Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Suez Canal

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The Other Canal: The Suez Canal

Here is a little trivia question for you: how many pumps does it take to operate the Panama Canal? The answer is; none. The Panama Canal raises and lowers ships through the various locks by means of a natural water pressure differential from the surrounding rain forest created lakes.

OK, let’s try that again. How many pumps does it take to operate the Suez Canal? The answer is: none, but for a different reason. On the Suez Canal there is not a single lock. The Suez Canal is a sea-level waterway connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. I tell you that fact came as a complete surprise to me. Today, our ship transited the canal, which was built in 1869, and is 119 miles long.

We spent the night at anchor off the southern entrance to the canal awaiting our turn to enter. Since the canal can handle traffic only in one direction at a time, ships line up outside the entrance and await their turn to join a caravan going in their direction. Cruise ships are given priority, but still we had to wait until the south bound traffic had cleared before entering. We were scheduled to enter at 6am, and when I awoke at 6:15 the ship seemed to be well underway along the canal. IMG_7673 After a quick breakfast, we ran to the top deck for pictures, but then the sun was so unrelenting that we scurried back to the cabin. After all, the trip north was scheduled to take until 5pm.

Suddenly our ship slowed, stopped and dropped anchor. The Captain came on the PA to inform us that there had been an accident with the southbound shipping and that a large tanker had run aground blocking the channel. He told us that the canal was very narrow and that there were only two places where ships could pass one another; so at this point, he was assuming we might remain at anchor for quite some while. After about an hour, the Captain again came on the PA and informed us that the accident had fortunately occurred in one of the few places along the canal where two way shipping was possible. It appeared that the stranded ship was clearly stuck, but authorities had determined that the northbound convoy could safely maneuver around the wreck. Our position in the convoy had been changed to number one, and momentarily we would raise our anchor and begin our journey north. We had now become the lead ship for a 23 ship convoy.

I could hear our anchor being raised and Lisa and I were getting ready to go topside for pictures. IMG_7689 The ship started to move forward when after just a few minutes it came to an abrupt halt. I could hear a commotion on the deck above, so I started up the stairs when the Captain again came on the PA to announce that we had almost had a collision with a China Shipping vessel. IMG_7709 It seems that the China ship was coming to join the convoy line, and it was to stop while we went by and took the lead. However, our Captain fortunately determined that the ship was coming towards us too fast and so he stopped, and the China ship not being able to stop, cut right in front of us and ran aground just off our starboard side. I got to the top deck just after this had happened and we were very close to the China vessel, which was clearly stuck on a sandbar and trying desperately to back off. Our Captain was pretty dismissive of the other Captain, and we simply sailed around the stricken vessel and went on our merry way while tugs came from everywhere to help resolve the situation. Two groundings in one morning should be enough excitement for any cruise.

The remainder of our passage was uneventful. It was a strange feeling to see the desert going by on either side of our ship. We travelled northward at a fairly rapid clip. I was surprised to see two things. All along our route there was a military presence. Sometimes it was a small military compound, sometimes it was a lone soldier with a rifle standing atop a sand dune, and sometimes it was a few soldiers hiding under the shade of a tree, rifles at their ready. The second surprise took some time for me to figure out. All along the canal there were metal canisters strategically located in large groupings. Eventually I figured out that these were pontoons that could quickly be strung together to form a bridge across the canal. In fact, later in our trip I saw some of the “bridges” already partially constructed with large motors already attached. Where these pontoons were stored, just happened to coincide with a nearby military barracks and a specially prepared road structure leading up to the pontoons, so that equipment could quickly be moved across the canal into the Sinai if needed.

It took us two hours to reach the point at which the large tanker had run aground. IMG_7760 Our ship slowed as special pilots came out to the convoy. We had to maneuver around the grounded tanker, and in so doing, we were navigating a small and rarely used channel. Not only did we board a special pilot, but one of the pilot boats took the lead for the convoy to insure that we went exactly where it was safe. I was able to get pictures of the grounded ship. IMG_7776 It appeared that the front of the ship had caught the shallow sandy bottom, and that swung the ship violently around so that it had rolled over on one side and swung around to block the entire main channel. When we arrived all efforts to back the vessel off the sand using tugs had ceased and the flotilla of little ships was just sitting there. I am guessing that the next step would be to arrange to off load enough of the oil that the vessel would be lighter and thus easier to move, but whatever the plan, it was clear that they had a mess on their hands.

We finally exited the canal at Port Said and pulled up to a large assembly area and stopped, dropping anchor once again. IMG_7812 The Captain again came on the PA to announce that one of our passengers had been taken seriously ill with a cardiac problem, and that we were stopping until provisions could be made to take that person ashore for advanced medical treatment. After about 3 hours at anchor, we started off for our next stop, which is the Delta city of Alexandria that lies at the head of the Nile River.


Sunday, March 28, 2010


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Under the Red Sea

Safaga, Egypt

At the very top of the Red Sea there are two bodies of water which are like to small polyps. I mentioned before that by staying to our right, we entered the Gulf of Aqaba, and from there went onto our trip to Petra. The following day we sailed south out of the Gulf of Aqaba and then traveled north into the second Gulf, the Gulf of Suez. The northern reaches of this Gulf lead directly to the Suez Canal.

We stopped on the western shores of the Gulf at a very small city called Safaga in Eqypt. IMG_7378 The “city” is so small that it does not even have a city center. What it does have is a very nice newly constructed dock facility, and leading from that dock is a well maintained and well guarded super highway that travels west to the shores of the Nile and the ancient city of Luxor. So, almost everyone onboard our ship signed up for one of the 13 hour tours to the Nile and back, leaving us virtually alone. Since we had visited Luxor many times, a day at leisure sounded pretty good after our long day to Petra. The ship did offer a few local outings; most were to nearby beaches or hotels for the day, but they did offer the opportunity to explore the Red Sea from a submarine. That option sounded different to us, and so on a lark we signed up for the trip.

