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John and Diane's 125-day Adventure at Sea


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Friday, March 10 - Sunday, March 12 - Days 65, 66, 67

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to Cochin, India - then to Munnar, India

What a whirlwind three days it’s been. Unlike some of our friends who left the ship at 3:00 AM, we had a leisurely morning and met near the gangplank at 12:15 to meet our 12:30 shuttle to the airport - over one of the most beautiful freeways I’ve ever seen. It had flowers on both sides and both greenery and flowers covering every overpass (here it’s a “flyover.”)

We took off almost on time for a quick one-hour flight to KL, where we had a three-hour layover - time to grab a dinner snack before reboarding our flight to Cochin, where we were met at the airport and driven to our beautiful hotel to begin our eight-day tour of Kerala in southwest India, sometimes called “God’s Own Country” because of its tropical beauty. Our hotel was called The Eighth Bastion because it’s on the site of some important military history. Since we arrived at the hotel at about 11:00 (1:30 AM body time), we didn’t have a chance to really enjoy the hotel or learn more about its history, but the good news was that pickup in the morning wasn’t until 10:00 AM.

The next morning we met Raj, our guide for Cochin, and Pindi, our driver for the whole eight days. After a three hour tour of Cochin, we dropped off Raj and Pindi navigated the four-hour, hair-raising drive to Munnar. If you remember E rides at Disneyland, this was one of them! Munnar is well-known for two reasons: it’s the center of tea growing in southern India and it was the summer escape for the English in southern India during the Raj. Our hotel is Windy Woods, and, as you might guess, it is set in a forest and overlooks acres and acres and acres of tea plantations. Our Indian travel agent, Ajay, always makes sure we get the best rooms, and he certainly did so here. As I write, John is sitting out on the balcony with a Diet Pepsi (40 cents) and enjoying the view.

It turns out that Will and Nancy were assigned a lovely suite, so instead of being jealous, we’ve turned it into “meeting central.” We found when we arrived that the hotel does not have a bar and does not serve alcohol in the restaurant, so our driver volunteered to drive down the mountain and pick us up some beer. When he returned an hour later (it was a long way), all 10 of us headed to Will and Nancy’s room with beer, wine, and Alan and Annie’s bottle of gin (yuck!). After “cocktail hour” we headed to the restaurant, where we enjoyed the Indian (what else?) buffet. It turns out that southern Indian food is pretty much not what is served in the Indian restaurants we’re used to, so we’ve been introduced to many new dishes. Most are vegetarian, but there were some with chicken and fish. You’re not going to get a cheeseburger here!

An explanation about the lack of alcoholic beverages: there is a law in Kerala state, enacted in 2015, that says that only 5-star hotels and state stores can serve alcohol, and although we’re staying in a 5-star hotel, their application is caught in Indian bureaucracy and hasn’t been approved yet. Yet another first world problem. Apparently the drunk driving situation in this particular state is the worst in the country, so the laws have been tightened up quite a bit.

Today was our tour of the Munnar area, and Pindi drove us into the town where we picked up our guide Sanu, a 25-year old with lots of black curls, a great smile, and an admirable fluency in English with little accent. We had been scheduled to visit the national park to see the rare mountain goats, but he told us it was closed for two months because this is the mating season. Instead, we drove to and walked across some quite scenic dams, and then back into Munnar for lunch (with beer - the guys were thrilled!). Afterwards Sanu took us on a walking tour of the city and the enormous market, which alternated between the smells of fresh fruit, dried fish, and leafy coriander (which we know as cilantro). John took a three-minute video of walking through the market and posted it on Facebook (dianeandjohn st john). We both love markets and wish we could have spent longer there.

Our next and last stop was at the tea factory. We learned about and saw the whole procedure, which was much more extensive than I had ever imagined. I thought they picked tea, let it dry, shredded it a bit and either sold it loose or packed it in teabags. Instead, we learned that the three types of tea - black, green and white - are picked differently and the processes they go through are extensive, from pressing to shredding (four times) to oxidizing to a sort of roasting. Of course there was a small shop where we could buy tea, but since there was no clerk there, it certainly wasn’t the usual pressure place after the tour.

