Monday, March 16, 2015

Closing The Circle

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When I can, I like to “close the circle,” so to speak, at the end of a cruise and at least let everyone know how it all ended. In my last blog, I made a bit of a goof when I said that we had one more day at sea and then an afternoon on Yap Island before our cruise came to a close. As it turned out, after Yap the ship did spend one more morning anchored off a very small atoll named Ngulu Island. This quiet morning was primarily so that divers and snorkelers could have one last go at the beautiful Pacific waters before the cruise came to an end, and even though it was a beautiful location, Lisa and I were already worrying about getting everything packed and going out one last time just did not sound good. So, we stayed on the ship.

The afternoon before however, we did participate in the bus tour of Yap Island, and in the 4 hour drive, we got to see the famous Stonemoney Bank of YapDSC03662, along with several WW II relics, mostly aircraft wreckage mounted on stands along with commemorative plaques. A stop was made at one of the “Men’s Houses,” DSC03589and we visited several villages. All in all, you can tell I was getting tired because in the end, I was glad to get back to the ship. I did get some good photographs which I will post here soon. Also, I did learn about the Stone Money and how even today it is in use for certain traditional and ceremonial exchanges.

Our journey home was a very long one. In fact, I daresay that it is probably the longest we ever had to endure. From the time we departed our ship at the harbor in Koror, Palau until we walked into our home, we had travelled for 43 hours! Just be aware that from Koror to Kansas City is 14 hours and one day ahead in time. As usual, the travel experience was not without its moments!

After we departed the ship, we went to a local hotel where we could stay until our flight departed at 4:30 am the following morning. We really could not complain too much about the schedule since the flight to Tokyo only departed two times a week, and as good fortune would have it, the airline was a US carrier, Delta no less. After the luxury of the ship, our $450/night “Holiday Inn” type room was a little of a letdown, and when we looked at dinner options, we learned that all that the hotel offered was a buffet – and oh, did I mention that the water was only to be used for showering since it was not suitable for drinking? Yet all was not lost – if any of you remember an article I wrote several years ago about “The Carnivorous Toilet?” Believe it or not, our hotel room had a new and improved version in our bathroom! Lisa, as the first to spot the little beast, and after her experience in Singapore in which the seat sprayed water all over the bathroom, she was not about to be the first to try our improved version. So it fell to me to see what we had and how to deal with it.

My first problem was that all of the markings were in Japanese. Like the toilet in Singapore, it appeared to show a symbol for some type of tube appearing out of heaven knows where and going someplace I’d rather not think about all the time spraying water up my – rear. In this improved version, it also had a symbol that appeared to show that water could also be directed via a separate hidden tube to – ah let’s say the frontal area as well. I could see where all this might be useful, and although I could not read Japanese, I wondered if I just stuck my face in the seat, if I could also get a facial? Well, enough jocularity – the moment arrived when I had to do something, so I decided if I did not touch any buttons I certainly could not get into trouble. Thus ever so gently did I partake to sit my bottom on the toilet seat @#$#@# only to have it start to vibrate and heat. Now I ask you, who in the world needs a heated toilet seat in the tropics when with our air conditioner set full blast and the ceiling fan on high, it was all we could do to keep from sweating our behinds off already! I did prove, however, that besides a vibrating, heated seat, if we did not touch any of the little buttons, it would not “bite us in the butt.”

Lisa and I decided that a buffet dinner at our new emporium did not sound all that appealing, and so just on serendipity, we looked in the phone book and found a nice sounding restaurant which offered a free shuttle service. Wow, did that turn out to be a smart move. As it happened, that evening the restaurant at our hotel was virtually all reserved for a huge welcome celebration for the new US Ambassador. The next morning we heard horror stories from some fellow cruise passengers about how difficult it had been to get a meal at the buffet under those conditions. Meantime, Lisa and I were met by our shuttle on time, and joined by a young Japanese couple also going to the same restaurant. Once there we had a great meal, a good view, and a wonderful evening. When it came time to leave, as luck might have it, we were once again joined by the same young couple. However, by now everyone had enjoyed a drink or two and any shyness immediately broke down. We were using our few words of Japanese, and they were practicing their English as all had had a good time. The next thing I know they take out their iPhone and want to start taking our pictures, which is fine. Once back at the hotel, we are all walking to the elevator and out comes a telescoping stick on which they mount their iPhone. So mounted, it syncs via Bluetooth and now allows them to take “selfies” as we walk along. By the time we get in the elevator, they now want all of us in the photograph together. If you can just imagine four grown people crowding in a elevator trying to take “selfies” without anyone knowing what the other was saying – well you get the picture – no pun intended.

