glorious, not only were there no microphones for the Rabbi to hoard, but we were on a fairly busy road, yet not too busy to be scary, so we really saw a bit of daily life.  It’s amazing what people can fit on their motorbikes—it was not unusual to see a mom, dad and two kids on the same bike, while the driver simultaneously spoke on the phone and smoked a cigarette. 

Bikes piled with goods were common, too. We saw livestock, humongous bags of garbage, and I even saw someone with a 100-pound propane cylinder strapped to his Vespa with a single bungee cord holding it in place.  Sort of.

The best part of the ride was that school was letting out, so loads of little kids with school packs and missing baby teeth were smiling and waving, often yelling out “hello” as we peddled by.  It was a great ride but, by our standards, much too short.

It was fun, and now it was time to board the bus and continue to Hoi An.

Poor Tank was trying to explain the drill: Where and what time to meet as well as a brief history of the area, but our self-appointed babysitter kept interrupting with questions like “Is there a bathroom”, to which Tank politely said “yes.”  “Well, I hope it’s clean” he retorted, chuckling as he scanned the group for a knowing wink which never came.  It was a shame, we are all seasoned travelers who know how to find a bathroom without his help, but he was reveling in his new found power over Tank.  This process was repeated by interrupting Tank with restaurant questions (“Is it safe?  It better be safe!”) and questions about the admission tickets (“why do you need them back?  What if someone doesn’t return it, what will you do?”) and the like.  You get the idea.  We were itching to see this beautiful town while he wasted our time with hypothetical questions about nonsense. 

I caught a fellow passenger with an eye-roll and gave her one in return.  She confided that she actually asks which tours he is on so she can go on a different one.  She told me that he takes over until someone pushes back, just a little, then he sits down and behaves.  Good to know.

Still….we loved, absolutely loved Hoi An.  There were many shops and we stopped in a couple for a look.  Everything is so inexpensive, but we were told to always negotiate, so the few things we bought we were able to bargain down a bit.  We wished we had more time, they will custom-make clothes for you and deliver them to the ship, or send them to your home, at very reasonable prices.  I wanted George to have custom shoes made because he has such a hard time finding shoes that fit.  His feet are very wide, like shovels, making shoe buying difficult.  It also makes him very difficult to push over.  Trust me on this.  However, as we only had 20 minutes to catch our bus back to the ship, we did not have time for a fitting.

We enjoyed walking around, and stopped in a couple of the shrines and historic buildings to have a look.  We ended up at the open air market.  The colors, the sights, the sounds and the aroma all came together to fill our senses with exotic wonder. 

As we headed for the bus, one passenger grumbled “I don’t think I could spend a weekend here” and I said that we could see ourselves spending an entire winter here.  He looked at me in disbelief.  Vietnam is fantastic; I could certainly see spending some quality time here.

Back on the bus, our overlord immediately snapped at Tank: “Put the Air-conditioning on full blast” and Tank, to his credit, started adjusting the vents above each seat, which was the only way to increase air-flow.  But not fast enough for our Rabbi who, with a sense of entitlement in his voices said “Tank! I want you to turn up the air-conditioning NOW” and I had to interrupt.  “He heard you the first time” I said.  He looked at me and said “What?” and I responded, pleasantly “He heard you the first time and he’s adjusting it”.  He sat down and shut up.

I love being a native New Yorker!

The next day was a Sea Day which was followed by an over-night stop in Ho Chi Min City, although most of the population still refers to it as Saigon, or Sai Gon.

The trip up the Mekong River takes about 4 hours.  It is a slow, murky river that winds back and forth through the countryside first, and after a few hours the population density gradually increases until you find yourself in Saigon. 

About an hour into the Mekong, we noticed tall concrete buildings with no windows, just what seemed to be air-vents piercing the four story structures.  They could not be apartments, there didn’t seem to be enough ventilation, and right beside them were tin huts where people clearly lived.  We could hear an amazing noise, though, it sounded like millions of birds chirping at once, loud enough to lure Tippi Hedren out of retirement—although we saw very few birds in the sky.  We later learned that these buildings were sparrow farms—the birds make nests which are used to make bird-nest soup.  And the sparrows themselves are a delicacy, often sold fried.  I decided to pass.

Saigon is amazing, a dizzying mix of motor bike engines, honking horns, vendors and tourists.  We first went to the market, a sprawling structure with vendors of every description, mostly selling knock-offs of American brands.  Ralph Lauren Polo’s, Rolex Watches, Jimmy Choos and all of their competitors can be bought for a song.  The vendors touch you—they grab your arm to show you the same Polo someone shoved in your face two steps ago.  After a while it is maddening.  We did buy a few things, simple gifts for family members, but you have to bargain them down a bit.  It’s a struggle because, once the other vendors see you bought something, they labeled you as a buyer and then they are impossible to shake.  After less than an hour we made our retreat.

 
We spent the day walking around the city, avoiding vendors and people who want to sell you a motor-bike ride.  If you stopped to look at a map, a scooter would stop to “help”, and insist the only way to get there was on the back of a bike.  We stopped looking at maps on the street.

That first night the ship had an amazing show for us at the Opera House.  It was a cross between a Vietnamese play, Cirque du Soleil and Stomp.  It was fantastic. 

Our friends Nancy and Tom asked if we would like to go for a drink and dinner after the show and we agreed.  The Chef of the casual restaurant on the ship lives in Saigon and he had suggested a restaurant and told them how to get there.  Unfortunately, not only did they not write down the name and address of the restaurant, but the only word they could remember in the name was Nong, which apparently means “Restaurant” in Vietnamese. 

