India, Inc. (Part 3–Mumbai)

Calling Dr. Bombay, calling Dr. Bombay–come right away.
I was fearing Mumbai. I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I read A Fine Balance, and I heard stories from friends who had traveled here.  I was pretty sure I didn’t want to leave the ship, but just because you don’t bear witness to a hard reality doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  Difficult as it might be, I knew that I had to see it, even though I was expecting the worst.
Let me step back a bit.  George’s cousin, Allen, had been to Mumbai about thirteen years ago where he had a wonderful guide, Naju, with whom he still kept in touch.  He arranged for us to be in contact with her and, after a call to her from the states, we decided she would be our guide in Mumbai.  So far, so good, but this is India where anything is possible, and everything is complicated.  Naju, you see, does not have email, so we were instructed to email her niece when we got closer to Mumbai to finish making the arrangements, such as the itinerary, meeting points, and a loose plan for meals.  When we were about two months away from Mumbai, George shot her an email to start getting our plans together and we never heard back.  No worries, we thought, we’ll send a follow up.  No response.  OK, well, the neice must be falling down on the job–let’s give her a call. 
I don’t know if you’ve ever made a ship to shore call but it is very expensive.  About $15 a minute.  But we had a small telephone credit that I was hording to call my mother on Easter, so we thought we’d place a quick call Naju and simply say “check your email”.  Mistake.  Poor George made the call and he could not get a word in edgewise.  She rattled on, mostly trying to convince George that we should take the morning tour with the ship to Elephanta Island and she would meet us in the afternoon.  There were only two problems with this.  First, we didn’t want to go to Elephanta Island.  Second, the ship didn’t have a morning tour to Elephanta Island. 
George could not cut in–we both have a hard time interrupting–but after what seemed a very expensive expanse of time he finally started to try.  George is the calm one, but he was clearly getting frustrated and finally interrupted, forcefully explaining that we wanted to skip the island and tour with her the full day.  She agreed and prattled on a bit longer until George stated, in no uncertain terms, that he had to hang up.  Just before doing so she told him to call again before we got to Mumbai.  Sigh.
A few days later she sent an email, instructing us to do a “City Highlights Tour” in the morning, and she would meet us in the afternoon.  Clearly, she didn’t want to meet us in the morning.  I wanted to find someone else at this point, but George wanted to use her, so we relented.  Of course, her email included that we should still call her before we got there.  We responded that we didn’t really want to call her because it was expensive, but please email us if there was anything else we needed to know.  We never received a response.
We hit the Internet to find a morning city tour (the boat did not offer one), so we found a guide that was kind of pricey (we later learned they charged us a fortune for this part of the world), but we thought we should just do it, then meet Naju in the afternoon. 
In one of her early communications, Naju pressed upon us that we should not buy anything before we got there, she would get us the best prices on everything.  I had bought a few things, but George would always give me the hairy-eyeball and remind me that Naju wanted us to shop with her.  You can see where this is going, can’t you?
Enough background, let’s go to Mumbai:
The ship pulled into Mumbai early enough, and we had arranged to meet our guide just outside the port.  We had asked one of the staff members, Jordan, if he would like to join us, so the three of us headed out to rendezvous with our guide.  We walked through the gate were immediately surrounded by very small children pulling at us for money, and women with crying babies on their hips doing the same.  The taxi drivers were pushing each other out of the way to get to us.  Thankfully, we quickly found our guide and driver and they led us to our car.
He first took us to the Gateway of India, showed us the ferries and fishing boats, a view of the Taj Hotel, and demonstrated how the terrorists entered India when they overtook the Taj in 2008.
Next was the dhobi ghats, one of three hand laundries in Mumbai.  This is where, everyday, they hand wash hundreds or even thousands of pounds of laundry.  They wash them in cement sinks, beating the dirt out of the garments.  We even saw hospital scrubs washed in this fashion–not exactly an aseptic method. 
Our next stop was a beach where the fisherman were coming in with the days catch.  This was a sad stop.  The beach was clearly a garbage dump, with heaps of debris everywhere.  Three small children, probably between five and seven years of age, were meticulously picking through the mounds.  I didn’t know what they were looking for, but this was definitely a job for them, not a play date.  Off to one side were the shacks and shanties where people lived cheek to jowl. 
He took us out on a pier so we could get a full view of the city, and many locals were there eating lunch and spending some time relaxing.  This was followed by a trip to the Hanging Gardens, a popular public park with lots of topiary. 
The final stop of the morning was–can you guess?  I’ve been doing this for three and a half months at this point, so I assume you guessed the market.  And you are correct.  It was as wonderful as it gets, everything was fresh and abundant–perfect produce piled high.  Some stalls sold spices and our guide convinced us to buy some curry.  In the back were live animals, most of them birds in cages, but they also included puppies, ducks, Guinea pigs and turtles.  I don’t know which were destined to be pets and which were destined to be dinner, and I didn’t want to think about it.
While we were wandering through the market two vendors got into a fight and one pulled a knife.  George was a little too curious for my taste, so I pulled him away and we got lost in the crowd.
Our tour guide returned us to our port.  We ate lunch quickly, only because we had the best of the day before us–our tour with the celebrated and hard to book Naju.