 

Then it was finally time to get back to our hotel, relax for a while, dress for dinner and gather in Will and Nancy’s room at 6:00. So far the group is congenial and a lot of fun. Nobody gets too stressed (yet) and everyone’s on time. What more do you need for good traveling?

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I sure hope that the Amsterdam never converts the piano bar into the new Billboard-Onboard. If they do that would be the end of the wonderful talents of Debby Bacon that we have experienced many times. I think that Billboard Entertainment does the talent booking and Debbie is most likely not on their list of dueling piano artists. She doesn't need any help from a 2nd singer/musician.

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Monday, March 13, 2017 - Day 68

Munnar to Periyar, India

India is really as incredible as the slogan says. We were able to sleep in this morning, since our driver wasn’t going to begin until 10:00. That gave us time for a leisurely breakfast and a photo-op on the terrace overlooking the tea plantations. We were ready to ask a waiter to take the group photo, but an Anglo-Indian man who lives in Leicester, England, offered, pointing out that he is the official photographer for the Leicester soccer team and one of the top 120 photographers in the world! We were impressed, and after his wife arranged us nicely, he took a great photo of the group. I asked her if she was the photographer’s assistant, and she answered that she was a photographer in her own right and had photographed Princess Diana.

We began our day’s drive by taking a shortcut that would have made Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride proud. It was all dirt for the first hour and had enough potholes to keep us all bouncing. Then, thankfully, we arrived at a paved road and two more hours took us to Periyar, one of the homes of Ayurveda medicine and massage.

Our first stop was at a “spice garden,” where another Anglo-Indian took us on a walk around the garden, pointing out different spice plants and telling us about their medicinal uses. We crushed and smelled and occasionally even tasted what he was showing us, and after we were done, we were ready to cross the street to buy some spices for ourselves. I bought candied ginger and mace, and our friend Annie said she spent $20 US on an amount of whole nutmeg that would have cost her $50.00 at home.

Then it was time to check into our hotel, where lunch was waiting. I don’t think I’ve written enough about the food here. It is fantastic and comes in huge quantities. Today we were presented with soup first and then plates with chicken and sauce alongside finely ground beets. We thought that was lunch, but no! Then came the rice, and then the naan, and then the curry and then, and then, and then. Finally there was dessert, consisting of a triangle of chocolate, another sort of chocolate pudding in a small dish, fruit, and a sweet yogurt mold. Oh my!

Finally we were able to check into our rooms, but they are separate cottages with thatched roofs, spread all around the numerous acres of the resort. The inside of each cottage is luxuriously simple with a well-stocked mini-bar, a king-sized bed, and a huge shower in the bathroom.

Most of our group wanted to go to the elephant sanctuary this afternoon, both to observe and to ride, but as we were eating our 3:00 lunch, the thunder, lightning and rain began - and continues still. That pretty much put a lid on the elephant idea. When we talked to Pindi, our driver, he said that we were booked for a dance performance at 5:00, but when we checked with our group, they were loving the resort so much that they didn’t want to go, so it looks like we’ll all meet at the bar at about 7:00 (ah, the benefits of a 5-star hotel) and then have dinner around 8:00.

Tomorrow, however, is another story. Pindi told us to tell everyone that he’d pick us up at 6:30 - and when we called each room to let them know, they all had the same response: 6:30 AM!? Yes, that’s the time. We’re going boating to see wildlife first thing (VERY first thing) in the morning and then coming back to the hotel to have breakfast and check out. Then, finally, we’re going to the elephant sanctuary! Afterward it will be onward to Kumarakom, where we will again spend just one night. Everywhere we’ve been has been wonderful, and we’re only sorry that some of our destinations are only for one night.

 

P. S. John’s video of the market in Munnar wouldn’t post, even though he tried it multiple times. The only one that posted was of the ladies of our group working a Chinese fishing net.

