Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Zanzibar Island, Tanzania

Map picture

I had heard, of course, of Zanzibar, but I honestly thought that it was a city- not so. Zanzibar is an island that is 40 nm off the coast of Tanzania. The major port and city of Zanzibar is Stone Town. We were part of a tour that spent 3 hours touring Stone Town.

Like other places we have seen that were once colonial cities, the old infrastructure from that past is still visible, but in very poor condition. One small, but illustrative example is the traffic lights. During the days of the British, the city had a system of lights installed. Today, they stand dark and rusting.

The history of Zanzibar Island is a sad one; it was the site of the Great Slave Market, once the hub of the slave trade for the whole of East Africa. At its peak, up to 60,000 slaves passed through the market each year. IMG_5237 In 1874, an Anglican Church was built atop the old market, and the old underground chambers where the slaves were held. We visited the church, which was in a very run down condition. In fact, Zanzibar is overwhelmingly Muslim.



From the church, we drove to the city Market, which was only opened to locals after the country achieved its independence. Previously it was a “whites only” market. IMG_5274 Today it is a bustling mass of smells, sights, and people seemingly moving at random. All around are swarms of flies where in some places they completely cover the food for sale.

Gladly leaving the market behind, we started a walk through the seemingly endless narrow streets, which were alive with people. After a short while, I started to pay attention to the large number of small gasoline electric generators that filled the air with the sound of their motors. Even though the building and overhead areas were literally blanketed with wires of all types, it became obvious that the neighborhood is without outside electricity, and that for those few shops that needed power, the electric generator outside the front was how they made it happen. Most of the shops were dark holes whose interiors were barely visible from the bright outside.

Before long everyone in our group was quite literally bathed in sweat – shirts and pants were soaked. The sun was blazingly hot. I would guess the temperature was around 90 degrees F and the humidity was around 80%. So it was a welcome stop when we reached a souvenir shop that had air conditioning. I could care less about the trinkets, but the cool air was literally a life saver for me at least.

Afterwards we continued on to the remains of an old fort which was built by the Portuguese in the 16 century. IMG_5354 Nothing except the four walls remains. During the colonial period, the British turned it into a tennis court for girls, but that too is long gone except for the plaques on the wall which commemorate its opening. From there, it was a short walk to the center of the water front, which has been fixed up to put a nice face on the city. Here are the remains of the old Sultan’s Palace, and a building which they call the House of Wonders, and which today houses the National Museum. IMG_5368 When the 3 story colonial building was constructed, it was a wonder because it was the only tall building in Zanzibar, and it had not only electricity but a telephone system. Inside today are a very few relics from the Island’s past, most in dark glass cases which have not been dusted or cleaned for a very, very long time. Most items are not labeled. Presumably the medicine chest from Dr. Livingston was on display, but I never found it.

Like the rest of Tanzania, Zanzibar is a very poor, third world country. Lisa and I always enjoy getting to see new parts of the world, but the conditions in these places are really sad and should make us appreciate even more how fortunate we are to live where we do.

Our next stop will be 700 nm distant to visit the small island of Nosy Be, which is a part of Madagascar. Madagascar lies back east of the continent of Africa, and is in the Indian Ocean.

I should have pictures from Zanzibar ready later today at


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Safari

Map picture

We finally arrived on the east coast of Africa, making port at Mombasa, Kenya. As soon as we were cleared ashore, our group of 38 headed off to the airport for our 90 minute flight to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, which is located in central Kenya on its southern border with neighboring Tanzania. Our “chartered private aircraft” was over an hour late picking us up, but hey, it Africa after all. The plane was a Dash 8 turboprop, and was operated by a local airline called “540.”IMG_4523

We had been told that a very bad drought had impacted the region, however, the night before our arrival they had received heavy rainfall. So imagine as we are turning onto our final approach and I see that we are landing on a dirt strip that has standing water on it, I thought this might be interesting. On touchdown I felt the aircraft start a slight slide to the left, but correctly the captain stopped using the brakes and instead used reverse thrust, so the problem was quickly corrected--thankfully. In our pictures, I have one that shows how deep the mud was around the aircraft tires. Fortunately the crew was departing with an empty aircraft, or it could have really been interesting.


Our group was warmly welcomed and shepherded in to Land Rovers for a short outing before going to the lodge. That was an experience. The ground in places was soft chocolate colored mud. Lisa described our ride as being in chocolate mouse. We slipped, slid, and bounced along, occasionally doing all three motions simultaneously.IMG_4623 One of our vehicles became hopelessly stuck in the, but that did not seem to faze our drivers, who had the problem solved in almost no time.

I don’t think any of us knew what to expect when we arrived at our lodge. We all were aware that we would sleep in tents, so I, for one, had visions of scenes from Out of Africa, sitting around a fire and bedding on cots, with wild animals roaming outside our tent flap. Well, not so in the least. The grounds were surrounded by a high electrified fence. The “lodge” was a magnificent large structure, and the service was six stars at least. It is true that our room was a tent, but it had a very nice bed, hot and cold running water and toilet facilities. All in all, it was not bad for “roughing it in Africa.”


There is one interesting story to share. As many of you know, I suffer with sleep apnea, and must have a machine for breathing at night. I carry the darn thing with me whenever we travel. This adventure was no different. However, when our room steward saw the device he exclaimed that we would not have electricity all night. This huge isolated valley does not produce enough electricity to provide power to everyone 24 hours per day. So, instead, they provide power in six hour increments. The power is on for six hours and then off for six hours in a rolling pattern. No sooner had our steward apparently reported the problem, than the camp’s electrician showed up and said he was here to solve the problem. The solution was a huge battery; about 4 times the size of a car battery that was hooked to some type of sensor device so that when the power went off, my machine would continue to function from battery power. It was an amazing little contraption and it worked flawlessly.

After a wonderful buffet lunch we set off on a 3 hour safari in our little Land Rovers. We saw a great many animals, and I will let the pictures do the talking. Each vehicle was in radio communication with the other vehicles and they “hunted” as a pack. At one minute we were all racing off in different directions until one vehicle found something and before long all the other vehicles were converging on the “find.” It became apparent very early on that the animals were very accustomed to the presence of all these vehicles and literally paid us no attention. Shortly after we set out, we all stopped on a hillside where we set off on a short climb up the hillside. Waiting for us were some rangers who had discovered a family of white rhinoceros. I was amazed that the animals ignored our group. We were able to get quite close. In fact, the baby rhino was asleep when we arrived, and we could actually go right up to it and rub its skin. Finally, the baby tired of all the rubbing and set off to rejoin the family. This was pretty amazing stuff.

At the end of a very long and very tiring day, we were treated to entertainment before dinner and then a full sit down dinner with a very good menu. Finally it came time to sleep in our tent. We fell asleep almost immediately, encased in mosquito netting and surrounded by the sounds of the African night. The next thing either of us knew, our steward was calling from outside the tent that he had coffee for us, and that it was time to wake up. I looked at my watch and it said 5:30 am. We quickly dressed in the cold – yes, I said “cold.” After dark the plains cooled rapidly, and we had to wear our jackets the next morning as we set out at sunrise for yet another safari run before breakfast.

After breakfast and checkout, we had some free time before lunch and our flight departure at 2pm. We were offered the opportunity to visit a nearby Maasai village, and everyone in the group took up the invitation. It proved to be real treat and a highlight for both of us. Our visit was also a highlight for the village itself.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the village chief and his son.