Naju was waiting at the gate for us, and led us to our car a driver, deftly maneuvering through the children begging and the women carrying the babies doing the same.  She got us in the car and lectured us for a few minutes about the evil of giving beggars money.  We promised we wouldn’t.
The non-stop talking George experienced on the phone resumed in full force, and she announced that we were going to the Gateway of India.  We told her we had been with our morning guide and told her of our other stops.  She was furious–we were supposed to take the City Highlights Tour she instructed us to take.  She was berating us because we went to the places she wanted to take us, to the point where (OK just like the market, I’ve been writing this for three and a half months, so you know what happens next) I had enough.  “Look, we wanted to hire you for the day and clearly you didn’t want that.  You told us to take a morning tour, so we did.  Maybe it wasn’t the one you insisted we take, but we hired a guide and took a morning tour”. I gave George a withering look that said I want out of this car and away from this woman.  Really? She doesn’t return emails, when we call she babbles on about nothing, takes offence when we don’t go to Elephanta as instructed, takes umbrage when we hire a guide despite the fact we tried desperately to hire HER, and now she’s giving us shit about it?  This boy had had enough.
I shot George another dagger with my eyes and she saw it in her mirror.  Our eyes locked for just one second, and she turned it around.   Well, kind of, throughout the afternoon she would grill us about what the morning guide told us and laugh at his explanations.  She also decided that, since she could not berate us, she would berate the driver for the remainder of the day.  Sorry, dude, better you than me.
Our first stop was a temple we had passed in the morning that I really wanted to see.  It was a Jain Temple dedicated to Adinath.  Tourists were only allowed on the first floor, so we removed our shoes and walked through.  Several worshipers were praying, so we silently entered to take it all in.  It was a beautiful temple, ornately decorated.  The domed ceiling was particularly exquisite. 
The richest man in India is Mukesh Ambani, and to prove it he built a residence that stands 60 stories tall, has 27 floors, employs 400 people, has three helipads, an elevator for his cars, and all the trappings of a mansion in America. It’s not much different from Papa John’s Mansion in Kentucky.  Except it’s vertical.  And it’s in India. 
Our force of nature guide, Naju, next took us to the Gandhi Museum, housed in a building were he was often a guest.  Gandhi is a fascinating figure, and to be among his private library and personal items while learning more about this incredible man was mind-blowing.  The room he stayed in was preserved with several of his spinning wheels, and re-creations of his personal possessions adorned the walls.  They had a room with thirty or forty tableaus which illustrated the important moments of his life.  Naju told us what to look at while she took a seat, and when we were done she quizzed us to ensure we looked at the right things.  The soft spoken Gandhi she is not.
A Hare Krishna temple was next, Iskcon, and it was one of the most beautiful and welcoming temples yet.  Most of the temple was carved out of teak–beautiful to see and smell.  Naju wanted us to have our picture taken–even if we didn’t–and instructed us to stand in the center of a circular carved piece on the entryway floor, then scolded us for not being in the exact center.  It was excruciating.
The main room was upstairs, and Naju insisted we take the elevator.  We said we could walk up a flight and meet her there, as the elevator was claustrophobicly small.  People were waiting to use the lift, but she was having none of it and herded us in before we could protest any further.  The door shut, and we slowly rose. 
The second floor was as ornate at the first, and Ganesha greeted us at the door.  He’s a deity with the head of an elephant, the body of a boy, and he is riding a mouse.  He’s terrific and much loved.  He’s usually at a temple’s door, and he’s the opening prayer for almost every service, regardless of what the service is for.  I find him really interesting.
The Hare Krishna temple was gorgeous.  The idols at the front of the room are decorated every day, not just with fresh flowers but they get a new outfit daily.  Hare Krishna chant–they have someone chanting throughout day.  During our visit we had a particularly good chanter, if there is such a word, and it really did add to our visit. 
This temple also had statue at the back of the room of their beloved teacher, which posed a problem for them.  When you are in a temple, the soles of your feet should never face the deity, which is why kneeling is so popular.  But if they kneeled here, their soles would face the beloved teach.  So they lay face down, horizontal to the altar, so the soles of their feet face the door and not the statues.  Problem solved.
A monk gave us a pamphlet about Hare Krishna, and I tried to read it three times but it was incomprehensible.  I’ll have to look it up on Wikipedia instead.  He also gave us a small sweet, and told us that he wished us much sweetness in our lives.  The other monks were all very nice as well.  I liked them, but we had miles to go.  Naju was waiting by the elevator, as was a woman in a wheelchair.  We darted down the stairs before Naju could force us into the lift ahead of the handicapped.
Naju is a licensed guide, and was very proud that she knew all of the hotel concierges.  Since she wanted to show us the view from atop the grand hotels, so off we went. 
We entered the lobby of a hotel, and she left us to have a private conversation with the concierge.  A few minutes later, up we went to the top floor.  Unfortunately, she had talked her way up to the catering floor where swarms of staff were either setting up or breaking down a function–it was hard to tell which.  As they attempted to work around us, she took off from window to window to point out which building was what.  It was a lovely view, but we were a little uncomfortable interloping like this.  Plus these guys were trying to work.  She paid them no-never-mind, stepping in front of them while pulling us behind to find a new vantage point.