After walking around a bit, Nancy decided that one particular restaurant called Nong 138was it, so in we went.  I had a feeling we were in the wrong place, I couldn’t imagine a Chef would recommend a place that had dog on the menu, but I was overruled and ordered very carefully.  The food was good and with a round of cocktails, a round of beer, and numerous entrees, the bill came to less than $35 for four people.  The cab ride back to the ship, including a generous tip, came to $2.50.

 

 
George carrying the coconut water seller’s goods
 
We rose early the next day and took another $2 cab ride to the War Remnants Museum.  It was very good, although we were forewarned that the exhibits were one sided.  Of course it’s one sided, it’s their museum!  There was a strong anti-American slant, but history is written by the victors, no?  It was difficult to get through, but I think it was important to see, and it was factually accurate.  Going through it with George was very eye opening, I learned a lot, and he confirmed that none of the exhibits were fabricated. 

George Satayana said “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  I think everyone should see it.

We walked around Saigon some more, mostly keeping out of the tourist areas and taking a peek at city life in Vietnam.  The constant motor bikes in combination with the lack of stop lights makes crossing the street a near death experience, but since they don’t stop at red lights, will ride on the wrong side of the street, and think nothing of suddenly zipping up onto the sidewalk, you tend to be alert at all times.

Which means you don’t look up much.  In fact, the whole first day in Saigon, I don’t think I looked up once, because if I did I would have noticed the wires above my head.  I don’t understand why the entire city is not on fire.  They are not only a tangled mess, but you can also hear them hum!  I saw a mass of wires that were so matted that a worker was standing on them, midair, no ladder, while adding yet more connections to the pile.

The smog is thick in Saigon—most people wear surgical-type masks while out and about.   The fumes from the constant motor bikes hang like a pall, visibility is low, but the sunsets are beautiful. 

 

All in all we liked Vietnam, and we look forward to returning sometime and exploring more in depth.  However, I have to confess that I enjoyed the north much more than the south.  But the entire country is worth a visit—I highly recommend it.  But bring a surgical mask, and leave your pooch at home. 

 
 
Beautiful (note the surgical mask)

 

 
Street vendor

Ha Long Bay

Jordan, the trainer in the gym, had suggested we get up early as we sail into Ha Long Bay.  I’m surprised they don’t make that suggestion to all the passengers, it was spectacular and exactly as he described.

The night before was one of those glorious nights when we set the clocks back one hour and gain an hour of sleep, so we were wide awake at 6:30.  George sprang out of bed and took off to the gym while I luxuriated in bed, reading email.  I rolled over and looked out of our floor-to-ceiling windows that lead to our balcony, then I grabbed my camera and scrambled to get dressed quickly so I could start taking pictures.

How do you describe the indescribable?  Like trying to describe a feeling, words and pictures just fall short.

Our ship moved silently through the mist, gliding past huge cliffs which were jutting up out of the sea.  As we floated through the fog the rock formations would magically appear, towering over our boat.  You could see more of these green and grey protrusions, softened by the haze, just behind them.  Then–further back–you could see the outline of endless limestone mountains sitting patiently, waiting to be noticed.

Small fishing boats dotted the sea between these boulders, heading out with their nets further into the Gulf of Tonkin.  From time to time we would see large ships, too, which had sailed as close as their mass would allow, dropping anchor and loading their cargo onto waiting Junks. 

It was absolutely stunning. 

 

We ate an early breakfast and waited for our tour to be called.  Instead of taking a tender, the Junk that was going to be our touring vessel pulled right up to our ship. 

 
Floating Village

 
Schoolhouse in the floating village

 
A happy George
 
 
Our Junk was lovely, a bit weathered on the outside, but inside it was gleaming, with polished teak and  beautiful fixtures.  There were 25 passengers on the expedition, plus our tour guide, Fo, who spoke English very well.  As we rode around Ha Long Bay, he explained some of the local customs and culture.  As you can see from my pictures, there is little habitable land here, so the locals live on floating villages. 

We pulled up to one such village and we were each fitted with a life jacket and assigned a kayak. The Kayaking was spectacular.  By that I mean the scenery was beautiful and George and I didn’t fight.  I’m convinced that the real test of a marriage is kayaking together.  The first time we tried it was in Hawaii over ten years ago, and that did not go so well, but ever since we have actually worked out a manageable system.  I sit in the front and set the pace of the paddles.  George sits in the back and is in charge of steering the vessel.   When he’s not turning he pretends to paddle while I do the bulk of the work.

The guide led us through a low tunnel in the rock which opened up to a beautiful protected pool surrounded by cliffs.  It was breathtaking, and the only noise you could hear was the occasional splash of an oar cutting the surface of the still water.

For the next two and a half hours, Fo brought us around to a couple of these formations, and through a few tunnels to these little hidden paradises.  Some of the rowing was quite vigorous, so we were both tired and hungry when we got back to our Junk.
They served a simple but absolutely sensational lunch, which Linda referred to as Junk Food.  First came a pile of small clams, simply steamed open and served in the shell.  Next were two neat rows of mollusks with a lovely bit of seasoning.  They looked like steamer clams to me, but Fo said they were oysters.  Whatever they are called, they were delicious.  The food just kept coming.  There was a nice chicken soup, flavored with cilantro, so I was in heaven.  There was also rice, bread, butter, steamed fish, boiled shrimp, sliced beef, hot noodles and cold local beer.   