IMG_5028 The son spoke for his father and welcomed us. In the background, there was much song and dancing as slowly the village warriors started marching towards us in a snaking congo line.

IMG_5042 They arrived amid much celebration and started escorting us toward the village.

IMG_5047 Marching towards us were the village women. All the while the villagers are chanting and singing our welcome. When the two groups merged, we were all taken by the hand and welcomed inside their compound.

This was a very large village, housing over 200 people in traditional Maasai style. The perimeter of the village was completely surrounded by a fence made of tree branches. There were a few portals in and out, which were closed up at night with branches and then opened during the day. The village is built in a large circle, and just inside the fence are the small mud brick huts also laid out in a circle. In the very center of this huge compound, is another fenced in circular area. It is here that the villagers herd is kept safe during the night. During the day the fence is opened, and the herds are shepherded outside by young boys.

The men and the woman each put on a show for the group.

IMG_5104  For the warriors it was a traditional dance in which each warrior demonstrates just how high he can jump from a standing position. All the while this is going on the group is loudly and gleefully singing a rhythmic chant.


IMG_5112 The women then set up in a line where they sang traditional songs for our entertainment. We were then split into small groups and each group was given a tour of a nearby hut. The huts are quite small and I was not sure that I could get inside. Our guide insisted and somehow I managed to squeeze through the elaborate and narrow entrance to stand in the center of the dwelling. On one side was a small baby sleeping under a mosquito net, with his young mother nearby.

IMG_5142 The room was quite warm with a small fire smoldering in a dirt pit. A small hole in the wall let the smoke out and a small amount of light in.

There were some surprises for me in visiting these gentle people. For one thing, in spite of the conditions under which they live, they were all very clean and neat. Unlike the rest of what we have encountered in Africa, they did not “smell.” Everyone we spoke with was conversant in good English, and we learned that children below a certain age were all going to school now. One of the men with whom I spoke was 30 years old, and he had no formal education. However people younger them him were now all required to have schooling. Another young man proudly told me that he would graduate from High School this year and hoped to be able to work in the nearby lodge. A few of us spoke with an elder about this transition, and he explained that the village realized that it needed to grow into the modern world and that they were very supportive of it. So far no one had failed to remain in the traditional village, but they knew someday that would happen.

In the end, I was sad to leave my new found friends. The village had gone out of its way to welcome us and to share they music and their homes. It was a really great experience. But, all good things come to an end, and so we set out for our return to the ship, but it was not to be quite that simple.

Our flight departed at 2pm and we flew north for 40 minutes to Nairobi. Once there we all had to leave the aircraft, which had parked at the general aviation ramp. We then walked a very long way to the international terminal in order that we could clear immigration to leave Kenya. Once that was completed we then went to our departure gate and once again cleared security that is all but poor Lisa. She had acquired a small scepter as a souvenir while at the Maasai village, and incredible as it sounds, the authorities were not going to let her go on the aircraft. After making her stand for a very long time, security worked out a plan in which the souvenir would be taken by a gate agent to the aircraft and shown to the captain. If he was OK with it being onboard the aircraft then it would be returned to Lisa. Actually it was quite humorous to everyone, and as expected the Captain almost laughed when asked about it. So off we flew, south to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where with any luck our ship would now be waiting for us. The flight was 90 minutes long.

Upon our arrival we were all bone tired, having been up since before dawn. The sun was setting and all anyone wanted was a shower and a chance to clean up – but there was one little problem; we did not have entry visas for Tanzania. I do not know where the screw up occurred, but we were all told that the ship would handle our visas and charge our shipboard account for the cost. Well, it did not happen. So, instead of going to the ship, we all had to pile on a bus and be driven over to the main terminal where visas could be obtained. While it took almost a hour to sort all this out, fortunately our guide was able to convince the authorities to let us sit in our bus while they completed the visa forms on our behalf.

Thus ended a very long but very rewarding two days. I am sorry I have not been able to write sooner, but the very next morning we visited the island of Zanzibar and I am just now getting caught up. I do have some good news however. If you check the picture file, you will see that I do have pictures uploaded from this adventure. I have not had time to give them proper labels yet, but I think you will enjoy them none-the-less.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Just Cruisin’ for Now

Map picture

Events have finally calmed down a bit and we are back to normal, just cruising along on a beautiful Christmas Day in the Indian Ocean. We are headed west towards Mombasa, Kenya and should arrive there tomorrow morning.

The Seychelles held yet one more little surprise for us after what I will call “the lifeboat adventure.” The following day the ship was to have moved west 35 nm to Silhouette Island, where we were to land on a private beach for a luncheon barbecue. However, when we arrived at the island the weather conditions were not good and the forecast called for 50 kt winds by afternoon. The Captain wisely decided to keep on going towards Kenya, which is almost 1200 nm distant.

Today is our third day at sea and except for the security safe in our room, locking up and having to be drilled open, nothing much exciting has happened. Our next big “scheduled” adventure begins tomorrow. We depart the ship immediately after it docks and proceed to the Mombasa airport. There we will board a private charter flight for a two hour flight into the center of Kenya, landing just south of the capital Nairobi at the Maasai Mara airstrip.

Maasai Mara is one of the premier game reserves in Kenya, and we will spend the remainder of that day and most of the next day on safari. We will overnight in individual tent rooms. Lisa and I are both very excited about this adventure and are hoping to obtain some really good animal shots. I visited this reserve almost 30 years ago and remember well the majestic sight of wild giraffe against the background of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The following afternoon we will travel to Nairobi in order to board another charter flight to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There, assuming everything goes according to plan, we will rejoin our ship, the Silver Wind.

I have had time these last three days to finally work on my pictures and uploaded them this afternoon so you will have a Christmas gift from Jimbob.

Lisa and I want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Real Life Drama

Look, Lisa and I really enjoy travelling, and we both know that “things happen,” which is all part of the experience, but enough already!

I had hoped to focus my next blog on “good things,” but sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. So, hang on for yet another adventure in the continuing travels of Lisa and Jimbob.

Today we are still at anchor at Praslin Island. We are not supposed to be here, but we are. The ship was to have departed last evening at 6 pm and cruised overnight to the nearby island of La Digue, arriving at 8 am, but we have not moved an inch. Now get this, the island of La Digue is only about 2 nm from Praslin. In other words, we have been looking at it out our window all along. The Captain announced this morning that the sea conditions and winds at La Digue were potentially dangerous for launching tenders to shore, so instead, he would launch tenders from our current anchorage and they would travel the 2 nm distance in about 30 minutes; seemed fair enough.

We were travelling today in an organized group, and would be the second boat to launch. When the time came, we all marched down the stairs to the launch platform, which is a pier like structure which folds out of the side of the ship. Rather than a nice large tender, which is a catamaran type craft that can hold over 100 people, there was just a small lifeboat bouncing up and down on the waves and slamming into the pier. Boarding the small boat was very difficult. It was going up and down and sideways so violently that just timing the placement of your feet was a task, not to mention the fact that it had a low ceiling so you had to bend down to enter. Passengers were quite literally picked up by the crew and lowered into the boat where we then had to crawl along a center bench to find a place to sit. There were about 40 of us, and the process took a very long time. Finally, we were all stuffed into our little spots, and the boat departed. It was quite rough, but bearable, and we were after all off on an adventure.