We managed to pull ourselves awake in the middle of the night to make our shuttle to the airport for our 4:30am departure. The airport was a zoo. Apparently Delta was not the only flight that morning, and even though we were quite early, it took a good hour just to clear the Delta line. Then we were directed to climb to the second floor, but when we turned around, there was a long line stretching all the way along the hall and up the stairs. We joined the end, and after another hour in the non-air-conditioned terminal, we managed to work our way to the top of the stairs. At this point, our flight is boarding and we are starting to become worried about making the flight, and neither of us can imagine what is taking so long – are you paying attention? Well, at the top of the stairs sat a very bored and non-motivated customs official who sat behind a large glass enclosure. Each boarding passenger, one at a time, had to approach the little man and pay him $50 in cash as a “Green Fee.” He carefully counted the money and them stamped a page in a little book, from which he then tore off a receipt and stapled it to your boarding pass. I counted two other aircraft all boarding about the same time as ours, so you can imagine the bedlam while everything came to a grinding stop for this one little official. Some things are indeed the same the world over.

We did make our flight, but not with much time to spare. Roughly 5 hours later we arrived at Narita Airport in Tokyo where to my surprise, I found those pesky little automated toilets even in the public restrooms – what is the world coming to? Once in Tokyo, we were amazed at the large and really clean airport – very impressive. That was good because we had eight hours to kill until our departure to Minneapolis. By the time we boarded our flight to the States, I think we were both so groggy that there was not much we remember. I do recall that Delta had good seats and great service and we had a long, 12 hour flight, but very pleasant. I was surprised that we no longer had to fill out those little blue customs forms as we had done in the past. Now upon arrival all US citizens are directed to an automated machine where they essentially complete those forms online and then they receive a ticket allowing them to present their passport to the Customs and Border Protection agent. Lisa and I still have our Global Entry Privileges, and so we, too, went to an automated machine and in less than two minutes we were cleared back into the US with our bags headed to our Kansas City flight – which was only four hours away.

Now that we are home I must admit that both of us are experiencing more problems with jetlag than in the past. Today, in fact, is the first day I am feeling somewhat normal, however, Lisa has had to go lie down again. I guess as we get older this gets more difficult, but it was all worth it. In the end, we got to see things that I did not even know still existed. What an exciting and worthwhile trip.

I hope everyone has enjoyed the blogs, and I plan on taking up the pen again when we travel in October down the South American coast. In the meantime, I will finish putting up the photographs from this trip, a project which should be done in a day or two. Please know that I have learned of a glitch in my blog page. I have been telling people that if you go to our web page, you not only will find a library of all my previous blogs, but also you can click on the picture of the penguins and go directly to my photographs. Well, for some reason that is not working. If you wish to see my pictures you may go directly to my albums at:

Always remember it is, indeed, “a Wonderful World!”


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Getoashigil Joashigi-Welimwemwil

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For those of you, who are not fluent in the Ulithian Language, allow me to translate my title for you: “Woleai Atoll Culture Day Festival-Welcome.” You will recall from my blog yesterday that in the Micronesian State of Yap, March 6th is the day set aside for celebration of their native culture. As it would happen, the Silver Discoverer was the very first cruise ship to arrive into the atoll of Woleai on the day of this celebration, and so we were not only welcomed to the island, but also welcomed to participate in and to enjoy their festivities.

Let me backup just a minute to set the stage a bit. Pretty much since entering the Federated States of Micronesia, the Silver Discoverer has been cruising westward towards the final destination for this cruise, the city of Koror in the Republic of Palau. In the process, it has seemed that pretty much another day does indeed mean another atoll, however the atoll of Woleai was something a little special. For one thing, it is quite large consisting of twenty-two islands, most of them inhabited with a population overall of around 1,200 people. The island of Woleai is the largest of these, and is divided into five different villages. The little island is also home to a general store, a church, a clinic, and a generator which provides electricity around the island. What is most impacting our visit today is the fact that Woleai holds firmly onto the traditional ways so that the festival to which we were both participants in and a witness to were something special both to the islanders and to ourselves.

Our ship anchored off Woleai around 7am, and our intrepid Expedition Leader, Stefan Kredel, went ashore both to scout things out and to obtain permission for our arrival from the Island Chief. I gather that he was greeted as if he was a visiting dignitary himself. Soon afterwards, several outrigger canoes sailed by our ship in tribute to our arrival, and by 9am we were all welcomed ashore to join in the day’s program. We were seated on the beautiful white sandy beach facing out towards the lagoon. DSC03432From the water’s edge, and jutting out into the gently lapping water, had been constructed a stage, complete with a tin roof and flower pots hanging under the roof. On the raised platform sat the various Chiefs from the communities participating in the events, along with the Captain of the Silver Explorer and our own Expedition Leader, Stefan Kredel. All in all, I counted nine Chiefs, to which you add our two dignitaries, and what we had is eleven individuals all of whom had to have an opportunity to address the assembled gathering. Now all around us on the beach was a very large crowd of brightly dressed locals all of whom seemed to be hanging on every word that was spoken. Clearly, this was both a holiday for them and an important event! After staying long enough to hear our Captain and Stefan make their remarks, I decided I could stand no more speeches, since most of what was being said was in a language I did not understand, and I took off to explore behind the scenes.