I was getting nervous, and I pulled George aside.  He convinced me to put off shopping because she wanted to take us.  The clock was ticking, we had an hour until our reservation, yet we had not shopped.  I know George would not mind skipping the shopping, but I since he kept telling me to wait, now was the time.  We already had gifts for the nieces, but we needed something for our nephews.
So, she took us shopping.  Pashmina shopping.  Clearly it was her friend’s store, and I was pissed.  First of all, George kept putting off shopping and now we’re in her friend’s store?  This didn’t feel worth waiting for.  AND we were looking at pashminas, and when we made it clear we didn’t want pashminas–despite the fact they could pass through a ring (one of the stupidest tests that was ever invented)–she kept instructing him to pull out MORE pashmina shawls.  It was maddening.  “No, I’ve said several times I don’t want pashminas, so please stop showing them” I said, the clock ticking away.  I pulled her aside.  “Maybe I was unclear, we do not want pashminas.  Do not show me any more.  Let me tell you what I’m looking for–sandals for me, and gifts for my nephews.  My adult nephews.”  She led me downstairs where they had carved elephants and I just wanted to throttle her to the ground. 
Now my problem was that George was still in the Pashmina showroom upstairs, he did not come down with us.  He is very polite, and I had a vision of him buying one just to be nice, so I flew back up to rescue him.  I’m very proud, he stuck to his guns and we were gone.
She did take us to a store where we were successful in securing the gifts we wanted, but the nephews read this blog and I don’t want to spoil the surprise.  But let’s say she took us to a very nice shop where she did not seem to know the people, but I’m pretty sure she received a commission–that’s just how things work here. 
It was getting dark.  She talked her way up to the top of another hotel so we could see the night view.  We live in New York, this was unnecessary, but we trudged up to be polite.  It was in a restaurant, a very fancy restaurant, where people were impeccably dressed, and in we go with our sneakers and shorts, crunchy with a full day of dust clinging to ourselves.   We both felt awkward, but Naju was proudly marching us up to the windows between the tables to point out more skyscrapers.
She wanted us to see the Taj Hotel, too, which was the hotel we saw from a distance with the first guide.  It has a lot of history and we wanted to see it.  She had the driver wait while we walked to the hotel from a parking area.  She took us down a back street, and marched us into a shop that sold…wait for it…Pashmina!  She was working the owner, having him unwrap several scarves, passing them through rings like a magician, pulling them off the shelves faster than you could say “No Pashminas”.  What the what?  I turned to her.  “Naju, I said we do not want, or need Pashminas” and she countered “but you must want to bring them back for your wife”.  “I don’t have a wife, or a daughter, or a grandmother.  We. Don’t. Want. Pashmina.”  My wife?  She couldn’t be that unaware.  Really?
Now the owner of the shop was not happy, but I really did not care.  She took us in the back of the shop where there knives, statues, Christmas ornaments, hand mirrors, and other stuff you have to dust.  He was even showing us refrigerator magnets, and look at us like we were nuts when we said we had a wooden refrigerator door. 
There was a small carving of Ganesha which we ended up buying. We probably overpaid, but we liked it and we knew we couldn’t leave empty handed.  I waited for my change and it was short by quite a bit.  He made a good show of berating his assistant who came back with some more cash, and this time it was just a little short so I just called it even.   This country is exhausting.
When Naju resumed verbally abusing our driver for minor infractions, he finally had enough, too, and gave it back to her a bit.  He found our restaurant and in we went, over an hour late for our reservation.  The owner did not look pleased, but had us wait while he figured out a solution. 
Eventually we were led to a table, and Naju took charge.  She didn’t consult with us–she just pushed forward.  First, she told the busboy we needed water immediately.  A waiter was walking by and she grabbed him, instructing him what she wanted him to bring us.  He was just walking by–so he broke free of her grasp and found our waiter.  She wanted one beer and two glasses for us, and she wanted an orange juice, room temperature, for herself.  Then she proceeded to order two dinners and three plates.  Our menus were taken away, and bread appeared.  The drinks followed, and she told the waiter it was taking too long, to bring our the food as soon as possible.  It had been about four minutes, but who am I to judge?  Dinner plates arrived and, in a very short while, platters of food.  She directed the serving of the food, and, whenever the poor kid tried to put a platter down, she snapped at him to keep serving it.  It was scary.  I just wanted out of there.  We chatted while we ate, while she kept a sharp eye on the staff, ready to call them on the slightest transgression.  I was dining with the Queen of Hearts,  I was sure of it.
I asked for the bill, but she put a stop to that because she wanted George and I to split a dessert.  We sheepishly agreed, only because we didn’t have any fight left in us.  She told the waiter to bring one dessert and to split it into two plates.  At this point I could tell the restaurant staff were weary of her.  The bill was brought without our asking, which she reviewed with an eagle eye, commenting on how we overpaid for beer.
They did not accept American Express and she asked what rate they would give us for American Dollars.  She asked to see the manager–how could they offer 55 rupees to the dollar when her bank gave her 60?  She gave him a stern lecture despite the fact that we did not care–the difference was negligible.  I was starting to see stars, so I suggested that I pay in cash with the rupees I had, and the balance would be charged in rupees on my credit card. 
Exhausted.  I was exhausted.  A negotiation at every turn.  I fell into bed back at the ship, longing for that magic day in Cochin. 
The next day we had a half day in Mumbai.  We didn’t leave the boat.