Good, simple food can’t be beat.  For example, they served a very simple white rice, into which they encouraged us to squeeze a little lime juice and a sprinkle from a small bowl of seasoning, which I’m convinced just sea salt and fresh pepper.  It was absolutely perfect.

We just quietly floated in place while lunch was served, and some of the local children would sail up and sell us some fruit.  The kids were adorable, how can you say no?  They would climb onto the side of the boat and open the window above each table, holding up their offerings.  One little girl was quite sure of herself, she’d point to things on peoples’ tables that she wanted, and they would give them.  At one table she got a coke, at another she scored a whole plate of butter.  At ours she pointed to the beer.  We did, indeed, say no, but then we overpaid for some of her delicious lychee nuts so she didn’t mind.

The motor turned over and we leisurely sailed around once again, taking in the scenery as our misty morning turned in to a misty afternoon, still with that magical feeling as shapes gradually came into view before being swallowed by the fog behind us.

 
Our final stop was to be a tour of a cave, and most of us were rather unenthusiastic about it, with the possible exception of me.  I love caves.  And, since a cave visit was not in the tour description, we had no idea what to expect.  With trepidation, we climbed the rickety steps up to the entrance and walked in.  The cave was colossal; it opened up to a vast room filled with limestone stalagmites and stalactites, some stretching from the cavernous ceiling all the way down to the floor. 

They had built a stone walkway through the cavern which was very well designed and sensitive to the surroundings.  Inexplicably, they lit many of the formations with colored lights, which gave it more of a Disney atmosphere and, in my humble opinion, detracted from natural beauty of the place, but it was spectacular none the less.

 
As our Junk took us back to our ship, they plied us with local fruit; bananas, watermelon and beautiful miniature oranges.  We boarded the Seabourn Sojourn tired but very happy.  It was a glorious day.

Hong Kong

Shoe Shop Sign in Cheung Chau
 

Someone described Hong Kong to us as “New York on steroids”.  I can’t improve on that—it fits perfectly.

In true Hong Kong fashion the cruise ship terminal is also a high-end mall, with every major designer and luxury brand represented.  That’s Hong Kong: Take any unused flat surface and open a mall on it.   Shopping seems to be the national pastime.  Any store worth its salt has a line out front, with well-heeled Chinese twenty-something’s waiting behind velvet ropes itching to spend their share of the spoils of capitalism.  Cartier, Gucci, Prada and Tiffany all have long lines to get in.
George atop Victoria Peak
 

We are not big shoppers, and the prices and selection did not seem to be better than in New York.  The difference is that luxury stores in Hong Kong are like Starbucks back home—they are everywhere.  You can walk down a block and pass three different Coach Stores, and they are all busy.  The street has a few hawkers, but they are not intrusive.  Mostly they are selling knock off watches and offering custom tailoring services. 

One of the ships offerings was a half-day city tour which we decided to take.  We wanted to get a general overview before venturing out on our own.  It left at 8:30 and, once we met our tour guide, we knew we made the right decision.  She was smart, informative, and very funny. 
First stop was a tram ride up to the top of Victoria Peak.  It was foggy and chilly, but taking the train to the top was fun.  The view was spectacular despite the fog.  Of course there are two malls at the peak, which we only went into to use the restroom.
Our next experience was a short ride on a sampan.  Our driver had decorated her boat with streamers and Chinese lanterns.  She did not speak a word of English, but did a great job of entertaining us on our short ride. She took us around the harbor for a close-up look at life on the water.  There were house boats and trawling boats, laden with fishing nets, tied together.  In the middle of all this was a huge floating restaurant.  The harbor was jam-packed; it was amazing that she could find room to maneuver the sampan at all. 
 
 

We re-boarded the bus to visit a jewelry factory.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen jewelry being made, but you really don’t need to.  It would be more interesting to listen to a tape-recording of a life insurance salesman reading an air conditioning manual in a language he never studied.  We get it: you spend hours polishing and it takes forever and blah blah blah.  After an eternity, we exited the small factory into an enormous gift shop.  What are the odds?

Vincent, a young Chinese man with bad teeth and great command of the English language seemed determined to sell us something and, to my surprise, he succeeded!  I rarely buy jewelry, but the prices seemed reasonable and I had confidence that I wouldn’t get ripped off on a Seabourn-organized tour.
Our final stop was Stanley Market, which was a small indoor/outdoor market—a series of tiny stalls, like a flea-market but permanent.  We didn’t buy anything, although the market was charming and we enjoyed ourselves. 

That night the ship had an event for the World Cruisers—dinner in a restaurant with a view of Hong Kong’s nightly light show.  We had heard about the harbor light show and we were disappointed once we saw it.  It’s called “A Symphony of Lights” and had been billed as a spectacular show from 40 buildings using colored lights, laser beams and search lights.  We were at a 10th Floor restaurant, just behind the opera house, with a perfect view.  It was, in a word, underwhelming.  To quote Tallulah Bankhead, “there’s less to this than meets the eye”.  Some of the buildings had some neon which had some pretty patterns, but mostly there were just a few green lasers that would flash around a bit.  The captain, whose table we were at, said that, a few years ago, they had a nightly fireworks display that was spectacular.  They should consider returning to that format, or just cancel the whole thing altogether.  It was disappointing.

The ship had also hired a calligrapher and a Chinese fortune teller for the event.  The calligrapher had trouble understanding my name, then adorned a piece of paper with a few black brushstrokes and impressively stamped it with red ink.  I asked what it said.  “Ka-o” was the reply, my name phonetically.  When I asked what it meant he said that it didn’t mean anything.  Hmmm.  At least in Japanese my name means either “Frog” or “To Return Home”.  He could have at least made something up.  Which leads me to the fortune teller. 