Suddenly, I sensed that the engine was slowly being throttled back, which seemed strange – why would we slow down? It kept getting slower and slower, until finally it gasped its last breath and stopped completely. Not to worry, because conveniently sitting right by the engine cover was a coverall-shrouded mechanic, who instantly opened the engine compartment where his tools were already neatly arranged. Wait a minute! How did we “just happen” to have a spare mechanic onboard? That can only mean that they had some known problem with this boat before it was ever sent out into rough water with us in it. Immediately, the boat was enveloped in a strong odor of gasoline-we had a bad fuel leak. The mechanic labored, and people begin to cough and gasp from the fumes until finally the mechanic raised his head and signaled for them to start the engine. I was dumbfounded – why in the world would you potentially introduce a spark into what was an obviously combustible mixture? I don’t know, but the engine coughed, sputtered, and finally started, so all is well that ends well – right?

Wrong! The fuel smell became even stronger, and suddenly the engine fell silent. The mechanic goes back to work, leaning way down into the fume-filled engine compartment. The boat is now rocking pretty-good, and people are trying to make jokes and act unconcerned. When the mechanic surfaces this time he is white as a sheet and clearly getting sick, but he calls for the engine to be started yet again. Again it runs for a very short while, and this time it dies permanently. The poor mechanic leans down once again and does his best, but soon he is vomiting from the fumes and the rocking boat; clearly, he has given up the ghost. He is not the only one who is sick. One by one people succumb to the violent rocking, and we now have about half the boat leaning over the sides sick.

To my surprise, the Silver Wind does not send a tender to assist us until well after all of this had transpired, even though there was a tender sitting at the “pier” as we left the ship. When help finally arrives, pretty much everyone on our little ship is sick and the seas have become very rough. At first the tender attempts to tie up beside us with the intent being to transfer us to the tender, but the seas are so rough, that both ships are constantly bouncing up and down at different rates and banging into each other violently. Some people panic and try to jump onboard the tender, and we came very close to have some serious injuries.

When it was obvious that the transfer idea would not work, the tender then attempted to tow us behind it. It is a miracle that a crew member was not injured in the efforts to secure the tow, but finally we set off in “tow.” I do not understand why they did not just tow us back to the ship, which was in “relatively” calm waters and close by. Instead they set out across the tumultuous waters headed to La Digue. The seas turned into huge swells, and the tow was not going well. As we rose and fell in the high swells, we wallowed back and forth in the wake of the tender; at times running up on the tender so that the tow line went slack, and then falling back as the tow line “snapped” violently. I could not believe it could get worse, but it did. Soon people all over the boat were sobbing or crying openly. Some were praying. Every jerk of the line was as if we had hit a rock, violently shaking the boat. Then everyone was told to get down – the tow rope was starting to break and they were concerned that if it snapped someone could be hurt. The rolls became worse, and each time the crest of the waters crept closer to our sides, occasionally spilling water into the craft. The lady sitting across from Lisa finally became ill and lost her cool. To Lisa’s credit, she turned into a good Lisa “Nightingale,” and helped the poor woman through the worst. Finally, I started to really get addled. I was straining on every wave and bump to keep from hitting the sides of the boat and my entire body was starting to quiver. At one point, I wonder just how much more of this the poor little boat could take, not to mention the toll on my fellow passengers in this nightmare.

Slowly, very slowly, the two tethered boats entered the breakwater and the tempest began to subside. The interior of the little boat was a shambles, covered with towels full of vomit, and used handy-wipes which had been handed out for us to cover our noses with. After docking, people had to literally be carried off the boat. I could walk, but I was so unsteady that I had to just stand a long time to stop from quivering.

This was a really sad experience and completely unnecessary. Whoever made the decision to launch us in a small lifeboat in those sea conditions made a serious error in judgment. Add to that the fact that the boat had a known mechanical deficiency, and it is absolutely inexcusable. I realize that conditions change, and that things happen, but I personally believe this happened because someone made a really bad set of decisions, and I actually wrote a letter to the Captain telling him just that. I doubt that it will do any good, but it makes me feel better.

The scene onshore was confused, and apparently they were getting conflicting instructions from the ship about what to do. In the end, we were allowed to complete our tour of the small, 4 sq mile island, but we had to be back at the pier at noon to catch the commercial ferry over to the island of Praslin. From there, the ship’s tenders would meet us and take us back to our ship. This was because the waves were not so bad from Praslin to the ship. Believe it or not, when we arrived at Praslin, there was no tender to meet us. We had to stand around in the heat for almost 40 minutes for a tender to arrive. When we arrived at the ship, the vessel had a small list – enough so that the “pier” was dipping in and out of the water rather abruptly. Exiting the boat was not an easy task, and just as I did so, the ship rolled and my shoes were covered as water washed over the pier. What a day!

Let me at least tell you about the Island of La Digue. As I mentioned, it is small, very small. Transportation is by ox cart or bicycle. Recently, motorized vehicles had been introduced, but at this time there are 20 ox carts and 20 vehicles – so it is toss up who is winning. We went by the Island’s gas station, which was unlike anything I had seen. They have drums of gasoline, with hand operated pumps on top that the customer operates to pump gas into their vehicle. We visited an old plantation where coconut oil was produced, and then stopped for a cold bottle of water and the beach before returning back to our ship.

I really don’t make this stuff up. I must say this trip has been full of surprises – I wonder what is to come?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pesky Little Pirates

The last time I wrote Lisa and I had survived our journey all the way to Johannesburg, and we were sitting comfortably in a Business Class lounge with free Wi-Fi. We had arrived at 6pm and had until midnight to rest and board our final flight that would take us to the island of Mahe’ in the Seychelles. Life was good – ah, but as the worm turns, it was not to last, and as the Bard would say, “Therein lies yet another tale.”

Lisa started nagging me around 8pm to let’s go check in with Air Seychelles. One little problem, Air Seychelles only has two flights a week from Johannesburg, so they did not really have a check-in counter per se’. Personnel from another airline would fill that role for them temporarily, and we had been told that it would be no earlier than 9 am before someone could find where they were tonight. So, I wanted to sit fat dumb and happy in our nice lounge until later. Lisa simply would not have it – and being married, I dutifully packed up our stuff and we went looking for Air Seychelles. Boy did that turn out to be a good move.

It took almost 45 minutes before we found ourselves in a little crowded transit lounge where we were to check-in. However, not a single sign indicated where Air Seychelles was. We waited for awhile, and started to get nervous, so I approached the only person at the counter who was not busy, and asked where we could find our check-in counter. She looked up and said “ah, Mr. Stevens, I have been waiting for you.” As it happened, we were the only transfer passengers for the Seychelles flight, but what followed was no fun. She admonished us for not having assigned seats, and wanted us to know that the flight was oversold and overbooked. She promised to do her best to get us on the flight, but we should consider ourselves lucky if we got into economy class! If we missed this flight, we would be guaranteed space on their next flight – which was three days later, and which would cause us to miss our ship’s sailing.

No longer fat, dumb and happy, we were stunned. The agent made several phone calls, and then waited for a return call. All of this was done in French, so we had no idea where all of this was going. Somewhere along the line she asked if we had any bags – well, I answered, not with us, they were checked through from Kansas City. More phone calls, and then a request to produce our baggage claim checks. Finally, she puts down the phone and announces that she has been able to get us on the flight, in business class no less, just not seated together. Whoopee- but wait, there is more: they have no idea where our bags are. The bags had not been delivered to the airline yet, even though we had been at Johannesburg for almost 3 hours at that point. However, we were not to worry because if they missed this flight the airlines would send them on in 3 days. Of course, our ship would have sailed by then, and we would very likely never see those bags again.

