TheGlobe-Trotters

TheGlobe-Trotters

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Trip Back In Time

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A Trip Back In Time

Yesterday we visited the small and little known Island of Mozambique. It has the unique distinction of being home to the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere, the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. Built in 1522, it is housed inside the oldest complete fort still standing in sub-Saharan Africa, the Fort of Sao Sebastiao which was constructed over a fifty year period starting in 1558. These structures were built by the Portuguese, and to this day that is the common language on this island. For these reasons, this island has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

At the time the fort was constructed, the island was not connected to the mainland and thus it was a relatively secure location to house this structure which was designed in large measure as the treasury for all of the goods that were being collected along the African coast. It was, of course, also home to a prison, and a large number of troops were stationed there in an effort to secure the Portuguese hold on this part of the African continent. Today there is a bridge which connects the island to the mainland and a nearby airport.

The island is quite small being only 3 km in length and about 500 m in width. Since this was our first port in the country of Mozambique, our ship, of course, had to go through the lengthy clearance procedures with the usual large number of attendant officials. Once cleared, we were able to travel ashore by zodiac for our walking tour of the island. I had visited Mozambique on one prior occasion, having gone to the city of Maputo. At that time, I made a joke to the effect that the national flag of Mozambique was the plastic bag because that city was literally covered with them blowing in the wind and rolling across the ground. In truth, the flag of Mozambique is one of only two in the world that is decorated by an AK-47. The other country with a flag bearing a firearm is Guatamala.While Mozambique is a large country, it is one of the poorest in Africa. It borders South Africa to the south and Tanzania to the north. While initially the little island of Mozambique was home to the Portuguese governor, upon achieving independence, it also became the first capital of the country.

The skies were crystal clear and the water extremely calm producing some spectacular vistas. Once ashore, we were greeted by local dancers with a singing of welcome to their island. We were divided into several groups, and our group first headed for the Fort. We were surrounded by large numbers of children most of whom were curious, but many of whom were begging for money. Our little entourage was largely protected from this onslaught by the tour staff and expedition team, not to mention the number of police who continually appeared out of nowhere. Indeed one of them was even carrying a submachine gun, and when I took his picture and he saw me, I really thought that he was going to come and grab my camera right out of my hand. Instead he walked by me with a nasty glare and a finger in my face, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Our walk to the Fort took roughly 45 minutes which sounds simple enough until you factor in the unbelievable intense heat. I am guessing that the heat index was easily over 100, and even though we moved from one shady spot to the next, pausing to rest until we cooled down, by the time we reached the Fort most of us were soaking wet. I elected to go in the Fort and walk around. I will admit that it was very interesting, but by the same token it had a large number of steps and steep ramps to negotiate which I found difficult as did many of our other guests.

After visiting the Fort and seeing the Famed Chapel, we walked back to the center of town where we visited the residence of the former governor which is now a museum. Like most of the town, this structure was built from stone, and it was in such good shape that you could easily imagine the opulence of its era. Set high above the town, it had a good breeze through it which made it livable in spite of the extreme temperatures outside.

I must admit that while I did manage to do everything, I literally became sick from the heat and departed the tour a little early. Once back onboard all I could do was to drink water and take a cold shower.

Overnight our ship cruised north along the coast to reach Ibo Island. We were to have arrived early this morning, but during the evening the ship apparently encountered some mechanical difficulties requiring us to slow down. Our arrival was late, and as absolutely incredible as this may sound – even though we have been cleared into the country, we had to go through another clearance procedure to enter the city. This of course involved another large team to come aboard. Even though we are running a little late, they offered a beach for swimming for what was left of the morning, and this afternoon they are going to take us to shore for a 2 ½ hour walk basically to see a smaller and much less important Fort. Once again the heat outside is almost unbearable, and given that tomorrow is supposed to be one of the highlights of our trip – Lisa and I have decided to stay on board today in order that we can enjoy that adventure.

Where we are in the world, today is New Year’s Eve. So let me wish everyone our best wishes for the New Year, and I will be back to you in 2017.

Jim

Thursday, December 29, 2016

There Is No Such Place As Too Far Away

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For the last two days, we have had a rather unique opportunity to visit one of the more isolated places in the world which also just happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I am speaking about the world’s second-largest coral atoll, Aldabra.

Aldabra is but a small dot on the world map, but it is hugely important due to the fact that it is largely untouched by human hands. The atoll is 21 miles long and 8 miles wide with most of the landmass consisting of a giant lagoon in the center. There are only three passenger ways into the lagoon, and with the large tidal flows in this part of the world, the influx and outflow of water can be massive. Surrounding the lagoon are five coral islands. A small research station is located on the West Island which is home to approximately 12 people. Obviously there is no airstrip located here, nor is there any regular service for reaching the island. The tour guide that was attached to our small zodiac said that personnel were excitedly awaiting their next supply ship which should have ice cream! When we asked when they expected the ship to arrive? She responded, “October 22!”

Aldabra is located at the very southwest edge of the Seychelles. Admission to the island is tightly regulated, and no one is allowed to visit without special prior permission. Even then no more than 200 individuals may come at one time, and they are confined to very small areas in which they may visit. In reality, we were told that we were the first ship this year, and that during the next season they expected only three ships. So in total, it is estimated that no more than 600 people annually get to see this wonder which has been named as one of the “crown jewels” of the Indian Ocean.

To say that the island is untouched, does not mean that is was unknown in ancient times. It is very obvious that the islands were first discovered by the Arabs around 900 A.D., and over the centuries, the resources of this island were heavily exploited by sailing ships. However, since the island received its protected status, there has been an incredible explosion of the natural flora and fauna along with a return on the large biodiversity of the wildlife that is found here. The islands are home to frigate birds and boobies by the thousands. You cannot walk on the island for long without bumping in to a giant tortoise, and as you cruise through the lagoon, you are surrounded by green turtles, rays and black tip sharks.

I must admit that neither Lisa nor I were able to take advantage of the snorkeling which is really sad. We have seen some of the pictures from other guests and can only marvel at the large diversity of marine life just under the surface. One of our guest who went diving was taking a picture with her underwater camera when a giant grouper was curious enough to approach and explore her camera itself.

I did go ashore for a brief walk and the beauty was absolutely incredible. However, being relatively close to the equator, the combination of heat, humidity, and reflection from the sand meant only a brief visit for me. But late in the afternoon, we were all given a two hour zodiac ride within the lagoon itself. We left the ship and entered the lagoon, slowly cruising across the shallow waters. The water was exceptionally clear, and had it not been for the strong wind sending ripples across the surface, we could have easily viewed the bottom. Our little zodiac startled several rays, and more than a few turtles. The tide was falling, so we constantly had to beware of just how close the bottom was. Once along the interior shore, we slowly moved along the mangrove trees, which were so full of birds that you wondered how they all fit at one time. Finally, just as the sun was setting and the bottom rising, we exited on the other side of the Island and there we found out ship which had moved to meet us. If you will look at my pictures, you will see in a moment what I mean by the profusion of wildlife.

We spent two days at different locations around the atoll, and the local staff was invited on board for several meals. They were a delightful group of mostly highly educated young people who are clearly dedicated to the research they are doing to the preservation of this unique environment. I can scarcely imagine the dedication that it takes to spend one’s life in such isolation-even if it is only for a few years.

I will tell you one quick short story; during the night we were at anchor and everyone was required to help darken the ship, and the exterior lights for the most part were turned off as well. Apparently on a previous visit to this location, they had failed to take that precaution, and thousands of boobies who nest on these islands became confused when they saw the lights and flew towards the ship at night pooping all over the outside decks. Unfortunately when people went outside the next morning, there was a gigantic mass left to clean up, and many birds were found who had been injured by flying towards the ship.

It is very rare that you get an opportunity to go up on deck without the ship being fully lit, so this was one of those rare occasions when we could go and observe the stars in the open ocean. It was a humbling experience that once again reminded me that we are but a small speck in a giant universe. Indeed the more that I travel around our planet I come to appreciate just how small our home really is. Standing there beneath the clear night sky I was reminded of a quote by the renowned Carl Sagan. He once noted that if you could equate one grain of sand to a star in the universe, then it would take all the sand from all the beaches on this planet and still you could not equal all the stars in the universe. He ended by saying “We are but star stuff that has learned to ask the question from whence we’ve come?”

Today we are at sea on our way to Mozambique. I hope to be able to post pictures within the next hour or two, and would encourage you to take a look at the website so that you can follow along.

It is hard to believe that we will be home in one week since time flies so quickly.

Jim

Photographs are located at: http://theglobetrotters.phanfare.com

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Life in a Bottle at Sea

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Imagine what life must be like living on the ocean floating along in a bottle? If your life must occur within that bottle, then everything you experience is also within the bottle, except at those few times when the bottle is briefly opened. I would like to share with you that very experience because I feel very much that way at this moment. I am aware that there is a world and a life outside this bottle, but I can see it only as if looking through “a glass yet darkly” that it is there. It amazes me that a month ago I would be concerned about so many things, relationships, and environments, which today are but dim memories and not highly relevant to the moment. Instead I find myself living in a strange encapsulated world where my every need is catered to. Inside my bottle with me are approximately 160 individuals, half of whom are passengers and the other half are crewmembers.