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I am looking for persons going on the Queen Mary 2 on April 1st out of Hong Kong. We will be on the ship until the 8th of May and really would like to get together with others that are planning some trips. I believe we will be staying at either the Cordis or the Ritz Carlton for 4 days before the cruise. Have not made reservations yet. We are on the Volendam now headed toward Hong Kong. We have never sailed on the QM2 and are anxious to know anything anyone knows about the ship. Carrie and Barry carriebethel@gmail.com

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I am looking for persons going on the Queen Mary 2 on April 1st out of Hong Kong. We will be on the ship until the 8th of May and really would like to get together with others that are planning some trips. I believe we will be staying at either the Cordis or the Ritz Carlton for 4 days before the cruise. Have not made reservations yet. We are on the Volendam now headed toward Hong Kong. We have never sailed on the QM2 and are anxious to know anything anyone knows about the ship. Carrie and Barry carriebethel@gmail.com

Suggest you also post this on Cunard Forum.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - Day 69

Periyar to Kumarakom, India

What a day we’ve had! There was payback for all those 9:30 and 10:00 starts we’ve had when we had to report for duty at 6:30 to walk a quarter mile to the bus which took us to Periyar Lake for a 90-minute boat ride through a beautiful man-made lake. We saw bright turquoise kingfisher birds, cormorants and several other types of birds as well as lake otters (smaller than the ocean otters near us) and wild boar on shore.

After our early morning nature tour, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast, checked out, and drove probably one kilometer to the elephant safari, where we rode some beautiful animals through a dense forest. They are so well trained that the mahouts (elephant trainers) just call instructions and the elephant does what it’s told. That always worked for our dogs, but who knew it would work for that huge beast. I understand that one mahout works only with one elephant, and they become “family,” so the animal responds very well - and they’re treated very well, too.

After that excitement, we headed off on a much smoother road than yesterday, and about three hours later we arrived in Kumarakom and the best hotel yet. It’s the Kumarakom Lake Resort, and we couldn’t believe how luxurious it was. Ajay, our Indian travel agent, had upgraded out rooms here, and each of our luxurious accommodations has doors opening to the swimming pool/canal that flows through the property. There are tiled steps leading from our terrace down into the water, and I think everyone in our group has taken some time for swimming, especially since the water is just perfectly warm. The rooms also have not only outdoor showers, but outdoor bathrooms, with the sink and toilet areas covered but not the shower. The only other time we’ve had an outdoor shower was in Africa, but we’ve never had them move the whole darned bathroom outside.

After everyone had tucked into their rooms and had a swim, most of us headed to the beautiful outdoor bar which overlooks the lake. We sat, enjoyed some Kingfisher (definitely NOT the bird this time) and exclaimed to each other how every hotel seems to get better. This one not only has the extremely long pool that snakes around the resort but an infinity pool that we haven’t even seen yet.

At dinner time, the buffet was far more elaborate than any we’ve had thus far, with fresh-made naan (bread) and a chef who was sautéing calimari as well as chicken wings. There were just too many choices, and then the desserts were fantastic too, including a choice of two ice creams: cardamon and butterscotch. Both looked delicious.

During dinner we had quite the light show, with lightning providing illumination over the lake and throughout the resort, followed by thunder that almost made us want to climb under the table. It was basically a repeat of yesterday’s thunderstorm, but bigger and even better.

Tomorrow our pickup isn’t until 11:00, so we’ll have time to enjoy the resort, perhaps even getting a massage. Then we have a one-hour drive to our houseboat on the Kerala backwaters, and all ten of us are really looking forward to that. This trip is just one treat after another!

 

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Really enjoying being an arm chair traveler on your trip! I read up about your hotel. Prince Charles spent his 65 birthday there. and the BBC calls it one of the best hotels in the world! It looks fabulous! We so enjoy India. Sounds like a great trip.

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The adjoining suites where Charles and Camilla stayed are right across the meandering pool from us. They're now named The Prince of Wales Suite and The Dutchess of Cornwall Suite. This is truly a fantastic hotel.

 

Regarding Ajay, our Indian travel agent (since 2008), CC doesn't allow us to include agencies' names, but if you'd email me at johnyb4ataoldotcom I'd be happy to give you all his contact info.

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Wednesday, Thursday, March 15, 16 - Days 70, 71

The Backwaters of Kerala to Kovalam, India

Our Kerala overland tour continues to be an amazing adventure. Yesterday we drove about an hour to Alleppey, where we boarded our four-bedroom houseboat. There are five couples in our group, but the largest boats have only four bedrooms, so Will and Nancy, who just added onto the tour shortly before we left, were to have their own one-bedroom houseboat. That changed when we checked in, so we had one boat for three couples and another for two.