That gave us the morning to recovery from the previous day, grab lunch and then set out on our adventure around 12:30. I wondered where in the world they would find a tourist sub in this small village, and that right there should have been my first clue. The sub was in the resort city of Hurghada which was located about an hour north of our location once we had worked our way to the highway. The drive was pretty boring, just miles and miles of desert, interspersed with checkpoint, after checkpoint, after checkpoint. It seems as if you cannot move very far in this part of the world, without having to stop at a checkpoint- where people with real guns give you a nice once over.

As we approached the big city of Hurghada, both sides of the road were filled with construction sites. We travelled by miles of housing, apartments, resorts and recreation venues. It was pretty amazing – but there was one little oddity. I am guessing that over 80% of them were vacant and abandoned. The structures were in all states of completion. Some seem to have been completed and simply closed down after opening. Some had the first floors done, but the higher floors were unfinished. Some buildings were just starting construction. Interspersed among all the clutter was an occasional structure that seemed to be both finished and occupied. This pattern continued right into the city itself, and it was not until we pulled up to the waterfront that we saw a finished functioning resort area.

We noted two other things on our way into the city. All along the highway construction debris had been dumped on both sides of the road and in the median. I find it hard to believe that with that entire desert they would not have a refuge area, but I guess it is just easier to run out the highway and dump your trash anywhere you wish. The second thing I noted was the huge airport serving Hurghada. I counted well over 30 large aircraft on the ground, and a steady stream of landing and departing wide body airplanes. So obviously a large number of tourists are coming to this resort city. Our guide did finally tell us that they receive mostly Russians and secondly Germans as tourist.

Finally we arrived at our submarine adventure. The experience was a little overdone. IMG_7405 The depot was gaudy and full of glitz and souvenirs hawkers. The personnel were dressed up as the team from Captain Nemo’s crew. We boarded a support ship for the almost 40 minute ride out into the Sea, where we were offloaded onto another support platform from which we could board one of two awaiting submarines which were waiting for us.IMG_7428 I had done something very similar in the Caymans, and I must admit these ships were much larger, each one perhaps holding around 60 people. Our dive lasted about an hour, and I would guess that we went down around 50 feet. Sadly, this is where the comparison with the Caymans ends. On that trip, we saw a large variety of very colorful fish living on an active reef. Here in Egypt we dove instead on a manmade reef of old sailing debris and saw only a limited number of fish species. IMG_7506 Even then, the water was very murky, so overall I would have to rate the experience entertaining, but nothing special.

When it was all over, our drive back to the ship seemed to take forever, and in the end our “short” outing had taken over six hours. Still it was nice to have an outing and to see what there was to see.

The ship spent the night in Safaga because a large number of passengers spent the night in Luxor and were set to return the next day around noon. Our room happened to be on the side facing the dock, so from our deck we had a view of all the activities taking place on the dock. Usually, a large security perimeter is established around the ship, which prevents people from getting too close. However, in Safaga no such perimeter had been set. So, imagine when Lisa was awakened around midnight by the noise outside our window and looked to see thousands of people and a madhouse of activity taking place. She immediately woke me up fearing that a riot was underway. I must admit that when I went outside, I was momentarily taken aback myself. The scene on initial observation was bedlam and the crowds were growing larger by the minute. I could see people streaming into the dockyards through the security gates in the distance – what in the world?

I looked to our security team at our gangway, and no one seemed the least bit perturbed. So I looked back and after watching for awhile I came to realize that this must be a common scene.IMG_7661 Directly in front of our ship, large ferries would dock with their sterns up against the dock. They would drop down large ramps and trucks were driven off the ships. During the night, four such large ferries had docked and the people were surging forward to claim goods being offloaded from the ferries. It was like watching a hive of ants. At first it all seems to be that every ant is scurrying aimlessly, but if you watch closely there begins to emerge a pattern, and so it was in watching this crowd. The sheer amount of merchandise and the diversity of the cargo being offloaded was amazing. Everything from refrigerators, to ironing boards, to toys, and mattresses You name it, and it was somewhere on that dock. IMG_7668 Then it was piled high, and I mean really high on rickety carts and brought to one of two doors into the long building in front of our ship. That was clearly a customs house. You could then see the same merchandise being dragged out the other side of the building and placed on anything that would move. The little trucks and carts were so overloaded that I cannot help but wonder how much material is damaged by this process. Finally, we tired of the drama and went back to bed. I got up around 3am and took a quick look outside and if anything the crowds had grown even larger. By the time we awoke the next morning, activity was still at a high level but was now a little more organized. By the time our ship left around noon, there were still long lines waiting to enter customs, but it appeared that the ferry boats had finally been emptied.

Today we are set to transit the Suez Canal. According to our schedule, we should enter the canal around 6am and exit around 4pm. It should be interesting.


Saturday, March 27, 2010


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“A Rose Red City Half As Old As Time”

Petra, Jordan

One of the highlights of this trip, for Lisa and I, was to finally see the ancient city of Petra. It was only discovered in 1812. The BBC has listed Petra as one of the 40 places that should be seen before you die. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and last but not least, in 2007, it was listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of The World.

The city was built by the Nabataeans in the 6th Century BC. It gained its prominence because of the unique engineering skills of its builders who were able to tap into the water supply from the surrounding hills, and with a series of conduits and canals, provide the city with a constant supply of fresh water amidst a landscape of otherwise desert dryness. Petra was strategically located along the supply route between Rome and the Persian Gulf, and as the appetite among the Roman elite grew for imported luxury goods, so too did the fortunes of Petra. As an aside, we attended a lecture about Petra, and our speaker made the point that the inability of the Romans to control their spending eventually led to their downfall because in the end, they could not afford the military necessary to defend the empire.