I walked away from the beach finding that entire villages had setup tents under which they were actively putting their local skills to display.DSC03464 Walking a little further I came to a ROAD. I mean a real time road with tire tracks, and indeed just behind the events was parked a Toyota pick-up from the YAP government. I looked up to see power lines running along the road, and so I started to walk along the road away from the events unfolding on the beach. I was clearly going in the wrong direction because the road will filled with locals who were dressed up in their finest ceremonial attire all headed in the opposite direction. Soon I came to a beautiful Catholic Church, in front of which was a dilapidated plaza on the side of which stood a monument, the top of which was adorned by a bell. I noted a large brass plaque on the monument, and out of curiosity, I wandered over to see what it said. The top of the inscription was in Japanese, but the bottom was basically a memorial to the many Japanese who had given their lives on this island during WW II. I was curious about this because I had never heard of this atoll in connection with the war, so before writing this blog I did a little look around the internet. It seems that during the war, this island was occupied by the Japanese and near the end of the war it was home to over 7,000 troops. By the time Japan surrendered, there were only 1,650 survivors, the rest having perished by starvation and disease. Those survivors were rescued by the destroyer USS Sloat on September 17, 1945. It is amazing what you find when you are not even looking.

Even after having been gone for quite a while, when I returned, the speeches were still ongoing, and so Lisa and I decided to return to the ship a little early. Just as we were boarding our zodiac, the young men of the island were demonstrating how to right an overturned outrigger and how to recover a capsized canoe filled with water. DSC03502These survival skills are clearly needed in a land surrounded by water, and it was interesting to watch. Before long everyone returned for a lunch break which was also shared by the islanders on shore.

Festivities started again around 2pm, and while Lisa chose to stay onboard, I went to view the entertainment dances. There were seven dance shows, four of which were put on by members of the local high schools, and the remaining three were done by members of the community. I must tell you that everyone seemed so very pleased that we were joining them on this festival day that it was really amazing. The locals were very deferential to us and made sure that we had the best seats and a clear viewing location. I have to tell you one cute story. While I have recovered much of the use of my injured left leg, I still walk with a limp and I simply cannot stand for any length of time without suffering pain. So as I came ashore for the afternoon shows, one of the crewmembers was kind enough to grab one of the few chairs available and move it into the shade for my use. However, before I could get there, a very young boy who had seen my limp came up to me carrying a chair which was almost too big for him. He carefully sat the chair down right in front of me and indicated I was to sit there. I thanked him profusely, and he ran off with a smile. I promptly took that seat instead.

The performances were interesting, but long. I got a kick of the friends of the young dancers running up and taking photographs with their cell phones, or in one case a young man had his laptop out and was using it as a camera. DSC03519All of the dancers were elaborately and colorfully adorned, but in the afternoon heat after two hours I had to throw in the towel and head back to the boat. Then one of the highlights of my day occurred. As I approached the zodiacs, Stefan steps up to me and says “you want to meet the chiefs, yes!” This was not posed as a question, but rather a statement! Now having known each other for many years, we have taken to opening joking with each other, so I was not sure what to make of this “command.” Without further hesitation, Stefan leads me to the stage where the old Chiefs are still seated, albeit a little warmed by their coconut wine, and proceeds to introduce me one by one. They must have thought I was some kind of dignitary given the manner in which I was welcomed, and indeed one of them pulled up a chair and asked if I would care to sit awhile. (In hindsight my not doing so was one of the dumbest moves of this trip. I would have loved to have asked them just what it took to become a chief on the island and whether or not I could run for the job!) Stefan and I joked around and they joined in the merriment when one of them offered me a cup of coconut wine. Now the grey-white fluid being proffered was not very appealing to me, but it was obvious that to refuse would have been seen as insult. Soooo, I took a good swig of the stuff, and while it was not as bad as it looked, I understood why these gentlemen were having such a good time sitting on the podium while all the festivities had moved on up the beach. I was preparing to take my leave when Stefan said that before departing I had to meet the three gentlemen I had not yet seen sitting on the right side of the dais. In the middle sat the Senior Chief who was clearly a very old man and who was clearly blind. His eyes were milky white, most of his teeth were missing, and he looked so frail that I was amazed he was sitting up unassisted. But, let there be no doubt, when he took my hand, the handshake was both strong and friendly. He apologized for not being able to see me, but he liked my strong voice, and in some way across half a planet and thousands of miles away, I connected with a fellow traveler on this planet and it was a powerful experience.

Today is a day at sea, and tomorrow will be the last full day of our trip because the day afterwards we will arrive into Palau and from there depart for home. I hope everyone is well, and while I will try to write about tomorrow since our tour is in the afternoon, I doubt there will be enough time. So this is in all likelihood my last blog for this trip and I do hope that everyone has enjoyed our adventure together.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Lamotrek Atoll

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This has been a truly incredible day and without doubt a highlight of our trip; still in all fairness, I must start at the beginning in order to paint the entire picture.