You would assume that with one party of ten that the two boats would be the same, but that was not to be. John and I were on the three-couple boat and we had full-time air-conditioning, a cooperative crew, and excellent service. Rich and Ginni and Will and Nancy did not have the same good luck. They almost had to threaten bodily harm to get the crew to turn on the A/C, there were ants in one of the showers, and it took them almost an hour to even get coffee this morning. Needless to say, tips on that boat were non-existent and their review was quite negative.

Regardless of the unusual bad experience, however, the houseboat cruise on the backwaters of Kerala is an experience that everyone should experience. We sat up on the upstairs lounge area (AKA our Crow’s Nest) for much of the day, and we watched the small villages, houses, old churches and water life. These canals connect the villages that we saw and are used for local transport. After boarding and setting sail (so to speak), we had lunch on board and the afternoon was spent sitting upstairs watching this fascinating area as we passed it. At one point, a gate was opened at a duck farm and hundreds of ducks swam out into the canal.

We stopped in a small village to see the local market and the old church, but didn’t have a lot of luck. There was a well-attended mass going on in the church, making us unwilling to look inside, and when we tried to enjoy the market, another thunderstorm began. Our friend Rich commented that the afternoon thunderstorms were like clockwork, and this one was a doozy. We had to run back to our houseboat, and just barely beat the heavy rain that continued for about an hour. The thunder and lightning were just getting started, though, and lightning continued to illuminate our houseboat for several hours. I never could get it on film however.

Our friends from the two-couple houseboat joined us for dinner, and then we played “Oh, Hell” for a couple of hours. It’s a card game I’ve never played, and even though my score was decent, I still really have no idea of how to play it. Bedtime was early - about 9:00, and since we were parked on a small bank just next to our friends’ boat and next to a rice paddy, it was quiet enough for a good night’s sleep.

This morning we arose early to call our daughter and granddaughter in California, and then showered and headed upstairs to spend time with our “shipmates.” Breakfast was a combination of European and Indian, with scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit, and Indian “pancakes,” made of ground coconut wrapped in a banana leaf. Then we headed back to the dock, where we arrived, as scheduled, at 9:30, and Pindi, our wonderful and talented driver, was waiting for us. As soon as the luggage was stowed, it was time to hit the road to Kovalam and the Leela Hotel, another amazing 5-star hotel, courtesy of our wonderful travel agent.

 

The rest of the day was at leisure, a welcome break, and after lunch we headed for the hotel’s enormous infinity pool. The exciting part of our stay here is that much of the hotel has been reserved for an Indian wedding party, and a group of shirtless drummers were on hand at the front of the hotel to welcome groups of arriving wedding guests. While we were having lunch, the grandmother and aunt of the bride stopped by our table to chat and were nice enough to invite us to tomorrow evening’s pre-wedding activities as well as the actual wedding the next day. We’ll be happy to attend tomorrow, but the next morning it’s time to leave this beautiful part of India and fly to Mumbai, where we’ll rejoin the ship and enjoy one of our favorite cities.

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Friday, March 17, 2017 - Day 72

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Kovalam

Another wonderful day in Kerala. Although I thought we’d skip the tour to Trivandrum today and just hang out at the hotel, when we found out it would only be a three-hour tour, it sounded better and better. Pindi called for us at 9:30, we met our guide, Naveen, and we headed into the city which is the capital of Kerala. We learned on the way that the city has over a million residents and that Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India. The population is about 19% Christian, 25% Muslim, and most of the rest are Hindu, with a smattering of other religions.

When we arrived in the city only 20 minutes later, our first stop was a long walk down what seemed like the main street, with shops of all kinds on each side of the street. We waved at merchants and admired merchandise, and Naveen bought a beautiful floral piece (much like a lei) for Ginni, since it’s her birthday today.

Then we headed into the city’s fruit and vegetable market, with hundreds of stalls selling everything from bananas (six different kinds) to prickly cucumbers to tomatoes to almost everything. I took a great (in my opinion) photo of a man selling different kinds of bananas with the fruit both on his stand and still on the stalk, so I decided I had to buy some. The ones I chose were baby bananas, which we eat frequently when we’re in Hawaii, and they were delicious.