Let me place Petra on the map for you. If you travel North on the Red Sea and stay to your left, you will eventually enter the Suez Canal, and the land on both sides will belong to Egypt. However, at the very northern portion of the Red Sea, if you stay to your right there is a small Gulf, called the Gulf of Aqaba. At the northern most tip of this Gulf is the Jordanian city of Aqaba. Just a few miles to the East is the Israeli city of Eliat. These two countries share the northern portion of this Gulf, while just to the South of Eliat is Egypt, and just to the South of Aqaba is Saudi Arabia. All four countries were clearly visible from our dock in Aqaba.

Our drive to Petra took about two hours, the first hour of which was spent travelling due north, and the second hour of which headed us to the north-east. The mountainous scenery was breathtaking. Sadly our bus did not stop along the way for pictures, but that was just as well because the valleys were covered in an early morning fog, and also we had a very long day ahead of us.

On our arrival at the ruins, our group started a 2 mile long walk into the city. Lisa was worried about making the trek because of her knees, and so our guide provided her a horse and a handler to take her down to the entrance of the park itself. So off Lisa goes in a bust of smiles, while the rest of us begin the long trek. IMG_7193 However, it is still cool and the walk is downhill, so all is good. The entrance, into the city itself, is through a narrow slit in the towering sandstone. The slit, or “Siq,” as it is called, at times is no more than 9 feet wide, with the sandstone cliffs literally towering over us. This is one of the most impressive walks I have ever encountered.IMG_7244 It is all downhill, and running along the side of the slit are carefully constructed conduits along which the builders funneled water into the city. During Roman times, they built a road of marble blocks so that heavily loaded carriages could pass, and in many places these huge marble blocks still remain. All along this walk, the steep red sandstone cliffs were carved with ancient markings, niches, and the remains of giant sculptures. The entire experience was awesome, but the best is literally to come.

As we neared the end of the slit, a sharp turn was up ahead. Our guide asked that we form into a line and hold onto each other as we slowly walked forward with our eyes closed, until he told us we could open them. When I finally opened my eyes, I experienced one of those “WOW” moments. In front of me the towering slit came to an end and beyond was a massive red edifice that rose to the sky – nothing short of awe inspiring. IMG_7266 I could imagine how this must have looked to weary travelers 2000 years ago after a long trek across the desert.

The majestic edifice before me has been called “The Treasury,” and has been featured in many films. It is quite simply one of the most unique monuments in the world. To give you some idea of its size – it is twice as wide and twice as high as the front of Winchester Abby in London. IMG_7267 It is not however a “Treasury” at all, but rather a tomb. This fact alone was the most amazing thing I learned about Petra. While Petra was a great city in its day, what now remains are these wonderful and unique rock cut edifices, which are themselves merely the outside of family tombs. Inside the entrance is a relatively small chamber where the walls are covered with niches; in these niches the dead were buried. Wealthy families competed to see who could erect the most impressive tomb.

Our tour stopped at this first edifice. It had taken us an hour to negotiate the narrow gorge, and we had one hour on our own before we were to meet for lunch all the way back up at the entrance. Now I did not travel all this way just to stand at this one spot in Petra, so I said the hell with lunch which gave me a good two hours or more to explore on my own before I had to be back at the bus. Meanwhile Lisa decided she wanted to get one of the few horse drawn buggy’s to ride back up, and our guide offered to help her do so. Therefore, I set off downhill to see what there was to see. I walked downhill past amazing towering carvings until I reached what is known as “The Amphitheater.” IMG_7301 This was a Greek style structure carved out of the surrounding rock which had a seating capacity of over 4,000. At this point, the heat of the day was starting to build, and looking at my watch, I wondered just how long it would take for me to get to the entrance – on the other hand, when I looked downhill I could clearly see that there was more to be seen. So I stood there, looking uphill and then looking downhill trying to decide what to do, when a kid on a camel appeared with another camel in tow. Now this is the point when I usually get myself in trouble and without so much as thinking I asked the kid how much he would charge to give me a ride to the bottom of the hill and then back uphill to the entrance. Well, he wanted $50, and he could only take me as far as the Treasury, since he was not permitted to go any further. This seemed pretty steep to me, but there was not another means of transport around, and having come all this way, I really wanted to see everything, and so I agreed. Now, I have no business trying to get on a camel. No one was around to help, and I could just see me falling or better yet, dropping my camera and having it shatter. However, the kid somehow got me up safely, and with me holding on for dear life, we set off towards the bottom of the hill. More than once I almost dropped my camera, but we made the bottom where I got to see the majestic edifice called the Urn Tomb.IMG_7326 I shot a picture or two, and we headed back on what proved to be a much longer climb than I imagined up to the Treasury.

Believe it or not, after all this time, Lisa and our guide were still standing there trying to get her a carriage back to the top. There are only 8 carriages and a huge crowd of people who wanted to rent one, so as you can imagine, the scene was bedlam. However, our guide was hanging in there and determined to get her on one, so it was obvious to me that my only choice at this point was to walk up myself. I set out confidently enough, but I quickly came to realize that the heat of the day, combined with the upward slope was a little more difficult than I had reckoned with.IMG_7337 After what seemed forever, Lisa came by in her carriage all smiles and such, and as she faded into the distance, I looked forlornly at the walk still ahead. My stops became more frequent, but finally I exited the slit and sat for awhile. Then I turned around and looked up the steep hill to the bus park far above. Funny, in the excitement of the morning, I did not remember this walk as being very long or steep, but right now it looked as if I still had a mountain yet to climb. Looking at my watch, I was becoming terribly short on time, when I spied a guy on a horse, pulling a horse behind him. Once again I charge forward, and once again the price is $50. I think these guys know how to work this crowd. Camels at the bottom, only so far back up. Carriages in the slit, only so far back up; and horses to the top. Oh well, it is only money.