No matter what euphuism is used to describe the motion of this ship, to say that we “had a slight movement of the vessel” would not be an accurate description in my book. Last night we moved around pretty good, not only rolling from side to side, but pitching up and down, even at times having the bow come completely out of the water and come crashing down with a “bang.” Now in truth, every ship on which I have ever sailed on has movement, and even the big ships at times can offer quite a violent ride. So, the fact that we had a bad night is not in and of itself unusual. What is unusual is that this ship seems to have almost no roll stabilization, so that in even mild conditions, it rolls from side to side continuously. I bring this into my story because the conditions were so bad last night that poor Lisa could not sleep because she was ever tense out of concern for being literally thrown out of the bed. The constant motion of the ship when at sea has been more uncomfortable for her than for me, but I must admit I am a little tired of it after almost 3 weeks. Anyway, Lisa was so tired this morning that she opted to stay onboard and not to go ashore this morning. While I understand, it turned out that today was something special, but at least, I can share what we encountered.

I am dumbfounded at just how many really small islands, cays, islets, atolls or whatever you want to call them, really exist in this part of the world. Even more amazing is how many are inhabited by small isolated groups of people, and our stop this morning was to just such a place. We are still within the Federated States of Micronesia, commonly just called Micronesia. However, today we sailed west into a new state, that of Yap, and we visited the coral atoll of Lamotrek. The large atoll actually has three small islands within its lagoon, but the island of Lamotrek is where the population of approximately 350 live. This is the first time that the Silver Discoverer has stopped at this destination, and I gather that this small island is not used to receiving visitors because our arrival was cause for a great celebration by the islanders.

As our zodiacs approached the beach, I could see a very large crowd who were singing and chanting in welcome. DSC03311After going ashore and ditching my life vest, I was faced with a long line of welcomers who had formed a pathway with people on both sides leading up the beach to where chairs has been set up for us. I decided to see if I could record this amazing welcome, and so I started up the line of well-wishers carrying my camera in my left hand, and shaking hands with my right. I had no clue as to whether or not I was actually getting any usable pictures, because I was carrying my camera chest high facing forward without my being able to see exactly what was being captured. When I finally reached the top of the beach to where the chairs were located, a chief suddenly shakes my hand and directs me to continue forward where a singing line of people was again lining both sides of a walkway just waiting to shake my hand. It was really quite an experience. In some cases older women would reach out and grab my hand while bowing to me and in others if I happened to miss someone, I had to stop and go back to be sure no one was overlooked. When I came back around full circle I was able to sit and join our group, only to realize that my camera had been running the entire time. It was not until I was back on the ship reviewing my pictures with Lisa when I suddenly saw what had actually happened. You see on this island the women were bare breasted. Do you remember where exactly I said I was carrying my camera? Yep, in my left hand about chest high – and so without realizing it, as I went down the line turning first one way and then the next, I was capturing some, shall we say, very interesting footage. Not only was it interesting, but it was downright funny to watch as I reached over to shake someone’s hand and my camera zoomed in for a close-up as it were. The footage is hilarious and I guarantee it will make our DVD. Never have I in so short a time shaken so many hands nor photographed so many naked breasts!!

After everyone was seated, a representative of the two Chiefs present read a very moving welcome in which he spoke eloquently of our paths crossing in time. DSC03313After the welcome from the Chief’s, or expedition leader Stefan spoke on behalf of the ship and its crew and our appreciation for our warm welcome. Then I had been asked on behalf of the passengers to present to the Chiefs and their community the gifts which people had brought to give to the school, and I tied in our appreciation at the unprecedented welcome and noted that in truth we probably would not in our lifetimes pass this way again, but that we would always treasure these moments together.

With the ceremonies thus concluded, we were at liberty to tour the small island community where people were conducting demonstrations of the skills they used in everyday life. We were welcome to visit every home if we wished or to walk anywhere. While the demonstrations were taking place there was a flurry of activity taking place in the background as the women were preparing for the singing presentations that were to take place late morning.DSC03345 I actually walked far enough that I came to the end of the path where I found the local school. The buildings were well maintained and they were in the process of installing a series of solar panels over the roof.

I made it back to the beach in time for the singing presentations, and I was fortunate to capture the better parts of all three separate groups on video. DSC03405Unlike on other islands where men participated, here all of the performers were women or children. It was a festive time for everyone, and by the time we all got back to the ship for lunch, it was agreed that without question this had been our best adventure yet.

In the afternoon several activities were offered. The divers went off to do their thing, the swimmers could swim off the beautiful white sandy beach, those wanting to tour the village further could do so, and for Lisa and I snorkeling off the beach was now available.100_0143 While we spent almost 90 minutes floating with the fishes, all the while the children kept up the singing and chanting from the beach. It appeared that the festivities associated with our visit were still going on. As it turns out, we later learned that in Yap a State Holiday is held on March 6th of each year to commemorate their cultural heritage. Even though we were visiting Lamotrek on March 5th, the Islanders had decided to have their holiday early in order that we could witness and share in the activities.