When I awake each morning, I go to the side of the bottle and with my sleeve, I wipe a small circle through which I can peer into the outside world. Some days I see nothing but ocean as far as the horizon can stretch. On other days, like today, I look outside to see strange and wonderful islands surrounded by thousands of frigate birds and an untold number of white terns feeding upon the waters. Here my every need is taken care of. I go downstairs each morning to breakfast, being careful to leave my laundry outside my door; breakfast will be served exactly as I like it, including my usual cold glass of Diet Coke. By the time I return to my room, it has been completely cleaned and the bed freshly made. Lunch can be as simple as a hamburger and fries or as elaborate as a full meal. In the evening, we have an elegant dinner served by candlelight which glistens off the crystal stemware. By the time I return to my cabin, it has been completely cleaned yet again, and there on my bed is the laundry all freshly done and neatly presented.

Strangely, most of the people who are here to serve my needs, live in a world of which I know nothing. I am reminded of the visit to Disney World. There you can walk down Main Street as you enter the park, and be in an elaborate make-believe world, without even realizing that just behind the fa├žade and underneath your feet, there is an entire city actively at work to make your experience an enjoyable one. It is that way here in our bottle. For example, I know that below my feet, there are rooms, exercise facilities, a dining room and bar or entertainment area, none of which I have ever seen in spite of the many days I have spent in this type of an environment. The people who live below decks do so in a world largely unknown to the passengers, and during the day, they come up to serve our needs, and then disappear down below; it is a rather unique experience.

I do enjoy my life here in the bottle, and I find it interesting that when I go to sleep at night, I find myself thinking about the events and people that surround my life currently and only distantly, am I aware of the other world outside my bottle. It is a strange feeling to be so disconnected, and yet not. It is hard to explain if you’ve never had the opportunity, but to me it is fascinating.

I mentioned earlier that this morning I looked out the window to see some small islands and to find that we were at anchor off one of them. When I stood on deck, if I looked at the center of the island, I could see each end at my peripheral vision on both my right and left – the island was that small. It is the Island of Desroches, and is part of the Seychelles. The ship had to receive special permission to pay a visit to the island today in view of the fact that the island is privately owned by an Arabian sheik. He comes here only occasionally on vacation, but there is a full-time staff to maintain the property. This very small island even has a grass landing strip. We were allowed to walk the beach, but not to visit the interior parts of the island, and we were also allowed to snorkel and dive on the nearby reef. I was stunned to see literally hundreds, indeed if not thousands of frigate birds floating above and around the island, and in seeing our ship surrounded by small white terns feeding in the ocean waters; this is truly a mystical place. Unfortunately it was not one that Lisa and I could fully enjoy. Snorkeling was only available today in the open water which required getting into and out of the zodiac in a choppy sea. Since Lisa cannot swim, she could only participate in snorkeling if it was from the shore, and likewise with my injured leg, I would have considerable difficulty in getting back in the zodiac; so that option was off the table. I really wanted to go ashore and walk the magnificent beach, but as you may recall I badly injured my toes at the very beginning of this cruise, and my left toe is still bleeding and far from healed. So walking the beach was not an option either. We have, however, had a wonderful day on board reading and sitting outside taking in the sea breeze and all the wild life.

But, I have gotten a little ahead of myself. Today is actually our third day in the Seychelles. After three days at sea, we reached the capital of this island nation, Mahe on December 22nd. Formally known as the Republic of Seychelles, this island nation received its independence from Britain in 1976. It is composed of 115 tropical islands, many of which are uninhabited. The largest island, Victoria, is home to the capital city where we were able to finally dock and put our feet on firm ground. Ninety percent of the country’s population live on this small island and it is said that Mahe is the smallest capital in the world. Lisa and I actually came to the small island in 2009, and the growth of this city is absolutely stunning. Tourism now accounts for ninety percent of the country’s income, and tourism is indeed a booming business. As we departed our ship for an afternoon tour, we first walked through the main part of the city. Between the temperature and the humidity, the heat index was close to 100°F, and our 45 minute walk was far from easy. The last time I was here downtown, it was a sleepy little place, but during our visit this time it was jammed with traffic and construction.

We then visited the National Botanical Gardens, and afterwards took a drive along the coast to the south end of the island where we stopped at a Hilton for refreshments. Up to this point, I had found our drive to be unremarkable in that the island pretty much looked like any other island. However, after we left the Hilton and drove around to the west side of the island for a return to the city, I saw one of the most beautiful island vistas that I have ever encountered. The towering rocks in the center of the island were breathtaking. Wherever soil could be found there were small farms providing produce for the local economy. The towering rock to which I am referring actually reminded me of Yosemite – yes, it seemed just that big. And just to the side of the rock, was a palatial estate that stretched from one side of the island to the other along its spine. When we inquired, we were told that it was owned by the Emir of Qatar and was one of his many vacation homes. This is one island that clearly has a split personality, and it is also one island that I would seriously consider returning to again.

That evening the ship repositioned to anchor off the island of La Digue where the next day we went ashore for an opportunity to visit a former coconut oil mill from the colonial period complete with the original plantation home. Here were located what are reputed to be some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. While on the island, I was able to get some excellent photographs of some unique wildlife, including a giant tortoise found only in these islands. In the afternoon, our ship repositioned itself off the island of Praslin. This island is home to the Valle de Mai, a UNESCO world heritage site. Inside this immense forest are giant Coco de Mare Palm Trees which have enormous fan shaped fronds and that can grow more than 90 feet in height. Some of these trees are dated from 800 to 1000 years old. Lisa and I had visited this forest in the past and remembered it as being spectacular. We also recalled the heat and humidity, and given Lisa’s asthma and my feet, we both decided that we would keep this in our memories and spend the afternoon in our little bottle.

I tell you that it is very strange to live life in a little bottle floating on the sea. At times, life inside the bottle seems to be all that there is until you clear a small circle in the misty glass which allows you to look through outside or else they open a tiny door and let you out. But once the door closes, you are back into that little world. It is an amazing and spectacular world in which we live, and it seems to me that there is no wonder to the amazing sites that we had been privileged to see. If I start to wax poetic I at times, wondering about all of us living on a small dot in the middle of an enormous universe, I, too, wonder if we aren’t living in our own small bottle floating among the millions of stars and planets that surround us.

Merry Christmas!

Jim

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Little Boat That Couldn’t

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Our introduction to The Maldives was nothing short of comical! Having no docks that could accommodate passenger ships, we had to anchor off the capital city of Male, and from there be taken ashore. Since this was a turnaround day, people were going ashore with their carry-on baggage so using the ships zodiacs was not very practical. Instead we were greeted with a contraption right out of a cartoon. Oh, it was a good-sized little boat, but how it was handled was the story. There at the back of the little boat was an old man standing with one foot behind him resting on the rudder tiller, while he faced forward with a throttle in one hand held together with clamping pliers, and in the other hand he was turning a rod that went down below to the engine which apparently determined if we were going forward or backward. The huge wooden tiller was not attached to the boat with hinges, but instead was tied on with ropes. So, in order to move away from our ship, our driver had to work with one hand to get the engines reversed while with the other, he had to work the throttle, all the while guiding our direction with his foot stretching behind him. What a picture!

Now this arrangement seemed to work well enough when we were in open waters, but as we approached the shore, we found a very small harbor that was jammed with boats of all kinds and sizes trying to reach the jetty wall. If I had not seen this with my own eyes, I would not have believed it possible to jam so many moving boats into so small a space at the same time. No boats were at anchor in this little harbor, so it appeared that its sole purpose was to allow for the loading and unloading of small boats. At first, our driver simply drove straight into the jetty wall, and held us there by leaving the engine running. As we bobbed up and down sliding against the wall, the step up to the platform ranged anywhere from 3 to 4 feet. For almost everyone on board, that was an impossible situation, particularly for those who had to carry baggage. So, at this point, our driver attempted to back off, and see if he could bring us alongside a small loading structure that had stairs down to the water. This loading dock was a U-shaped structure which would allow our driver to pull along either side, or he could simply put the ship in the middle of the “U” where it would be most stable. It was obvious very quickly that within the little harbor, there were absolutely no courtesies extended between the various boat drivers. Everyone was scrambling to get to the jetty, and if that meant cutting off another boat, then so be it. Even something as simple as backing away from the jetty wall was a major undertaking, understanding that our driver had to turn around and at the same time move our tiller while working the forward controls. He finally managed to get out to where he could reposition to the loading dock, where he first attempted the simple maneuver of coming alongside. Other boats cut him off before he could get there, with slight wind compounding his problem and for all of his Herculean efforts, he simply could not pull to the side of the dock. And so, he once again had to back out into traffic. This time he decided to simply put his little ship right into the middle of the U-shaped dock. What could be simpler! I mean this open area is huge by comparison to the size of his little boat, but after 4 attempts it appeared as if we were going to spend all morning bobbing in the little harbor. Finally, on one of our attempts, a member of our shore party managed to get a rope to the front of our boat, and at this point, we finally made it safely ashore. The entire process had taken 30 minutes.