India, Inc. (Part 2–Goa)

Goa Way
We screwed up:  By the time we decided to book a tour, they were all sold out.  So we were on our own–but we didn’t think it was a big deal.  We decided to hire a taxi for a few hours and take in the sites.  Luckily, we were forewarned to negotiate the fare before we got in the cab.  We decided three hours in a cab should be enough time, and we were told it should cost about 40 dollars.  That seemed reasonable, so off we went.
The moment we left the port gate we were swarmed. I started asking prices.  Once you say something, the cabbies think they own you.  After a few minutes we had quite a few drivers who were getting angry that we weren’t taking their cab, but the prices they were quoting were much too high, $70-$80.  One guy came up who’s English was impeccable, so I offer $30 for three hours.  He looked sad, asked if I could make it $40 and we had a deal.  Nice young man. 
The trouble was, however, that he was not our driver. He signaled to a car, spoke to him in tongues, and told us to get in.  I was alright with that, as long as the driver spoke English, so I tested him out and his English was fine.  He asked if we wanted to go to the beach, but we had already decided we wanted to see the historic church which was a 40 minute drive from the pier.  Off we went.
He offered to turn on the air conditioning for a $30 charge and we knew we were in trouble. We said “no, thank you” while rolling down the windows, and he started complaining that that the fare was too low.  I said I understood, and he could pull over and drop us off if he wanted, but I was not renegotiating.  He continued and I asked him to drop us off–I just didn’t want to spend the next three hours arguing over the fare.  He decided to keep us, and, once again, off we went. 
We were on small roads that wound their way through the little towns, so we did manage a glimpse of local life.  Driving in India is a blood sport, but if you’ve ever taken a cab to Manhattan from JFK during rush hour, it’s not dissimilar, with the possible exception of the roaming livestock. 
The major attraction in Goa is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, an old Jesuit church where we were able to view the remains of St. Francis Xavier, or a least what’s left of them.  Apparently one arm was sent off to the Vatican for safe keeping, and one of his toes was bitten off by an over zealous fan.  I guess she wasn’t satisfied with the transubstantiation of the Eucharist and decided to go for something more substantial.
The church was lovely, and after a tour of the basilica and a short walk around the grounds we returned to the parking lot to gather our driver, who promptly announced he was taking us to a spice factory and elephant ride. We said we wanted to go into town, only 9 kilometers away.  He said no, he could only take us back to the ship, that the town was too far away, and that the guy who put us in his cab said that he was to take us the the church and back. Anything else was extra.  I  told him that I didn’t care what the man told him–we had hired a car for three hours to take us whoever we wanted to go.  If he didn’t like it, he could drop us off right in front of “that policeman standing over there”. 
His next strategy was to continue to insist on taking us for a spice and elephant tour, where I assume he would collect a kick-back.  I was tired of arguing, and asked how far it was.  It was a 45 minute drive away–in the other direction!  That was it–I gave it to him.  “So we don’t have time to go into the town that 9 Kilometers away, but you want us to drive 45 minutes, in the other direction, to go to a spice factory that I don’t want to see and ride an elephant that I don’t want to ride?  I getting very tired of this”.  He turned the car around and we drove about 15 minutes into town. 
We asked him to take us to the market, as is our habit, and it was fantastic.  Dirty, but fantastic.  The produce was piled up very high, and the vendors were sitting way up there amongst their goods, like mountain goats gripping the side of a hill.  One side of the market was devoted to flowers and upstairs there were vendors with the hard goods–clothes, electronics and housewares.  We then made the mistake of going to the seafood market next door.  The floor was a slippery mixture of sea water, fish guts and unidentifiable goo, so walking was more like skating.  The liquid was thick at times–I doubt my PF Flyers will make it back home.  And then there is the aroma–only the Flushing Bay at low tide could rival the stench.  The fish market also had a small meat market running along side it–just one quick look caused us to consider veganism as a lifestyle.
Our driver was hanging out with his buddies when we came out, and his mood had improved greatly.  We hopped into our cab and drove back to the ship, where we paid the fare and departed ways.
I was exhausted, and I think it was the constant tension with the driver that made the day so difficult.  It ended well, though, and we were happy to have done it. 
It was a good dry run for Mumbai.