So all in all Lamotrek was a wonderful adventure, and in the end, Lisa and I fell into bed tired but happy.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Tale Of Two Islands

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Tuesday March 3, 2015

Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia

I was quite excited about our visit to Chuuk Lagoon, also known as Truk Lagoon, because there is a great deal of history associated with this location. During the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial Command maintained this as its main base in the South Pacific. At anchor in the Lagoon were much of the assets of the Japanese Navy when in 1944, the Allies launched Operation Hailstone against this island. Even though the Japanese had learned of the attack one week prior, still the consequences of the three day assault made Truk lagoon the biggest graveyard of ships in the world. In addition, the Allies eliminated Truk as a major Japanese stronghold for the remainder of the war.

Our ship arrived inside Chuuk Lagoon around 8am. The plan for the day’s operation was rather complex. First, around 8:30am people could leave the ship for the zodiacs and then enjoy a 3 hour snorkel safari. With the help of local guides the zodiacs would be taken to three locations from which the snorkelers could swim and see shallow wrecks below. I am embarrassed to admit that Lisa and I were not excited about 3 hours in the sun and swimming, not to mention that at the time the decision had to be made, the swells were quite large and we did not feel comfortable in going. As it later turned out, the first snorkel event was canceled due to the conditions, but still the group did make two adventures in the open water.

After the snorkel group was off the ship, the ship moved to another location, this time off the Point of Weno Island. From here the diving group departed for the first of two scheduled dives for the day. The remainder of those on board were then welcomed to go ashore on Weno Island to the Blue Lagoon Resort where there would be a BBQ lunch, and people could spend the day swimming from the beach, or just sitting in the shade of a tree. Lisa and I opted to do just that and we took our iPads and found a place with a cool breeze to sit, read, and enjoy the stunningly beautiful location. DSC03171

So my report on this day is pretty blah, which is not to say that we did not have a good time, merely not much happened; on the other hand, by chance during the morning while the ship was repositioning to Weno Island, I happened to go to the public lounge to read. The lounge is quite large so when I entered and found that the arrival formalities were taking place I found a place way in the back to sit. In the process, I could not help but observe the ritual taking place in front of me. The group which had come over to the ship from the island must have consisted of perhaps 15 people, of which only 2 or 3 seemed to have any purpose for actually being there. The rest were what appeared to be brand new t-shirts with some kind of “official” title on the back, e.g. Customs, Tax, Quarantine, etc. The assignment for this group appeared to be to drink and eat as much as humanely possible in the quickest possible time. When the real “officials” had cleared the ship, our Officer left the room, but the party continued. The group began to take “selfies,” and then took group photographs all around the room. When they ran out of food, they departed one by one to roam somewhere on the ship, and then I saw them come back with the little bags they were carrying now “full of something.” They had forgotten that I was in the back of the room as they started to share among themselves what treasure they had acquired – mostly bottles of alcohol. I guess getting into the group to inspect incoming passenger ships much be a pretty prized position on these islands.

Wednesday March 4, 2015

Pulap Island, Micronesia

Overnight our ship moved west about 220 km to anchor off the tiny atoll of Pulap. Both from our briefing last evening to what I could see out the window this morning, we had arrived at what amounts to a “dot” in the vast Pacific Ocean. Sea conditions were not the best, and the divers were disappointed when it was decided to abandon any diving for the day. Meantime all of us were to go ashore where we would be given a tour of the village and then a “cultural performance” had been arranged. Lisa and I were a little tired this morning and so very much out of character, we arrived about 30 minutes late to the island. It must have been a really quick tour because when we arrived the performances were just starting. The first presentation was given by the men of the island. DSC03217It started outside the meeting hall, and very slowly proceeded inside. I managed to obtain several good videos of what was a very interesting dance and chanting presentation. Next, the women of the island essentially did the same thing, and then this was followed by the children. All in all I think we were entertained for just under two hours. It was really very interesting, and I believe that everyone was having fun. When this was over, I started to wander around the village, but I quickly surmised that the island was nowhere near as clean as what we had seen before, and I really could not find anything of interest to photograph. Meanwhile I was being called to return to the ship for lunch, so I headed back to our landing site. Lisa on the other hand had gone back into the meeting hall where many of the dancers were selling some of the ceremonial items they had worn during the dances. She managed to obtain a very nice piece of elaborate bead work that was worn by one of the women, so she was happy. Our ride back to the ship was a little rough, but nothing major, and when we arrived, we were wet and hot. So even though a BBQ had been set up by the pool, we headed to our room to get dry and cool and in the process ordered a little something from room service, took showers, and promptly fell asleep.

During the afternoon we had intended to go over on the shuttle zodiac to snorkel from the beach, but the staff warned that they advised against snorkeling except for advanced swimmers because of the strong currents in the lagoon. So like the slugs we are, we just turned over, and went back to sleep.