After the market, we walked down the street to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple (just try to pronounce that - I dare you), where there were crowds of people getting ready to go in to pray. There are three rules: only Hindus may enter the temple, men must be bare-chested and have a white wrap around their lower body, and women must wear saris, also with the wrap. The belief is that blessings come to men through the heart and to women through the forehead.

Our last stop was an old part of the royal palace which has been converted into a museum, so we could get some idea of what life was like under the maharajas. The palace itself was fascinating, with each room having a rosewood ceiling with a different pattern. There were weapons from the colonial period, thrones on which the rulers sat, and dozens of beautiful paintings showing what life was like a few hundred years ago - if you were of the ruling class, of course.

Then it was time to return to our hotel, where we found the Indian wedding in full swing. I haven’t seen so many beautiful saris since we attended a former student’s wedding last fall. The music was loud and lively and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Because the wedding took over some of its facilities, the hotel provided a complimentary happy hour for those not involved. Of the approximately 360 guests at the hotel, 300 were wedding participants. Indians do know how to put on a wedding.

In the afternoon, several of us went down to the hotel’s beachside restaurant, The Tides , for lunch. Afterwards, it was time for a dip in the Arabian Sea, which was warm, clear, and just wonderful.

 

It was an early evening, since we had an early call this morning. Pindi was to call for us at 7:30, so we needed to get our beauty sleep.

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This is a great blog. Makes us water at the mouth in anticipation of our 2018 HAL WC.

 

Question for John & Diane: Did HAL give you guys guidance/instruction on the number of visa pages needed per country visited? We're getting initial guidance that we'll need two empty visa pages per the 20 countries that they will be getting us visas for -- that's 40 blank pages. Most everyone will have to get new passports.

 

Below is a post from our Amsterdam 2018 WC Roll Call:

 

Mark and I have read conflicting information on the number of passport pages required for this trip. We asked HAL and they said:

"Thank you for your recent correspondence with Holland America Line regarding your upcoming sailing on the ms Amsterdam.

After reviewing the itinerary and countries we'll visit throughout the voyage, we recommend having two blank passport pages for each country visited. Some countries will stamp the page coming into the country as well as stamp another page upon exiting. A quick count of approximately 21 countries that may require this means up to 40 pages may be used. We also recommend bringing 2-4 additional passport photos as some areas may require to hold an additional photo."

However, we have been on the Islands of the South Pacific and the Grand South America cruises and not received a single stamp. 40 pages is beyond the normal passport. Hoping someone with past World cruise experience can tell us if we need to get new 52 page passports just for this trip. Thanks Bonnie

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Saturday, March 18, Day 73

Mumbai (AKA Bombay), India

How is it possible that when all you do is sit all day that you are exhausted at the end of that day? Such are travel days. We had a 7:30 pickup, but Pindi was 15 minutes early and we were all ready to go. It was only a 20-minute drive to the airport, where check-in and security were really quite easy. One interesting aspect of security for women is that they go into a small booth where a female security guard “wands” us and pats us down, but in total privacy. Indians, after all, are a pretty modest people.

Boarding was painless and we took off a few minutes early for our two hour flight to Mumbai. One little glitch had to do with yours truly. The day before, for the first time in four India overlands, I got a bit of “Delhi belly” and I guess I was fairly dehydrated when I boarded the plane. At one point, they were serving food and the smell pretty much got to me, so I headed back and asked the flight attendant if I could get past her. She told me to wait for just a moment, and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back in the aisle with our friend Jane, a nurse, holding my shoulders and telling me to wake up. It was the weirdest thing, since I have never fainted. I would have thought that one would be dizzy first, but there was absolutely no warning, so there I was, having hit straight back, back of my head first. From what I was told later, a sports trainer we had met at the gate as well as two doctors headed to help, and two flight attendants were “Johnny on the spot” to help. Fortunately there don’t seem to be any lasting effects from either the 24-hour Indian bug or the fall, so all is well. We can’t say enough about the efficiency of Jet Airways, though - they were just great, moving us to first class for more space.