India, Inc. (Part One–Cochin)

Cochin
I was very excited to be going to India, it has always fascinated me.  Our itinerary included three ports and four days in India, and I was so happy to getting a taste.  In hindsight (I’m writing this after we left India) I’m glad Cochin was our first port–it was everything I wanted India to be.  Exotic.  Remote. Beautiful. Delicious.
Our friend Joe had recommended a wonderful guide in Cochin, Markose, and we asked our friends Brian and Linda to join us on our tour.  Markose met our ship first thing in the morning with a driver and an air conditioned van.  Not knowing what we wanted to do, we left the itinerary up to him. 
It was a Sunday, so traffic was light.  As we left the port, we noticed scores of hand-painted trucks parked up and down the road.  They look like something Ken Kesey would drive.  Markose explained that the trucks were owned by their drivers, and they painted their trucks with bright colors which told a bit about their life.  Most paid homage to a god or a saint, painted across the top, so where a New York City bus would say Q44 West Farms, theirs might say Saint Anthony.  The rest of the truck could include family members names, favorite slogans or sayings, or even intricate designs with religious symbols. 
We continued to the Dutch Palace, now a museum, and Markose carefully explained some of the exhibits.  Next to the palace was a Hindu temple, and next to that a Synagogue.  Just like the temple in Colombo, the school children were everywhere.  Unlike the kids in Colombo, they were not shy!  They said hello, shook our hands, posed for pictures and generally made such a clamor over us that they got in trouble with their teacher.  They were joyous.
Markose said we would see the Synagogue next, and mentioned “Jew Town” several times, which I thought was pretty rude.  He must have seen the look on our faces when he explained that that’s what it is called.  Interestingly enough, there are very few Jews left, he thought that there were seven all together, that they supplemented their numbers with tourists when they needed to make a minyon.  The little town was marvelous and the shops were wonderful, despite the fact we didn’t buy anything. 
Our next stop were the Chinese Fishing Nets.  We had seen some when we were pulling into port.  They are huge nets, built on wooden frames. The nets are lowered,  submerged in the water.  Then, every 5 minutes or so, four or five men hoist up the nets to see what they caught.  Our guide knew some of the fishermen, so we were out on the structures while they raised and lowered the net.  It was great fun and a little scary.  While we were there they seemed to catch one fish, a potato chip bag and a decaying tree branch.  Once they’ve captured a critical mass of fish, the local auctioneer is called over and, on the spot, people bid on the lot.  It seemed like a very difficult way to make very little money. 
After taking us to a beautiful church (St Francis), where they were holding a little choir practice, we got back in the van for the highlight of they day: A back water tour on a houseboat.
The drive to the houseboat was over an hour-long, and along the way we got a feel for local life.  Flashing by our vehicle at a rapid pace were fish and shrimp farms, more Chinese fishing nets, ladies in their Sunday best, temples decorated for festivals and lots and lots of traffic. Then we turned down a little tiny dirt road and stopped.  We then walked a few minutes to our waiting houseboat.
I had not really given a thought to what the boat would be like, but we turned the corner and it was magic.  On the front of the boat was the wooden steering wheel, straight out of Steamboat Willie, and behind that were benches and a couch.  Next came the dining room, and behind that were two bedrooms, each with a en suite bath.  The kitchen was in the stern.  Markose let us know that you can only charter a boat for an overnight, so we had paid for about 15 hours that we weren’t going to be using.  He wanted us to know that we had the run of the boat–we had paid for it!  I’m sure the crew of two (Captain and Cook) were delighted to work just three hours instead of the standard eighteen.
Almost silently, the boat eased off the shore and started exploring the canals and passageways of the region.  Many houseboats were out and about–it’s a popular diversion for foreign tourists and locals alike.  Most of the excursions were family outings, but others seemed like party boats, always filled with groups of men.  Everyone was friendly and waving became a pastime.
It was wondrous–a glimpse into daily life on the water.  Kids were swimming, ferries shuttled from island to island, men were working on boats, people were fishing, people were bathing, and women were washing clothes and scrubbing pots–all in the same water.  We saw mechanics working on boat engines, shoreline temples, animals roaming and people farming.  We saw a bride posing with her friends.  We even saw a group of young men killing time–while waiting for their brush to burn–by playing a quick game of soccer.  Life on the water.  They seemed happy.
We were happy, too, especially when we saw the meal our cook prepared for us–chicken, fish, okra, two types of local rice, nan and lots of extremely hot sauce.  A few cold beers and, what can I say?  It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Traffic was at a stand still on our return to the ship as the Prime Minister was in town.  We sat a long time on a road that was two lanes in each direction.  But, this being India, the drivers spontaneously decided that all four lanes would go in one direction, so the traffic coming towards us had no choice but to ride the shoulder–just a sliver of dirt between the traffic and a ditch.  It was interesting.