I’ve never had my fortune read and was curious.  He had a list of five categories to choose from, and you could pick only two.  I chose Wealth and Health.  He said I’d be comfortable during my life but never rich, and I’ll never win any money so I shouldn’t try.  He said that I have at least two properties, which wasn’t too wild of a guess as every single person on this boat has at least that.  As for Health, he said I’ll have some problems with my feet and live to 85.  Really?  This is the best you can do?

He told Adrian, who is 93, that he would live 10 more years, and Adrian said “If I give you twenty bucks, can I live ten more?”  He also told Tom, who is almost 99 ½, that he would live another 10 years.  Comparing notes back on board, we discovered that if you are older you have 10 years to go, but if you are younger you go to your glorious reward at exactly 85.

The next day we decided to get out of Hong Kong and take a 45 minute ferry ride to Cheung Chau, a tiny island which, roughly translated, means Long Island.  It is a popular day-trip for the locals in the summer, as it has a nice beach, but mostly it is a working fishing village.  Most of the fishermen live on their boats.  There is a lively market where they sell their daily catch, and everywhere you look there are fish drying on huge racks.

There are no cars on Cheung Chau, most people get around on foot or bicycle.  Some businesses have small carts with very loud engines, but, for the most part, it’s pretty quiet.  Life centers around the harbor, and there are two shopping streets just beyond the harbor.   All of the shops were very small, selling a smattering of everything.  The predominant item was dried fish.

 

We came upon a very small tea salon, only two tables, and the proprietress was hanging out of the store’s window, speaking to boy.  Not many people here speak English, so I was surprised that I understood her, but then I realized she was speaking Japanese.  She also, mercifully, spoke English, and was so happy to speak with us in either language that we spent about 20 minutes with her.

Getting hungry, we headed toward the harbor to find a place to eat lunch.  One restaurant seemed to be popular with the local fishermen, so that is where we sat down.  They immediately gave us a menu in English, which was great except they didn’t understand English,  so when George ordered shrimp they gave him chicken anyway.  I had delicious fried squid.

Next to us was a table of about seven fishermen, and they acknowledged us when we sat down with toothless grins and a nod of the head.  They were eating huge bowls of steaming fish, each about the size of a Snickers Bar.  They would pick up a whole fish with chopsticks, first peeling off once side with their teeth and eating it, then repeating the process on the other side, before finishing it off by popping the head in their mouths.  The only thing left would be a perfect fish skeleton, like in a cartoon, which they would feed to the Black Lab who was always attuned to who would be next to toss him some bones.

At one point a friend of theirs came by and dropped of a plastic bag full of shrimp, still jumping around inside.  One of the men signaled to the waitress who brought them inside a shortly returned with a steaming bowl of the freshest shrimp you could hope for.  It looked and smelled delicious.

We returned to Hong Kong and spent some time wandering around and staring wide-eyed at the endless luxury stores once again.  Realizing we were spent, we boarded the Seabourn Sojourn, pretty much worn out.  As we were getting ready for dinner, the ship pulled out and for the next two hours we sailed past more and more of Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Return, we must.

Our next stop is Vietnam.   St. Patrick’s Day in Halong Bay–do you think there’s a parade, corned beef, cabbage, and green beer?  I hope not.

Malaysian Monkey Business

After crossing over the equator back into official winter, we ended up in Sandakan, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.  It was all about the monkeys.  OK: Monkeys and orangutans.

We signed up for a tour entitled “Wildlife Extravaganza”, which took us to two animal sanctuaries; first to the orangutans and then to the proboscis monkeys.



The masses awaiting the orangutans
There were six busses from the ship headed for the orangutans, so once you added 200 passengers to the regular visitors, it was very crowded.  You enter the forest on a long boardwalk which leads to a large
arriving for breakfast

 viewing platform.  Facing the spectators are a few more platforms built into the trees, and several ropes were strung to them from the forest behind. 

The tour was timed to coincide with feeding time, but it was more like “feeding time at the zoo”.  You didn’t really get to see them in their native habitat.  Although it seemed a bit staged (in that the orangutans know to show up for feeding time twice a day), it was fascinating none the less.  Before the ranger showed up with the food, a few of them came by to check if dinner was being served yet.  The first one walked the ropes like a circus performer to the delight of the crowd, but quickly disappeared when he didn’t see any breakfast being served.

Once the food arrived about five of them stopped by to chow down.   Although it was crowded they were easy to see.  Mostly they ate, but the youngsters did enjoy a little play time, too.



Feeding time
 
We boarded the busses and drove about 45 minutes to see the proboscis monkeys.  This was a little more fun—there were many more monkeys and fewer visitors because only two buses included this segment.  We were also much closer to the monkeys and, as a bonus, there were plenty of silver-leaf monkeys hanging around, too.  They came right up to the compound and joined the visitors, dashing between our legs and generally being adorable.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
I think he was glad to see me
The ranger came out with his bucket of food and the proboscis monkeys waited calmly for the food to come to them.  This is odd: They feed them pancakes.  I have no words.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
               Jimmy Durante
 
After a quick stop back to the ship, George and I went into Sandakan to have a look around.  It seems to be a very industrial city, with most of the shops catering to factories and small businesses.  Malaysia makes a lot of our clothes, so we saw plenty of shops selling shipping supplies, thread, buttons, fabric and sewing materials.  Sometimes the shops were incongruous, like the hardware store that was selling eggs right next to the chain saws and cans of motor oil.
 