So in the end, Lisa and I both arrived safely and on time at our bus, thus ending an outstanding day. I am hopeful the pictures will turn out good, and I will try to have those up later today.

Before closing this chapter, I should talk a little about Jordan. By visiting a country for 9 hours, I certainly cannot claim to be an expert about the culture, but it is amazing how much information one can pick up just by being in a place and watching carefully. I will say that Jordan had an entirely different feel to it from the countries we have visited so far. Yes, it was a Middle Eastern country, but Jordan does not have oil, so the glitz of the Gulf States was not present. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel, and it is clearly more progressive than its neighbors. Women frequently wore colorful head scarfs, and some of the younger women even wore pants. The warmth of the people was evident. Education in Jordan is not only free, but mandatory. For those who qualify, higher education is also government provided. Unlike its wealthy neighbors, Jordan has taxes to support itself. We saw a great many Bedouin communities, and unlike its neighbors, Jordan seems to be supporting the native communities, rather than trying to eliminate their way of life. I will share one very telling story. I mentioned that Lisa rode downhill on a horse. Before she got off the horse, she asked her handler if he could take her picture, and then quickly thought better of it. He stood looking and Lisa said “how do I know if I give you my camera that you will not run away with it? The young guide quickly replied “because this is Jordan and not Egypt!” And, that in a nutshell says a great deal about Jordan.

Anyway, Lisa and I both felt that Jordan is a country to which we would gladly return.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010


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And don’t let the door hit you on the way out;

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

It is a sad commentary on a country when what is most significant for comment is the process of gaining entry and departing, rather than what there was to see; but alas that is the case when it comes to our visit to Saudi Arabia.

The general practice for passengers on a ship receiving clearance into a country is for the immigration officials to meet with the ship’s personnel and to review our records, so that when it is time for us to depart that country, all of the paperwork has been handled without our involvement. In some countries, this involves nothing more than a team of local officials boarding the ship immediately upon our arrival, having them look over the paperwork, and then head straightaway for the breakfast buffet. Sometimes they actually eat and then return to stamp passports, and on a few occasions, the officials board the ship at the previous port and spend a night or two, assuring that when we arrive, we are not inconvenienced by any immigration process. I do recall that India was an exception, in that officials not only boarded at an earlier port and enjoyed several days of complimentary travel, but they also required that every passenger appear before an official to have their passport stamped at four in the morning. No matter the process, it has always been completed prior to the time we are scheduled to depart the ship. This was not the case in Saudi Arabia.

People who were going ashore gathered as is the custom in one of the lounges to await our tours. It was a subdued group, and in my mind, you could sense the tension and unease. Women, of course, were dressed in their abbayas, and most were having some trouble with getting their head covering just right. I will share one story which I think sums up the mood.

An older and very distinguished looking gentleman approached the area where Lisa and I were seated and he spoke in a loud voice to the lady seated next to us. He asked her what had been her answer on the immigration form to the question about her religion. She looked away sheepishly and mumbled that she had left it blank. The gentleman quickly looked around the group making eye contact with several other people nearby, and asking each of them if they too had left that answer blank, and each answered “yes.” He stood to his full height and in a commanding voice told them that this was unacceptable. They were Jews, and they should be proud of that fact. He admonished the group not to let the Saudi’s cower them, but to stand proudly for who there were. He then pulled out a pen and went around making sure everyone completed this entry on their forms. This is a small story, but also very telling of the atmosphere yesterday morning.

The time came to depart the ship and to board our buses. However, we did not head out for a day of adventure, but were instead taken to an arrival terminal where like cattle we were all herded into long lines. Our passports were carefully checked, our pictures taken and our packages x-rayed. We learned later that while we were out on tour that teams of officials had boarded the ship and carefully searched the vessel from top to bottom looking for any alcohol that had not been locked up for inspection.

The process of clearing immigration took over an hour, but finally we were off to explore the city of Jeddah. We learned that as recently as 1947, the city was only 1km square and home to 4,000 people. Today the city stretches over 90km along the Red Sea and is home to over 4.5 million people. From that perspective, it pretty much looked just like any very large city. It had freeways, some towering buildings and a skyline that was hazy from smog. Jeddah is the gateway to the highly important and religious city of Mecca and as such it receives over 72 million visitors a year, most of whom are on pilgrimage to Mecca. There are a few impressions I had which are perhaps worth sharing.

For one thing, it was strange not to see any woman driving. Women are not permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia, and in fact, I saw very few women during our visit. Even at that they were completely covered in their black abbayas and head scarves. The other thing that caught my attention was the wide open spaces between buildings. We drove along the coast on the road referred to as the “Corniche.” On one side was the Red Sea and on the other were buildings: stores in one block, apartments in another, offices – in other words pretty much what you would expect to see – with one exception. The construction was not continuous. There were long stretches of vacant lots. Most had piles of rock and dirt which had been dumped on them, along with the obligatory trash accumulation that you would gather in any large city. I did not quite understand why there was so much open space in a city that was teeming with people.