The boat had arranged for a regional dance troupe to entertain the guests, and they were pretty fantastic.  It was a great way to end our day in Cochin.
So far I just loved India.  Little did I know that my opinion was about to change.NOTE: I still can’t post pictures, I’ll add them later.  I tried to compensate by adding more links!  I hope they make sense.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo, Sri Lanka
We did not know what to expect in Colombo, so we decided we would take the morning tour, which included a trip to the temple in Kelaniya.  Kelaniya is an active Buddhist Temple that, reportedly, is built on a site that the Buddha himself visited back in the day.  The bus drove about 30 minutes outside of town to reach the temple.
The tour description never mentioned that you had to have your knees covered.  By the time our tour guide mentioned it, it was too late to change.  We were already there.  In my defense, I also had gone on the temple’s website and, finding no mention of a recommended dress code, I thought I was safe.  Since my shorts just came above my knees, I pulled my pants down hip-hop style letting the shorts cover my knees and my T-shirt cover my ass.  You know–I was sagging.  All I can say is I had to walk very slowly, and, luckily, it worked.
The first thing to strike us were the hoards of school kids visiting the temple.  They were all dressed in white, walking two by two, and very well behaved.  They smiled their toothless grins at us and would occasionally wave or say hello.  They were very shy and extremely adorable.
The temple was fascinating.  Not only were there many school kids, but also adults praying, monks in orange robes, stray dogs sleeping about, vendors selling flowers, people lighting candles and, no matter where you were, you could not escape the smell of incense.  The air was thick with it.
The temple had several rooms, and there was a path to lead you through, kind of like Ikea without the Swedish meatballs.  The reclining Buddha was fantastic, and the temple itself was mesmerizing.  No matter which way you turned there was something beautiful to look at.  There were amazing carvings and frescoes, fascinating geometric ceiling paintings, three Buddhas and tons of cherubs and elephants in bas relief adorning the buildings.  As tourists, we were sensitive to the fact that there were people here for quiet prayer and contemplation, so we strode through in silence. 
We boarded our bus for the next leg of the tour which was, as usual, a “shopping experience”.  Sri Lanka is known for it’s precious and semi-precious stones, so the first stop was a gem and jewelry store where we managed to spend a few of our dollars.  Then they took us to a craft store which was interesting, but our need for crafts has waned over the years.
After a quick lunch back at the ship, we felt pretty unsatisfied.  The temple was wonderful, but we had not really experienced the city yet, so we ventured back out and hired a taxi to take us around for a while.  He drove us to see a Hindu Temple first, and we really enjoyed it.  They had one room that was filled with statuary–a small room with a very high ceiling, so you really had to crane your neck to see the images above.  I can’t describe it very well, but it was overcrowded with figures depicting scenes that I didn’t understand (I clearly need to read up on Eastern religions, my interest has been peaked!) but somehow it all came together.  I realized that while I was craning my neck to see the statues, they were all craning their necks to see each other and, sometimes, they were straining to look back at me.
On a sad note I did not like the look of the Temple’s elephant.  They were about to give him his bath while we were there and I just didn’t think he looked either healthy or happy.  I had to walk away.
The driver looked concerned when we asked him to take us to the food market, which seems to be in an abandoned multi-level parking garage.  It was late for the market, so most of the shoppers had gone and the vendors were beginning to call it a day.  They were all very nice to us, although they seemed confused as to why we were there.  I had a chat with one butcher–I had asked him if I could take a picture of his chickens.  He smiled in a way that seemed to say “Why in the world would anyone take a picture of a chicken” and I laughed along with him.  I also vowed to never again laugh at tourists in New York who take photos of pigeons.
He took us to another shopping area which we wondered for a bit, until it started to rain, so we went back to the ship.
The people are very nice, extremely friendly, and rightfully proud, plus we really enjoyed the temples and shrines here, but there must be more to this country than gods and gems.  I guess we’ll have to return.
 NOTE:  I’m posting this from the computers in the lobby.  It takes FOREVER, and it won’t let me post pictures, so I’ll add them when I return.

Overheard

I had been collecting some amusing things I’ve heard passengers say and, since I’m still not able to use my computer (so I can’t really post pictures to the blog), I thought this would be a good time to share them.  I’ll do an update if I hear anything else ridiculous.