I guess I need to answer to explain exactly where we are and what it is we are going ashore to see. The country that we are visiting is known as the Maldives. The country itself is truly a “fly spec” on the world map since in total size it is slightly larger than the city of Washington, D.C. stuck in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Within its boundaries are 1,190 coral islands which are grouped into 26 atolls. Of these, there are 200 islands which are inhabited, and among those there are 80 islands that have tourist resorts. Most of the islands are at sea level, and the highest point in the entire country is only 12 feet. Our visit today is to the capital city of Male. The city must surely rank as one of the smallest capitals in the world, but it is, however, home to over 100,000 people. In the entire country, there are only 400,000 people. With the island/city of Male being so small you might wonder how people get to this country besides ship. Well on a nearby island in the late 60’s, the country built a large airport in an effort to attract tourist, and that it has done in large numbers. Today tourism ranks as the largest source of income for the island followed by fishing.

The Maldives were managed as a sultanate beginning in the 12th century, but became a British protectorate in 1887. In 1968, the country became a republic, which it remains today. The country’s official religion is Sunni Muslim, and Islamic law is in effect.

The city is so small and its streets so narrow that even a small car has difficulty traveling the streets. In less than one hour, we were able to basically drive around the entire city, although I must admit that the traffic is becoming so extreme that the city runs the risk in a few years of having total gridlock. Essentially, what has happened is that tourism has been so successful that it is literally choking this city to death. Many of the residents who once owned apartments in the city, have now left for nearby countries and are renting their apartments for outrageous rates which then support them in their new homes. During our tour, we stopped at a public square on the edge of which was a very small beach where the locals could go swimming. As we walked around, I could not help but notice that everyone in the water was fully clothed. In fact, there was even a sign posted at the beach that showed a traditional bathing suit with a slash mark across it indicating that it was not allowed on this beach. Our next visit was to the palace of the former Sultan. For a long time it was used as the president’s residence, but it has now been restored. It is closed to the public, and is only used for ceremonial occasions available to visiting dignitaries. Across the street was the oldest mosque in the country and along its side the tombs of many of its past sultans. We finally made a stop at the grand Friday mosque, which was completed in 1984, and is the largest in the country being able to accommodate 5000 worshipers.

The ship being freshly provisioned and refueled, not to mention that we have a large number of new passengers for the new voyage, we departed the city Male overnight and moved 90 miles to the Meemu Atoll. Here there is a population of roughly 6500 inhabitants scattered among 33 islands. Our plan for today was to offer snorkeling from a pristine beach, and also for those who were a little more adventuresome open water snorkeling from a zodiac. Because of Lisa’s asthma, she decided that snorkeling was not a very bright idea. Meantime, I was sorely tempted to go ashore and snorkel from the beach, but when our scouting party got there, they found that the beach was gone! How can a beach disappear? Well it seems that some nearby construction project needed sand and they picked this particular beach to use for their project so that left only open water snorkeling, and I did not feel confident enough about my ability to climb back into the zodiac that I was willing to undertake that. So, we have a morning at leisure and this afternoon will reposition for another adventure tomorrow in the Maldives.

I hope that everyone back home is enjoying the extreme cold, but I can tell you that here in the Indian Ocean the weather is absolutely gorgeous and the temperature is in the low 80s. So, all I can say is “eat your heart out!”

Jim

Friday, December 16, 2016

Racing With The Mad-Hatter of Sri Lanka

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Racing With The

Mad-Hatter of Sri Lanka

Finally the time had come to end our two day visit to Sri Lanka. We all trundled out to our waiting vehicles which were nothing more elaborate than small pick-up trucks which had seats welded onto rails that were then welded to the floor of the vehicle. A high canopy was placed on top, and a door which closed the occupants in from the rear once loaded completed the assembly. With limited space to park the approximately 28 vehicles were a jumbled mess across the narrow space, and we were told just to pick the first open vehicle and get in, and not to try and find the one we had ridden in to the luncheon and meeting.

And so Lisa and I boarded the first open truck which in and of itself was very difficult because it was so high off the ground with a tiny little step that was too small for a single foot. No sooner had we climbed in and been pushed up into the little flatbed, I quickly realized that all of the little trucks were not alike. Our trip out had been very comfortable, while this cabin was so small that quite literally neither Lisa nor I could sit in our seats because there was no leg room. Before I could climb out the metal door behind me slammed shut with a loud bang, and the driver quickly climbed into his cab which was completely separated from our compartment. In fact steel bars had been welded between us and the cab, so that we could not even bang on his rear window, and off we went.

At this point, Lisa managed to somehow get jammed into her seat, but not without hurting her knees. Since sitting forward was impossible for me, I had to sit sidewise with my legs dangling off the floor and hanging free in the aisle. You see, each row, of which there were three, was welded in such a way that the second row was higher than the first, and the last row, where I was perched, sat even higher still, so high in fact that it was like sitting in a high chair with my legs unable to touch the floor.

As we pulled out onto the pot holed dirt road, I quickly learned that this little truck had lost its shocks a long time ago. Each bounce or jerk was transmitted directly to my body as I sat over the rear tires, and I had no good way to hold on. At times I winced and let out a yelp in pain if the bump was bad enough. I was rapidly becoming a little panicked when we turned on to a good paved two lane road, and I thought to myself that surely I could hang on long enough to reach the ship. Little did I realize that was going to be almost an hour away.

At first, the ride was just unpleasant; soon both of my legs started to go numb until I reached the point that my right leg had become useless. At this point, I found a way to stand in the aisle holding on for dear life just praying that this ride would soon be over. Our vehicle was making decent time when all of a sudden, one of the other trucks from our ship blew by us as if we were standing still. It was as if someone had waved a red flag in front of our driver who immediately accelerated in a race to see who could be the craziest. It appears that the driver of the truck who had gone by us was really quite good. By comparison our driver was downright dangerous, and there was no way that he could keep up, even though he made a valiant effort to try. The next thing we knew we were careening down the road in a metal cage completely unable to impact the outcome as we were trying to dodge the incredible mixture of traffic on this little road. There were not only the occasional cars and trucks, there were also busses and motor scooters and something that they call on the island a tuk-tuk. At times our driver was going 60 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic like a racecar driver which he clearly was not. Just to add to the mix, we had to avoid cows which roam freely in this country, and don’t forget the dogs who enjoyed sleeping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. Then of course there were the occasional chickens usually accompanied by a small herd of wild boar. Oh, and I am not finished, at times there were entire flocks of peacocks, large land lizards, an occasional mongoose, and of course people crisscrossed the road with complete abandon to the oncoming traffic. There were times we were dodging left and right so hard and so fast that I thought our little truck would turn over. I actually started to pray that this ride would be over because it is one of the few times I have been truly afraid of the possible outcome. As we were careening down the road, and image came to my mind for no apparent reason of The Mad-Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland,” and I could just imagine him being at the wheel gleefully singing and holding aloft his tea cup. We finally reached our little zodiacs waiting to take us back to the safety of the ship. As we exited our cage, Lisa almost reached over and slapped our grinning driver, and thus ended our visit to Sri Lanka.

You may well be asking, “What went on during your two day visit?” Actually, that too is an interesting story. I must tell you that this visit to Sri Lanka was our first time to see this wonderful country, and after three days in a washing machine sea, it was good to be on solid ground. Our ship docked at the large city of Galle which is situated in the southwestern tip of this large island nation. If you look at India on a world map, you will notice a rather large island just off the southern tip of the country; that is Sri Lanka. I never knew much about this country, and for some reason, I always thought that it had at one time been a part of India which is not true. It was “discovered” by the Portuguese early in the 16th century, and here in the city of Galle, they actually began construction on the Fort that is today a UNESCO world heritage site. After about 150 years of their rule, the Dutch decided that they wanted to control the island which they did for about another hundred and 50 years. During their control, they added to the Fort substantially. Then the British arrived and once again they held the territory for about 150 years during which time they also extended the Fort. Under British control, the name of this island was changed to Ceylon. When the country obtained its independence following British rule, the name was once again changed back to Sri Lanka. Independence was not a process that went flawlessly, and there was a period of turmoil between the North and the South which was eventually resolved about ten years ago. There is one interesting note about the Fort which I think bears mentioning. This city was hit with a devastating tsunami in 2004, which resulted in the death of over 40,000 people. The city of Galle was virtually destroyed. When the giant wave rolled into the harbor it never breached the walls of the fortress itself even though the water entered the bay on one side and exited around the Fort on the opposite side.

Our first stop on leaving the ship was to visit a tea plantation and factory. This visit involved a one hour drive into the countryside, a drive which was very revealing. Before us was a lush and vibrant landscape home to large rice and tea plantations as well as many other crops that I did not recognize. I was surprised at how well maintained the roads were, and even more shocked when we got on to what we would call an interstate for much of our trip.

I, for one, had never visited a tea plantation, nor did I really understand the intricacies that were involved in producing this crop which through history has been so extremely important to the economy of so many nations. On our tour, we were able to walk the fields and see the workers harvesting the leaves, and after which we were able to see the factory where they are processed and turned it into a completed product. At the end of our morning visit, we returned to our ship for lunch.

