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Welcome to my blog covering our World Cruise with Viking Cruises.

In just eight days, Jean and I will be flying to Miami to begin a big adventure—a cruise (almost) around the world.  We’re departing Miami on December 15th and will end up in London, flying back home on May 9th or 10th.

First a word about the title of this blog. In 1873, Jules Verne published an adventure novel called “Around the World in 80 Days,” in which an Englishman named Phileas Fogg attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days to win a wager of 20,000 Pounds (almost $2 million today). Approximately 90 years later James Martin, the new English teacher in New Town High School, decided to produce a musical version of that story. My good friend Don Schrumpf (one of the best high school actors I’ve known) was cast as Phileas Fogg, and I played Inspector Fix, a Scotland Yard detective who suspects that Fogg is a bank robber and who ends up following Phileas in his trip around the globe. (I’ll share a few comments about that production later.)

So in some ways I’m still following Phileas as we set off on our grand journey. Although we are not taking the most direct route and are planning on several stops and excursions that will mean that we’re taking significantly longer to get around the world. A map of our planned itinerary appears at the top of this page.

One of the major differences between the fictional excursion in the 1880s and ours is that Phileas traveled to the East, from London across Europe to Egypt and the brand new Suez Canal toward India and America. A major plot twist in the book is that Phileas thinks that he missed his deadline to collect on his debt, because his diary indicated that it was the 81st day of travel.  He failed to realize that he had been changing times throughout his trip.  (The International Date Line was not formalized until 1884, and time zones weren’t standardized until the first Transcontinental Railroad in America in 1869 created the need for a more systematic synchronization of clocks and calendars.)

With our itinerary, we’ll be traveling West. That means that every 15 degrees of longitude we’ll gain an hour to our day. That will provide multiple days like our “fall back” time change from Daylight Savings Time, where we will have an extra hour to sleep or party or whatever in our next day.  That is pretty sweet.  But it also means that one day in the South Pacific, we will skip one date on the calendar, as we cross the International Date Line.  An interesting concept.

And this entire trip is an interesting concept. How and what do you pack for a 5 month trip?? We’ve been making decisions based on weight and size and it isn’t easy. I’ve got big clothes, and when I stopped at Schuler’s Shoes Monday to pick up a new pair of walking shoes, the salesman told me that I’ve got “really big shoes!” Yeah, guilty. Happily laundry service is included, and the cruise line is paying to ship one large suitcase (50 pound limit) for each of us ahead of time to be waiting in our cabin when we arrive. So yesterday, UPS picked up my first suitcase (total weight 49.6 pounds).

I’ll be writing briefly with a few random thoughts about what else we’re doing to get ready, our itinerary, etc., and I hope to report regularly as the trip progresses, including a few photos of what we’re seeing and experiencing on the way. And onward we go . . .

THE MALAY PENINSULA: SINGAPORE, MALAYSIA, & THAILAND

As the pace of our travels seems to be moving rapidly to the end, my pace as a blogger has slowed significantly. At long last, here is the next installment. The next steps of our journey had us in port for five consecutive days as we traveled from the southern tip and up the west side of the Malay Peninsula.

Our first stop was for two days in the island city-state of Singapore at the very end of the peninsula. Singapore consists of one main island with 62 additional small islets with a population of approximately 6 million and an area of 278 square miles. Although there have been indigenous people there for a long time, the city was created by Stamford Ruffles of the British East India Company in 1819 who recognized the island as a potential port. The name is an English variation on the native words meaning “lion city” and despite the absence of real lions in the region, a lion appears on the coat of arms and several public displays. However, the name for the area has also been translated as “the island at the end” which clearly describes the location. After WWII, Singapore gained its independence in 1963, as one of the states within the new nation of Malaysia. But after just two years, the city/state decided that it was in its best interest to leave the union and in August 1965, Singapore became an independent nation. Its history since that time has been most impressive. Despite its lack of natural resources, Singapore has become a global commerce, finance and transport hub, with an average income substantially above the US, and among the most highly ranked in areas like education, health care, housing, public transit, life expectancy, personal safety, and lack of corruption. Like Brunei, the government builds high quality housing for its citizens, but in Singapore the residents are granted a mortgage to pay off the construction costs, and 90% of the condos are owner occupied. The city is extremely modern and clean and a joy to visit. There are also so many green spaces and parks that it is sometimes called a “City in a Garden.” The constitution is based on the British system with a unicameral parliament and regular elections. However, a single party has won every election since they began the moves to independence in 1959. Some say that things are going so well that people don’t want to risk a change, but there are limits on press freedom, and in the last presidential election, all but one of the candidates was ruled ineligible. And some of the beauty is maintained by fairly strict laws. The clean city is maintained in part by strict fines ($300 and up) for littering, and when the new transit trains and stations had a problem with gum, it became illegal to sell gum with fines for anyone caught using it. I don’t have problems with gum and littering laws, but don’t know if how I’d live with some of the political controls, but it is a beautiful place to visit. We took the included excursion that showed us the range of environments in the city, including the modern skyscrapers and areas like the colonial district, Chinatown, and Little India, and saw mosques, churches, and temples in the cosmopolitan country. We stopped for tea in Chinatown, and visited the lovely National Orchid Garden. That afternoon, we stayed in the city and got a chance to have a meal with Roxanne Vergara, our host daughter from the Philippines, who had come to Singapore to visit friends. That evening, Jean took a Night Safari to a nocturnal wildlife park. While it was too dark for great photos, she really enjoyed the evening.  The next day, I explored the neighborhoods of the Peranakan Culture to learn more about the descendants of Chinese immigrants who married indigenous Malaysian people in the 15th century. We saw small active Chinese temples, shop houses, a cultural museum, and sampled some of the foods in a lovely little shop. Jean took the short shuttle ride into town and created her own excursion, visiting the Gardens by the Bay, the Supertree Grove, and the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark—an observation deck that straddles the three 57 story towers of a hotel complex. A memorable visit and a place that we could easily spend more time in.