Here goes:

“The only states that matter are California and Texas.  But don’t say that to a New Yorker.”

“The Catholic Priest eats here every morning, in his little shorts. He looks so funny.  I’ve never seen a priest eat in little shorts before.”

“Nice to meet you.  I have a cousin named Kyle.  Not the daft one, the other one.”

“Coney Island is just a beach scattered with condoms.”

We overheard a discussion where one young Australian man asked an American woman if she likes Vegemite.  “I would never put that in my body” she replied, and indignantly stated that she does not consume anything with chemicals.  He explained that it was a natural product made from yeast, and she looked horrified and said “Well, I certainly don’t want to get a yeast infection!”

“The people who go to the club a night are not the ones in the gym.  They probably don’t even know how to spell the word gym.”

“I heard someone whisper as I walked by ‘I wish my hair could do that'”.  (2)

And, my all-time favorite, and I still laugh when I think about it:

“You can really see the influence of the French in Saigon’s architecture, it looks just like Honolulu.”

Notes

(2) Of course, you had to see the hair.  It was definitely last styled around the time the Berlin Wall came down.  She is also the lady who I heard say to her friend while their husbands were walking ahead of them “Let’s catch up to our Honey-Bunnies!”.  And she was serious.  See “laughing fit” above.

 

Poodle Skirts and Caviar

I know I went on a little too long about Caviar in the Surf a while ago, but I need to give you an update.  Seabourn is so wedded to this signature event that they hold it even when there is no beach.  They serve the caviar in the pool instead.  No, I’m not making this up.
LeAnne, Chef Graeme, Doe, Nickolas, Melissa
They haul that same surfboard out of the mothballs, wrap it in a sheet, stick some roe on it and float it in the pool.  Several staff members serve the Champaign and caviar while standing in the pool while wearing their uniforms.  Then the passengers, in order to retrieve the caviar, also get into the pool.
Fewer people participate in Caviar in the Pool than Caviar in the Surf.  I’m not sure why, although the pool is deeper than the surf and, as you can see from my pictures, you’re more on display here.  I have to give the captain credit; he also jumped into the pool with the staff.
I still don’t get it.  I think it’s an affectation, just something they feel they need to do come hell or high water, and in this case it’s high water. 
Well, see for yourself.

Captain Dexter

 

Wouldn’t you love to do a cannon ball right about now?
You get to an age, and you really should wear a shirt.
That age is about 26.
They also had a 1950’s party for the world cruisers and it was a lot of fun.  We were expected to come in costume, but since I don’t usually travel with either a leather jacket or a poodle skirt, we had to improvise.  Colleen, who works on the ship, found me an empty Marlborough box to roll in my sleeve, so I wore my Smokey Bear shirt (I don’t think anyone but us knew it was a 50’s ad), jeans, and PF Flyers.  I did my best slicking back my hair, but it just kept springing up.  I had so much hair fixative in my hair it looked more like decoupage, yet it still kept rising like the price of gas.

George had packed a shirt that I decided I could make into a bowling shirt.  I went to the computer room and downloaded some graphics for the front and back, then came up with a logo and tag line.  He looked terrific and got lots of compliments, and I was proud of myself.
The place cards were on 33 1/3 records, and on the record jacket was printed the menu.  The restaurant was decorated like a diner, complete with a juke box.   The staff dressed up like extras from Grease wearing bobby sox and poodle skirts.  The only thing missing were waitresses on roller skates.
Place cards and Menu
They always have assigned seating at these events, and you never know who you’ll be sitting with.  It’s all George’s fault.  There is a couple on the ship, Marge and Sam.  We didn’t really know them, but Sam stomps around the ship with a pissed-off look on his face.  He wears a huge cross around his neck.  Marge wears sunglasses day and night.  Anyway, the afternoon of the event, George said “I hope they don’t seat us with that grumpy guy” and, of course, they did.
Sam turned out to be a character.  Turns out he is, indeed, grumpy, and is at an age where he could care less.  We were also seated with the Staff Captain, a nice young Polish man.  Sam decided to tell him all his complaints, mostly about next year!  Marge was exasperated and whispered to me that she wished he would shut up.  It was fabulous.  But, in the end, we liked them!  Native New Yorkers living in Florida now, they were interesting.  He was a long-shore man his entire adult life, since he left high school at 16.  He told us how he dropped out, so the next morning his father woke him up at 4 in the morning to go dig ditches.  “It was hard work, and it was a big ditch, but the next day he woke me up again” he explained, “and I said ‘No, Pop, I don’t want to dig ditches’”.  His father asked him what he planned to do, and he said he would give himself an education, so he went to the library and “I learned my multiplication tables, all the way up to twelve times twelve”.  I didn’t have the heart to point out that you learn that in the fourth grade. He was rightfully proud of this accomplishment as he was able to pass the test and join the union.  He obviously loved his job, I think that’s one reason he’s so cranky.  He’s no longer doing it.  How do you not love him? 
So, you’re probably asking how they could afford this cruise.  She had a cleaning business, cleaning offices and corporate apartments.  I think she grew it into a pretty big business and, eventually, sold it “To my foreman.  He was Dominican.”
Hardworking and forthright, both of them. 
It was a fun party; I’m going to miss my fellow “Worldies”.  Only a few more weeks to go!
Masa-san and Jan-san

Singapore and Phuket

Hmm…should be obvious
 
 
Singapore and Phuket

Singapore is a modern, immaculate city. 