The adventure just continued when we arrived back near the ship. Our instructions had been to go to the Yellow Gate, pick up our boarding passes (pre-made out) and then proceed to the Green Gate where we would board. Well, that doesn’t ever seem to work well. Two years ago, we spent about two hours at the Yellow Gate waiting for the elusive boarding passes until finally a call to the ship finally got those blasted passes to us. This time was worse. First we went to the Yellow Gate where we were told, quite clearly, that our passes were at the Green Gate. There we went with our patient driver, to the Green Gate where we were given boarding passes to fill out and told we had to have passport copies - which would all be accepted - at the Yellow Gate. Next drive: back to the Yellow Gate where we waited patiently at the gate’s police office and finally had our passes stamped and told to go back to the Green Gate. Thus goes Indian bureaucracy. Two and a half hours later we were able to thank (and tip) our driver generously for his patience, board a shuttle and drive 15 minutes to the ship. That was a new bit too. On previous cruises the ship has been a fairly short walk from the Green Gate, but not this time. Oh well.

The afternoon just begged for a long nap, since I was still a bit under the weather, but afterwards I made it to dinner and now everything seems in good working order.

 

What a trip it was! I cannot say enough about our friend Ajay who arranged a wonderful tour of Kerala, which is said to be the most beautiful part of India. We rode boats on a lake, elephants on a howdah, and a van on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We stayed in five-star hotels and experienced an Indian wedding and a 1/2 mile “meandering pool” at the hotel where Prince Charles and Camilla spent his 65th birthday. A few words of advice about traveling in India: remember that it’s not part of the western world but that it is extremely charming in its own way. When you book with an Indian travel agent, always get the best hotels available; they will cost very little more than lesser ones and you’ll be very glad you did. If you like Indian food or spicy food in general, you’ll love eating in India; if you don’t, there are always other things you can find. People in the service industries in India really can’t do enough to make you happy; if you want something (like less spicy food), just ask. If you haven’t been to India - GO! If you love it (like we do), you’ll go again. If you hate it - oh well. It’s crowded, parts of it are run down, and there are lots of stand-up toilets, but if these two seventy-somethings can enjoy it for nine days, so can you!

P. S. Regarding the visa pages question, since 2009, when we got our new passports, we have gone on 5 world cruises. We did have new pages added (I know you can't do that anymore, but you can pay for extra pages when you get a new one), and we're still using the same passports which still have several extra pages available, and we're expecting to use these passports until they expire in 2019. I don't want you (or me) to get in trouble with HAL, but I think 40 pages is way off, especially because, looking through our passports, the average used page has 3-4 stamps, and you're right, many countries don't stamp at all. Hope this helps.

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Sunday, March 19 - Day 74

Mumbai

What an amazing city is Mumbai. It’s the largest city in India, the center of Bollywood, and a place where you can shop markets and get gorgeous clothes for next to nothing (if you’re a shopper - I’m not). The most spectacular hotel in Mumbai is the Taj Palace, just across from the Gate of India, one of the two hotels which fell victim to terrorists several years ago. Because we’d been in it several times, it was hard for me to accept the reality of people shooting innocents in what is one of the most elegant places on earth. I was reminded of that yesterday when our friend Rich and I entered the hotel (after tight security checks) and the first thing that hit me was the smell of jasmine. The lobby sparkles and appears that nothing bad could ever happen there, but of course it had.

Earlier in the day Rich, Ginni, Leslie and I took a cab to the Oberoi Hotel, a favorite destination of many cruise passengers. Do they go there for the elegant surroundings or the great food? No - they go there for the pharmacy. If you take virtually any medication, you can buy it for a fraction of the cost in India, and this particular pharmacy seems to be the favorite. For example, some people bought Z-Packs, an antibiotic, for $1.00 each. Now if you’re thinking, “I’d worry about buying drugs in a place like India,” you should be aware of how many of our drugs are produced there - basically born there and “raised” in the US.

Afterward, our friendly taxi driver dropped off Ginni and Leslie at the Calaba market where they fulfilled my shopping request: a finely woven Indian linen shirt for John ($18.00). It is beautiful and fits him perfectly. Then Rich and I were taken to the Taj. Why do I like the Taj so well? It’s my favorite place to have a pedicure! It costs about $17.00 (at one of the finest hotels in the world), they bring me a cappuccino just the way I like it, and while the toes are being attended, another attendant gives me a head and neck massage - all for one price. What’s not to like?