Now if it is possible to write a really boring blog from the middle of the South Pacific, I think I have just managed to do it. All I can say is that we are having a wonderful time, and hope for more adventure tomorrow.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

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Join me now while I tell you our tale of the lost city of Nan Madol. Well, I guess it can’t exactly be lost since our tour bus found it, but from our experiences it might as well have been. Anyway, back to our adventure! It includes having to traverse treacherous reefs just to gain entrance to the Island of Pohnpei, FSM. There was a lost pilot, or at least late, and then the long, long, long torturous ride which ended deep in the jungle on a narrow road which wanted to swallow our little bus. Intrepid travelers that we were, we set out upon a difficult walk through the jungle on a path that at times required that we cross swamps full of snakes and slimy things, and from which sticks seemed to protrude everywhere just waiting for us to slip and fall to our deaths. After an eternity, out of the mist loomed the lost city, but it was a tease because to reach the ruins, we still had to cross a water filled canal where the water level came up to our knees and which was filled with slippery rocks. Only the “true of heart” were successful at gaining entrance to the inner city, but our presence had “angered the gods,” since no sooner had we reached our goal, than the heavens opened up with a torrential downpour. This is a short description of our fateful day on Pohnpei. Let us hope that by the mere telling of the tale, that the gods are not more angered and take revenge on us lowly seafaring travelers who have now taken our leave and are now making a hasty retreat.

Having now removed the tongue from my cheek let me tell you about our remarkable experience on Pohnpei. Our ship was scheduled to arrive at the port of Kolonia around 11am on March 1st. This timing was somewhat critical because our excursion for the day involved our riding a bus for almost 3 hours, visiting the ancient city of Nan Madol, which required 40 minutes of walking, plus time at the site – and an absolute requirement from the local authorities that we depart the dock no later than 6pm. If you add all this up you can see that we did not have much time to spare. As luck would have it however, because of heavy seas the Captain had to reduce our speed for the sake of our safety and comfort, which meant that we would now reach our dock at noon. However, when the ship arrived at the point designated for meeting the required pilot, there was no harbor pilot to be found. As time moved by, you could feel the frustration rising when on the horizon appeared a small boat with an outboard motor chugging its way towards us. This was certainly not the usual “Pilot Boat,” but indeed it did bring our pilot. We still had to navigate the treacherous channel through the reef and into the harbor, and by the time the ship was finally tied up to the dock it was 1pm. In other words, there was barely enough time to make the excursion and be back in time to leave the harbor by 6pm. Soon there was an announcement that after “negotiations” with the pilot, he had graciously agreed to delay our departure time until 6:30. Now in my mind, arriving at the ship 30 minutes late almost guaranteed the pilot the opportunity to “negotiate” an agreement, or perhaps I am just too suspicious.

Our 90 minute ride started out on winding and narrow paved roads, but eventually morphed into even more narrow dirt byways. P1000643Along the way, we saw that this island was more improved than some of its neighboring islands. This is not surprising since the capital of the country is located here. On this island, people did not walk as much because small cars seemed plentiful. I saw signs of electricity, phones and cell phones, and water pipes. The houses were built of concrete with tin roofs rather than palm leaves, but looking into the interiors as we passed, all I saw were a table and a bed as furniture. Cooking was still done outdoors. When we arrived at the entrance to Nan Madol Park, our buses had to negotiate same narrow pathways before stopping for us to begin our journey into the jungle. At the head of the trail, was a small building with three toilets inside, one of which was missing a door in this one a local dog had taken residence. Now about 80 people had just arrived, and so a line quickly formed for the facilities. It became apparent that with only two stalls this would be a long process, so quickly, two of the women teamed up, with one going in to use the toilet without a door while the other spread herself to make like a door.P1000646 As one woman came out, yet another would go in, I must agree that this rather unusual solution greatly helped the situation.

I then begin to walk the 20 minute trail, and while I had seen pictures of it during our briefing the night before, I was not prepared for just how uneven the surface. It was composed of small pieces of broken coral interspersed with volcanic rocks. Even with my cane, I was having a pretty slow go of it. Then I came to a large swamp where the path over was a narrow wooden platform without railings which required crossing. The “bridge” consisted of three small logs that had been placed across the opening, and then nailed across the logs were small boards, some of which had rotted long ago and not been replaced. At each end of the bridge the logs had been placed on top of deep stone “steps” that first required you climbed up to reach the bridge and then to climb back down.P1000653 On either side of the bridge, was a slimy swamp in which I could see snakes and all kinds of critters. Even worse, through some phenomena, the swamp was filled with sticks that stood straight up out of the water and mud, so that if I fell, I would surely be impaled. As I was crossing one of these hazards, I suddenly had this image of Harrison Ford raising to yet another challenge in order to reach “the lost ark.” There were several such bridges, and while getting off one of them I slipped on a moss covered rock and fell onto one knee. In an instant my two “keepers” had me back on my feet without incident, only some small scratch which bled a bit.

I must digress for a second; this incident was so minor that I scarcely gave it a second thought. In a few minutes one of the crew members came over and wiped the scratches with an antiseptic wipe and that was it. WELL, someone filed an accident report and by the time I reached my cabin our room steward wanted to know how I was after my accident. All night and all day today crew have been inquiring how I am after my accident. I even got a note from the Captain about my unfortunate incident. As if this was not enough, the Expedition Leader phoned me this morning, and the Doctor came to find me at lunch to examine my “ouchie.” Believe it or not I got more feedback over a little cut than I did when I broke my darned shoulder!!