Anyway, our first stop was to see what is referred to as “the old city.” Here were located buildings that dated back almost 200 years. They had some interesting wooden balconies, but for the most part the entire area was largely deserted and very run down. We were taken to one of the old homes which had been restored and turned into a kind of museum on the first floor, and then we walked in a circle around a large block. Not much to see really, and the few merchants who were there did not have much to offer. Sadly we had been told that we would not be able to purchase souvenirs unless we had Saudi cash and credit cards would not be accepted. Because of this most of us did not take any money. The information from the ship was not correct, so even if we had wanted to we still could not have purchased anything. I did notice that there was a very visible police presence around us. I never felt they were there to intimate us, but rather they were there for our protection, which brings up an interesting point. Most places we travel, the local people are openly friendly and curious. Many on our ship had just travelled to Iran, where they told us the people could not have been more warm and welcoming. They had a great time. However in Saudi Arabia I felt none of that warmth. I did not feel hostility, either; just distance. Perhaps it is because the Saudi’s are so private and reserved. But perhaps it is because our presence was being tolerated and not welcomed – I could not tell.

Our next stop was the fish market, and what an interesting experience that turned out to be. It was the cleanest fish market I had visited and the variety and abundance of sea food was amazing. I saw so many different types of fish that I had never seen before that even for me, who does not like seafood, it was a very interesting experience. From the market, we drove, and we drove – and, yes we drove some more along the coastal highway, finally stopping for lunch. Surprisingly it was a wonderful buffet. From there, we travelled to a museum where we spent the remainder of our time.

Finally, our long 9 hour day came to a close, but not before we all had to exit our busses once again and go through the immigration hall. More long lines, and this time, we were searched, our packages x-rayed, the bus was searched, and in an almost unbelievable show of offence, each of us was presented with a sealed envelope, which contained printed material about Islam, and a DVD on how we could become good Muslims! As I said, “and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

Today we are cruising north in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia is on our right side and Egypt is on our left. We are headed for the Gulf of Aqaba and the port of Aqaba in Jordan. Tomorrow promises to be a highlight of our trip since we will leave the ship and travel north to visit the ancient city of Petra – but that is a story yet to tell.


Monday, March 22, 2010

A Big Warm Fuzzy Welcome from Saudi Arabia


As expected, our transit of the Gulf of Aden was uneventful. When the ship entered the maximum zone of danger from the pirates, the outside decks of the ship were closed off and fire hoses were rigged. The ship then ran at full speed for the next 24 hours or so until we had cleared the danger area. Because of the risk, traffic in that area is very concentrated into the narrow corridor which is patrolled by security forces, so there was much to see. We were visited by several warships, and overflown numerous times by patrolling helicopters. Frankly, I never felt safer than during this “dangerous” transit. At this time of the year, the waters of this area are almost completely calm, which increases the risk from pirates, but it also insures a very smooth passage, even though the ship was moving at full speed. In fact, it was so smooth that the water was like glass, and then the only sense of movement was a slight vibration from the pounding engines.

That moment of excitement is behind us so we are turning our attention to our visit tomorrow to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I can only share with you now what we are being told, and you can form your own opinion about the upcoming experience.

First, we are to inventory all alcohol in our rooms and provide our room steward with the signed inventory. All alcohol will be removed from our cabins this evening and not returned until we depart Saudi Arabia. In fact, all alcohol throughout the ship will be stored under lock and key, and we are told that the Saudi officials are very strict in enforcing this policy.

Second, all women must wear Abayas at all times, inside and outside while in the Kingdom. Men may wear short sleeved shirts and long trousers, but everyone must wear closed shoes.

Third, there must be no public display of affection, no holding hands for example. Fourth, we may not photograph people without their permission, especially women, and we are not allowed to take pictures of government buildings, embassies or anything military in nature, including the airport.

No one, and I mean no one (not even the crew) are allowed off the ship unaccompanied, even if they hold in their possession an individual visa for Saudi Arabia. Everyone leaving the ship must be on a ship’s formal tour, and we will be required to carry our passports with us at all times, along with a landing card and an exit card. Unlike almost every other port, the ship will not conduct a shuttle into town, and no taxis will be available for people from the ship.

Our tour will be 8 hours in length, and it promises to be interesting to say the least. So hang on to your knickers, there will be more to follow.


PS: our blog is up now so you can follow along with maps at Remember, on the right of the page is a direct link to our photographs which are stored on Picasa. Or you can go directly to our photographs at

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Al Fujayrah

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United Arab Emirates – Al Fujairah

Let me start where I left off yesterday by discussing the situation regarding the Somali pirates. Our trip several months ago around the Seychelles did offer some risk of pirate attacks, and at the time much was being written in the press about the pirates having reached out as far as the Seychelles. In truth however the greatest threat from the pirates takes place in the Gulf of Aden, which is bordered on one side by Yemen and by Somalia on the other. This evening our ship will begin its transit of the Gulf, which is the entrance into the Red Sea and from there the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean.

So, it was no surprise that our ship would be taking extra precautions for this portion of the voyage. Today, for the first time in my experience, the entire ship’s company, both passengers and crew, were called to muster. I had never seen the entire crew complement gathered at one time, and frankly it was impressive just to see how many people are involved in providing for our welfare. Indeed, it seemed to both Lisa and I that there were at least as many crew on the ship as passengers, which is quite possible since at this time the ship is travelling with just a little over half it’s maximum passenger load.

The short version of our meeting was that special precautions are being taken for our transit of the Gulf. Beginning at 5pm this afternoon all of the outside of deck 7 and the aft section of deck 8 will be closed to passengers until 6pm tomorrow. I know that the fire hoses have already been rigged and are at full pressure, but I gather that some other activities will be taking place. There is a special watch being maintained on the bridge at all times, and the ship is now, and will continue to move forward at maximum speed. During this transit the ship will operate in what is called the “Maritime Safety and Protection Area,” and we have been advised that there will be much traffic in the area including war ships and aircraft. If nothing else, this promises to provide some excitement to our trip, but who knows, I might yet have to stand on the deck and throw pasta at the bastards.