Rich and I arrived back at the ship about 1:30, where I joined John for lunch we just relaxed the rest of the afternoon. We had to rest though, because yesterday was our friend Will’s birthday and last night was his birthday dinner with all of our tablemates. Ginni, who is a fantastic artist, had painted portraits (actually miniatures) of each of the gentlemen who had had a birthday in the last three weeks (four of them), and presented those as cards along with personalized Micky Mouse ear hats that she had purchased at the new Disneyland in Shanghai. All we did for two hours was laugh, sing the Micky Mouse Club theme song, and enjoy the evening.

 

Luckily we have two sea days coming up to rest up from our overland, Mumbai and the birthday dinner, even though we’re celebrating those other birthdays tomorrow night. I guess the fun really does never stop.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2017 - Day 75

At Sea en route to Muscat, Oman

(and, as it turns out, Muscat, Oman)

The excitement lately around the ship is pirates! Well, we haven’t seen any yet, but we’re sure getting ready. The sound blasters, the water cannons and the razor wire are all in place and today was our first “intruder drill.” The captain came on and told us the drill was imminent and explained how many blasts of the alarm meant what. The main instruction is that if there is one long ring of the ship’s alarm followed by the announcement “Testing, Testing, Testing,” passengers are to move out of

staterooms and stay in corridors or interior spaces. Everyone who was on the back of Deck 8 by the pool had to come inside. We are to stay away from windows and doors, sit down (in case the ship needs to make sharp maneuvers) and wait until the captain gives the all clear.

The piracy danger area is the Straits of Hormuz between Oman and Iran and then sailing around the Arabian peninsula into the Red Sea. Recently a small Greek freighter was overtaken by pirates in this general area, although the crew was later released with no ransom asked.

What equipment do we have to repel pirates, who usually approach in small Zodiac-type boats holding 5-6 individuals? First is the razor wire, which has been placed around the open parts of Deck 3 to prevent anyone boarding the ship. We have charged water hoses ready on both sides of the Lower Promenade Deck (Deck 3). We also have four long range acoustic devices set up. These look a lot like the huge early TV dishes and put out such strong sound waves that anyone who is their target is not going to be able to hear again for a very long time - if ever. We have also boarded extra security guards and the Bridge will be keeping a close radar watch. I think they have it covered.

The last thing (which most people don’t even notice) is that we’ve increased our speed from our usual 13-14 knots up to about 20 knots as we head toward Muscat. As Captain Jonathan said in 2015, “In these waters, it’s best to put the pedal to the metal.”

Because of our speed, we’ll be arriving in Muscat at 5:00 this afternoon instead of 8:00 tomorrow morning, so many of the passengers will take the opportunity to go ashore.

If you’ve never read about these measures in the past, don’t worry. In six world cruises, we’ve seen these practices taken every time and we’ve never even had a hint of a problem. I think this comes under the category of “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Last evening the show was just our four singers: Maddie, Oliver, Brianna and Tom, with Ollie providing piano accompaniment as well as singing. What a multi-talented guy he is. The show was, as usual, wonderful and I’ll reiterate that this is the best group of “Amsterdam Singers and Dancers” that we’ve ever experienced.

Tonight is sari night (Hindi translation: strips of cloth). Yesterday there was an instruction class in how to wrap and tie a sari, and mine, courtesy of Susie, will be put on in her stateroom, since she actually knows how to do so while I don’t. In addition, this is our second birthday celebration at dinner, and the Mickey Mouse hats are again to be worn. I love our table.

 

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - Day 77

Muscat, Oman

Oman is an interesting country. It is ruled by a sultan who believes that every citizen should have free health care and education, up to and including university for both males and females. It is the most religiously tolerant Middle Eastern country and the sultan makes sure that the infrastructure of the country is well taken care of. When we drove 90 minutes out of Muscat today, it was on a smooth, well-maintained, four-lane freeway. Oman is not what you think of when you think of a typical Middle Eastern country.