More than a little saddened by this sudden change in events, we at least consoled ourselves that we would make the ship, and guessed we could wear the same clothes for the entire trip if necessary; we would find a way by darn it! Rather than head off to our nice lounge, we decided it would be smart to be at the gate early, boarding pass or not. The gate was at the end of a long hallway, and we were the first to arrive around 10 pm. As we were walking to the gate, the terminal was shutting down for the evening. Shops and restaurants were closing, and when we arrived at the gate we could hear the air conditioning fans cut off. Before long the gate area became sweltering, but we dutifully sat and guarded our seats. First one person arrived, then more and suddenly the hallway was filling up with people and a line to board the aircraft started to form. We sensed that it might be smart to get in line even though we had boarding passes. There was no order to boarding, no carefully controlled process – and as time passed, tempers started to flare. People started breaking into the line. We started about 10 back from the front and before long there must have been 50 people in front of us. No one was at the counter, and our flight was only 30 minutes from its departure time. The hallway was hot and filled with more people than could possibly get on the aircraft, and people sensed it. Finally two people appeared to start boarding, and it quickly became a cattle rush. Pushing and shoving were commonplace.

We got to our seats and found that both were broken. My seat was not even secured on its front legs, and if you rocked back, the entire frame pulled out of the floor. The aircraft quickly filled, and I could hear turmoil in the back. What amazes me is that the airline knew the flight was overbooked, but still it let people try to board and then tried to sort it out at the end. It was musical chairs and if you got to your seat and it was occupied, gee, too bad.

Finally a large number of people had to leave the aircraft, and we settled down for our flight – it was already well past our scheduled departure at midnight. But wait – the airline had waited to load the luggage until it knew exactly who would be on the flight. So we sat at the terminal for over an hour while the bags were loaded and finally departed around 1:30 am.

We arrived at Mahe’ Island around 7:30 am, cleared immigration and went to collect our bags – hopefully. We waited, and we waited. The hall filled with people and we waited. Finally some bags appeared and we waited. As time went by and the hall began to empty our names were called to customer service. An agent informed us that our bags had not been located, but just to be sure we should wait until everything was off loaded and then come back and complete the paper work. We were chest fallen. This meant there was no way our bags would make the ship by the time it sailed the next day and heaven only knew when or if they would ever catch up with us. Almost all the people had left the hall, and we were gathering our papers to file our claim, when lo and behold one of our bags appeared. Oh joy, oh joy! One is better than none. The carousel stopped and our hopes were dashed. Then suddenly it started again and as if by magic our remaining two bags wonderfully and magically appeared. Life is good!

Clearing customs we were to look for a driver from our hotel that would be carrying a sign with our names. We saw several drivers from our hotel, but no one was there to meet us as planned. Fortunately, people were pleasant and spoke good English, so before long we were loaded and finally headed to a bed. Because we were arriving so early, we had paid for a room the night prior in order that when we arrived, we would have a room for us to crash. Arriving at the hotel, we were directed to sit in the adjacent lobby area and we would be seen by the next agent. We waited, and we waited, and when I went to see what was happening I saw people coming in and being waited on immediately. I think they had just forgotten we were there. Finally getting someone’s attention, we were told that even though we had paid for a room to be ready, it did need to be “freshened” which would take an hour, so perhaps we should eat breakfast. We did not care about food – all we wanted was to crash! At that point we had been travelling 33 hours and just wanted to sleep. Finally we did get to bed, but we had such bad jet lag that we were both sick until finally today we are feeling better.

But enough of our trip, you really want to know about the Pirates--not to worry. Our education started right after our landing at the airport. On our drive to the hotel, we could clearly see a military vessel just outside the harbor. Our driver told us that “the Americans had come to help the Seychelles people.” That was good news, but wait there is more, much more. When we got to the hotel, the lobby had around 15 to 20 young men and one woman all of whom looked like athletes. There was no way to cover the fact that they were military, and as we learned, they were US Army. We asked our driver about that as we drove to our ship, and he said that military units were at virtually all the island’s hotels. They were here to deal with the pirates, he told us. In fact he said that the US had opened a small base at the end of the island and stationed three of it drone aircraft there to protect the Seychelles. As we pulled up to our ship, we found it docked next to a US Destroyer – we could not have felt safer. But there is more. Our ship was to sail at 8pm. It did not. Our next stop was the Island of Praslin, which was actually very close by. The ship was scheduled to depart at 8pm, and very slowly cruise to arrive the next morning at 7am. In all our travels, I have never seen a ship miss it sailing time by much, yet we spent the night safely docked in Victoria and around 6 am departed the harbor at high speed – I am guessing we were at full speed. I have never seen a ship maneuver the way we did. Rather than slowing down for the entrance to Praline, the ship executed some abrupt maneuvers that shook the entire vessel, and only when another war ship closed behind us did the ship slow down. We are now anchored in the harbor of Praslin, and the entrance is guarded by the warship. I will be interested to see what is to come. We are due to sail again tonight at 6pm and to arrive at the nearby Island of La Digue at 8am. Time will tell if we actually sail at night or wait until the dawn. On the marine chart that is posted showing our route, we are clearly operating in an area that is marked “Area should be avoided by all vessels.” But at this moment we feel rather safe.

I have skipped telling about the actual sights but so far there is not much to tell on that front. Our brief stay on Mahe’ was uneventful, and we spent most of it in bed recovering. That was not all bad since it poured rain the entire time we were there, and we could not have gone out anyway. The temperature was around 90 degrees and the humidity was 100%. As I said, the ship moved today to the nearby island of Praslin, where the temperatures are a more moderate 85 degrees, and we have had only passing showers. We had a private car drive us around the island. It was beautiful and I hope the pictures do it justice. It has some of the most unspoiled beaches I have ever seen. Tomorrow we move to another island, and by then, perhaps I will be caught up and can get some pictures uploaded.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Johannesburg Stop

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Lisa and I are currently sitting here in Johannesburg, South Africa cooling our heels until our flight to the Seychelles departs this evening at midnight. It has been a very long day already, and it will become even more so after our 7 hour layover here in Johannesburg followed by a 7 hour flight to Mahe’ Island, where we land around 7 in the morning.

As everyone knows, I absolutely love flying – even if it is not in my own plane. But I tell you the truth, the TSA has just about taken all of the joy out of that life’s pleasure.

We arrived yesterday morning at the Kansas City airport 2 hours early for our flight. With such a small airport, that should have been more than enough time. Obtaining our boarding passes and checking the bags took only a few minutes after which we made a quick bathroom stop and headed to the security checkpoint for our gate. There was a small line, not too daunting, but it was not moving very fast. To fast forward, by the time we cleared security our plane had landed, disembarked all the passengers and was boarding again. We ran to get out seats only to have an hour wait while the remaining passengers cleared security. To say that security was a little over the top in Kansas City would be an understatement. As an example, every single item in my carryon was removed from the bag and separately x-rayed. Talk about dumb – I know the drill so everything in the bag was carefully placed into clear plastic bags so it could be easily identified. That did not make any difference; in the end I was given back an empty bag and seven plastic carrying trays containing my stuff. To pack that bag had taken hours, but now I had to hurriedly throw everything inside and run for the gate, just hoping I had not missed something. Everyone was subject to the same level of scrutiny. Seriously, this is overkill.