 
A couple we met on the boat, Lillian and Adrian, had invited us to his 93rd birthday and, on the invitation, he had written “Gifts of Cash and Certified Checks will be mentioned from the podium”.  We thought we’d put a dollar in a card, but we came across a store that sold Joss Paper–paper goods intended to be used as offerings to the dead, apparently a Chinese custom.  Instead of incinerating your favorite shoes, you buy a pair of paper shoes for a dollar or two and burn them, instead.  You can buy anything, just about; paper watches, cigarettes, gold bars—anything considered valuable.  To our delight they also sold packs of fake money.  So we bought a bagful of mixed currency for about $1.30, wrapped it up, and gave it to Adrian.  He loved it.

The next day was George’s birthday.  We had dinner with some friends to celebrate, and I had the chef make is favorite birthday meal—chicken cacciatore and spaghetti, with mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert.  When we got back to the room, our room attendant had made a “towel man” with our hat, glasses, a bottle of Beefeaters, a remote in his hand, and a cupcake on a plate on his lap.  He was facing the television which had “The Hobbit” playing.  

 

We’re still having a great time and can’t believe the third segment begins tomorrow. 

Next stop: Hong Kong.

Rock Star Treatment

Our last two stops in Indonesia were Larantuka and Ambon.
 

LARANTUKA


 This guy climbed the mast to see better
 
A fishing boat came by for a look at
the ship
 
Linda and Stan had again set-up a car, driver, and tour guide through American Express, so we were met at the Larantuka port.  This was very different from Bali.  Much to our relief no one was trying to sell us anything at the port. 
Two boys outside the church on Ash Wednesday
It was a very hot and humid day and, this time, the air conditioning in the van was nonexistent.  The tour guide did his best, but there was not much to see.  He brought is to a few beaches which, to our surprise, were strewn with litter. 

He also brought us to a couple of churches and, as this was Ash Wednesday, there was a lot of activity.  Everywhere we went, people (mostly kids) asked if we could take their picture.  I never refused, and always showed them their picture afterwards.  It was wonderful, some kids giggled, but most kids just grinned from ear to ear.


The highlight for me was the marketplace.  Here you can buy almost anything.  Most of the food was on trays on the ground, and the ground was pretty dirty.  The natives were very friendly, and many of the women in the bazaar gave big broad smiles when they saw us.  Kids played about and some followed us, especially when Linda was handing out chocolates.  (She hoards the chocolates the ship leaves on her pillow each night to give to the kids en route.  Ours tend to get eaten immediately.)  One adorable little girl, no more than 4 or 5, followed us for about 15 minutes before she realized the chocolate stash had run out.

We told our guide that we would rather spend our time touring than eating, and we asked him to cancel the lunch that was included.  In truth, once we saw the market, we thought we’d prefer to eat on the ship.

While there was not much to see in Larantuka, we thought the people had great spirit.

 

 
 

 

AMBON

 
 
The next day was a sea day, and on Friday we docked in Ambon.  Ambon had not had a cruise ship pull in for four years and they were happy to see us.  Before we were allowed off the ship, the mayor and governor had a dock-side ceremony complete with TV cameras, native dancers, speeches and engraved plaques presented to each other with great fanfare.  Ambon had printed a large “Welcome” banner, but apparently forgot to run it through spell-check, which made it even sweeter.

George and I decided to venture out on our own and simply walk into town.  As soon as we got out of the terminal area, we were greeted like rock stars.  All of the locals, and I mean ALL of them, were snapping our pictures and asking us to pose with them. Yes, they wanted to take our photograph. Picture after picture.  A car would drive by, they would realize we were from the ship, and they’d hop out for a picture.  We caused traffic jams.  Many just wanted a high-five or to shake our hands.  It was grand.  Kids would clearly be practicing their English in the background, then shyly approach us with whatever they were trying to get right—usually “what is your name” or “where do you live”.  We loved it.  Every minute of it.  We were so welcomed, and the people were just so nice and delighted to see us.



Firehouse visit
 

About a block toward town we saw the firehouse so we stopped in.  Not only was I wearing a Fire Island Pines Fire Department T-shirt, but for the first time in my life I actually remembered to bring a patch.  Years ago the fire department gave us a few extra arm patches for trading and, luckily, I thought to bring one with me.  When I said I was from the ship and a volunteer firefighter, they ran and got the chief and many pictures were taken.  They were elated with the patch.  I’m sure it’s framed and in a place of honor by now.  I think I made their day—they certainly made mine.  (Note: from what I could tell, they had only three small trucks and one was not operational, I think they were cannibalizing it for parts to keep the other two alive.  They did not have any hose, at all, and seemed to rely on the nozzle mounted on top of the truck.  They had helmets, but I didn’t see any turn-out or bunker gear.  The language barrier prevented me from asking questions–)

George and I had a blast, just walking around and interacting with people.  We stopped in several stores and George bought a hand-made silk shirt.  $20 after haggling.  They didn’t have my size, or I would have cleaned them out.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The highlight of the day was getting our haircut.  I spied a very busy barbershop and, well, it was time:  You can only give yourself so many trims with the cuticle scissors and my hair was trending toward a greying Danny Partridge.  So we marched in and the entire place stopped what they were doing and starred at us.  We meekly sat and waited our turn (and we took note that they used a new razor blade for each customer, the one thing I wanted to ensure before donning a bib).  It was great fun—they were amused and were having fun with us.  Everyone was talking and making cell phone calls—and it was clear they were talking about us.  My barber combed my hair into a faux hawk—and everyone had a great laugh.  And my hair came out great, one of the best haircuts I’ve had in years.  He shaved my neck, thankfully, and gave a pretty intense head and neck massage.  Then, with little to no warning, he took my head in his hands and, like the seasoned chiropractor that he must be, snapped my head right, and then left.  The cracking sound, at least inside my head, was deafening—but my neck just felt fantastic, better than it has for years.  It was heaven.