Back to the story, finally I reached the ruins of Nan Madol. Now I consider myself a reasonably educated and travelled person, but I had never heard of this place. So, if I may be so bold, allow me to quote what we were told: “Nan Madol is a ruined city adjacent to the eastern shore of the island of Pohnpei that was the capital of the Saudeleur dynasty until about 1628.The city, constructed in a lagoon, consists of a series of small artificial islands linked by a network of canals. There are nearly 100 artificial islets bordered by canals….Nan Madol was the ceremonial seat of the Saudeleur dynasty… and was the scene of human activity as early as the first or second Century. By the 8th or 9th century islet construction had started, but the megalithic structures seen today probably date from the 12th or early 13th century.”

When I say that we “reached” the ruins that is perhaps a little bit of an overstatement. We reached the place where the island stopped, and now a walk across to the main artificial islet was required. P1000667This walk was across a flowing channel with water up to our knees and was over a boulder strewn debris field which was slick. By now everyone knew that poor Lisa and I were just about out of juice and rather quickly the locals used a small boat they had available. Lisa and I walked into the water and sat on the side of the little boat and turned around to sit in it. It was partially filled with water and was slick as an ice rink with slime, but it took us across the canal which sure beat walking. Getting us out of the little boat and up the steep steps onto the artificial island required several large gentlemen but before long Lisa and I were standing before the main temple complex. Now we have good news and bad. The good news is that we were the last to arrive at the party and so almost everyone was leaving which allowed me to grab some photographs without anyone in my way.P1000682 The bad news was that the rains finally arrived!!!! We had been warned that this island had almost more rain than anyplace on earth. For this reason Lisa had not brought her camera, and I had elected to bring my little Lumix backup which I could quickly throw into a plastic bag if needed; well it was needed! We had a good old fashioned tropical downpour which lasted for the remainder of our trip. Now we faced having to go back over that long and treacherous trail, when the tour guides, feeling sorry for us convinced the operator of the little boat that had taken us across to the island, to take us all the way back to where we could hook up to a road that our bus could reach. So, we were treated to a 30 minute ride along the swampy waters which allowed us to see (through the rain of course) the side walls and canals of Nan Madol. On our way home our driver wanted to show us the local sting rays, and so he drove across a shallow muddy bank and the rays scattered like a flock of birds. Finally we arrived at a muddy embankment where we departed the little boat and with his help we managed to find a small shelter where we could wait for our bus. Now I should mention that at all times we were accompanied by a member of the expedition team who was in radio contact with the other buses and the ship.

We were so glad to see our bus, and we climbed on to join all the other soaked guests on our 90 minute ride back to the dock. We were the last bus to arrive, and the ship was anxiously awaiting our arrival so that it could depart before the bewitching hour. We just made it under the wire. It took a long time to clear the reef and in the interim, the weather had become worse with low ceilings and fog. By the time we were outside the reef and rolling in the ocean, it was quickly becoming dark. I looked outside, and to my amazement our pilot was climbing back into the little boat with the outboard for the hazardous journey in really lousy conditions back to shore. It would seem that there were perhaps good reasons for setting a departure time no later than 6pm for their safety. When I last saw the little boat it was disappearing into a low drizzle and breaking waves around the reef.

Today we have a break and a day at sea to recover before our next stop tomorrow at Chuuk.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Another Day: Another Atoll

Map picture


This morning the ship pulled up to another atoll; this one even more stunning than what we encountered yesterday. The atoll is named Nukuoro Atoll, and is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. In fact, all of the remaining stops on this cruise will be within the FSM, with the exception being, that we will dock at Koror, Palau for our return home. Palau, you might recall from my last blog, is a separate country within the Caroline Island Chain.

On our drive into the lagoon the sun was shining brightly, and the ride was much shorter than yesterday perhaps only 15 minutes in length. Once again navigating the narrow channel into the lagoon was exciting, but I must admit that our ride out of the lagoon approached the level of a white water rafting trip. I don’t think that I explained yesterday that these lagoons are filled with seawater and maintain a link to the surrounding ocean. The naturally formed narrow channels can be quite treacherous to navigate. As the ocean tide rises, then water pours through the channel into the lagoon, while the reverse is also the case. If you go through the inlet at a tidal point, the small channel can become a chute of roiling water.