Our stop yesterday was at the Emirate of Al Fujairah, one of the seven Emirates which comprise the United Arab Emirates. The best known of the Emirates is Dubai, along with the capital of Abu Dhabi. The other members all have names that I did not recognize, including the Emirate of Sharjah, which we visited today as part of our drive. Sadly our tour today was marginal. I term what we experienced as the “spam in a can” tour. We sat in a bus for five hours with very few stops. Our guide did not seem to appreciate the fact that people like to not only see things, but to take photographs. We could see other buses stopping for people to take pictures, but she would always come up with some excuse why we should just drive by slowly – very disappointing, to say the least.

For me, anyway several things begin to drop into place during this visit regarding what we were really seeing, and while I am certainly no expert, I would like to share my thoughts. Even though I have been to Dubai and Oman on several occasions, it was not until today that I begin to really see my surroundings in a different light.

First off, if you remove oil from the equation, this is an extremely poor region of the world. The terrain is mostly sandstone and sand with virtually no rainfall. We were told that the region receives perhaps five days of rain per year, but that when it does rain it is torrential which causes huge mudslides in the otherwise dry “wadis.” So it is a dry, arid, mountainous landscape that is devoid of almost all vegetation. Secondly, if you go just 50 years back in time, before oil was discovered, the people of this region were mostly fisherman and goat herders who wandered the arid wasteland. Roads were almost non-existent, and contact with the outside world was limited. Education was even more limited.

The discovery of oil in the 1960’s changed all that almost overnight. Suddenly these Emirates were awash in money, and to their credit, the leaders have wisely elected to spend this new found wealth to improve the lives of their people. They are rapidly working to build infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and water treatment. People, who just a generation ago either lived in tents or adobe huts now are housed in modern villas and have two cars in the driveway. Education is not only free but mandatory and opportunities are abundant for higher education all at government expense. Indeed if you are a native Emirate, the government provides for almost all your needs. Free housing, free gasoline, free education, free health care – free, free, free; but, I think there is a dark side to all of this.

The people are fiercely traditional, conservative and private. Since they lack many of the skills yet to build a modern society, they bring in outside workers, but the presence of these workers is only barely tolerated. It is the goal of the government to slowly transition from outside skilled workers to native manpower when that can be achieved. Today 90% of the population of the Emirates is “ex-patriot.” Indeed as we drove around Lisa and I saw very, very few natives, and then only men – I do not believe that we saw a single woman. Most of the natives feel that work is beneath them, and so they hire others to work for them, at their pleasure. In some cases, I got the sense these outside workers are almost treated as slaves.

Our guide shared some very interesting insights. She and the entire crew of drivers and guides, who herded us around Al Fujairah, actually lived in Dubai and had driven here for our ship. In fact they were the same guides and drivers who had met us the day before in Khasab. Our driver was from India and our guide was Italian. People come to the Emirates for one reason – money. The pay is good and best of all there are no taxes, but they live on a very short leash. Each alien must have a resident permit that can be revoked at any time and for almost any reason. Since the leadership of the country is composed of a very small group, laws can and are changed almost overnight. She was explaining how she and her husband had five year permits; however their best friend had gone the week before to renew his permit and found new rules – one of which required that he have three months’ salary in his bank account. Even then his permit was renewed for only one year and it was implied that it might not be renewed next time.

The daily slights are constant. When shopping for example, the stores offer one price for natives and a much higher price for foreigners. Foreign women, even professionals have a difficult time conducting any financial transaction without their husbands present. If a foreigner wishes to start a business in the Emirates, he can do so only with a native “partner” who is then given 51% ownership for the use of his signature. Our guide was explaining how they are excluded from interacting with the natives. Her daughter for example went to local schools for 8 years and during that entire time was never invited into an Emirate household or party. Foreigners can only rent, they cannot own property – and on and on it goes.

Anyway, these are my impressions from my short visits, for what they are worth. Let me get on with our 5 hour “tour.” Since we stopped rarely, there is not much to share – it is all a blur of rapidly passing landscape. We did make our first stop at the Fujairah Fort which was built in 1670 and has been restored. We continued on to the Bithna Oasis, where we stopped briefly on a hillside for a picture of the valley and the old fort on the adjacent hillside protecting the nearby mountain pass. During our drive we left Fujairah and entered the Emirate of Sharjah. That was nothing more than passing from Kansas to Colorado – there was an arch over the road that basically said you are leaving Fujairah. Nearby was the town of Dibba which is divided into three parts, one belonging to Fujairah, one to Sharjah and one to Oman. Why they drove right by that is a mystery to me. Anyway, they finally made a stop at what they called the “Friday Market.” Sounds exciting – right! Wrong. We pulled onto the side of the road where a line of small shops lined both sides of the road. In Fujairah it is illegal to cross the road, so we were confined to just one side. The shops looked to me is if they had come right out of India, and I later learned that was for good reason. All the merchants were Indian or Pakistani, and all the goods they had for sale were imported and overpriced. There were no local souvenirs that I could see. Again, the Emirates do not mingle with tourists or run shops.

That was our day at Fajairah. We are now cruising at full speed in the Gulf of Aden along the coast of Oman. Our next stop will be Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where we should arrive on Tuesday March 23rd. I hope to work on our pictures later today or tomorrow and post them on the web, and when I do so, I will send out a notice.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Khasab, Oman

Map picture

Welcome to Khasab, Oman

I had been to the country of Oman on two prior occasions, but I had never even heard of Khasab, our port of call for today. It turns out that there is a good reason for that. The city of Khasab is located in a separate Governate from the country of Oman. The Governate is physically separated from the main country of Oman and is located to the North of Oman on what is called the Musandam Peninsula. The Governate is surrounded by three neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Oman itself is governed by a Sultan, and today is the first time that Crystal has made a call on this city, which has a population of only 18,000 people.