I sat and waited for George, who by now was being clipped by another barber.  I had the foresight to video him while his neck was adjusted—you’ll have to wait and see.

OK, the best part?  The haircut, massage and chiropractic adjustment cost…wait for it…two dollars apiece.  By far the best two dollars I’ve ever spent.  And to think they charge $52 on the ship and they do a horrible job.  Last week the beautician was chopping up our neighbor’s hair in the ship’s salon, and she slipped, slicing open his forehead, and rewarded him with a black eye.  And the ship wasn’t even moving.

Ambon was extraordinary; everyone was so warm and welcoming.  As I said, this was the first cruise ship to visit Ambon in four years—they truly appreciated our being there.  Ambon’s dignitaries, dancers and television crews showed up again for our send off.  Hundreds of people were on the pier.  Kids were jumping in the water, bands were playing, and singers sang several songs—including a rousing rendition of Blue Suede Shoes.  People were on rooftops, hanging off balconies, and sneaking in any way they could to catch a glimpse of boat, the passengers, and the festivities. 

Ambon was extraordinary; everyone was so warm and welcoming, we were sorry to leave so quickly.

 
We bought stamps, and the entire Postal group wanted their
picture taken with us.  It took a while, because they
each had a camera!
 
 
Malaysia is next…

Komodo

From the moment we left Los Angeles, it seems, Linda and Stan were warning us about Komodo Island:  It would be hot, it would be raining, and it would be muddy, so we should only wear clothes we wanted to throw out.  They were not planning on getting off the ship when we reached Komodo, mainly because they had been there and “you would never go twice”.  They also told us we were wasting our time going to the Pink Beach.

Denis and Fran also thought we were crazy, they said we shouldn’t bother going to Komodo at all, and confirmed Linda and Stan’s allegation that the Pink Beach was a waste of time and money.

We were concerned, and started having endless conversations regarding which pieces of footwear and articles of clothing we would sacrifice to the mud.  Just to make sure we had covered all bases, we also spoke with the Shore Excursion staff several times.  You cannot go ashore if you are not on a tour, they explained, and the beach was nothing more than that—a beach.  They added that the snorkeling was not very good.

I can only compare this to a trivia question that everyone gets wrong: The sky was clear, the hike was fabulous, the dragons were impressive and the snorkeling was the best I’ve ever done.

The morning tour was split into two groups, and we were in the smaller group which only had about a dozen people.  Our tour guide took us on a hike which lasted a little over an hour.  He pointed out some of the flora and fauna along the way.  Butterflies were everywhere, but we also saw some wild orchids, a snake in a tree, some deer, lizards, and tons of medicinal plants. 

But the real stars were the dragons.  The guides know where they hang out, which is near a watering hole.  They are enormous.  They usually move slowly, but we were told that you can’t out-run them if they’re considering have you for dinner.  They survive on deer, pigs and water buffalo.  Komodo Dragons take down their pray by simply biting them, then the bacteria in their saliva causes the animal to get a blood infection, so the dragon simply hangs around the animal and waits for it to get too week to fight back.  A Komodo Dragon will bite a water buffalo, then he follows him around for a month before calling over his friends to share in the feast.  They only eat once a month and they consume the entire animal, bones and all.  And the only thing they eliminate is the calcium from the bones.

 

After the dragons we boarded an old wooden boat which took us just off the Pink Beach, then transferred to a small glass-bottom boat to ferry us to shore.  We saw tons of fish through the window, and asked the guide about snorkeling. He told us that the snorkeling was excellent.  I must have mentioned that I didn’t get to see any turtles during our last snorkel, so he promised to show me one.

He was right–the snorkeling was wonderful–even more incredible than Exmouth.  There were many more fish, brightly colored, and in abundance.  Other places I’ve snorkeled the coral was closer to the surface, so it was always a challenge to keep from scraping against it.  Here the coral was a little deeper, just the right depth so you didn’t have to worry about hitting it, yet close enough so you could see very well.

George and I swam out with the guide, and he didn’t rest until he found a turtle for me.  I stayed in the water the entire time, only returning when it was time to leave.

If you ever find yourself in Indonesia, make your way to Komodo Island and be sure to go to the Pink Beach—it really was one of the more spectacular days so far.  And if people warn you that it’s not worth going to, just be polite.  Like I am to Linda, who has said to me at least 100 times since: “You would never go back, would you?  Why would you?  You’ve seen it.  I’d never go back.”

We would, and probably will.

 
Komodo Dragon Poop, nothing but calcium. 
Aren’t you glad I’ve educated you on this?
 

 
Drooling Dragon
 
Do we love the lady with the purse, or what?

Bali High

We arrived in Indonesia, and our first Port of Call was Bali.  Australia was lovely, but not as exotic as our upcoming ports and, after spending a month down-under, we were ready to move on.  After all, Australia is similar to the United States, just more expensive and with better beaches and funny accents.