In the afternoon, we were given a walking tour of the historic Galle Fort. I was very pleased when the expedition team recognized that many people on board have mobility issues, and they provided a special tour which allowed us to be driven rather than having to walk for 3 hours. Lisa was not feeling at all well that afternoon from her asthma, and she elected to stay on the ship. I felt a little sheepish about going on the special tour, but I was not alone and was joined by perhaps as many as 10 other gentlemen, none of whom could have made the three hour walk either. The first stop made by our bus was at the nearby city market where we spent some time simply walking around gaining feel for this community. While it is true that Sri Lanka is a developing nation, it is also true that it is one which is rich in resources and that appears to have a very viable infrastructure. I was impressed with the friendliness of the people and also with the obvious fact that multiple ethnic minorities appeared to be living together with no difficulty. After leaving the market, we were driven into and completely around the extremely large Fort. It reminded me in many respects of old town San Juan Puerto Rico. The Fort is so large that within its walls there are shops, hotels, churches and museums. Walking among its narrow streets is an exciting immersion into this multi-linguistic country. On our tour, our bus stopped so that we could visit the Maritime Museum – it wasn’t much. Then I got a photograph of the large Catholic Cathedral, and was able to tour the Dutch Reformed Church. Once back on our bus, we were shuffled to the The Rampart Hotel where High Tea would be served, followed then by a short little roundtrip ride in a Tuk-Tuk. A tuk-tuk is nothing more than a small motor bike pulling along a small cabin in which two people can ride. Being a little concerned about Lisa, and not being at all interested in the tea or bike ride, I asked, and the staff was kind enough to arrange for a car to take me back to the ship.

During the night our ship moved back along the coast to the fishing town of Kiranda. We were there to visit the second largest National Park in Sri Lanka, Yala National Park. Having no docking facilities for ship of our size, we had to anchor off shore, and then be taken by our small zodiacs to a local fishing pier where we were met by a small fleet of modified pickup trucks. We had left our ship at 6 AM in an effort to arrive at the park at a time when the animals were still most active. Once ashore, we set off for the Park in a long caravan. After about 15 miles of driving on good paved surface, we pulled off into the Park and on to a maze of well-maintained dirt roads. Passing through the park entrance, a park naturalist boarded each of our vehicles. We drove like that for almost 3 hours having a truly wonderful experience. While the park is home to the Sri Lankan elephant and also the Sri Lankan leopard, we saw none of these larger animals. For the most part, we saw birds, beautiful and marvelous birds. There were, of course, the wild boars, the mongoose, lizards of all sizes, and monkeys.

Our drive to the park started out as a wondrous experience. Our guide and driver would stop whenever wildlife was discovered taking time to allow photographs, and to explain what it is we were seeing. As the morning went on, their willingness to stop and allow photographs slowly diminished, until we reached the point that we were driving through the park at a good rate of speed with our naturalist simply mentioning “there goes another Bee Eater.” I don’t know what was driving them on, but it was very frustrating to go by so many interesting photographs without being given an opportunity to stop. A member of our expedition team, who is an ornithologist, appeared to have much better luck with her driver, since during her recap, she was able to present multiple pictures of “bee eaters,” all of which may have looked similar from a distance, but which were quite different in reality.

We finally arrived at a very elegant brunch presented in a wooded area just outside the park itself. Afterwards, perhaps the most noted ornithologist in Sri Lanka gave a 30 minute presentation on the many unique features of this wondrous land. At the end it was time to head for our vehicles and return to the ship. But then I already told you of our ride with the Mad-Hatter.

We departed Sri Lanka yesterday afternoon, and have been cruising in almost perfect conditions on our way towards the Maldives. When we arrive tomorrow, this will likewise be an inaugural visit for us to the small island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

I gather everyone at home is suffering with the cold weather, but I can assure you at least some place on this planet is warm and sunny.

Jim

PS I will let you know when I post more pictures

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Rub-A-Dub-Dub Three Days In A Tub!

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When last I wrote, our ship was in the process of departing Myanmar to sail south along the coast of Thailand towards the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which are owned by India. You may recall that during our journey, our ship encountered rather severe weather from a newly developed cyclone that fortunately was heading away from us to the north and west. It had, however, left behind rough sea conditions that created some of the worst conditions on board a ship that Lisa and I have ever experienced.

It was, therefore, a great pleasure to put in to the small harbor of Port Blair. This was not our first time to visit India, but it was certainly our first time to visit these islands. In fact, prior to this cruise, I had never even heard of them, nor had I any idea that they would belong to India being so far west of that country.

I never want to say that visiting someplace was a waste of time because I so enjoy traveling that seeing new sites in the world truly tickles my neurons. However, if you were to ask me if I have any interest in returning to Port Blair the answer would be an unequivocal “NO!” In so far as I could determine, the primary reason that these islands played a significant role in history is that their remote location has made them a perfect spot to place a penal colony. Indeed, the first imprisonments date back to 1789, and while over the years they have been relocated and rebuilt, there remains still stand today.

After clearance procedures, we were met shore side by a small fleet of air-conditioned buses which drove us across town for approximately 20 minutes to reach the enormous 19th century structure known as the Cellular Jail. Built between 1896 and 1906 by the British, it held mostly Indian political prisoners in solitary confinement. We spent much more time there than I thought was necessary being educated on the extreme brutalities of the British during their occupation of India.

Departing the jail, we drove to a conference center where we were offered some light refreshments before proceeding to a museum which was not really a museum but was kind of an aquarium. If that makes sense to you, good luck, but it was in reality what we found. Plenty of time had been allocated to visit the attraction, which Lisa and I managed to complete in about 10 minutes. At this point, we returned to the ship for lunch. Since it was very hot and humid outside, and so far we had seen nothing of interest, we decided to skip the afternoon visit to the Anthropological Museum.

Since the islands today are no longer used for the thousand political prisoners, it appears that their primary purpose is to serve as home to significant military installations most of them Naval. In any event, I can say that I went, and saw, and don’t need to come back again, “thank you.” Sadly, the requirements for obtaining visas to visit India were quite burdensome and time consuming; so much so, that I paid a company to assist in the paperwork. In hindsight, that 4 hour visit was pretty costly.

Because of the difficult sea conditions outside the harbor which still existed, the ship canceled the following day’s activities which would have been going to an outer island for a day of swimming, snorkeling and diving. Instead, we departed Port Blair early on our way to Sri Lanka, and in this way, we could make the transit at a more comfortable speed since the sea conditions were still predicted to be unstable.

“Unstable” would be a kind word. We had just endured three very unstable conditions, which has not made our crossing very pleasant. I do not want to overstate the situation so as to imply that our passage is unsafe, since it is not. Part of the problem is the fact that the storm has churned up the waters and we are being subject to two different swells coming from two different directions making things rather turbulent. To add to the problem, this particular ship is the most unstable of any on which I have traveled. We are predicted to have improving conditions this afternoon as we turn the southern coast of Sri Lanka, and it can’t come too soon. Last night I was almost thrown out of bed, and if I can tell you a little secret – I have not had a shower in three days because it is simply not safe to try and take one where our room is located on the ship. Hence, I say we have spent three days “Rub-A-Dub-Dub in our room with sponge baths only.

Nonetheless I was able to work on my photographs during the last several days, and if you will go to the webpage, I think you will see that the portfolio has been updated. Lisa and I are both very much looking forward to reaching Sri Lanka tomorrow since this will be the first time that either one of us has visited this country.

They are starting to decorate the ship for Christmas so in spite of the warm weather, I am reminded of the holidays and would like to wish each and every one of you my best wishes.

Take care,

Jim

Link to photographs: http://theglobetrotters.com

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Burma Now Myanmar

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Our last 3 days have been a frenzied blur of almost constant activity. Today, Friday, December 9th, we finally find ourselves with a day at sea, and hence an opportunity to get ourselves put back together. Trying to condense into one email everything that has occurred is almost impossible, so let me simply share with you in a condensed manner what our experiences have been.

You will recall that when I last wrote our ship had just entered the country of Myanmar where it took immigration officials 6 ½ hours to clear the ship. That was a record for this season, and you would think that would be enough in the way of immigration requirements. After clearing into the country, we continued to cruise North eventually entering the Yangon River where we finally docked at the former capital of the country, Yangon. Yangon was formerly known to the world as Rangoon. If you are wondering what is up with all the name changes, it dates back to the colonial period when Burma was under British control. After the country obtained independence, there was a movement to erase everything British, and hence the name changes. But, back to my story. We reached Yangon where the ship had an active schedule planned only to have the officials once again mess up our schedule. First, we were not allowed to dock at 7am as planned, but rather our arrival was delayed to 10am, and our dock assignment was changed from the one nearest to town, to a little further down the waterfront. Then when we finally were tied up alongside, twenty-six (26) officials boarded the vessel, and then proceeded to spend 3 hours completing additional paperwork. I personally went to look in on the clearance process, and I observed the 26 people all neatly dressed and extremely busy passing papers back and forth with their hand stamps flying. Talk about bureaucracy at work!

Since our morning plans were canceled, we eventually were able to go off the ship on our own, and so I decided I would walk into town. Sadly, I don’t walk so well anymore, and it was all I could do to reach the gate at the docks where I was met with a solid mass of road traffic of all types and a cacophony of sounds. Cars, busses, bikes, scooters, rickshaws all were buzzing every which way. I stood at a traffic light and could never figure out that anyone was paying any attention to it. I managed by the skin of my teeth to cross the first four lanes of traffic to the relative safety of a small grass strip where I huddled in fear. I had yet another six lanes to cross in order to reach the other side, at which point I decided that perhaps I had walked enough, if you know what I mean.

Later that afternoon all of the passengers were taken by bus to visit two of the country’s most famous attractions: the Reclining Buddha and Shwedagon Pagoda, after which there would be a traditional dinner buffet and show.