The next day we docked in Port Klang to access Kuala Lampur, the capital of Malaysia. We had visited the eastern section of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, before we got to the Philippines. Although their flag resembles the US flag, with its 13 alternating red and white stripes and a blue square in the upper left quadrant, historically Malaysia was a protectorate of Great Britain. The 13 stripes represent the current number of states, and the blue field has an Islamic crescent and the sun. The constitution is based on the British system, and grants freedom of religion, although Islam is recognized as the official religion of the state. Much of its economy is based on its natural resources, but it has been consistently expanding in other areas. It is one of the few developing countries that has heavily supported education and healthcare. Kuala Lampur was built by Chinese tin prospectors in the mid 1800s and has grown to a contemporary city with a mix of architectural styles, including the Petronas Towers, a pair of 88 story twin towers connected by a sky bridge between the 41st and 42nd floors. They were the tallest building in the world from 1998 to 2004 (the race for the record has been increasing), and continue to be the tallest twin towers.  We had a brief photo stop at the towers (in the rain) and also stopped to see the National Monument and several other iconic buildings in Independence Square and major colonial structures as well. Ironically, the rain stopped when we visited their National Museum that traces the variety of cultural and ethnic groups that have come together to build the modern nation.

Next we stopped in George Town, the capital of the Malaysian island of Penang. Although Wikipedia indicates that it is the second-most populous city in Malaysia with over 700,000 people, the central city felt relatively compact and easy to deal with. The city was the first British settlement in South East Asia, founded by Sir Francis Light of the British East Indies Company in 1786 and named for King George III. Fort Cornwallis was built that year to protect the new city, and it still overlooks the harbor. Georgetown (One word or two? Both appear to be used.) attracted a wide variety of settlers, and colonial architecture blends with Chinese, Indian, and other architectural styles in an area that has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although this is officially a Muslim country, there are Christian churches, mosques, and Buddhist and Hindu temples in evidence, and an active banking district is centered on Downing Street. The large white building with the flags served as the palace exterior in Jodie Foster’s film version of Anna and the King. (Our tour guide was an extra in the film.) Another part of the world that many are not familiar with.

Our final stop was at Phuket (Patong Beach), Thaiand—the largest island in the country on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. (It is pronounced with an initial “poo” not an “f” sound!) The island has been called the “Pearl of the Andaman Sea” because of its many beautiful beaches, which were partially destroyed by a huge tsunami in late December of 2004, but have generally recovered. The ship dropped anchor out in the bay, and a local tender company provided transportation to land. I decided to forgo our tour of two more Buddhist temples and I focused on paperwork for home, and Jean had a Thai massage and a mani-pedi on the island. Thanks to Tom Lundquist for some of the photos. A pleasant day for both of us.

And onward we go . . . Next stops to report in India! #MyVikingStory

 

 

VIETNAM, CAMBODIA, & THAILAND

 

Following our travels in China, we spent the rest of March visiting ports in Southeast Asia. Our first port was a two-night stay in Vietnam—a place that filled the headlines when I was young. This was my first visit to that part of the world, but it created searing memories for those of my generation and claimed the lives of some of my schoolmates and friends and far too many others. Vietnam had been an independent country since 939 AD, until the French colonized in the mid 19th century and attempted to unite several of the countries into “Indochina.” After WWII, Vietnamese rebels defeated the French, but the peace treaty conducted by leaders from elsewhere created separate countries of North and South Vietnam, just as they had done with Korea. The rest of the history is much too dense and complex to summarize here, and is probably familiar to most of you. After the American forces left in the mid-70s, Vietnam was reunified and the former capital of South Vietnam was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City. For several years, Vietnam continued to be impoverished and relatively isolated, but by 2000 it had established diplomatic relations and it joined the World Trade Organization in 2007 and it has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. There were lots of signs of construction and renewal all around, although there are still pockets of poverty. Streets were packed with motorcycles and scooters, and apparently they enforce helmet laws, as almost everyone wore one.

Although our itinerary indicated that we were visiting Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam, we were actually docked over two hours from the central city. That meant that, depending on traffic, four or five hours of every excursion into the city had four to five hours spent sitting on the bus to begin and end the tour. We were docked overnight and spent most of two days there. Many on the ship paid for an overnight in the city, to avoid doubling the bus time. Several others stayed in the city as the first of a four-day excursion to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We did an evening excursion to the city that left the ship at 2:30 PM and didn’t get back until after midnight. But after a very full evening, we realized that we had seen most of the places planned for the next day, so we avoided another five hours in the bus and had a very pleasant day relaxing by the pool on the ship. Our evening excursion was most enjoyable. We saw some of the places that would probably have been familiar to the Vietnam veterans: the colonial presidential palace, post office, Notre Dame cathedral, the Rex Hotel, etc. We also had a wonderful al fresco dinner in a courtyard, a visit to a lacquer shop, a temple, a flower market, and a fun underwater puppet show. The other thing that we noted was that, although the official name has been Ho Chi Minh City since 1975, all of guides and speakers (and several signs) still called it Saigon. That might have been for us, but I got a sense that it was more like St. Petersburg, where the political names didn’t really take hold. But I’m certainly not an expert after a day in the place. That evening we had an impressive performance of some of the interesting traditional music and percussive instruments of Vietnam.

Our next visit was to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Named after a 20th century king, it is the only deep-water port in Cambodia and surrounded by many beaches, there is a movement to create a resort and tourism industry and the area is rapidly gaining population. However, the country is facing many difficulties and is lagging significantly behind its neighbors. Cambodia gained its independence in 1953 when the French withdrew from the region, but it became involved with the Vietnam war. Unfortunately, the end of that conflict brought the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge which wanted to create a socialist agrarian society by emptying the cities and creating work camps in the countryside. In that process, they created the infamous “killing fields” to eliminate all who resisted, ultimately killing over a quarter of the population, including most of the professionals and people with educations, before they were ultimately defeated in 1979. Today 50% of the population is under the age of 22, and they are facing many difficulties as a country. We participated in the included tour: Sihanoukville Discovery, which included a visit to Wat Krom a Buddhist temple; Independence Beach, a lovely Oceanside park where Jackie Kennedy visited in the 1960s; the market, overflowing with people and items of daily life; and a small fishing settlement. Jean took another tour to the nearby Ream National Park, where she visited a small school, fruit farm, and local village.  She also observed firsthand the problems they have had environmentally to maintain the wildlife there.