Stan and Linda had arranged a private tour of Bali, just the six of us (Dietmar and Fran joined in).  One hundred and nine dollars a person included a full day of touring, entry fees to all the sites, lunch in a wonderful restaurant, a tour guide and a driver.

The real challenge was getting from the boat to the van.  When you exit the port there are hundreds of people vying for your attention and your dollars.  The majority of them are cab drivers, but some are people who want to sell you postcards, carvings, necklaces and other assorted items.  One or two will pick you out and follow you all the way to your car, not taking “no” for an answer.  It was a bit unsettling, although we never felt threatened.  It’s just uncomfortable—Americans are not used to this.  Nor are we used to haggling, which is required in Indonesia. 

We found our driver and he whisked us into the awaiting van, which thankfully had working air conditioning.  Bali is very humid, and the day would have been very different without it.

Our first stop was a typical Balinese house, which is a courtyard with several open-air structures, including a kitchen, a shrine, a bathroom and several bedrooms.  Most structures only had one wall—to keep the rain out.  This only worked if the prevailing wind was blowing, otherwise your room gets soaked.  They were quite ornate, and there were many offerings found throughout the house—flowers and small amounts of food seem to be standard fare for the gods.  This was true throughout Bali: They take their offerings very seriously here.

We were ushered into the back of the compound where they had set up a little shop.  There were several types of coffee and tea for us to sample, and if we wanted to we could buy some to take home.  Not included was a cup of the world’s most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak, which is actually made from coffee beans which were previously digested by a Civet Cat and, when it poops, someone picks the coffee beans out.  Makes you wonder what they asked this guy on his job interview, other than his five-year career goal.  For not much more than a Starbucks Grande we tried a cup and, well, it tasted not unlike Starbucks.
Civet Cat
 

This was followed up with a trip to the wood carvers.  There were several carvers sitting outside doing their thing, leaving the rest of the enormous compound to serve as a showroom.  The statues and furniture were amazing—really something to see.  Prices were sky-high and they should be, each one took several months to create.
 
 
 
Wood Carvings (that’s not a mirror, but rather an
entrance into the next room.)
 

The Water Temple was next—a sprawling temple through which water flows from springs below.  We had to wear sarongs to enter, which they have available at the entrance.  It was exquisite, and very popular with the locals.  Some of the pools were used, for a small fee, to swim in.  In others we could see families bathing or doing laundry.  For the most part, though, it is a beautiful and serene place where people go with offerings and sit quietly in prayer.  It was stunning—moss covered carvings surrounding beautiful gardens and ponds, with the only sound coming from cascading water interspersed with children giggling from the far-off swimming pools.  It was magic.
Fran and George donning sarongs
Handsome guy standing guard

Our guide took us to the terraced rice fields next.  I’ve seen terrace farming in other places in the world, but this was the first time I experienced terraces that went down into a valley.  The rich green of the rice fields combined with the earthy scent of the growing grain made for an extraordinary stop.

Our final destination was the Monkey Forest, and I was in my glory!  Its part park and part temple, and the monkeys are everywhere.  Our guide warned us not to try and feed the monkeys, and asked us to ensure that we didn’t have any food with us.  They can be aggressive over food, although we saw several people feeding them with no signs of a struggle.

The monkeys meet you right at the entrance.  There are babies hanging on to their Mamas’ necks, seniors sitting and looking sage-like, and adolescents tumbling and playing and generally, well, monkeying around.  There was lots of grooming: Monkeys picking bugs off each other and popping them into their mouths.  I have many videos of monkeys playing which I will post when I return.
 
Grandpa

 
Mother and Baby
 

The ship had an event planned for the 85 of us on the World Cruise and it was pretty fabulous, too.  George and I made the mistake of wearing jackets and ties, so we were sweating like a couple of whores in church. 

The staff passed canapés and cocktails while we were treated to some dancing.  We were then lead into a gorgeous outdoor compound which consisted of a stage with a dining platform on each side.  There was a pool in front of the stage in which they floated candle-lit miniature outriggers. 
 
Warrior dance.  This kid is ten years old!

 
The food was excellent
 
 
Looking sweaty!
 

We sat with Paul and Tony.  I don’t know if I mentioned them before, but they are cousins who are both gay, so they tend to travel together.  Then they complain about each other nonstop!  Paul is very funny, delightful sense of humor who loves to spread all of the ships gossip.  I call him Hedda Hopper, which he loves.  Tony is kind of serious; he does not like a joke or a quip if it’s even slightly off-center, so he does not get me at all.  Which, of course, I play off of on a regular basis, much to his chagrin. 

Dinner was delicious and, while we were eating, they treated us to more dancing.  They also set up some tables for a couple of the locals to attempt to sell us stuff.  This gave me a chance to test my haggling skills, but was happy to get a hand painted egg for $5 when negotiations started at $20.  So Mom, if you’re reading this, I hope you get it in time for Easter.  Especially since it’s still sitting in my cabin!

Back at the boat we were treated to yet more Balinese dancing and, at this point, I pretty much had my fill.  It is interesting, and the way they are able to bend their fingers back is amazing, but at a certain point it’s just more of the same. 

The boat stayed overnight in Bali.  The ship was scheduled to leave the next day at noon.  We thought we might head out and see some more in the morning, but since we now had a better idea of how the traffic snarls we were not sure we could get anywhere and back before departure.  Instead we spent a leisurely morning on the ship.
 

Onward!

After Perth

With only two more stops in Australia between Perth and Bali, we were beginning to yearn for more exotic locales, and Geraldton refused to step up to fit the bill.