Our tour today was to Wadi Shab, which means “wadi for the young.” And boy, was it ever. A wadi is a dry riverbed, and since Oman only gets a few days of rain a year, there are a lot of them. We drove along the coast to a town called Quriyat and then beyond it to the wadi. The tour description said that we would be taken for an “easy” walk through the wadi for about 40 minutes through the canyon and green terraced gardens, which would bring us to a series of streams and pools. Then we would have the opportunity to swim in clear water and swim through a narrow keyhole into a cave and then to an inspiring waterfall. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, that wasn’t exactly what happened. It turned out that the walk was more like an hour and easy it wasn’t. The description said that it was “strewn with rocks and pebbles” but it was more like rocks and boulders, many of them wet, with a 40-foot drop to the water below. I certainly could see why this was the wadi for the young. Our group of 16 all began the walk, but two by two began to turn around and head back to the beginning. We made it about halfway, and when we found out that we had another 30-40 minutes to go, John’s bad knees said “No thank you.” We also then turned around and walked the same amount of time to return to the tented area, where we, along with 10 of the 16 tour members, sat and drank Pepsis and watched the goats climb up and down the rock formations.

The six that went to the pool (singular) said that they did not see a keyhole, a cave, or a waterfall, so I don’t think we missed a lot. The other disappointment was that we were supposed to do some four-wheel driving, but that never happened.

After we were all together again, we headed to an Omani restaurant for lunch, where we had a choice of chicken or fish, and it was a very generous meal with vegetables, rice, sliced tomatoes and naan. Yummmm! Then there was only one stop on the way back to the ship - at a sinkhole, of all things. This isn’t just any sinkhole; this one is huge - probably a hundred yards across - and at the bottom there’s beautiful cobalt blue water in which some people were swimming.

We arrived back at the ship at 4:15 for a 4:30 all aboard, but our 5:00 departure was extended until about 6:30 because some important cargo had not arrived yet. Now, as we sail out into the Gulf of Oman, everything has been delivered and put on board.

Sailaway was on the back deck where we sat with all of our tablemates and enjoyed watching the other ships in the harbor, including the sultan’s two (yes, two) yachts.

I also need to mention our table’s second birthday dinner last evening. This one, which included not only our regular table group but Will and Nancy, was graced by our two favorite officers, Dr. Dave and Georgia, the third officer. Everyone who hadn’t already presented gifts did so, and the Mickey Mouse hats made another appearance. We were pretty sad, though, to learn that Georgia’s contract is up on April 3, so she will be disembarking in Piraeus (for Athens) and we will certainly miss her.

 

Tomorrow will be the first of five sea days as we sail to Aqaba, Jordan, the port for Petra. We’re really looking forward to the free time and hoping that all our friends get better from the various ills that ail them. There’s nothing like sea days to recharge the batteries.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017 - Day 78

At Sea en route to Aqaba, Jordan (for Petra)

The whole ship seems to have relaxed. Early breakfast was pretty empty, so we know that a lot of sleeping in has taken place. The anti-pirate tools are still in place, but it seems that everyone is taking them in stride and going about their leisurely business as usual. The only conversation I’ve heard about the upcoming five sea days reflects a bit of relief after several high-energy ports, and for many people, overlands through India and even a bit of “Delhi belly.”

For the five sea days between San Diego and Hilo, Gene conducted a “marathon,” which had participants walking 20 laps around Deck 3 each morning at 6:30 for a total of 26.2 miles by the end of the week. The reward was 400 Grand Dollars each day, and a total of 2000 for the week. For this five-day segment, Gene has organized a similar activity, but because of the complaints from the passengers on Deck 2 below the “marathon,” it now begins at 7:00 and the total “dollars” for the week is 1000. So sad! I had forgotten that it began today, and I’m still not sure I’ll participate for the rest of the week. The key word there is “rest,” and I think I’ll do better to take it easy between Muscat and Aqaba than to race-walk around Deck 3 twenty times each morning. I guess time will tell - and how I feel tomorrow morning.

I did get to take some time today to get out to “the beach” by the Deck 8 aft pool, in a further effort to ruin my skin, but it was lovely to have the free time to do so. All of my friends had gone in by the time I arrived, so I was free to read quietly (behind the beautiful forevers for book club) and take a bit of a nap.

 

This evening we will be attending our second sommelier dinner on a French theme of “Joie de Vivre.” It is to be a six course dinner paired with wines, so I’ll get all those delicious details to you tomorrow.

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