Docking was an interesting affair. There is only one very small dock, which our ship completely filled. The ship had to turn around out in the Gulf and back into the small harbor, where we nestled in among the smugglers, who actually overran the harbor. We are located right at the mid-point of the Strait of Hormuz. To our north, across the 35 mile wide Strait, is the country of Iran and the city of Bandar Abbas. The Strait is a strategic chokepoint through which 90% of the entire Gulf’s production of oil passes. We were told that on a really clear day, the mountains of Iran would be clearly visible.

Smuggling is clearly an open and honest trade here in Khasab. The harbor is filled with hundreds of little wooden boats which scurry into one of the many small docks lining the shore. The docks are piled high with merchandise which is all wrapped in plastic. It is loaded onto the little boats until they are so full that I can only imagine that from time to time some of them do not return. The docks are kept full of merchandise by a long and seemingly never ending line of small pickup trucks which are overfilled with plastic wrapped items: refrigerators, televisions, and electronics of all kinds. The little trucks are so full that their rear ends almost scrape the roadway. They arrive at the port and form several very long lines awaiting their chance to “clear” customs. Since this is a legal trade as far as Oman is concerned, the smugglers pay customs $15 for each plastic wrapped package in order to gain entrance to the docks - no questions asked.

The trip to Iran is a little under 2 hours we are told, and on the other end bribes are paid and the merchandise is offloaded. The merchandise is brought into the United Arab Emirates from China mostly, brought overland to Khasab and then taken to Iran. Our ship arrived just after dawn and departed right at sunset, and the smugglers were at a fever pitch this entire time. However, just as our ship was departing a significant change in the nature of the activity took place. Until now there had been an endless line of small motor boats loading and then departing across the Strait. At sunset, activity was winding down, and the last boats were being readied for the journey. However, these were not the little boats that had been so active all day long. Instead these were much larger wooden craft which were fitted with two huge engines at their stern. Each of the engines was carefully wrapped in heavy quilting material. As we were departing, and as if on cue, the docks emptied as over 100 of these boats raced each other out of the harbor ahead of us leaving an eerie silence over the entire scene. It was a strange sight and it took me some time to realize what I think I was seeing. These boats were the real smugglers! What goes on all day long is clearly done out in the open with the tacit approval of the Iranians – as long as they pay the required bribes. However, I believe this flotilla of larger boats with the silenced engines was trying to avoid paying bribes on the Iranian side. This is why they were making the trip in the dark and why their engines were so heavily wrapped in material. I don’t know this for a fact, but it is a good guess, because we heard that the Iranians will pick up a smuggler from time to time, and I am guessing it is not the little guy who is operating openly.

Lisa and I spent four hours touring this region. To our surprise it was a rugged mountainous area of beautiful sandstone cliffs. As recently as 1990, the region was inaccessible by car and even then only a rough track was cut between Khasab and the capital of Muscat. By 1997, the community had only 3 cars. The current Sultan assumed power in a palace coup against his father in 1970. Prior to that time, contact with the outside world was prohibited. Sometime after the new Sultan, outside contact was allowed. Oil was discovered and the Sultan wisely started to use Oman’s oil wealth for its people. Part of that growth was to build a magnificent road system, which today connects Khasab not only to Muscat, but to its neighbors. We drove along the coast road, which was an engineering marvel and which had been constructed by an American company. Curving along the mountainous coast, the drive offered magnificent scenery and a series of small fishing villages. Today all of the local families have at least two cars, and most now live in beautiful villas. The government is buying the old adobe homes and providing the owners land to construct new homes. Then they assist with obtaining long term financing for any balance. The old adobe homes are being bulldozed into history. When the Sultan took power, there were only 3 schools in the country, and today everyone is entitled to free education and I think I heard over 60,000 schools.

The Omanis are a very conservative and private people. While the area has magnificent beaches, we never saw anyone using them. We were told that men will swim, but that woman may not show their figures. Sometimes they will go swimming with all their clothes on. Interestingly we saw almost no women during our visit, only men. Since this area receives only 5 days per year of rain on average, the principle occupation is fishing, not farming. It was common to see men walking along the roadside carrying a big fish from the morning’s catch. They were taking it home for lunch. I am glad that we visited in winter, but even so the temperature was 93 degrees, and they say that summer is almost unbearable.

Our first stop was to visit Khasab Castle, a restored fortress built by the Portuguese in the 1600’s. From there, we drove the coast road for over an hour and were halfway to Dubai had we continued. We turned around at the small fishing village of Burka and returned for a quick tour of Khasab.

While there was not much to see in the region, the tour company made sure we saw what there was. It is interesting to see how a region with almost no resources and which is carved out of the surrounding mountains is being quickly brought into the 21st century. You might wonder how a city with only 18,000 people has the resources to handle a large cruise ship. The answer is simple, the personnel and coaches all drove in from Dubai.

Tomorrow we will travel to Al Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, another new experience.

PS The Pirates are BACK! Or so we are told! When we got to our room there was a letter from the Captain informing us that our travels over the next several days would take us directly into the main area of pirate activity. He informed us that there would be a muster of ALL ships personnel and passengers tomorrow to discuss the situation. Don’t know what is up yet, but hang on for more.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dubai, U.A.E.


Map picture


You can’t make this stuff up!

Before leaving home on our new journey, I actually wondered what in the world I was going to write about this time. I should relax. In truth I can’t make this stuff up and as they say “stuff happens.”