Departing late for Atlanta, we arrived only a few minutes from our scheduled time. That made no difference to us since we had a 3 hour layover; in which we grabbed some lunch and found our way to the international terminal. We boarded the flight and the departure time came and went – still we sat. Finally the captain came on to tell us that one of the passengers scheduled for this flight did not show up, and so his bags had to be found and removed from the aircraft before we could depart. That took yet another hour!

We had seats in business class, seats 3A and 4A, which I thought was a little weird. Weird is the only way to describe the seating on this aircraft. Imagine if you will a plain wooden coffin with six foot sides. Remove the bottom and shorten one side to half its length. Then fit a reclining aircraft seat into the box and there you have our seating arrangements. Our heads were at the window and we faced into the cabin, each little box side by side. No one could see outside the aircraft without completely turning around. To gain some space the boxes were set at a 45 degree angle with all of us facing forwards and towards the isle. I could not see the person in front of me, or the person behind me (Lisa.) So for the entire flight Lisa and I could not see nor talk to each other without getting up from our seats and standing in the aisle. To make matters worse, for me at least, the box was very narrow. I just about needed a spray of pam to slide into my seat. To complete the experience, I can tell you that the seat was one of the most uncomfortable I have ever encountered and so I sat in quiet agony in my little box for the 16 hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg – plus the hour waiting to depart. Other than that we had a great flight!

Oh, did I tell you I lost my glasses somewhere in that wonderful little box. When I went to sleep I put my glasses in my shirt pocket. When I awoke they were gone. No matter how hard I searched or how hard the three crew members searched, the glasses had disappeared. Early this morning before landing, I tried again, and at the last minute, I caught a glint of something that was directly behind my seat in a hole that led to the seat’s mechanism. There was the little devil, but getting to it was yet another story.

Needless to say we are glad to be here in South Africa. Our bags are checked onward and life is good. We do not yet have boarding passes for the ongoing flight, nor is the flight listed on the public schedules. People tell us not to worry; someone from the airline will show up before midnight to provide check in… So, keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Making a List and Checking it Twice


But, not to find out who has been naughty and nice! Lisa and I are going over our packing lists in preparation for our next adventure over the Christmas Holidays.

This year we will be making our way to the Seychelles, specifically the city of Mahe on the island of Victoria. The Republic of Seychelles is an archipelago nation composed of 115 islands which are situated 930 miles off the Eastern coast of mainland Africa. It is also northwest of the large island of Madagascar. It has been in the papers a great deal of late because the pirates operating out of Somalia have begun using the Seychelles as island outposts allowing them to operate even farther out to sea. In the last year alone, ships of the Seabourn line were attacked on three separate occasions.

Anyway, let’s not focus on the negative – we will spend about six days cruising in and around the various islands before proceeding to Mombasa, Kenya. There, Lisa and I will take an overnight excursion into the game reserve of Masai Mara which is in western Kenya on the border with Tanzania. There, we will spend a night in a tent and hopefully get some good photographs of the many animals that inhabit the reserve.

Our ship will then continue southward along the coast of Africa, visiting Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and Zanzibar, Tanzania, before heading east to the island of Madagascar. We will make a number of stops in and around that area before sailing south to South Africa, where after several stops we will arrive at Cape Town, the end of our journey.

This e-mail is being sent to people who are on our distribution list to receive our travel updates. This is both a way for me to test the various addresses to insure I am up to date and also to allow anyone who would prefer to opt out to do so by just dropping me a reply to that effect.

As I will do on the trip, this will be posted on our blog: . I have made changes to the blog so that it will now only display my last posting only and not run on for page after page. Former posting are readily available from a menu along the right side of the screen. As before, there will be a convenient link to our photographs, which I sincerely hope to be able to keep current while we travel, assuming our ship has good satellite coverage.

Since we will not be in town this Christmas, let us take the opportunity now to wish each and everyone of you a Merry Christmas and our best wishes for the coming year.

Jim and Lisa

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Bother

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Volos, Greece

Yesterday I said that I would probably not have time to write about our visit today to Volos, Greece, but in fact there is so little to tell, that it is easier if I just get it over with.

Today turned out to present us with the most useless shore excursion we have ever experienced. Volos is pretty enough. It is a city of around 120,000 people located about 200 miles up the coast from Athens. My guess is that Princess stopped here because it was convenient to Athens, where we will arrive tomorrow morning around 5 am and begin the “turnaround day.” As a tourist destination, Volos really offers nothing that I could see of interest.

We began our tour around 8 this morning. According to our guidebook we were to visit two quaint and colorful Greek villages nestled in the hills surrounding Volos, and also would make a stop at the local museum; sounded reasonable enough. However, as it turns out today is Monday and the museum is closed, so the tour simply added free time to fill the gap.

We left the pier and drove for about an hour up the nearby mountains. The road was very narrow and it seemed as if we took one switchback after another forever. The day was overcast with a light drizzle and the scenery was unremarkable. We drove past homes and some small hamlets. Our guide was an absolute bore. She never spoke more than five words in a row – usually only three, before she paused to think of what next to say. She spoke very slowly and in a complete monotone – no change in inflection or pitch or volume. To make matters worse she had nothing interesting to say, just stories about Greek mythology. I was so lost in her constant stories about some Jason or other that I have absolutely no clue what she was saying.

Finally our bus reached a point where the road became so narrow that it could go no further. At this point we had climbed around 3,000’. From here we had to walk over a half mile up a very narrow, steep and wet cobblestone road. Eventually we came to a small plaza where our guide stopped and proudly announced that we had arrived. She looked at her watch and told us that we had 1 hour and 10 minutes to explore and shop at which point we would meet again at the bus – that is the bus that is now a half mile down a wet, narrow cobblestone road. With those cheery words she promptly disappeared into a nearby café.

I looked around in total disbelief. There was nothing to do or see. A walk to the edge of the plaza gave a view of the valley below.IMG_3841 A very small church was open so you could look inside, but all the shops were closed and there was really no place to walk. There was one small café open, so Lisa and I grabbed an espresso to kill time before the bus departed.

Back on the bus we departed for our next stop. Now listen carefully – the bus drove back down the road for no more than 5 minutes and pulled over at a small hotel we had passed earlier. The doors opened and our guide cheerfully announced that we would now stop for a cup of coffee and meet back at the bus in an hour! I was dumbfounded. This was not a village; it was just a small hotel off the side of the road. IMG_3903 We had passed a small church about a block prior, so I at least walked back to get a photograph or two, but another hour was wasted doing nothing. The small hotel had two severs to handle the roughly 120 people who had just descended on it, so you can imagine how long the process took just to get that “cup of coffee.”

Finally we departed and drove back down the narrow, curving, steep road back to the port and bordered our ship around noon, having done absolutely nothing of any earthly interest.

So our journey ends. We have had many wonderful experiences and a great time over all. Tomorrow we will make the long journey home and look forward to seeing everyone.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nessebar- A whole lot about nothing!


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Varna, Bulgaria

Our ship docked yesterday at Varna in Bulgaria. Unfortunately I think that in hindsight, Lisa and I selected the wrong shore excursion. We picked an all day outing to the ancient city of Nessebar, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage City. I did not know anything about the city, but with that stamp of approval, it had to offer something interesting. Well, it did not! It was a long hard day for virtually nothing.