 

After Cambodia, we spent three days in ports in Thailand. Thailand, formerly known as Siam, has a long and rich history, with various dynasties and changing areas, but Thailand was the only South East Asian country not colonized by the West. Long ruled by a king, the country was officially a constitutional monarchy for some time.  (Most of you are familiar with the 19th century king who hired an Englishwoman to teach his many children—the true story adapted in The King and I. You might not know that performances have been banned in Thailand, because the King is occasionally portrayed as foolish; or that the Viking Sun choir rehearsed a medley of songs from The King and I to present in a concert the day after we left Thailand.) We first docked overnight at Lam Chabang, a port about two hours from Bangkok. While Jean stayed on board, I took an excursion to Pattaya, a nice resort city of about one million on the Bay of Pattaya. This was also where the shuttle buses took people who wanted to shop or explore on their own, as it had lots of restaurants and shops along the bay, and has converted several streets to pedestrian malls. On the excursion, I visited a couple of Buddhist temples, including a towering seated Buddha on the bay, and the Sanctuary of Truth, a contemporary temple made entirely wood without nails and integrating carvings and sculptures on nearly every surface. The Sanctuary isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2050; and it was almost like visiting the Cathedral in progress from Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, when touring the workshops. We had to wear hard hats to tour the site. I hope that the few photos I am attaching will give you an idea of the place. That evening there was also a very good performance by a Thai dance troupe in the Star Theatre.

The next day Jean and I took an excursion into Bangkok. Although we had originally been scheduled to tour the Grand Palace, there was a special event scheduled that morning, and we were told that it would be very crowded that afternoon, so we chose to see it from the outside, and substituted a TukTuk ride (3 wheeled auto rickshaws) through the downtown and a more extensive tour of the Wat Pho, and a very nice lunch at a local restaurant. The temple featured over 400 Buddha statues, including the Reclining Buddha which is 15 meters (50 ft) tall and over 46 meters (150 ft) long. With the crowds, it was very difficult to get a total photo. The two hour drive each direction to the city also gave us a clear view of the many factories and warehouses and housing developments that showed that Thailand is doing better economically than its neighbors, although there isn’t universal prosperity.

Our third day in Thailand was spent at Koh Samui, a lovely island south of the Thai mainland. Koh means ‘island” and Sumai is derived from a word meaning “safe haven.” It is a lovely quiet place with a single road that circles the island and several nice beaches.  We had to anchor in the harbor, and a local company provided tenders to get us ashore. Jean and I again took separate excursions. She went on an Elephant Encounter, where she rode in a 4X4 vehicle to an elephant camp and had a chance to ride one of those big beasts. Jean rode by herself on a female elephant who was accompanied by a young calf. She also visited a waterfall, and got to witness a cooking demonstration. I went on a ride around the island and visited the Wat Phra Yai, with a big 39 foot Buddha seated at the top of a staircase with sculpted dragon and snakes. I also visited the Wat Plai Laem with several older styles of temple art, including a large many-handed statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. We also both had opportunities to see monkeys who had been trained to harvest coconuts from the tall trees. It was a beautiful day.

The next report will look at our further adventures on the Malay Peninsula.  And onward we go . . . #MyVikingStory

CHINA: SHANGHAI, HONG KONG, & HAIKOU

Our experiences continue to accumulate and my ability to keep this blog up to date keeps falling further behind. We spent five days in port at three different cities, and another five days cruising the waters of East and South China Seas with many different impressions and memories.

Our first stop was the extremely contemporary city of Shanghai. Other than Miami and Los Angeles, this is the only place that Jean and I had visited together.  We toured China with Viking River Cruises in the summer of 2012, and we ended our tour in Shanghai. But on that trip, we weren’t on a ship in the middle of the city. We flew from Wuhan and ended our trip in Shanghai, before flying home.  This time the Viking Sun cruised right into the center of the city and docked along the Bund, the financial district of the city with traditional big brick banks and trading houses from the late 1800s, directly across the river from the dazzling skyline of contemporary Shanghai. The photos of that skyline were taken from the veranda of our stateroom, truly an impressive sight out our bedroom window. Shanghai is the largest city in China, and perhaps the most indicative of the direction of the Chinese economy. Long gone are the boxy looks of Mao jackets and peasant hats. The shops in the new business and hotel district represent all of the major contemporary designers and upscale brand names. The government is heavily involved with the ways that business is done, but there is an increasing opportunity for entrepreneurs and free enterprise and a large number of very wealthy Chinese businesspeople. Possibly the Chinese equivalents to the Russian oligarchs, although I didn’t hear as much about the shady deals in China. We did have a presentation on contemporary art in China, and learned that there are two Chinese billionaires that are paying record sums for contemporary art from Asia and around the world, and who are building separate major museums to display their art. And we have observed some of the major ways that entrepreneurs and the government are investing in countries in Central America and throughout the Pacific. While the US is pulling away from some of the Asian trade and partnerships, China seems to be eager to step in.

One of the features of our stop was the official christening of the Viking Sun. There is apparently a practice of having a “Godmother” for a ship, who participates in the christening. The Godmother for the Sun is one of the most powerful women in Chinese banking, and a good friend of the Viking President. The ceremony was held on our first evening in Shanghai. The passengers were invited to dinner for the event. Although we were in a separate banquet room at a nearby hotel and only viewed the event on closed circuit televisions, it was still a festive (but quite cold) event and a nice meal. When we were there in 2012, it was the middle of July and unbearable hot—in the high 90s. The temperatures on the first day this year were only in the 30s and low 40s with brisk winds.  After the heat we had been dealing with on the cruise to date, that was a bit chilly. Here are a couple of photos from that evening.

We also participated in several excursions.  Jean took a tour of the galley and saw where the chefs prepare all of the food for the 900+ passengers and the 450+ crew members every day. She also toured the magnificent Shanghai historical museum, the Bund, and a lovely traditional garden in the middle of the city. At the same time I was seeing modern Shanghai, riding the bullet train that goes over 300 kilometrs/hour, going to the observation deck of a new hotel, and touring the contemporary shopping and hotel district. (Unfortunately the clouds and rain made the photos less than spectacular.) The next day,

Jean went out to the Garden City of Shuzhou and the Humble Administrator’s Garden—a World Heritage Site, and I stayed in the city to explore a bit more.