In spite of the extreme delays at getting into the country, once here we were treated like royalty. Our bus caravan had a police escort, which helped us greatly in getting through traffic. We learned that under the former Military Regime cars were way too costly for ordinary people with even a simple vehicle costing over $50,000. Today the civilian government has made cars easily affordable to everyone, and suddenly Yangon is overrun with nearly 6 million cars in a city where the roads were laid out in the 1800’s. It is gridlock unlike any I have experienced. Commute times for most people average 2 to sometimes 3 hours. After 30 minutes or so we reached the Chaukhatgyl Buddha Temple, home to one of the largest reclining Buddha figures in the world measuring 217ft. across. At any temple or pagoda, we were required to remove our shoes before entering, and so I had worn my water shoes because they are easy to remove. Little did I know what was to come! Anyway, we spent perhaps 30 minutes walking around the Buddha figure and taking some pictures of course, before once again boarding our bus for yet another 45 minute drive to Shwedagon Pagoda.

This Pagoda, above all others, for me defines the wonders of this mystical land. It is reputed to be over 2,500 years old, and within it are enshrined strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. The almost 400 foot high monument stands gleaming in its covering of gold, not to mention that it is encrusted with over 4,500 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carats. Once again, shoes must be removed before entering, and once up on the Pagoda platform, I proceeded to walk completely around the monument, a process that took a little over two hours. Sadly from a photographer’s viewpoint, it was not a sunny day, but none-the-less some of the pictures are spectacular.

When I returned to put my shoes back on, I discovered that the bottom of both big toes were a bloody mess. It seems that my walking shoes had blistered my toes, and in the two hours walking on hard stone, my toes were stripped of their skin. Since I have neuropathy in my feet, I am not able to feel injuries like this, but I guarantee you that when I finally got things cleaned up and put on regular shoes, my feet hurt like--well let’s just say they were uncomfortable.

By this point, Lisa and I were so tired, and I needed to tend to my toes before they became infected, that we took the offer to return directly to the ship and skip the dinner and show. We had a quiet meal on board the ship before turning in for the night early.

The following morning we set out for our drive to the ancient city of Bago. Normally the drive would take 3 hours, however with our Police escort using their sirens for us, it only took two hours. Upon our arrival our first stop was the Bago Monastery where we were treated as much honored guests by the monks. Officially named Kyaly Khat Wai Monastery, it appeared to be home to well over 100 monks. We were invited to attend the daily blessing by the head monk. As the monks arrived, they carefully lined up their sandals outside before entering the sanctuary and sitting cross-knee on the floor with their back to the head monk. We were invited to sit also, and the head monk then read the day’s blessing to us all. Afterwards we toured the kitchen, and then we were invited to feed the monks as they lined up for their daily meal. It was very colorful as all of the monks, including the novitiates lined up in a precise order, a group of five coming forward at a time, stopping and opening their bowls for us to dish up a large bowl of rice for them. What we did not know because of a breakdown in communication was that we, too, had been invited for lunch and several tables had been set for us. Of course, we would have had to sit on the floor to participate. Some of our expedition staff learned of this as we were leaving, and they stayed behind to eat so as not to offend our hosts.

A short drive brought us to the Shwemawdaw Pagoda. To my shock and surprise, it turns out that this Pagoda is in fact the tallest in Myanmar, although it is in no way as massive as the Pagoda in Yangon. Still, it took me an hour to walk all around it and the pictures are wonderful. Now if you are wondering how I managed to walk with my bum feet, our tour company was able to talk the authorities into allowing me to walk in my stocking feet. It was a big deal, but finally they agreed. I had my toes bandaged with antibiotic cream so keeping my socks on gave me some protection from the dirt.

Then a lunch break, but to tell the truth even though the food looked good, I got off to a bad start when I had to dump the dead bugs off my overturned plate, and then to blow off the six dead ones I found under my coffee cup. So a little rice and a diet coke was about all I could stomach.

After lunch we stopped at the Kanbawzathadi Palace. To tell you the truth, this did not do much for me. It is a reconstruction completed in 1992 of a palace which was built here in 1556 but which burned down in 1559. Yes, it was beautiful, but devoid of any furniture of course, and, well, it just did nothing for me – sorry…. I did have one heartwarming experience however. While in the palace, a small group of teenagers kept looking at me and both smiling and giggling. Eventually a young girl approached with her camera phone and indicated she would like to take my picture. Flattered, I nodded assent, and before I knew it, everyone had to have their picture with me followed by several group photographs. By this point, I had everyone laughing, so a good time was had by all.

Our drive back to the ship somehow seemed quicker even though we stopped off to make a quick visit to a war memorial and cemetery. After a quick shower, we managed to enjoy a wonderful dinner with the Hotel Director Stephen Crimes, which made a perfect ending to two long days.

Originally scheduled to depart early on the 8th, we were allowed to delay our departure in order that we could complete the program as originally planned. For us that meant an excursion across the river by local ferry to visit Dala Town, a small local village not yet completely impacted by the many changes happening in the country. Merely the ride over was an experience; boarding the ferry was a mass of moving humanity with hawking vendors moving freely among the throngs of people. Once the ferry was full, the gates were closed on the oncoming mass of people trying to board, and we started across the muddy silt filled river. Once on the other side, each of us was assigned a tri-shaw and driver. That is essentially a bicycle with a side cart holding just one person. So for our entire group, I am guessing that we had a caravan of around 80 tri-shaws stretched out in a long line. Now immediately one little problem reared its head – the chair in which the passenger rode was built for only a small person. I could not even squeeze myself into the seat, and just so you’re not laughing too much, believe me I was not the only one in this predicament! The drivers had a way of getting around this, sort of. They would keep piling on cushions until they were high enough that we sat up above the sides of the chair. That left us a little unstable, and as the cushions sank, eventually we were riding on the chair arms, a not too comfortable experience.

As with everywhere we had been in Myanmar, the people were warm and friendly. They were excited to see us. WHOOPS!!! That last jolt was pretty violent! I had been trying to write while we blissfully sailed into the edge of a nearby cyclone that was supposed to be moving away from us as we sailed back south towards the Andaman Islands. The motion of the ship has been getting progressively worse to the point that I am missing more keys than I am hitting. Finally with that last jolt I have decided to give it up, take bonine and lie flat on my bed.

And, so I did, starting at 2pm and remaining there until dinner. The elevator had been shut down for safety and a pretty good percentage of the ship was under the weather and not at dinner. Truth be told it was pretty bad. At time the entire bow of the ship would rise up and come crashing down with a resounding “thunk.” The worse part was when that maneuver would not just end with a loud “thunk” but the entire ship would corkscrew at the same time like a dog trying to shake water off itself. Lisa even came up with a name for the event, a “coyote.” Lying flat on our bed was an active experience because the roll of the ship threatened to roll us right off the side. We had to constantly hold on and tighten ourselves down just to even lie flat. I have experienced worse events at sea, but this one was pretty bad.

So, let me return to our last day in Myanmar. We had gone across the river to the Town of Dala, where each of us was assigned a tri-shaw. Once precariously settled, the long caravan set off down the narrow roads of Dala. This small town did not have cars on its narrow streets, but only people walking, bicycles, and scooters. So how stupid did we look when our long line of basically souped up bicycles was proceeded no less by a police escort on a motorcycle?

The people once again were warm and friendly. They live in small cabin like structures surrounded by trash and standing green water. Trash and sewage all went into the ditches and waterways from which we saw people hauling out large containers of water and carrying it into the village to sell. Which reminds me – I heard that the mosquito problem is so great in this area that the Captain has forbidden the crew to be off the ship after 8:30pm.

Our first stop was to a large Buddhist monastery. This monastery, however, was very different than the one we visited earlier. Here there were a small number of monks, I believe I heard 10 who were maintaining a school for local children, especially orphans and refuges. It was a very large facility, and we were warmly greeted as you can see by some of my pictures when I post them probably tomorrow.

Afterwards, we had time to walk around town on our own before returning to the ferry and rejoining our ship before it left Myanmar on the way to our next port of call, Port Blair, India which is located in the Andaman Islands.

I hear it is rather cold at home, 11 degrees F, while here we are experiencing warm temperatures and humid days. So, we hope everyone is well, and until next time: Ciao.

Jim

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Welcome To Myanmar: Do Not Pass Go!

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Returning to the Silver Discoverer was a wonderful, yet at the same time a strange experience. Yes, we found many of the crew on board whom we not only knew, but whom we consider friends. It was in a way a homecoming. Yet, there was also the darker side to our memories, since when we last left the ship at Palau in June, both Lisa and I were quite sick with what we thought was asthma, but what turned out for both of us to be an e-coli infection in our lungs. Lisa, in addition, had multiple pulmonary emboli in her right lungs – yes, sick indeed. Just to make matters worse, I have not yet mentioned to you that during our stay in Phuket, Lisa suddenly came down with severe asthma, which really brought back the memories. She is still not well, but is on prednisone, and hopefully will recover in a day of two with rest.

Departing Thailand, we cruised north in the Andaman Sea along the coast on our way to the mystical Burma, now called Myanmar. To become “cleared” into the country, we first had to stop at the small city of Kawthoung. We were scheduled to spend perhaps two hours going through the paperwork, but we were warned that in previous visits to Myanmar this season, sometimes the official team had 35 or more people and that could take quite some time. As luck would have it, our “clearance” set the season record – 6 ½ hours. Prior to this trip, each of us had to obtain a Visa in advance, which was a cumbersome process. Once on board, we were presented with yet another stack of papers to be completed, so I guess this country just loves its paperwork and process. In any event, becoming “cleared” took so long that our plans for the afternoon had to be scrubbed, however in a gesture of goodwill, the Officials permitted us to go ashore to explore the small city.