We drove for almost 3 hours along the Black Sea south from the city of Varna to the city of Nessebar. IMG_3633Bulgaria is a poor farming country, and the drive was made on old style narrow winding roads. Pretty much all we saw were small family farms with an occasional small village to break the monotony.  In the process of our drive, we did learn some very interesting things about Bulgaria.

Our guide was quite well educated, as are many of the guides, and she is married to a physician specializing in Oncology. It was interesting how she explained what had happened in Bulgaria after the fall of the Soviets. In her mind, the country was very happy to be rid of the communist system and looking forward to this thing called democracy and capitalism. They were sure when the communists left that America would come to teach them how democracy and capitalism worked. But America never came, and the country fell into very bad times. During the Soviet era, everyone had work. Their farmers had markets and their industry made for export to the Soviet Union. When the Soviet system failed, so too did the entire economic basis of the country. Old style Soviet farms were split up and given back to the people, but they did not have the equipment to work the farms, and there was no place they could borrow the money to buy the equipment. All of their foreign exchange contracts were now null and void, and no one knew how to get them back. So they had almost no way to produce anything, and no one knew who to sell it to if they did! It was a mess. Many people assumed that in this new age of capitalism they, would quickly get rich.

Let me give you a good example. On our drive, we went through what was previously a small village by the sea. In the last several years, developers had come in and built the city up with hotels, casinos, apartments and condo’s. The amount of building was absolutely incredible. I am not joking when I say that it covered a huge area. Of course the quaint little village was no longer recognizable, but this was capitalism at work; or was it? I do not think they ever thought about who was going to buy all those apartments and condo’s. Where were all the tourists going to come from? Somehow they assumed that people from all over Europe would be flooding in, but guess what; it did not happen. And so now these large and beautiful buildings sit empty, unattended and are becoming rundown. Our guide told us that in the last year, Russians had starting purchasing the properties for almost nothing, and that it has reached the point where 4 or 5 hotels are bought by the Russians every week.

There are some bright spots on the horizon for Bulgaria. It has been accepted by the European Union, but will not gain full membership until 2014. In the meantime, it is a small agrarian country that is in bad need of capital.

Finally we arrived as Nessebar. Well, actually there are two Nessebars. There is the ancient city we had come to see, which sits on a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge. Then there is the new Resort city of Nessebar, that was identical to what I already described had happened up the road. Huge areas had been developed and now sit virtually empty.

After 3 hours on the bus, we were all understandably anxious to get on with seeing something. Our bus stopped to let us off, and immediately the driver was accosted by the police and a shouting match ensued. There was some shoving and it was difficult to actually get off the bus. One of our group accidently brushed up against one of the policeman, and he whirled around and starting shouting at us which his hand on his baton. Our guide quickly hustled us away from the commotion, and left our poor driver to sort it all out.

Our first stop was to the museum where they have housed two items of particular value.IMG_3643 First, they have some gold jewelry on display from over 5,000 years ago. And second, in the basement they have an incredible display of Icons painted on Oak Wood, many of which date from the 1st century.  IMG_3646








Then we started to walk into the old walled city. We would walk for  5 minutes and stop to shop. Then walk another 5 minutes and stop to shop. It went on and on that way for our entire visit. In other words there is very little of the old city that still remains for viewing, but what they do have is a nice concentrated market place for tourists. So our grand tour to a UNESCO site turned out eventually to be 5 hours in a bus so we could shop until we dropped. What a bust!IMG_3650

By now it was 2 in the afternoon, and we had had nothing to eat or drink. Everyone was tired and a little cranky, but it just kept getting better. We had entered the town in the front, and our guide told us that the bus would meet us at the rear of the city down at the bottom of a very long steep street made of cobblestones. When we get there, the bus is no where in site. At first our guide was re-assuring that it would arrive shortly, but when it did not, she suggested that we walk around the city and go back to the front. Somehow she was getting confusing stories from her many harried phone calls, and she was clearly losing her cool. It was a long walk around to the front and when we arrived, there was no bus. The sun was very hot and there was no shade and no place to sit. More phone calls, and more confusion. Finally our guide said that the police will not let our bus into the city until the group that is behind us is also ready to depart. This makes no sense, but we wait in the sun for 20 minutes before they arrive but still no bus.

This time our guide goes back to the police and an intense conversation ensues. When our guide comes back she is very subdued and quiet and asks that we all huddle around. She says that the police are angry with our driver and that if he shows his face in this city again today he will be arrested. No one knows why they are so upset, but there you have it – no driver allowed. However after pleading nicely with the police, he finally relented and said to our guide that because she was now showing the “proper attitude” he might suggest an alternative. If she would take our group around the back road and over the nearby hill, a bus could come pick us up there and could not be seen by the police. So they could hardly arrest someone if they do not see him. She quickly took the compromise and we set out on a very long hot walk to get out of their sight.

We finally stopped for lunch at a local restaurant around 3 and during lunch we were treated with a local folkloric show. IMG_3722 The food was wonderful as  were the wines. The entertainment was well done, and before long everyone seemed in a better mood and so we started our 2 ½ drive back to the ship.

Long day – but hey, it happens.

Finally, I want to share some incredible photographs with you that were taken just this morning. Lisa and I awoke at 6 am and I looked out our window, and before my eyes was the city of Istanbul passing by in the early morning light. It was all alight. I grabbed by camera and starting shooting away. The bridges were lit with every changing colors, and it was one of those times when it was hard to take a bad picture. I do hope you enjoy.IMG_3753 IMG_3761

Today is a leisurely day at sea. Tomorrow we will visit the Greek city of Volos. We signed up for just a half day tour because tomorrow afternoon we have to pack for our return trip home. The following morning our ship will arrive in Athens around 6 am, and with luck, we will be walking in our door around 8pm on Tuesday night. Because of this tight time schedule, I doubt that I will have time to write about Volos or post any pictures until I get home.

I do hope that you have enjoyed our sharing.



Friday, September 25, 2009

The Crimean Coast of Ukraine

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  Yalta and Odessa

Located on the northern shores of the Black Sea, the Crimean peninsula offers a usually mild, sunny climate which is ideal for a resort environment.

Yalta is at the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, and is most famous as the site of the Yalta Conference in 1945, at which Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill decided the course of Europe following the end of the war with Germany.

Our excursion was to visit two of Yalta’s imperial palaces. The first stop was at Massandra Palace,IMG_3386 which was the summer residence of Tsar Alexander III. As you would imagine it was very beautiful, but as with virtually all the imperial palaces, it was ransacked after the fall of the Tsar and its furniture and belongings carted away. It was then turned into a commune, and finally the Germans left the palace in ruins. So it is amazing to see the restoration and just how well they have been able to rebuild the property.

Our next stop was the home of the famous Yalta Conference, Livadia Palace. IMG_3420This Palace was built in 1911, by the last Tsar, Nicholas II. This building is sometimes referred to as “the White Palace” because it is white all over. During our tour we learned a great deal about the Yalta Conference, and finally about the last days of the royal family.

My pictures can tell you a great deal about what we saw, so perhaps what I can add in writing is what we felt and experienced in Yalta.

It was exactly what I expected to see in a former Soviet Republic in many ways. The infrastructure of the city was clearly in bad repair. Their transportation system was a mess. If you can believe this, they are still using electric powered street cars from the early 1950’s! Old buildings were in very poor shape with some having been simply abandoned. Yet, at the same time the city had a very nice resort feel to it. It was colorful in many ways, and it was full of new cars and new construction of “condos.” Our tour guide repeatedly made reference to the good old days of the Soviets. According to her they now have no money for transportation, schools have gone downhill, and the quality of medical care has declined. People do not know how to deal with this thing called “capitalism,” and so many have lost their life savings. She clearly longed for the good old days.