We had a couple of sea days to transition to the next city, which of course means trivia contests and lots of presentations. We had a very nice stretch of trivia games where we finished first three days in a row, then one point out in second place. As there are now 30+ teams of sharp people playing, we feel good about that. Although we know that “trivia is only a game” (the mantra we all say before the questions are revealed) and there will continue to be days when the questions don’t match our memories and guesses as well. Two of our team members, Tom and Leigh, happen to have the same birthday—so to celebrate, we had a dinner together in the private room of the Chef’s Table.  Frances’s husband Humphrey and my wife Jean don’t play trivia, but support our efforts. On April 11th we will celebrate Humphrey and Jean’s joint birthday.

Our next stop was Hong Kong, another bustling contemporary city. But the history of Hong Kong is unique. Hong Kong was originally a small island in the middle of a very nice harbor. It became a colony in the British Empire after the First Opium War in 1842, and land was later added to the colony from the Kowloon peninsula and the surrounding islands. Hong Kong became a major trading center and port, and eventually became a major financial center and the average income places it among the highest in the world (although there are significant inequalities). With 7.4 million people on only 426 sq. miles, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, making the costs for housing very high. It supposedly has the most skyscrapers, but we heard about people waiting several years to be able to find a tiny 300 sq. ft. apartment for their family (close to the size of our stateroom—and we don’t have to cook or do anything but sleep here). In 1997, the ownership of Hong Kong was transferred from England to China, but we were surprised that there were so many differences from the Chinese mainland. They still drive on the left as a former British colony, and they have their own separate currency. We had picked up some Chinese Yuan as we thought we were spending our next few days in China, but learned that businesses in Hong Kong do not accept the Yuan and vice versa (Chinese businesses don’t accept the Hong Kong dollar). Hong Kong is considered to be a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. It will be interesting to see if more integration occurs over time, or if they remain semi-independent.

People in Hong Kong are apparently quite superstitious. The tallest skyscrapers are 88, 78 and 68 stories tall, because 8 is a very lucky number. Buildings also regularly don’t have rooms or floors with the number 4 in them, as 4 is considered very unlucky. So the next room after 39 might be 50. There is also a heavy emphasis on Feng Shui. Some of the buildings have blank spaces, in one case an entire floor of a skyscraper, that are left open.  The blue glass building pictured below has two open spaces that were supposedly left to allow the spirit of the dragon who lives in the mountain behind the building to pass through. We spent two days in Hong Kong and were able to visit several places of interest, including: the Wong Tai Sin Taoist Temple; the Kowloon Walled City Park; the Hong Kong Museum of History; Victoria Peak, an 1800-foot mountain via a steep tram; a large market; and rode on a sampan. Very nice days in a fascinating city.

Our final stop in China was Haikou, the capital of the Hainan province on Hainan island off the southern coast of mainland China. We were told that it was considered the “Hawaii of China” as it is generally warm and features several nice beaches.  The day we were there was rainy and grey, and a bit less inspiring. But there were dancers, musicians, and costumed actors welcoming us to the city. The Old Town includes a mix of French and Portuguese colonial era facades with touches of Indian and Persian design.  Jean also found some time to shop a little and spend the Yuan that we couldn’t use in Hong Kong.

And onward we go. Next stop: Southeast Asia . . . #MyVikingStory

BRUNEI, MALAYSIA, and THE PHILIPPINES

I apologize that I’m getting so far behind on my blog.  We’ve been busy enjoying our time and not finding the time to write about it.

After our days in three different islands on Indonesia, we spent a couple of days on the Island of Borneo.  Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is divided between three countries.  The lower 2/3 is part of Indonesia, most of the northern part of the island belongs to Malaysia, and a small portion of the island is the independent nation of Brunei. (Officially the country is Negara Brunei Darussalam or “The Nation of Brunei the Abode of Peace.”) We spent an interesting day in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. The Islamic nation was supposedly founded by Mohammd Shah in the 1300s, and has been ruled by a Sultan for much of the time since. At one time the sultan controlled most of Borneo and islands up to the Philippines, but the presence of European powers and internal power conflicts about the rightful heir reduced the size of the nation significantly. In the 1880s, the country became a British protectorate and after the Japanese occupation in WWII, steps were taken to obtain independence which finally occurred in 1984.  But Brunei differs significantly from almost all of the countries we are visiting, as it is a wealthy developed industrialized nation. The wealth is primarily derived from oil and natural gas fields. It is the fifth richest country as ranked by purchasing power per capita, and one of only two in the world with no public debt. The Sultan of Brunei has been listed among the richest people in the world, and the palace of the Sultan, with 1788 rooms, is the largest residential palace in the world. (But it has to accommodate his entire family with multiple wives and children. The banquet hall holds 5000 guests.) While we didn’t tour the palace, the houses we passed were quite nice and spacious. Citizens get free education, health care, and can be provided with nice contemporary houses.  Of course, they don’t have a chance to vote for the leader. They have a big building for the congress of local leaders, who only meet one day a year. There were a few smaller homes, and were told by the guide that some would rather own their own land than live in a government home. The other significant distinction we noted was the absence of motor scooters and motorcycles that dominated the streets of Indonesia.  Everyone could apparently afford cars, and almost all were recent vintage and in good shape.

At most of our stops, there has been a group of people in traditional costumes often with musical instruments and dancing to greet us to the country.  Our excursion took us to the Malay Technology Museum, with nice displays on the ancient ways of boat and house building, fishing, and metallurgy. There were several groups of school kids there which was also fun. Then we visited one of the water villages with houses built in the river on stilts connected by narrow wooden sidewalks. They have been using such structures for over 700 years, and now have substantial villages with schools and hospitals also built on stilts over water. Unfortunately my personal history with weak ankles, poor balance and coordination, and fears of falling (based on multiple experiences of actually falling!) make me very tentative when walking on narrow walkways without hand rails, so Jean needed to slowly support me the entire time in that village. The entire group was welcomed into one of the houses for tea and snacks, and thanks to the kindness of the tour guide and other assistants, I made it into and out of a boat that took us back to solid land. I’m happy to have visited the country, but will be more cautious about where I try to walk in the future.