I was so excited by this possibility. I had been standing at the railing looking longingly at the golden temple on the hill opposite our anchorage, and also wondering about a large structure which appeared to be an old fort of some kind nearby. When we learned we could go ashore, I was preparing to put my things together, realizing that Lisa could not go. Then I looked outside at our little scout zodiac making the first run ashore, and suddenly realized that conditions were far from optimal. The winds were very strong, making for a rough, wet, and a long run into shore. Just to add to the mix, the morning drizzle had turned to a steady rain. So, here I was looking at a rough and wet zodiac ride on my first day of this cruise, only to go ashore into a probable mud bath, and not be able to take pictures in the rain to boot. In hindsight the answer seems clear; I am 72 years old and prone to a bad back and getting sick – to do this on the first day was dumb. Well, I am not very smart, because I really wanted to go, but finally I talked some sense into my brain and stayed on the ship. If there is any good news in this, it is that I made the right decision, and second, people who did make the trip said that it really was not worth the effort.

This morning was to be a new dawn, or so I hoped. We got up at 4am to get me prepared for a pre-dawn scenic zodiac cruise of the Lampi Channel, a small narrow channel of water that splits Snake Island into two parts. This area is designated as a National Protected Area, and so we should have the dawn to ourselves. When I opened our curtains to see if it was raining, I was taken back by the kaleidoscope of colorful spots of light literally covering the waters before me. “What in the world?” I asked myself. The good news was that it was not raining, but bad news was that it was heavily overcast, and we were certainly not going to be alone. The “spots” of light running the gamut of colors from red to green to neon to blue and to white were all from small fishing boats which used the bright lights to attract squid to the surface where they then could be harvested. BUT, WAIT A MINUTE, isn’t this supposed to be a protected area? Well, tell that to the native fisherman, as well as the large population of fisherman gypsies, who know no borders.

Excited to be exploring at last, I set out in our small zodiac in the early morning darkness. With the overcast skies, there was no sunrise, just a lighting of the darkness. What had looked to be relatively calm waters, turned into waters churned by a strong wind, which covered our little boat with spray. In particular, the poor guy sitting third back from the front on the windward side got covered in water from head to foot in the first 10 minutes from the ship – yes, that guy was me! Just to add to my mounting pleasure, it started to rain in a steady drizzle making using the camera difficult. I tried, but in the end only managed to short out my camera rendering it useless and me quite frustrated. Grrrr! The small river did hold some surprises for us. Not long in length, it did, however, offer the local fisherman a safe and convenient little harbor, since soon we were surrounded by the boats as they came to shore after a nights work. Also, about halfway along the channel a small village had been constructed. Nothing fancy, just some small homes built on stilts, but a community none-the-less. After 90 minutes, I returned to the ship soaking wet from head to foot with my useless camera in tow. After a quick shower, Lisa and I headed to breakfast.

It is unusual for the cruise to offer two zodiac rides in one morning, but this morning was an exception. At 10am, we had a 90 minute ride up into the mangroves of Lampi River. Having changed into dry clothes, and somehow having gotten my camera working again, I decided to give it a try. After all, the sun was coming out, and I did come on this trip to see the world! Somehow I ended up sitting in exactly the same position on this zodiac as I had earlier that morning, AND once again the guy sitting in that position was caught with a giant wave and covered from head to foot in water – that guy was of course, ME. So, for the next hour or so I sat in squishy underwear on a very boring cruise that saw nothing. Even if I had, well it started to drizzle again, and I had this whole camera fear going.

Returning to the ship once again wet, thrilled Lisa no end. We never found where to hang all the wet things from my morning outing, much less my new contribution. Dry again, we grabbed lunch while the ship moved to a new location, where they are now in the process of offering snorkeling and diving from a beautiful beach. I am looking outside at the dark skies and constant drizzle, and decided I would instead write to you fine folks.

Stay tuned – surely there is more to follow.

Jim

PS Thank you so much to everyone who responded about my new picture program – it seems I have conquered the way for you to connect

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Flight Of The Wheelchairs

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When we travel I try to find things that are unique or unusual to write about. Sometimes doing that is a little more difficult than others, and this is one of those times.

Let’s cut to the chase – we made it to Thailand, and we are safe and sound preparing to board our ship this afternoon in Phuket. For whatever reason, getting here felt like one of our longest journeys ever. I have already mentioned in my last email about what we expected to encounter, and every bit of that turned out to be true--and then some! Upon reaching Dallas, we had to claim our luggage and transfer to the International Terminal where we had to check in again. Once reaching Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, we spent 11 hours in a hotel only to return to the airport and go through security again. In fact, as I look back on the flights, we went through security no less than four times. There was a point at which I openly joked that it might be easier if we all just traveled in the nude – at least it would be more interesting.

We were both very excited about getting to fly on Emirates Air because it had the reputation of being the most luxurious air travel in the world. Sadly in our case, the reality did not match the hype. When our flights were booked, we were set to travel on the huge Airbus 380, but in the interim, our aircraft was downgraded to a Boeing 777. That would have been fine, except for the way that Emirates organizes their business-class cabin. In most airlines when you travel business-class, there are six seats across, to 2 x 2 x 2. On these aircraft, they had placed seven seats across, thus resulting in someone having to sit in a center seat for a 14 hour flight, and because of the extra seat, all of them were relatively small and very uncomfortable. Well guess who got the center seat? Lisa of course!

I truly believe that the airport in Dubai may well be the largest terminal in the world. We landed at one end, and departed from the other. I gamely tried to walk the entire distance only to end up having to throw my hands in the air and flagging down a passing cart. Perhaps the most amazing thing that we saw occurred when we reached the counter to check in for our flight from Dubai to Thailand. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the scene at the boarding gate where for a large flight there is general pandemonium, and at the front of the line there are usually a couple of individuals in wheelchairs waiting to board first. As we approached our counter, I simply could not believe my eyes. But before me stretched a line of wheelchairs as far as the eye could see. It was not just a line of single chairs either, but a double row of chairs side-by-side stretching off into the distance. Lisa tells me that I should not try to estimate how many chairs were there, but temporarily I am going to ignore her advice, and say that in my opinion it was just short of 100. When it came time to board, the procession of the wheelchairs was a sight to behold. To the credit of the airline, they had a well-organized choreography, and while it did take a long time it could have been worse. I noticed that almost everyone in the wheelchairs appeared to be from India. A gentleman that I was standing next to said that the elderly family members in India tried to travel to the US to visit their families over the Thanksgiving holidays, and we were simply seeing part of their return home.

When we arrived into Thailand, unfortunately I was quite ill. I only vaguely remember the one hour drive to our beachfront hotel. Neither Lisa nor I could keep ourselves awake, and as hard as we tried to adjust to the time change effortlessly, we just couldn’t do it. The next day dawned bright and sunny, but we spent most of it in bed trying to let our bodies figure out where we were. Feeling better yesterday we decided to rent a cab and go to a nearby Buddhist temple. It was very colorful and well worth the visit, but in the dark moisture laden atmosphere, my photographs turned out rather blah.

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Speaking of photographs, I used to post pictures as we travel on our photo album located on Picasa. Picasa was a free service offered by Google, but they have since decided to discontinue that webpage. So, I’ve quietly been working on an alternative, and this will be my first attempt to see if in fact, I can get it to work. You may see this new internet album at theglobetrotters.phanfare.com

That really is all that we have to share this point. We are to put our bags out shortly, and should travel to meet our ship by around 1 PM today. As many of you know, these expedition cruises can become quite hectic at times, but I will do my best to keep up with sharing the adventure in the photographs. Please note that we are thinking of you all – and hang on for more to come.

Jim

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Up–Up And Away

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Up-Up And Away!

We are finally ready to put behind us a really hectic summer, and once again set sail to distant lands! Lisa has now been cleared of her pulmonary emboli, and her knee surgery was completely successful. She has just been released from rehab, and anxious to try out her new and improved body parts. As many of you may know already, we have purchased a new home, however, it is in the process of being remodeled, and will not be ready to occupy until probably late February – so in short, this is a perfect time to “Up-Up and Away.”

But, before I share our travels, since today is Thanksgiving, may we wish each and every one of you the best that Thanksgiving can bring.

So, once again we will be embarking on an “expedition cruise,” and in fact, it is on the very same ship that we left at Palau in the South Pacific in June. The ship has since undergone an $8 million overhaul, and we will get to see the changes when we join up at Phuket, Thailand. Phuket is a small island located off the southern coast of Thailand. It is a popular resort destination for that area of the world.

But, of course, we first have to get there! The days of hassle-free long-distance air travel are for the most part a myth that survives in our memories. The phrase “Up-Up and Away” actually originated with Superman, but has been used by many airlines over the years to evoke the mystique of air travel. Today’s reality is somewhat different. For us, it begins with a short flight to Dallas, where the fun begins in earnest. From Dallas, we fly overnight on Emirates Air to Dubai in the Persian Gulf. But wait – you can’t transfer in Dallas from American to Emirates, at least not directly? No, first we must fly domestically to Dallas, where we claim our luggage, exit the terminal, and then find a way to transfer all of our stuff to the International Terminal. Once at that terminal, we once again go through the check-in procedure, and another full security screening. Even though Lisa and I are enrolled in the Trusted Traveler Program of the TSA which grants us TSA Pre-Check status and thus expedited screening, Emirates does not participate in the program, so it is shoes off and laptops out for us.