As for me, I liked Yalta and wished I could have had some more time to explore the city. Our tour simply drove between the two palaces and then back to the ship. On the way between the two palaces our bus was stuck in traffic for over two hours, which our guide said is quite normal! So by the time we got back to our ship it, was quite late and we did not have time to explore on our own.

There is one observation I would like to share, and I think it is very telling. Usually when we travel, local people generally smile and occasionally wave a greeting as we go by. I will take India as an example. The people in India went out of their way to say hello, wave or smile and could not wait to have us take their picture; you felt genuine warmth. Both Lisa and I sensed something different in Sochi, but could not quite put it into words until today in Yalta. As our ship was slowly backing out of the very small harbor, the surrounding shoreline was filled with people. As happens on every cruise, passengers started waving goodbye. All over our ship, people were waving and shouting goodbye – then it hit me – not a single person on shore ever waved back – not one. Lisa and I started to discuss our last two days and we realized what we had not grasped until now – almost no one every smiled or waved at us. Instead we were greeted by stares that I would describe as “wary.” No one was hostile or mean or rude – they just stood and starred at us with a look that was not one of just curiosity but was leery at best.

Overnight the ship moved on to Odessa, again in the Ukraine and again on the Crimean peninsula. Odessa is the third-largest city of the independent Ukrainian Republic. The city has a population of around 4 million people. It has a much different feel to it from Yalta. Yalta was a relatively small seaside resort city that relied almost exclusively on tourism. Odessa, on the other hand, is a very large cosmopolitan city that is not only a tourist attraction but which has a strong manufacturing economic basis. I would have to say that I was very impressed by Odessa. It was alive, vibrant and really quite cosmopolitan. At the same time it was plagued by a very old outdated public transportation system, decaying old buildings – in other words the same malaise that we saw in Yalta, but here one could feel a city on the mend.

Our tour took us to an old section of the city which dated from the early 1900’s, where we left our bus for about an hour long walk. IMG_3489

It was still very early in the morning and the city was just coming awake. It was a cool pleasant stroll under clear skies. Again, I think the pictures will be the best way to share this experience. Our walking tour ended at the steps of the magnificentIMG_3538 Opera House that was completed in 1887. We drove around the city some, stopped briefly at the newly re-constructed Cathedral and made a visit to the Obelisk of the Unknown Soldier. While there, school children marched to the monument to pay tribute, and our guide said this is a tradition that continues daily.IMG_3562

Finally we stopped at the Ukraine Museum of Fine Arts. This was a bittersweet visit. On the one hand the Museum, housed in a former palace, was beautiful and it held an important collection of Ukrainian and Russian paintings dating back to the 16th century. Sadly the condition of the building was appalling. Plaster was falling; walls were cracked and streaked with mildew. IMG_3584 The building had no humidity control and no air conditioning. This means that the windows were open so that the paintings were exposed not only to pollution and humidity, but more importantly to sunlight. It was obvious that several of the works had already deteriorated. Many of the paintings had cloths draped over them, so that in order to see the art, you had to lift the cloth aside. This is an example of what I mean about the infrastructure being in bad shape. They simply do not have the money to even maintain their museums.

We are now safely back on the ship where I will try to get some pictures uploaded before dinner. Overnight we will travel to Varna, Bulgaria and have an all day tour – so hang on, there will be more to come.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Russian Riviera


Sochi, Russia

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The Russian Riviera

Sochi, Russia

After leaving Istanbul, the ship transited the Bosphorus Strait into the Black Sea. The Bosphorus is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation. At its widest, it is 12,000 ft., and at its most narrow only 2,300 ft. Our ship is travelling around the Black Sea in a counter-clockwise direction with Sochi, Russia being our first stop. The countries that border the Sea are Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.

Our transit has been anything but smooth. Our room, at the rear of the ship, is at times going up and down so much that all we can do is lie down for fear of falling down. We did learn something interesting at dinner last night. Our Head Waiter is from Romania and lives on the Black Sea. He told us that the kind of weather and seas we were encountering were the norm, and then he asked if we knew how the Sea came to be called “Black.” We had no earthly idea. Well, he pointed outside and asked what we saw – it was dark grey, almost black. Then he said that when we had a chance we needed to look into the water. In the Mediterranean, if you look straight down the water has a beautiful blue color to it. If you look into the Black Sea, it merely looks black. Sure enough when we got up this morning we gave it a try, and he was correct – black.

Sochi rose to prominence when Josef Stalin built his dacha on the grounds of a Sochi Sanatorium. The trend continues today where Vladimir Putin and other high ranking members of Russia’s elite vacation here. Now Lisa and I have been to Russia several times, and two things about Sochi struck us as different.

First, the immigration procedures for Sochi were very strict. We could only go ashore with a Princess organized tour, and we were never to leave the tour group. Going ashore, we had to show our passports no less than three times. The last check of our passports was at a formal passport control station. Everyone had to stand in a long line to await their turn with the passport official. They were hidden from view until you had your turn to go, when the green light came on. It was a slow process, and when my turn came, I fully expected to be greeted by some old bored soviet style official dusting crumbs off his shirt. Instead I was greeted with a scowl by a very attractive young lady whose demeanor could melt nails. She looked me up in her computer and started looking closely at my passport, slowly flipping pages. Her scowl deepened, and her pace slowed. Several time she started to pick up a phone, but each time she went back to flipping pages, more slowly than before. People behind me started becoming restless, and I begin to wonder if my big fat passport with all those stamps was about to get me denied entry to Sochi. After what seemed like an hour, she looked up and slapped my passport down as if I had done something wrong, and motioned me to pass – whew!

The second thing we noted immediately was the cleanliness of Sochi. On our previous visits to Russia, we were not impressed. The streets were dirty and in poor repair. Their parks were not maintained, and in general the cities had a dull and listless feel--not so Sochi. This was a lively, clean very upscale resort city that clearly had residents with money. That was obvious from the villas that were under construction, and in the upscale cars cruising the streets.

Our first stop was to see the old Stalin Dacha.IMG_3251 The Dacha was built high up in the mountains, and even today the grounds have been turned into a very posh property for pricey Russian Dachas. The Dacha was painted green so that it would be less visible in the green forests that surrounded the property. Supposedly the Dacha is exactly as he left it, but while much is original we kept seeing signs that someone was in residence. Well it turns out that the Dacha is available for rent on a weekly basis, and even today people pay large sums of money to rent the place. In other words, it is not normally open for a tour, but today because Princess was in port, the property became a museum, sort of. Our Dacha guide spoke only Russian, so the guide on our bus had to translate. In fact, our guide was brought in from Armenia for the day, as was our bus. Ah well, I just don’t believe that Sochi is quite ready for the world Olympics, but what do I know. I do know that the Russian guide spent a great deal of time extolling the virtues of Stalin, and how great a general he was, and how much he did for Russia – it was enough to make me want to throw up.