The next day we docked in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah in Malaysia. (We’ll be visiting other cities in Malaysia on the Malaysian peninsula after we stop in Singapore at the end of the month.) Named after the rugged Mount Kiabalu that towers over the island, the area is mostly covered with lush rainforests that house orangutans and several different tribes of indigenous people, many living in the forest as they have for centuries. I spent time in the central city of Kota Kiabalu, a modern city that was mostly rebuilt after being largely destroyed by the Japanese in World War II. I spent part of the day in the central city, which has a substantial Chinatown section and was just celebrating the end of the Chinese New Year’s festivities. There was a huge seven story mall with wide aisles and lots of contemporary stores and a food court with American fast food places mixed with local restaurants. I spent some time talking with an Australian ex-pat who has been living there several years.  Jean went out to the Mari Mari Cultural Village, with several houses that represent the range of ethnic groups that originally settled the land. Each of the homes was built by descendants of the tribes they represent. Jean got a henna tattoo, watched lots of demonstrations, and witnessed a performance of music and dance from the various tribes. An interesting day for both of us.

After a sea day, we pulled into Manila Bay to visit the Philippines. Another nation of more than 7500 islands, the Philippines had been part of the Spanish Empire since the landing of Magellan in the early 1500s and Catholicism became the dominant religion.  (The nation was named after King Phillip II of Spain.) As a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the control of the Philippines was ceded to the United States. That relationship means that the Philippines is in some ways the most familiar of the Asian countries.  English is one of the official languages and the cars drive on the right. Following Japanese occupation during World War II and a few major battles, the nation was granted independence in 1946. I had been in the country with a Rotary Friendship Exchange in 2011 and spent time traveling around Luzon, but Jean hadn’t gone with me. But our visit in Manila was significantly different from the other stops on our itinerary because we didn’t take a planned excursion planned by Viking. Instead, we took the ship’s shuttle to the Mall of Asia (the largest shopping mall in this part of the world) and were met there by Rox Vergara. Roxanne had been a high school exchange student from the Philippines who lived with us for four months in 1999-2000 in River Falls. She is now a 35-year-old woman who lives just a bit south of Manila. She met us at the mall, accompanied by her niece, a family friend, and a cousin who served as a driver for the new family car, and she served as our personal tour guide for the day. It was so wonderful to see her and spend time with Rox again! And she brought lots of gifts, including a new pair of glasses to replace the ones I had broken!! She took us to visit the historic San Augustine Church, Fort Santiago, and take a horse cart around Intramuros, Manila’s walled Old Town. But even more importantly, we had time to eat a great meal and share a nice afternoon snack and break and spend some precious time catching up with each other.  It was indeed a memorable day! We can’t begin to properly thank Rox for all of her gifts, and most importantly, the gift of her time. Back at the ship, we were treated to a wonderful Philippine dance performance.

And then we had to say goodbye to continue our journey to China.  And onward we go . . . #MyVikingStory

INDONESIA—KOMODO, BALI & JAVA

We have just finished our visits to three ports in Indonesia, visiting just three of the 13,000+ islands in this nation of islands on both sides of the Equator. Thanks to the wonderful slate of lecturers on the Viking Sun, we have learned a great deal more about the history, cultures, natural science, and arts of this part of the world—that we had sadly known little prior to this trip. I had certainly known the names of several of the islands, but was less clear about the country we were visiting.

Situated between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Indonesia is the largest island nation in the world (7th largest country in terms of area controlled), and it has the 4th highest population in the world. Indonesia includes hundreds of linguistic and ethnic groups. Its motto: “Unity in Diversity” or literally “many, yet one” is one indication of the richness variety of people here.  Indonesia also has a rich human history, with fossils and tools of the transitional “Java man” from almost a million years ago. There were well-established agricultural practice and trade with India and China several centuries Before the Common Era. Several succeeding dynasties focused on trade and brought Hinduism and Buddhism to Indonesia, beginning in the seventh century AD, and several major temples and monuments were built.  By the 13th century, Islam began spreading to the islands, and by the end of the 16th century it was the dominant religion in Java and Sumatra. Islam continues to be the major religion, with about 87% of the population, but there are places where other religions are more prominent, and there are still multiple languages and ethnic identities throughout the country.

Europeans began to be in regular contact with this region in the age of exploration and in search for the sources for spices like cloves, nutmeg, and pepper. The Portuguese lead the way in the early 1500s and they were followed by the Dutch and the English. The Dutch East Indies Company became the first company to sell stocks to invest in a share of the company’s profits, rather than the risky practice of funding a single voyage. (And who knew that the treaty in which the Dutch gave New Amsterdam/Manhattan to the English was part of a deal that gave the Dutch the rights to Run Island, a tiny island that was a valued source of nutmeg?) The Dutch East Indies Company became dominant in Indonesia, and the country eventually became an official colony of the Netherlands. That rule continued until Japan invaded in 1942. After the defeat of Japan, nationalist leaders declared their independence, and after a series of negotiations with the Dutch, Indonesia was recognized as an independent country in 1949.

I apologize if that background was too detailed, but it’s possible that some of you don’t have extensive knowledge about this part of the world either.

The three places we stopped in Indonesia could hardly be more different, and they definitely revealed the diversity of this country. The first stop was Komodo Island, home of the famous Komodo Dragons, the living relatives of the dinosaurs that can grow up to ten feet long, 300 pounds, can run up to 20 miles an hour, and its bite contains venoms and an anticoagulant. Their sense of smell is apparently so acute, that they can smell things over 2 miles away, with its forked tongue providing a stereo smell that allows it to detect direction. They are carnivores who have been known to kill and eat humans. The Western world first heard about these animals after a paper was published in 1912. An expedition to Komodo in 1926 that returned to London with 12 preserved specimens and two live animals provided the basis for the first King Kong movie in 1933.  People with wounds were warned not to come on the trail, and they were also told to avoid wearing red. With all of those warnings and an understanding that it would be a two hour walk on rough and hilly ground in which everyone was required to stay with the group, I decided that my best view of Komodo was from the ship. So I sent Jean to be the reporter and photographer.  She indicated that the group had a guide who explained everything to the group in English, and there were local guards who walked at the front and back of the group with long forked sticks who watched carefully for the animals. Although they walked for quite some time in the heat without seeing any animals, she saw several in the first and last section of the trail. Certainly an adventure in the wild to remember.