For us it started right at the Kansas City airport, again. On our last trip, we arrived at the airport 2 hours before our departure time, but because of an overzealous security screening we just about missed our flight. So, this time we arrived 2 ½ hours early thinking that surely that would be enough time. Almost wrong again!

The night before our flight Delta Airlines sent an e-mail advising that we could skip the long lines at the airport and check-in online and not only receive our boarding passes, but our luggage tags also. I dutifully spent about 30 minutes carefully filling in all of the requested information about ourselves and our passports, verifying flight information, etc. and hit the “check in” button. The system thought for a moment and then announced that online check in was denied and it would be necessary for us to report to the airport counter on day of departure. That right there was my first clue.

When we got to the airport it was a madhouse, literally. I did not realize that it was spring break and every Delta flight was full. Just to add to the mix, the flight just prior to ours had been cancelled and there were long lines forming with people attempting to rebook. Now I need to set the scene for you. We quickly got into the First Class line. As luck would have it, there was just one couple in front of us waiting, and a young man standing at the counter where a Delta agent was holding on the phone dealing with his issue. This was the only agent working the First Class line. Immediately to our left was a very, very long line of mostly young people attempting to rebook their flights. Again, one agent was working that line, and that agent too was on the phone “on hold.” Farther to the left there were a large number of self-serve kiosks for check-in, but we sadly could not use them. However a large crowd of people was moving through the machines and then taking their bags to a window that was exclusively open to receive already checked bags.

Now fast forward – fast forward one whole hour and if you were to look up you would see the exact same scene I just described. For that one hour not a single person in our line had been attended to and the agent was still “on hold” at the counter, as was the adjacent counter. It was surreal. Finally our agent hangs up, hands the young man something and then promptly closes his counter and disappears leaving a very long line of very frustrated people close to mutiny. He never even so much as looked up at the line forming in front of his counter for over an hour – he just walked away! At this point I started to show a little snout. I do not like having to act piggish, but if that is what it takes, then so be it. I finally got the lady “manning” the luggage only counter to check us in or we surely would have missed our flight.

There was a time when travelling by air was one of life’s great experiences. I remember having to dress in my Sunday best when flying and people would offer to drive us to the airport just to see us off. Well, those days are long gone. Flying now, as everyone knows, is a downright miserable experience. Off with your shoes, empty almost everything out of your carryon, Lisa has to be hand patted down because of her metal knees – all great fun.

Finally, we arrive in Atlanta and after a two hour layover board our Delta flight to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I have a window seat, and Lisa has an aisle seat, just not the seat across from me, but the aisle seat on the other side of the aircraft. We manage to get that resolved and once again we are sitting in those little “coffin” like seats that I have written about before. But the good news is that the aircraft is loaded and fully boarded 15 minutes early. Departure time comes, and we turn off our electronic readers, seats full upright, cabin lights dimmed and we are set to go – only one little problem – we did not “go.” We sat. We sat at the gate for an hour. After about 30 minutes the First Officer announces that they are still loading some cargo and that we would depart momentarily – yeah, right.

Finally after 15 hours in the charming seat we arrive at Dubai. We left Atlanta in the dark and we are arriving at Dubai in the dark; seems that we lost a day somewhere. The city of Dubai has always seemed surreal to me. It is perhaps the world’s most modern city, full of gleaming towering structures and a road and metro system that are the best in the world. The grass is green, the flowers blooming, and there is not so much as a candy wrapper anywhere to be seen. In short, there is no trash. I am convinced that Dubai is the city built by Disney because it is so perfect. The city stretches for miles along the coast and extends perhaps a mile inland. After that it is all surrounded by desert. Everything about Dubai is oversized, grand and immaculate. But the city has a strange feel.

We stay at a hotel on the beach, but the beach is empty. Security is everywhere, very pleasant, but everywhere. If this were Miami the waters would be teaming with pleasure craft and parasails. But in Dubai, the waters are all but empty and quiet. I know that all the workers are imported because locals feel that work is beneath them. Only locals can own property, everyone else rents, and the rents are high. I ask what all these buildings are for, and I am told they are hotels on my left and apartments on my right. I see very few offices. So who lives in all these apartments I ask. The answer is tourists. I guess I don’t get the attraction of Dubai. There is not much to do to my way of thinking but shop. Even then prices are high. Oh well, I am just a visitor. Maybe one day it will make sense to me.

We finally boarded the Crystal Serenity and I was shocked that so many of the crew remembered Lisa and me and that several said “welcome home,” which makes me wonder if I tipped too much last time. But kidding aside, that is the kind of service that Crystal is famous for, and we do indeed feel right at home.

Sadly our tour for today was canceled at the last minute because of lack of participation. We were looking forward to driving into the desert at sunrise and taking a balloon ride. Instead we will just settle in. One item of note: docked near our vessel is the old Queen Elizabeth II, or as it is better known the QE2. Built in 1969, it was the flagship of the Cunard Line for many years, and Lisa and I saw her on her last world cruise when she docked in Sydney where we were staying. Retired from service, the ship was sold to a Dubai firm that intended to dock it off the soon to be constructed Palm Island Resort and use it as a floating hotel of some sort. However, like so much in Dubai, that project is on hold, as is the future of the great ocean liner. I did get to walk along the dock today and got to see the grand ship. What amazed me was just how small she looked next to our ship. The Crystal Serenity is not by today’s standards a “large” cruise ship, holding only 900 passengers. But by comparison the QE2 looked her age.

Tomorrow we will travel a short distance to Khasab, Oman. When I look at a map I realize that we will not be moving a great distance – in fact, to me, it looks as if we could drive there faster. Anyway, new adventures await, and I hope you will enjoy tagging along.