We then drove up into the mountains to a spot called Akhun Tower. IMG_3285 I have nothing in my written material about this spot, and all I could understand from our guide was that at one point, this was part of a series of towers to protect the town. We had to climb 140 steps to get to the top, and I must admit that the view from the top was spectacular. When I got down I really needed a bathroom break and when I asked our guide where to go, he set off down the hill to where it was located. I am telling you it was a steep descent into the woods and I swear that we went down as much as I had just climbed for that tower. Getting there, I discovered a unisex hole in the ground with a grumbling old matron standing guard. She was to be paid in Rubles or the “hole” could not be used. No one in our group had Rubles. In fact none of the merchants would take anything other than Rubles, but we were never given an opportunity to obtain Rubles; another slip in their tourist ambitions. Anyway, here I am standing along the side of a steep hill having “needs” if you catch my drift and no Rubles to pay off the guard – and I guarantee she was not going to budge. Fortunately a kind gentleman came to my rescue and paid her my admittance fee, so all turned out well.

That in a nutshell was our tour to Sochi. Of course we had to go back through passport control two more times, but we finally made it back onto the safety of the ship. Well, today was an experience.


PS I was able to upload the blog and the pictures however I do not have time to label all the pictures nor to include pictures in the blog. Sorry, but these next few days are going to be very busy and it is hard to keep up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Europe Meets Asia


Map picture

Istanbul, Turkey

During the last two days our ship, the Royal Princess, travelled at full speed southeast from Venice. We crossed the Adriatic Sea with Italy on our right and Greece on our left. Yesterday we made a left turn around the bottom of Greece and headed northwest across the Aegean Sea towards Istanbul. As we made our way through the Greek Isles, it was a truly beautiful sight.

Early this morning the ship entered the Dardanelles Strait. The Strait is only 38 miles in length. At the most narrow point, it is only ¾ mile wide and never more than 6 miles in width. It may be small, but its importance is immense. It is the body of water that separates Europe from Asia. Technically we will enter the Strait from the Aegean Sea, and when we exit, it will be into the Marmara Sea, which is completely surrounded by Turkey. On its northern shore is  the city of Istanbul. After our stop at Istanbul, the ship will travel a short distance north on the Straits of Bosphorus and enter the Black Sea.

As we entered the harbor at Istanbul this morning the sun was shining and the day looked to be wonderful. IMG_3066St. Sophia

This gave us a chance to get some very good photographs of two of the most important tourist sites, St. Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

IMG_3064Blue Mosque

However, as we got closer to our dock the clouds quickly formed and before we got off the ship, it had started to rain heavily. It continued for the remainder of the morning to intermittently rain or drizzle with overcast skies, which made getting good photographs almost impossible. You will see in the pictures that it is dark and on many shots drops of water on the camera lens are clearly visible.

We had arranged for a private car with a guide because we had visited this city on two prior occasions and did not need the package tour. It turned out that the city was very quiet which was unheard of in our experience. Istanbul is home to over 14 million people and on our prior trips the traffic was awful and extremely slow. It turns out that today was a public holiday. The feast of Ramadan had ended on Sunday, but on Monday they celebrate the Second Feast. All of the shops and businesses were closed--even the Grand Bazaar was closed. So, we were able to zip around very quickly.

Since we had visited before, our guide decided to take us someplace rarely visited by tourists, the Chora Church. IMG_3090 Chora Church

It is reputed to be one of the finest Byzantine Churches in existence. It was built in the 16th Century, and is best know for the marvelous mosaics that cover its walls and ceilings. However, when the Ottoman Turks took over the country, they converted the church to a mosque. Their religion does not allow for any icons to be displayed, so they set about destroying the mosaics. Some were simply chiseled off the walls, but others were merely plastered over and painted. The building was converted to a museum in 1948 and since that time, restorers have patiently been removing the plaster to reveal the outstanding mosaics beneath.


Our guide expected the church/museum to be nearly empty on this holiday Monday, but for some unexplained reason it was absolutely jammed packed with tourists, and not people from our ship either. It was so crowed that it was stuffy with heat and you could hardly move. I was able however in spite of the rain and the crowds to get a few photographs to share.

Our next stop was to St. Sophia. This is without a doubt the best museum in all of Istanbul. On our two prior visits the museum was closed. It was closed again today, except that Princess had made arrangement for the museum to open only for passengers of the Royal Princess. We arrived at the museum around 9 am, which was well before the organized tours had arrived. After some discussion, the guards agreed to allow us to enter, and so unbelievably we had the entire complex all to ourselves. What an experience!

Let me explain a little about St Sophia, and why it is so very important. When the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, now Istanbul, he dedicated himself to building a “New Rome.” St. Sophia, or the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was to be the “queen church” of the new empire. Sadly the original basilica was burned down during the Nike Rebellion, so the Emperor Justinian replaced it with the present masterpiece which dates from around 330 A.D. This huge edifice was constructed of material gathered for all over the ancient empire. Object and stones were brought from ancient Greece to be used in the construction; so much of the interior is much older than its construction date. It was a magnificent basilica.

However, in 1453 the Ottoman Turks defeated the Roman Empire and turned Constantinople into their new capital. St. Sophia’s was converted from a church to a mosque, and graceful minarets were added to the corners. The Islamic faith does not allow images in a place of worship, so the mosaics had to be removed. However the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, had them plastered over rather than destroyed. In 1936, when the structure was converted into a national museum, the original mosaics were discovered, and ever since then their painstaking recovery has been ongoing, and is still underway.


Besides the unique experience of being the only people, except for the occasional guard in this huge and awe inspiring structure, we did encounter a beautiful cat.IMG_3131 Yes, I said a cat in a museum. Our guide explained that this was one special cat. He is fed and maintained by the staff. If you are a tourist and approach the cat, he will let you pet him while he purrs; however if you are a local and approach the cat will run off. Truth be told when President Obama visited the site a few months ago, the cat allowed himself to be picked up by the President, who then proceeded to spend the remainder of his tour carrying and petting the cat. As if to show the truth of his words, our guide approached the cat and he ran off. However, when Lisa approached he allowed her to pet him. Now, you must admit that is one strange story.

My pictures do not do justice to the magnificent interior, IMG_3148but hopefully you can gain some idea of the experience. You will notice that I photographed two very large alabaster jars. These jars were carried on campaigns by Alexander the Great and are over 2,600 years old. 


A short walk in the rain brought us to the Blue Mosque, so named because of the 20,000 blue Inzik tiles that line the interior.IMG_3164 This unique structure has six graceful minarets to adorn the elegant structure.  When built in 1609, it was the intention of the architect to surpass the beauty of St. Sophia just across the street, and by most accounts he did just that. I was able to obtain some good interior pictures and do hope you enjoy.

As we departed Istanbul in the early evening. Lisa and I sat on our deck and marveled at the amazing skyline of the city. As tourists, we had been taken to the old inner city to marvel at the history of the region. Our ship had in fact docked right near the monuments. However as we cruised down the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea we were stunned at the modern city we saw lining the narrow channel. It went on and on for almost two hours. Modern buildings, stunning bridges and super highways; coupled with large high rise office and apartment structures, all combined to remind is that Istanbul is a very large and vibrant modern city with a very long history.

As I am writing this, the ship is proceeding across the Black Sea towards our next destination Sochi, Russia. From the warm and sunny shores of the Mediterranean, we are now traversing a storm tossed sea in a pouring rain. Nearby we can see the mountains of northern Turkey which are already covered in snow.

Our next five days are going to be very hectic with a new stop every day. That means that I may well get behind on writing and in posting pictures, but I will do the best I can. I do hope everyone is enjoying my updates.