Our second stop was the island of Bali, a major tourist destination for its arts and culture. We arrived midday into a busy port with lots of boats of all sizes and several recreational craft and paragliders, and we were welcomed on shore by a gamelan band, a traditional Indonesian group of singers with drums and percussive metal gongs played with mallets. The majority of the people in Bali are Hindu and that has had a significant impact of the appearance and feel of places in Bali. We also learned that there are several differences between the practices of the religion in Indonesia and India. For example, they wear sandals and shoes in the temples, and our guide told us that they eat meat. Apparently they have accepted some of the beliefs and practices of Buddhism and Islam into the practices of their faith here. But they definitely have adopted the use of Hindu gods and iconography. I was told by our tour guide that there are more temples in Bali than there are homes, as there are many temples and every home has a shrine for prayer and meditation (i.e. a temple) as well. Driving around the city, we saw sections with a large number of small shops that were selling statues of gods and goddesses for the homes. Most houses also had walls around a small garden and statues outside as well, and we learned that all buildings in Bali had been limited to just four floors in height. The economic levels varied greatly, but most houses had some decorative elements. Because of the tropical climate, many places had moss or dark patches, perhaps because of the very black dirt and the possible presence of volcanic ash. Jean and I went on different excursions. I toured the provincial capital of Denpasar, visiting a temple and the Bali Museum off the central square of the city as well as a large market for people selling arts, crafts, clothing, and fabrics.  Many of the statues and shrines were draped in yellow or white for purity, and several of the guard statues were draped in black and white checks for security. The museum was interesting both for the exhibits and for the artfulness of the yard and gardens.

Jean went on an excursion called Temple Wonders that visited a place that created batik and fabric pieces, and then visited the 17th Century Taman Ayun Royal Temple and the 16th Century Sunset Temple with black lava towers jutting into the ocean. That temple is the most photographed site in Bali.

That evening the ship brought a gamelan band and several traditional Balinese dancers and actors to perform for us. Another cultural treat.

After another sea day, we landed in Samarang, Java. Java is the most populous island in the world with more than half of Indonesia’s 263 million people. Many people on the ship set out for Borobudur Temple, an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s largest Buddhist monument.  It looked fascinating, and we attended a lecture that showed lots of photos and talked about the structure that was built in the 8th century and lost in the jungle and covered with moss and jungle for hundreds of years. It really looked fascinating, but the three plus hours in the bus each way, the nine levels of very steep stairs without rails and the projected crowds convinced us that it wasn’t for us. We decided to explore Samarang, the center of the Dutch East Indies Company in Indonesia.  We walked though Old Town with about 50 buildings from the Dutch colonial period in various states of restoration and decay, and the 18th Century Dome Church, the oldest Christian church in Java. We also visited the Sam Poo Kong Temple, an unique Chinese Muslim temple grounds of several buildings built to honor Chen Ho, a Muslim eunuch that led seven major voyages through the waters of Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East for the Ming Dynasty in the 15th Century. The streets of Java looked very different from Bali. Both places had cars and huge numbers of motorcycles and scooters, but although Java added a few rickshaw three-wheeled bicycles and lots of pale blue taxis with “TAKSI” on the roof, the streets were much wider, at least in Samarang.  We also saw several people who were apparently hired to sweep the streets (with old-fashioned big bristled brooms) in Java. But there was a huge difference in the amount of ornamentation and iconography. Both places had a wide range of places in disrepair, sometimes right next to or across the street from new modern places, but the lines in Java were much more boxy and direct, without the flourishes and shaped roofs and decorative walls we saw in Bali. We drove through some very fancy neighborhoods in Semarang, and we finished our tour at an upscale shopping mall in the central city, with an hour and a half to “shop.” As most of you know, I am not a “shopper.” I looked around the big three-story mall a bit, and visited the big food court on the third floor and a few other places to eat and drink, but we found a very nice lobby bar in an attached hotel lobby with free wifi and almost no people or through traffic and nice air conditioning, and we passed the time most pleasantly.

Now we’re off to Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. We’re more than half done with our trip, and time keeps flying.  And onward we go . . . #MyVikingStory

AUSTRALIA 2 — Whitsunday Island, CAIRNS, Thursday Island, & DARWIN

We’ve just left Australia and are on our way to visit a few places on islands in Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia—more new and unknown parts of the world for us. But we had four new Australian ports and more to experience to report about that fascinating country. We actually spent more in in Australia and Australian waters (From Feb. 8th to the 22nd) than we will spend in any other country on our trip.

Whitsunday Island (actually an archipelago of 74 islands in the Coral Sea) was the first place we stopped after Brisbane. Whitsunday was named by Capt. Cook for the day he first sighted the place, but he hadn’t accounted for the International Date Line, however “The Day After Whitsunday” was an awkward name for an Island, so the name has stuck. We actually spent the day on Hamilton Island, which was a major contrast to the three cities of 2.5 to 5+ million people we’d visited earlier. Hamilton is a resort island with about 500 homes (many costing over $1 Million), 6 to 7,000 resort guests, and another 500 or so workers. About half of the island is a National Park. It was a very small and casual place.  The included excursion (every port for Viking has an excursion that is provided at no extra cost) was titled Calm Waters and Soothing Sands. There were free shuttle buses provided from the marina side of the island and the resort side, and we were free to use the beach, swimming pools, and facilities at the private resort too.  It was a lovely relaxing day with a beautiful sand beach, lovely pools, and some very nice views of the neighboring islands. Jean used the time to practice snorkeling a bit in the ocean and swimming in the pool. As a non-swimmer, I spent the day in the shade watching her, taking photos, and enjoying a drink and a bite of ice cream. Worked for both of us.