The flight, itself, should be pleasant enough. We leave Dallas about noon, and then 15 hours later land in Dubai at noon local time. Our connection on to our destination does not depart until almost midnight so we have a layover of almost 12 hours. BUT, and this is a first for us, Emirates Air has arranged for a limo to meet us at the airport, and transport us to Le Meridien Hotel where a room will be waiting for us to relax before we will then be met by a limo and returned to the airport for our onward connection. Pretty cool! Of course, the tickets were not cheap either. After a six hour overnight flight, we finally arrive on Nov. 28th in Phuket where we have arranged to spend a few days to reset our clocks before joining our ship on December 2nd.

It has taken me the longest time to wrap my mind around exactly where we go on this cruise. For whatever reason, I keep thinking that we are cruising to the East, when in point of fact we will be going mostly West. We depart Thailand, and cruise north along the Thai border until we reach the former country of Burma, which is now known as Myanmar. Until fairly recently this country was largely closed to the outside world, but today it is beginning to embrace tourism. We will cruise up the Yangon river to dock in the ancient city of Yangon, or as it used to be called, Rangoon. The ship will remain in port for two nights, while we will be offered a very exciting but long shore excursion to the city of Bago. Lisa and I were very fortunate to go to this country just before it had started to open up, and we were able to visit the famous city of Bagan. That is a tour option that is also offered on this cruise, but unfortunately Bagan was struck by a major earthquake about a year ago, and most of the ancient temples in that city have been badly damaged. We prefer to have our memory as it once was, and therefore we selected Bago as our destination. In truth, I know absolutely nothing about the city, but from what I’ve read and can see online, it looks to be quite exciting.

Once back on board we will sail Southwest to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands are technically a part of India, and before this trip, I had never heard of them. I don’t know what to expect, but they are described as pristine and outstanding in scenery. From there, we head almost due west to the country of Sri Lanka formerly known as Ceylon. Sri Lanka is a small island just off the southern tip of India. In our journey, there we will transit the full length of the Bay of Bengal. Neither Lisa nor I have ever visited this country before, and so this will be a first. Continuing southwest we visit the Maldives islands, followed by the Seychelles. Next we visit Mayotte. Now I had to look that up only to learn that Mayotte is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that is a full Department of France – in other words it is equal to one of our states. Here again this is yet another new destination. Moving westward we visit the Island of Mozambique before moving on to the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania, after which, we end our adventure at the coastal city of Dar es Salaam, again in Tanzania.

The return flights home are basically a repeat of our outward journey except that we do not have long layovers. Once again we travel on Emirates through Dubai, and then into Dallas, where once again we have to transfer our own bags between terminals and go through security again.

Since we will be gone for both Christmas and New Year’s, let us be the first to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and the best for the coming year.

Jim and Lisa

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Captain Summoned Ashore!

Today my blog will be a three-part adventure for the simple reason that there are three separate stories to be told. I need to relate our continued encounters with the local Indonesian authorities. Of course, I need to relate our expedition experience going ashore to visit a small village, and finally, I need to give an update on the medical condition for both Lisa and myself.

Let’s start with the official encounters. As you know when I last wrote, it appeared that every time we turned around the local Indonesian authorities wanted to board the vessel for one reason or another, and there seemed to be an ongoing series of discussions regarding some paperwork issue or other. I think everyone on board felt that that issue had more than been resolved. However, after our morning visit ashore at the village of Yenwaupnor, when the ship attempted to raise anchor and reposition to a nearby island for our afternoon activities, a patrol vessel suddenly appeared off our bow, and an official was waving his hands and making an “X” sign to indicate that we were to go no further.

Now understand that everything I am relating here is coming to you third hand; I did not actually witness all that occurred; and I can only share with you what we were told; and what we ourselves heard later. Believe it or not the local officials had the gall to once again board the vessel and indicate that we in some way had violated Indonesian waters without authority. I gather that discussions went on for some significant period of time during which phone calls, and emails flew back and forth in an effort to resolve the issue. After an extended period of discussions, some kind of resolution was reached with the officials who had boarded our vessel, and they returned to their boat having given us clearance to conduct the afternoon’s activities. No more had they departed our vessel, then they themselves apparently received instructions from their base commander that the negotiations were not acceptable to him, and they were directed to return to our ship. Now, get this! Not only were they directed to return to our ship, but they were also directed to bring back to their base the Captain of this ship, and one other senior officer. Such a journey even by high-speed zodiac would have required 40 minutes. In the 55 cruises or so that Lisa and I had done, I had never before heard of the Captain essentially being ordered off of his ship. More negotiations took place, and the offer was made for the local official himself to come visit the ship since the Captain had responsibilities on board which did not permit him to depart the vessel. That was unacceptable, and after a very tense standoff, the local official apparently threatened that unless the Captain appeared in his office immediately the matter would be turned over to police authorities, and the vessel would be forced to immediately undertake a two-day voyage under guard in order to resolve the matter at some district office or other. Not appearing to have any alternative, my understanding is that the Captain along with the Chief Financial Officer set out in a zodiac as demanded. Before they reached the shore however, our ship received instructions from the Home Office of Silversea which is located in Monaco that the Captain was to return to the ship immediately. Silversea took the position that all of the paperwork had been completed appropriately, and that they had thorough documentation. They also were in contact with Indonesian officials at a higher level. I don’t know exactly how the entire matter was ultimately resolved so that everyone saved face, but I do know that late in the afternoon we were finally given permission to continue with our snorkeling and diving operation. You would think that Indonesian authorities would appreciate the large amount of tourism and money that this cruise line brings to their islands, and all that we can imagine is that this really has to do with local feuds and between districts and the federal government. In any event, we finally concluded our activities in Indonesia, and are now today at sea headed towards the country of Palau.

So allow me to return to my second narrative, which relates to our delightful visit yesterday to the village of Yenwaupnor. The village is located in the Dampier Strait on the Island of Gam. This area, and indeed this village is world famous as being a location where one can view Birds Of Paradise in the wild. I had heard of these beautiful creatures, but did not realize that they inhabit such a small range on the planet. In large, they are confined to the island of New Guinea, and some of the surrounding territory. For those hardy adventurers who were willing to brave the strenuous journey through the forest, in the dark, to the top of the mountain side next to the village of Yenwaupnor - they might be able at sunrise to catch a glimpse of the fabled birds in full display. While all of this sounded interesting to me, the idea of leaving the ship around 4:30 in the morning, and climbing up a steep mountain trail in the darkness in the hopes of getting to see a bird – well, it just wasn’t my “cup of tea.” There were, however I understand about 12 hardy adventurers from our passengers who, along with the expedition team, made the journey. According to the Expedition Leader afterward, they were fortunate enough to have observed perhaps the best display that he had witnessed in his career. So I guess this is one I will have to see on the DVD offered by the ship after we get home.

In any event, at the more reasonable hour of 8:30 am, we were invited ashore to witness a cultural performance by the residents of the local village. Sadly, Lisa was restricted to the ship, but I did make the journey. It was a relatively short 20 minute zodiac ride across crystal clear waters to reach a very long wooden jetty onto which we could make what is known as a dry landing. Right from the jetty you could look down through the water to the coral reef below, and see fish and giant clams along with even a blue starfish or two. The water was so clear, and the sun so bright that essentially I was snorkeling without even having to get my feet wet. At the end of the long pier, there awaited a line of local women who were playing drums and flutes to welcome us to the village. The drums didn’t surprise me, but the flutes did. In fact, this entire village seemed to be quite musical with a large variety of instruments in use.

Once we were all seated in a semi-circle, members of the village proceeded to put on a very lively performance that reminded me somewhat of being in the Caribbean by nature of the beat they used. They were laughing, smiling, and in general everyone was having a good time. In fact, I even heard one story from a local who related that since today was a school day, the young people who were there had to have their parents’ permission. Early in the morning, I understand that young children were begging their parents to be allowed to attend the performance and not to have to go to school.

After about 30 minutes, the performances ended and there followed a demonstration of local cooking techniques, and an opportunity for members of our team to try local cuisine. We were also at liberty to wander around the village, which I did. I was surprised at how clean I found everything. I walked down Main Street, and once again it was lined with railings on both sides behind which were clean neighborhood yards. There was a nice school which was in session, and there was a beautiful church, which I believe was Catholic. Everyone seemed very grateful that we were visiting. When you get a chance to look at my photographs, I think you’ll find that I had an exceptionally good day and managed to bring home “some real keepers.”