We decided we would take the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, which promised to take us through interesting neighborhoods with stops at the major sites.  It was a good idea, although we only hopped-on once and, obviously, hopped-off an equal number of times.

We took the subway from the ship to the recommended hop-on point.  The subway is spotless, inexpensive, and runs frequently—in hindsight we should have just taken it all over town.  But the HOHO bus took us on a pretty good tour of the city, giving us a feel for place. 

Our first and last Hop-off was at the Singapore Flyer, which was the highest Ferris wheel in the world when we rode it, but they lost that title two days later when Las Vegas opened a slightly taller one.  We shared a car with two Chinese families.  They were very nice and the kids were having a great time.

The ride was fun.  As we ascended, the city grew below us and we could see how vast the metropolitan area really was.  This is one of the busiest ports in the world, and at one point we could see all the cargo ships at anchor, waiting for permission to enter the harbor. 

 
The next HOHO bus was not due to depart for a half an hour, so we decided to take the subway to Little India and poke around.  We walked the side streets and looked into the little shops.  Since we would soon be in India itself, we decided we didn’t need to buy anything.  We came across a barber shop and, as it was about time for a trim, we both sat down for a clipping.  The barbers worked in silence, which was a disappointment, but they finally opened up when I blurted out, apropos of nothing, that we were heading to India soon.  This seemed to cheer them up, smiles were exchanged, we paid them for their services, and we were on our way.

George already had a bit of a queasy stomach, so we decided to forgo the local fare and go back to the ship to eat lunch, but George, stomach be damned, decided he could not visit Singapore without a trip the Raffles Hotel for a Singapore Sling.  We again rode the subway and found our way to the famous inn.

 
But, I was cranky.  Very cranky.  I get crabby if I don’t eat, and by now it was after three.  I was hot and hungry, a bad combination.  It also meant that I couldn’t possibly have a drink.  Additionally, we had to wait on line to get in, adding to my demeanor, and not in a good way.

After an eternity, someone in a uniform told us that they were opening another section of the restaurant.  We should relax and give them some time.  Five minutes later we marched, single file, up a circular staircase to the overflow room.  It looked exactly like the room below, except it was empty.  And then it wasn’t.  Every table was taken within 10 minutes. 

Luckily, we decided it would be quicker to be served at the bar, and it was.  By this time I would have eaten Peel-and-Stick Linoleum Tiles.  I commandeered the bag of peanuts on the bar as my own, willing to protect them with force if necessary.  George ordered his Singapore Sling, which was $27 (Singapore Dollars, about $21 US) and I had a glass of water, which was $0 (same in both Singapore and US Dollars).  Finally, as I was about to start devouring the potted plants, George finished up his drink and we returned to the boat. 

We liked Singapore, so clean and well run, and we would return here again.  We just don’t need to go to Raffles again.  At least we’ve checked it off the bucket list.

Phuket was not what I expected.  I had read about the fabulous resorts of Thailand and most of them seemed to be on Phuket, so I think I expected something a little more upscale.  Perhaps at other sections of the island it was, but not here.  It was a cross between the Jersey Shore and Main Street, Flushing, although it had a lovely beach.

We found the gay section of the beach and rented a couple of beach chairs and an umbrella for the whopping sum of $3 for the day.  The people who worked the concession were very efficient, and every half hour they would stop by and adjust the umbrella so we would remain in the shade.  We enjoyed a relaxing morning of reading, dozing, and people watching.
 

I thought it might be a good place to buy souvenirs but, after wandering the town for a bit, we rethought that position and returned to the ship.  It was a nice stop, if uneventful.

Which leads me to this—we are getting spoiled!  We’ve been to so many interesting places that Phuket, and to some degree Singapore, just didn’t grab our attention.  And I feel bad about that, and a little disappointed in myself.  I can’t help but think that, if we came to either of these places first, we would have enjoyed them so much more.  Both are unique, exotic and fascinating in their own right, and shame on me for not being more enthused.  I know we’ve been away a long time, but I don’t want to start taking any of this for granted. 

So, I resolve two things.  First, to return to Phuket and Singapore places and enjoy them more.  Second, not to take a moment of this trip for granted, either in port or at sea.  It’s my trip of a lifetime.

(Note to John Hock:  Sorry, we never got the chance to try the Chili Crab.  Next visit—I promise!)