The next day we docked in Cairns, Queensland. Cairns (they pronounce the city name without the “r” more like “cans” or the French film festival city), is a relatively small (c. 140,000) resort town that serves as the major gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and a couple of large National Parks with numerous rainforests and natural diversity. Jean spent the day swimming and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Natural Wonders of the World. It is a 1400-mile-long reef of 360 varieties of hard coral and over 1/3 of the soft coral in the world and countless varieties of fish and sea life. Jean spent some time snorkeling with a biologist to learn more about what she was seeing, and she took photos of her experiences, but she didn’t want to deal with a camera while she was focusing on snorkeling and on all that was happening around her, so the underwater photos that I’m including here are courtesy of our friend Tom Lundquist, one of my trivia teammates. She got back exhausted but exhilarated, and said that she would happily go again the next day.

While Jean was exploring one of the wonders of the world, I was exploring the very pleasant community of Cairns.  I learned that a lot of the homes were built on stilts, not just because of possible flooding, but to keep them cooler in this near-tropical climate. They have a beautiful boardwalk along the coast with parklands that run through much of the town.  They have botanical gardens that are very lush and tropical and the city is surrounded by fields of sugar cane that provide a major export for the region. Then we spent some significant time on Palm Cove, a wide beach and resort area with lots of little shops and restaurants. Although the beach is beautiful, there are signs the indicate the possible presence of salt-water crocodiles and stinging jellyfish, so swimming was limited to a space with clear boundaries and protected by series of nets and barriers. Since I don’t shop or swim, I enjoyed a local beer in a little pub with seats facing the water. Much calmer than the Reef, but enjoyable. That evening, I joined an excursion called “The Candlelit Forest.” We rode about 60 km along the seacoast cliffs to a clearing in the rainforest for a five-course dinner and stories and music provided by two Aboriginal brothers that are keeping their language and traditions alive. The dinner included kangaroo and crocodile along with Australian beer and wine and many other tasty dishes. The didgeridoo and drums were enchanting and the candles and torches provided a magical evening.

 

After a sea day, we anchored near Thursday Island on a Sunday morning for a quiet day of exploration. The included tour planned by our excursions office had been a beach day, like we’d had on Hamilton Island.  But they learned that swimming was not a good idea, because of the sharks and salt-water crocodiles in the area. (We heard later that the sharks weren’t a huge problem, because many of them were killed by the crocodiles.) J Thursday Island was one of many islands in the Torres Strait, just off the northern point of York Peninsula. Captain Cook was apparently running out of names when he entered this part of the world, as there are islands named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday as he traveled from the East to the West. Thursday Island had been the center of a pearl industry at one point, and there were military installations there in the 1800s and during World War II. The most interesting thing to me was that the Torres Straight Islanders have separate traditions, languages, heritage and culture than the Aboriginal people, and several documents indicate that they are separate groups, and they basically entered Australia via different routes and at slightly different times. So it was interesting to see the dances, songs, and crafts of the contemporary Torres Strait Islanders.

Following two more sea days, the final stop in Australia was in Darwin, the capital of the sparsely-populated Northern Territory. Darwin is a modern city about the same size as Cairns, and it has an intimate downtown feel set along a harbor that wraps around the central city. Australians call the region the Top End, and Darwin is actually closer to five foreign capitals than it is to the capital of Australia (Canberra, for those who might have forgotten their grade school geography). Part of the reason for the contemporary feel of the town is that it has been rebuilt multiple times—after being bombed by Japan in WWII and after natural disasters like Cyclone Tracy that totally destroyed the central city on Christmas Eve of 1974. The other reason is that the city has been growing. It is now more than three times the size it was when that storm hit. Darwin has a tropical climate with average summer (November to February) temperatures above 90 and average humidity from 65 to 75%. Again, we took separate excursions. Jean went to the Territory Wildlife Park. Because of the heat, many of the animals were in the shadows and resting, and it was dark in the shelter for nocturnal animals, so she didn’t get many photos, but she had a good time. I took a coach tour of the city and spent time at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.  The bus tour was a bit strange because the driver thought that he would have a guide to explain what we were seeing, and he didn’t. He explained that he was from Queensland and didn’t know Darwin, so he said almost nothing and we mostly heard the radio over the speaker system. But the time at the museum was interesting. As the name implies, it is a combination natural and local history museum and art gallery. There was a great exhibit about Cyclone Tracy and some interesting things about the animals and wildlife of the region. Sadly a couple of the galleries were closed for updating, including the aboriginal art section. But there was a large exhibit of a local pop artist called 1000 Miles from Everywhere that I really enjoyed. Frank Gohier works in the style of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol but deals with topics related to Darwin and northern Australia.

We said good bye to Australia with a concert in the Atrium by the choir focusing on songs by Peter Allen, “The Boy From Oz.” The photo shows only half of the choir, but Jean is in the front on the left and I am in the rear in black. A beautiful sunset at dinner that evening sent us on our way to new adventures.

And onward we go . . . #MyVikingStory

AUSTRALIA 1—MELBOURNE, SYDNEY & BRISBANE

We’re now in “the land down under” “where women glow and men thunder.” After a couple days of rocking and rolling on the Tasman Sea, everything calmed down and we entered the fascinating world of Australia. Our first ports were striking contrasts to our final cities in New Zealand. Sydney and Melbourne are the two largest cities in Australia, and each city has more people than the entire population of New Zealand. So we dealt with a lot of urban traffic and busy streets for a few days.

Many in the US think of Australia and New Zealand as very similar—both were former British colonies and speak English, both drive on the left, and the timing of discovery and European colonization were similar. But the distance from New Zealand and Australia is greater than the distance between New York and Los Angeles, and there several interesting differences. Australia has about five times the population of New Zealand, but it is also more than 70 times as large, so it is much less densely populated. (Australia is about the size of the “lower 48” contiguous states, but its total population is just a little more than Florida.) The majority of the population in Australia lives near the Eastern coastline.

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The history of the indigenous people in the two countries is also strikingly different. New Zealand was the last place to be settled, with the Maori arriving after 1200 AD. But the Aboriginal people of Australia arrived at least 65,000 years ago, and their earliest petroglyphs predate the oldest cave paintings in Europe. The differences in timing and geography also means that the native cultures developed very differently. The arid conditions of Australia led the Aboriginal people in Australia to live in small bands of families and clans that were semi-nomadic and generally isolated with less social structure and integration. Consequently almost 160 different languages were developed, and all but 12 or 13 of those languages are endangered or extinct. It has been interesting to see some of those differences revealed.