It is another small waterfront town, pleasant enough with nothing to do.  Their biggest attraction is a memorial dedicated to the sinking of the HMAS Sydney II which was sunk during WWII.  It sits atop a hill overlooking the harbor, and commemorates the sailors that died—there were no survivors.

Woman pretending to be “a statue of a woman
waiting for her man to return”.  She is
avoiding the Rabbi.
The memorial is lovely and, after about 5 minutes, you’re pretty much done.  We ended up hanging around a bit longer than necessary because the ship’s Rabbi was hovering near the only exit, ready to pick us off like a hawk snatches rabbits.  He’s not a bad guy, just a bit needy and insistent.  He’s hard to get rid of once you engage, so eye contact is avoided and, when you seem him headed in your direction, you make like you’re late for an appointment.   I feel sorry for the people with walkers, they can’t out maneuver him, although this can be used to your advantage:  If you position yourself behind them you can slip by while he moves in.  I call it “thinning the herd”–it’s survival of the fittest.

After intently reading ALL of the plaques, directional information and a few parking meter signs, he reluctantly moved on and we managed our escape. 

With nothing else to do and nothing to lose, we aimed for a local mall so George could get a haircut.  About nine minutes and ten dollars later, George emerged from the shop not much different than when he went in.  Apparently they don’t use clippers here, so saying “number one on the sides, two on the top” has no direct meaning.   The girl nervously took out some scissors and clipped at the air around his head for a bit.  The hairstylists of the region also don’t seem to believe in razors, either. The patches on the back of his neck remained unshorn.  Perhaps they thought he could eventually use them for a comb-over, or it could be used as the beginnings of some sort of bizarre mullet.

Pretty much the same thing happened when he went to the hair salon on the ship.  They don’t have clippers and they don’t help with those areas that seem to grow hairier as men age.  Back home they always get out the weed-wacker to tackle any offending eyebrows and ear hair, but at sea you’re forced to either look like the Fellini version of Rapunzel or take out the cuticle scissors and give it a go.

See how interesting Geraldton is?  The best I could come up with was a treatise on our hairy bits.  Let’s move on, shall we?

The next day was a sea day, and there was a deck party planned in the evening.  Deck parties work like this: There is a theme. They have a band set up around the pool, and tables with food and drink are arranged throughout.  Everyone retreats to a restaurant for dinner—usually continuing whatever theme was selected for the deck party.  Then everyone is invited back to the pool area for more live music and endless desserts.  

Deck parties are very nice events and tonight’s affair had an added twist: All the Hors D’Oeuvres were prepared by the non-kitchen staff, each of them proudly standing by their creations to hand out servings and receive compliments.  It was great fun.

The day was marred, however, by a rescue at sea.  Turns out one of the passengers had collapsed that morning during the morning lecture.  The doctor was called and the rumors vacillated between a seizure and a heart attack.  He was in the infirmary and our next port was a full day away. They decided to get him to the mainland for further tests and treatment.  Unfortunately there was nowhere for the ship to pull into, so a rendezvous point was set up for a rescue boat to pick him up.  The ship went on full-steam for about two hours, and then we reached the location and floated in place for a few more hours.  Finally the smaller vessel arrived.  The patient, his wife, all their possessions and three crew members boarded the boat and sped off.  The ship waited another couple of hours for the crew members to return, which happened sometime after dinner.

Now we needed to make-up for lost time, so the captain revved up the engines and we took off like a sling-shot.  We arrived in Exmouth the next morning about an hour late–he did a great job of getting us there.

I know a lady who is friend of the patient.  She confirmed that it was seizures, and, after some tests, the man learned that he has a brain tumor.  They flew back to their home in Canada for more tests and treatment.  It was all very dramatic, and a somber reminder just how frail we ultimately are.  Fortunately, I hear he’s doing well.

Exmouth was fun.  We had signed up for a tour that included snorkeling at Turquois Bay in the Ningaloo Reef, which by all reports is more spectacular than the Great Barrier Reef.  Two surfer dudes picked us up—there were about 12 of us in one van and an equal number in another.  They boys were fun and funny, which is all I could ask for.  They gave us a bit of history as we traveled about 45 minutes to the beach.  On the way we passed many kangaroos, all of them ending their morning forage and seeking a bit of shade while the heat grew.  There were also enormous termite mounds, some at least 15 feet in the air.  I did see one kangaroo standing on the shady side of a termite mound, which would have made a great picture if we weren’t flying by at break–neck speed.  I think they were trying to make up for the late arrival of the ship, which did not work with picture taking.

I loved the snorkeling, which we did for about 40 minutes.  We followed the guide and saw many fish, both brightly colored and plain ol’ brown.  I did not see the sea turtle, but did manage to find a sting ray as he buried himself in the ocean’s floor.  It was beautiful.

After a quick sandwich we boarded the buses for the return trip.  He took us through “town” which consisted of The Pot Shot Hotel and a stop light.  The emu were all over, walking down the middle of the streets, standing in people’s front yards and generally walking around oblivious to the cars and the people.

It was a wonderful day, but we were ready to leave Australia and head to Indonesia.  Bali is our next port.
 
 
(Note to Richard Barry:  It is entirely your fault that we were seated with Joan at a hosted table–you wished it and it happened.  What did you do, sacrifice a goat or something?  Of course the first thing she said when we were introduced was “we spoke on the phone”.  I hesitated just a beat, for theatrical purposes, and said “Oh, you must be Joan!  Please meet George Graham”, where she regaled him with the same stories of the other George Graham, for the rest of the night.)