The islanders had only learned of our “possible” arrival yesterday, so no welcoming ceremonies were planned. What we did find was a warm welcome from the island’s chief, and warm smiles from the few people who were around the dock to greet us as our little zodiacs arrivedP1000581. We were told that we were welcome to go anywhere on the tiny island, and almost immediately a pretty islander appeared and offered to take us around the island. She was a middle aged woman named Rose, who spoke good English. P1000598To my amazement, the island was spotless and it had clearly defined pathways lined with coral stones covered in moss. The main path encircled the island, but there were many intersecting lanes crisscrossing the island. It was so beautifully laid out that you would think you were walking in some exotic botanical garden. As we walked with Rose, we learned that the island is home to around 300 people, but she admitted that the youth are gradually drifting away from the old ways and going off to more populated areas in search of jobs and money so in fact, the population is shrinking. Rose would call out to people as we passed and everyone smiled and all offered us the opportunity to visit their dwellings. Suddenly Lisa and I both realized that in our hurry to come ashore we had forgotten our bug repellent and we were rapidly becoming of interest to the resident mosquitoes.

At an intersecting pathway, we took our leave of Rose and our small group and cut across the island back to the landing site. At one point, we came upon a dwelling in which there was a fire going and smoke rising through the thatched roof. P1000607Just outside was a woman raking her yard. As we went by, we said “hello,” and she quickly dropped what she was doing and ran to her oven to pull out a loaf of bread to give to us. She absolutely would not take no for an answer so after offering profuse thanks, we tried it and it was delicious. It tasted to me like a light lemon cake. Just around the corner were a few young girls who agreed to pose for a quick photograph. P1000610We walked along taking pictures, enjoying the air of welcome, the sheer beauty of the place, and the tranquility.

When we arrived at our landing site, there was no zodiac yet to pick us up, so while we waited, one of the young men nearby ran over and got a chair for me to use and I struck up a conversation with them. It seems that this must be one of the last bastions of native isolation left. I learned that the island has no phones, not even cell phones, no internet, no electricity, and no running water. The people live off what the sea and the island provide; they seemed well fed, healthy, and happy. I did understand that they have a very nice school which is why everyone could speak English so well, but when we cut our walk short we never got that far on our tour. Before too long our zodiac arrived, and we were whisked away to the zodiac snorkel platform that had just been established.

The ship takes great precautions for both their diving and snorkeling activities. Let’s take snorkeling for example. One of the zodiacs is outfitted with a set of stairs which are hung over the sides thus allowing one to fairly easily climb back on board. Another similarly outfitted zodiac is stationed nearby, but in the direction in which the current is flowing. So, if you depart the first platform and just float, you will come up and find yourself at the second platform without having the need to swim back to where you started. Then in addition, there is what I would term a “spotter” stationed on a zodiac who monitors the area constantly to insure that if someone gets into trouble they can respond quite quickly. The zodiacs are positioned at locations which have been carefully scouted out by the expedition team in advance. They are generally positioned right at the edge of the reef, and where the currents are not too great. So as we slide off the zodiac and look down, the reef is right in front of us and we are on the edge which drops off into the deep very quickly.

I was snorkeling for around 45 minutes and the highlight of my experience was the appearance of the bat fish. This fish looked to me like an angel fish, but it was quite large and it kept coming right by my mask from my side and then I would try to follow. This behavior happened over and over again. Meantime, Lisa had the assistance of a member of the dive team for her snorkeling so she got to see many interesting things including me! As I am snorkeling along something grabs my foot, and I just about drowned in a panic. As I surface it was Lisa and her shadow laughing their heads off. Fortunately this did give us an opportunity to have our pictures taken together snorkeling so I do have real proof of my story. 100_0098We both headed back to the zodiac at the same time, and while Lisa seemed to have no difficulty climbing up the ladder for me it was a real struggle. I really had not realized it, but with a left shoulder that is disabled and a left knee that is injured, I could really only pull myself up on my right side which became not only comical but embarrassing. Eventually I fell into the zodiac like a beached whale only to hear a call on the radio instructing the transit zodiac to return to the ship immediately. Lisa and I rushed to make that trip, and it quickly became apparent what was happening. The weather conditions had changed, and our trip out of the lagoon and back across the reef was quite exciting to say the least. Even more of an issue however was the large swells which had now come up around the ship. Unlike the Silver Explorer, which has stairs which are put down along the side of the ship, which makes boarding somewhat easier, the Silver Discoverer has a platform that is lowered from the rear of the ship. So, if the ship itself is pitching up and down, then the rear platform likewise is pitching up and down which is just the condition which awaited us. I am just going to make a wild guess and say that the platform was going up and down around five feet or more. In addition, the current had gotten much stronger so that it took a lot of power from the zodiac just to reach the platform, and some pretty good teamwork from the crew to grab us and tie us tight enough to attempt a boarding.

Back onboard safely, I learned two things. One was that everyone was so proud of what Lisa had accomplished in snorkeling that she was now to be known as “the snorkel queen.” Also, later we learned that not 40ft from where we were snorkeling, another group of people saw a group of large manta rays feeding near the surface. In fact one of the dive team actually got some video of the large creatures. I would have loved to have seen that myself, but it would probably have frightened me quite a bit even though I later learned that the manta ray is harmless to people.

So, all in all an exciting day and now we are speeding towards our next destination, the island of Pohnpei, where we are expected to arrive around at the port city of Kolonia around 11am.