But on to our travels. Our first stop was Melbourne, on the South-East Coast. The second largest city in the country, and the Capital of Victoria, it has been called “the world’s most livable city.” Melbourne is a busy city with lots of traffic, an impressive skyline, a vital central city with lots of cultural institutions and big museums, and a very impressive collection of venues for sports. Some of these were built when the city hosted the Olympics way back in 1956, but they have been maintained and renewed and they demonstrate a commitment to athletics and sporting events ranging from swimming and tennis, to cricket, soccer, rugby, basketball, and Australian Rules Football. The city also hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2006. The cricket stadium holds over 120,000 fans, and I was told the rivalries with New Zealand, India and other Commonwealth nations was very intense.  We took a coach tour of the city and saw the wide range of the architectural styles, visited the Shrine of Remembrance for the veterans of foreign wars, and spent some time in the Botanical Gardens, which included the cottage of Captain James Cook, that had been dismantled in Yorkshire, England and resurrected there. (An outstanding navigator and cartographer, Captain Cook’s three voyages of discovery played a huge part in the development of this part of the world. We have been basically following in his footsteps since our arrival in Polynesia.) After our tour, we stayed in the city for the afternoon to have a bit of lunch and explore a little. We even ran into a brief public dance experience near the Australian Center for the Moving Image.  A nice day.

After a sea day (Australia is more spread out than New Zealand), we landed in Sydney, Australia’s largest city and the capital of New South Wales, where we spent two days.  The first day I took a tour of the city and got an overview of the history of colonization there. Captain Cook first landed in Botany Bay in 1770. Interestingly, after the Declaration of Independence in America in 1776, England needed to find a new place to ship its convicts. [Yes, some of the early settlers in America didn’t come totally of their own volition—they don’t talk about that in the DAR!] So between 1788 and 1792 about 4,500 convicts were shipped to Australia, and they continued to arrive until the 1830s. The new residents found that the land near Botany Bay lacked fresh water and good soil, so they moved a bit north to the newly discovered Sydney Harbor, the world’s largest natural harbor. Apparently the punishment for the convicts was resettlement rather than prison, although an island in the harbor was used for repeat offenders in the new colony. Much of the earliest settlement happened in an area called The Rocks, a formerly rough part of town with many of the oldest pubs and a few remaining historic buildings near the Harbour Bridge. After the tour, and I spent time in the harbor for a bite to eat, a few photos of the Opera House, and a visit to the Contemporary Art Museum before taking a shuttle boat back to the ship. There were people from the ship climbing the Harbour Bridge while we sailed under it, and they can be seen in the picture below.

Jean took an excursion to the Blue Mountains, a beautiful scenic area about 90 minutes west of the city.  She described the area as a combination of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Grand Canyon, with a chance to explore in cable cars, trams, and the world’s steepest railway.

That evening a number of people on board had purchased tickets to attend Carmen at the Sydney Opera House.  Unfortunately I waited too long and the show was sold out.  However, we were able to see a performance by a local troupe of indigenous performers on the ship, and it was fascinating. The performers with their body paint, sharp animal mime, short expressive songs, and the sound of the didgeridoo were very interesting. I have seen Carmen multiple times, but this was unique.

The second day in Sydney, Jean and I traveled together to see a bit of the city with a stop at Bondi Beach, a famous swimming and surfing beach in a Sydney suburb. Apparently since the 1980s, it has been optional to wear swimming suit tops on Bondi Beach, although when we visited there was a carnival that attracted several families, and the only people I saw who chose the option to go topless were male. The other major stop was a tour inside the Opera House. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the Joan Sutherland Theatre, home of Opera Australia and the Australia Ballet, because of the sets and people on stage, but we also went into the Concert Hall and we learned the multiple theatre spaces below the “sails.” It was a treat to explore such an iconic building, and it was fun to remember that I once shared the stage with Joan Sutherland, a native Australian who was famous around the world. (I was a “supernumerary” for a production of “Tales of Hoffman” when The Metropolitan Opera toured to Minnesota in the 1970s.) At the end of the day as we were leaving Sydney, the ship did a dramatic 360 degree turn around  the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House  to say goodbye to the city.

Brisbane, the capital of Queensland and the third largest city in Australia, was our third stop in the country. Located on the winding Brisbane River about 9 miles from the harbor, Brisbane is a modern city near the center of Australia’s east coast. It was the site of a couple tribes of Aboriginal people and the site of a secondary penal colony in the early 1800s. Despite occasional flooding (the most recent was 2011), there is a lot of building and it seems to be a dynamic city. Jean had been dealing with a cough and congestion for the past week, and after a trip to the doctor and a few prescriptions to help her improve, she was advised to stay in the room to rest and recover.  So I took the ticket for her excursion to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the first sanctuary that allows people to see and connect with koalas, kangaroos, and other Australian wildlife.  The temperatures were over 95 degrees with very high humidity, so it was very warm in the sun, but it was really a fascinating chance to get up close to some of the iconic Australian animals. I chose to not pay $20 and wait in line to get a photo of me holding a koala, but some of my travel mates got wonderful photos. I later regretted my decision, because I asked someone to take a picture of me standing near the animals, and didn’t check them until the end of the day. I ended up with two excellent photos of the animals, my stomach, and a finger print over my face!  But I got to see several koalas up close, including a mother and a young one who emerged from the pouch as I was watching. I also got close to emus and lots of kangaroos. The kangaroos were incredibly soft, as I petted their ears and back and watched several people feed them. But I learned that the sanctuary only puts the females in the public fields, as the males are much more aggressive.  I also saw the duck-billed platypus, wombats, wallabies, dingo, Tasmanian Devils, and several birds like the cockatoo and the kookaburra. However, I don’t get a lot of great photos. The koala and several of the other animals were sensibly resting and staying in shaded areas on such a hot day, and many are naturally nocturnal. But it was really fun to be able to see so many of those animals up close. I’m sorry that Jean missed it, but the day really helped her recover, and it was very interesting for me.

Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day was an appreciated sea day. We had a church service in the morning, several good presentations during the day, a great concert of love songs by the entertainment staff in the Atrium in the late afternoon, and a very nice dress-up Valentines dinner date at The Restaurant that evening.

An onward we go . . . #MyVikingStory