After returning to the ship for lunch, the unpleasantness of local officials occurred, and after that was resolved many of the people on board went snorkeling and diving. Unfortunately neither Lisa nor I were allowed to join in those activities. Both of us are still being bothered by significant breathing problems relating to asthma and bronchitis. Our room looks somewhat like a medical clinic complete with nebulizers, oxygen tanks, and blood pressure meters. There is one cute story that I do have to share. The photographer on the ship is a good friend that we have met on other cruises, and for this cruise he has for the first time brought along a drone from which he is able to take aerial photographs. He has been very excited to share this with me and to let me operate his new toy. Unfortunately, we just never had an opportunity until yesterday. So I begged the doctor to allow me to go ashore in the afternoon simply for the purpose of playing with the new toy, and promising to return as soon as I could thereafter. Reluctantly he agreed, and inwardly I said to myself – I won! I was so happy at finally being given permission to go outside that I walked out to the pool deck to take a breath of fresh air and as I did so, I immediately started to cough and hack as the warm moist air filled my lungs. Who should come around the corner just as I am in a hacking cough – the ship’s Doctor! With a sly smile on his face he quietly says, “Well, I guess you’re not going ashore today.” So, I will just have to get to play with the drone another day, or else buy my own.

As in all good things, there comes a time when our adventures must come to a close. This will be my last blog for this journey, and I do hope that all of you have enjoyed traveling with us from Australia across the South Pacific to Palau. It has been a wonderful time, and I simply cannot emphasize strongly enough how wonderful every member of the crew on this ship has been to Lisa and me. They have gone out of their way to accommodate our every need, and I genuinely feel as if they have in many ways become family.

Tomorrow afternoon the ship should arrive in to Koror, the Capital of the island nation of Palau around noon. Because we are arriving slightly sooner than planned, activities have been set up for the afternoon. Lisa and I are going to spend our time in the cool environment of the ship, and prepare to depart the following day. We will leave allow around 4 AM on June 12, and fly to Tokyo. From there, we will have a long layover before catching a nonstop flight to Minneapolis, and there we have a short wait until catching our flight onward and we will arrive into Kansas City late on the afternoon of June 12. So even though we are traveling halfway around the world, we will arrive on the same day that we left, thus gaining back the day that was “lost” on our flight over.

Jim

Monday, June 6, 2016

Busted By Customs and Immigration

 

Out of nowhere on a quiet afternoon at anchor in a beautiful tranquil bay known as Triton Bay, Indonesian authorities roared up to our ship and boarded us. I saw their vessel approach, but missed most of the later drama. It appears that these officials, for whatever reason, believed that we had entered Indonesian waters without official clearance. I gather that the situation was somewhat tense as they demanded the ship take up anchor and sail all around the island from where we were located to a town on the other side where proper clearance could be obtained. Such a relocation would have taken two days, and would have ruined the carefully planned schedule followed by cruise ships. While “discussions” took place all the planned activities ashore had to be suspended while we waited to learn the outcome. Eventually things were resolved, and the drama was over. I never did learn if in fact this was indeed a real breakdown in communication as it was described to us, or if it was what I might term a local “shakedown.” Either way, it provided some drama.

During our time at anchor that morning in Triton Bay, our adventure began immediately, when whales were spotted all around our ship. Once setup, the expedition team took everyone on a two hour long zodiac ride into the back tributaries of this gorgeous water paradise. Triton Bay is in West Papua, Indonesia. It is world renowned for its underwater beauty, and is a favorite for divers and snorkelers worldwide. I might add that even if you just cruise the back waters, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the natural beautiful. There are towering limestone cliffs, surrounded by clear blue-green waters. In fact, to enjoy the corals and fish, one only has to look down from a sitting zodiac since the reef and its inhabitants are clearly visible--so clear is the water. I really was sad when it came time to return to the ship, but in all honesty, I was starting to suffer from the heat.

You see, I managed to catch the bronchitis which Lisa has, and before long each of us has green stuff and hacking coughs. Before we realized it, Lisa was starting to have deep coughs from her chest, and difficulty breathing. Well, what is good for one, is good for both, and before long I am right in there with her. At this point, we have both become good friends with the Doctor on the ship, since he has been coming to our room throughout the day to give nebulizer treatments. First it was just for Lisa, but then he caught my cough, and after listening to my chest, I, too, am subjected to his torments. For this reason, Lisa did not get off yesterday morning for the zodiac ride, she was just too sick. I made the ride, but paid for it when I got back to the ship. It appears that our infections are not all that bad, but they have triggered our asthma in a bad way. So, yesterday when everyone finally got to go diving and snorkeling, we got to stay in our rooms. This morning we have each had our treatments, so we’ll see. I bet ours is the only room in the ship with its own nebulizer and oxygen equipment!

Before I close out today I do wish to relate an incredible story about an act of kindness by one of the expedition team. You will recall that yesterday when we visited Agats Village, Lisa and I were not able to physically make our way across the rickety boards placed over the swamp between our boardwalk and the men’s ceremonial hut. The significance of this was not merely that we never got to see the inside of the hut, but it was that inside that hut was for sale some prized local carvings that Lisa had been hoping to acquire for her collection. This was the only place that “good” art would be for sale. It was a big deal to come prepared, because the locals would only accept Indonesian Rupiahs, and so our ship had arranged for a special currency exchange on board to allow us to be ready. So far, we have not purchased any souvenir items, thus Lisa’s excitement at finally getting something unique and valued. While we were in line to exchange currency, a member of the expedition team was standing behind us and in our conversations, he became aware of Lisa’s interest. So, fast forward – we could not get to the ceremonial hut, and indeed, there was nothing else that we saw that was of any interest. All our efforts and hopes were in vain; that is until the expedition member approached Lisa this morning, and said that upon learning of our predicament, he had purchased a nice piece which he thought she might like, and if she did, he would gladly let us buy it from him. Not only was the item unique and just what we would have bought, but he both managed to buy it from the Chief, and as only a member of the crew can do, bargained down the price to a ridiculous level. So, now Lisa is one happy camper, with our only challenge finding a way to get the rather large object home!

Today, Sunday June 5th where we are, the ship is traveling full speed towards MacCluer Gulf, Indonesia. Once at anchor, then this afternoon we will be offered the opportunity to visit two separate local villages. So, stay tuned while I put this on pause, and rest for the adventure ahead.

Jim

Monday June 6, 2016

Well, what an experience I had yesterday afternoon. Once anchored safely in MacCluer Bay, we set out by zodiac to visit Arguni Village, a small, mostly Muslim community of roughly 1,400 people nestled in a small corner of the Gulf. As it turns out, this was the first time Silversea had come to this destination, and it was the very first time the little village had been visited by a cruise ship. So, it was a very BIG event for the locals, and we later learned that they had been up since 5 am preparing their little community for our arrival around 3 pm.

As we sped across the Gulf on a 30 minute ride across smooth water, local boats which had been elaborately decorated began to make their way from shore to greet us. On board most of these boats were percussion musicians, all of whom seemed intent on seeing which boat could make the loudest welcome. They played music, they sang, and they danced all the while leading us to the village. I was on the first zodiac to land, and I was overrun with smiling people wanting to shake my hand and to offer the traditional Muslim greeting. The dock had been decorated in giant banners of colorful cloth, and indeed the entire walk into town was along a wide walkway colorfully decorated its entire length. People waved, children ran out to touch us, and adults clasped our hands in greeting.

On reaching the center of town, a welcome area had been setup with an awning carefully constructed of palm leaves and plastic tarp, and new chairs had been setup so that all of us could be seated for the ceremonies. Since I walk so slow, and take so many pictures, by the time I arrived, most of the chairs were gone, except to the far right where curiously a single chair was open directly behind, yet beside the men who were seated in front of a table on which had been placed a bottle of water and some fruit for each of them. As I approached, they all got up to give me the traditional welcome and directed me to this lone chair. People all around me kept shaking my hand and touching me.

As the ceremonies started, the first order of business was the introduction by our local guide of the dignitaries in attendance. First, the man directly beside me, who had been the first to stand and welcome me, it turns out that he is the local King. Next to him was seated the Chief of The Secret Police, and lastly was the village Mayor. Next, a member of our passengers presented to the King a backpack put together by Silversea of school supplies and select items for the village. Then for the next hour, we were treated to several warm and entertaining performances. In the end, everyone broke out laughing at the end, and clapping, and cheering because everyone had a good time. We then had 45 minutes to look around on our own, but we were warned that with the ceremonies over we would become the subject of the photographs. Before our eyes, cell phone cameras seemed to come from nowhere, and our hosts started taking our photographs. Before long entire groups wanted their photos taken with me, to the point, that I was becoming tired of smiling.

Finally making my way back to the zodiac, I was frankly sorry to leave. In contrast to some of the welcomes we have received on this trip, this visit had genuine warmth, and a real chance to interact with people who were glad to share a smile, even if we could not speak the same language. On our way back, we stopped briefly to look at some very ancient rock art, estimated to be over 10,000 years old, then we caught an eagle flying overhead.

While the zodiac prepared to make a quick stop at another village, I begged off to return to the ship. I was not feeling at all well, and poor Lisa had not been allowed by the Doctor to even go ashore. That evening we both had inhalation therapy, and Lisa now has a shunt for the input of cortical steroids.

Neither of us had a good night. My bronchitis worsened, and I coughed up green all night, plus I have been having some trouble breathing. Lisa seems to have beat the infection, but her bronchial asthma is causing her significant respiratory distress. Even after treatments for both of us this morning, we had to put Lisa on oxygen and call the doctor back to our room. He seems fast becoming our new best friend. So, I got my third antibiotic today, and we both got grounded from going ashore. Just as well, because today was an all day visit to a deserted island with diving, snorkeling, and a beach Bar-BQ. So let’s hope we sleep better tonight, and that tomorrow is back to normal.

Jim