Archive for May, 2016

Katakolon, Greece (Olympia)

     On April 13 we were docked at Katakolon, a very small town in western Greece.

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     The main attraction in this area is Olympia (not Mt Olympus, which is not near here), the site of the ancient Olympic Games.  So that is where we elected to spend the day.  This entailed a bus trip through the beautiful countryside with hillsides of olive trees.  Near the towns were large piles of bags of trash & garbage.  Our guide was clearly embarrassed by this, but we didn’t fully understand her explanation which was mostly about the closing of disposal facilities in the area & controversy about how to replace them.  Why would you close the facilities before ensuring an alternative, and will this piling up go on indefinitely? Maybe we missed something, but its pretty clear that the locals are not happy about what this does to their image, particularly with their big moment in the spotlight coming next week when the Olympic flame is lit at the site of the ancient Olympics.

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     As mentioned earlier, we visited the week before Olympia’s big moment, the lighting of the Olympic torch.  When we arrived there was a local celebration in progress.  The big turnout seemed mostly to be school kids.

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     The archaeological site, a sacred religious compound to the ancient Greeks established long before the athletic games, was a short walk down the road.  This was not a town, but a religious enclave.  The first recorded Panhellenic athletic games here were held around 776 BC and continued for more than a millennium until the Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned them in 393 AD as part of a general campaign against pagan rituals.  Earthquakes began to destroy the buildings in the 3d century and the site was abandoned in the 7th century after repeated floods & earthquakes.  Floods deeply buried the site, which was rediscovered only in the mid-18th century.  Excavation was begun in 1875.

     Our first stop after entering the site was at the Gymnasion and the Palaestra. Participants were required to spend the month before the games training on-site & these buildings housed the training facilities for racing, javelin, and discus in the Gymnasion & wrestling, boxing and long jump in the Palaestra.  Women were not allowed here.  The men competed in the games naked, wearing only olive oil mixed with sand to protect from the sun.  There were only two rules for wrestling: no poking in the eye with a finger & no biting.  As our guide observed, many men will instantly think of another very vulnerable body part that was not protected by these rules!  While a large portion of the pillars lining the Gymnasion are visible, some of it is still buried under the road that brings visitors to the site, which gave an idea of how deeply the entire site was once buried.  Throughout the area Judas Trees were covered with pink flowers on this nice Spring day. (Note that we have labeled the pictures to the best of our recollections, but our recollections are not always reliable a month after the fact.)

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     Across from the Gymnasion is the Philippeion, the only round building here & the only one dedicated to a human.  It was begun by Philip of Macedonia to commemorate his conquest of Greece in 338 BC, and may have been completed by his son, Alexander the Great.  The building, now partially restored, originally held gold & ivory statues of Philip & his family.  It marked a turning point for the enclave’s evolution from a religious to a more secular nature.

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     Next to the Philippeion, but much larger, is the rectangular Temple of Hera, originally built around 650 BC.  It may originally have been wood, but the columns were replace by stone over the centuries as the wooden ones rotted.  This is the oldest & most complete building on the site. Like the other buildings here, this one was made of local limestone rather than marble, with a coating of stucco made with marble dust to make it shine like marble.  The stucco is long gone, so that what you see now is the limestone itself.

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     Since 1936 the Olympic flame has been lit at the Altar of Hera, just outside the end of the Temple of Hera closest to the athletic grounds.  The torch is ignited by sunlight in a mirrored bowl & then the flame is transferred to a ceramic bowl. This year the official lighting of the flame was scheduled just 8 days after our visit, and we were treated to a view of a rehearsal.  The women who play the temple priestesses are all professional actresses who donate their services, and they rehearse on site for about a week before the ceremony.  The high priestess is a well known Greek movie & TV actress named Katerina Lechou. The two pillars behind them are remains of the Exedra of Herodes Attticus, built in 160 AD, which was a circular water fountain..

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     We walked over toward the athletic grounds, entered through an arch covered passageway that was once fully covered.  On the hill to our left – the Hill of Kronos where Zeus was supposedly born & his father Kronos tried unsuccessfully to eat him — were the “treasuries” of the various cities, which held their equipment for sacrifices & athletics.  Along the wall leading to the passageway was a row of pedestals that once held bronze statues of Zeus (called “Zanes,” plural of Zeus).  They were built using fines paid by athletes found to have cheated in the games and each had an inscription on the base naming the violator, his father & city, and his offense.  This walk of shame was a pretty dramatic warning to the competitors who passed them on the way to the Krypti, a 100 foot long vaulted tunnel that was the entrance to the stadium.  Today there is a only single arch representing the long roof that covered the entire walkway.

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     The stadium isn’t much more than a large rectangle of dirt with gentle grassy hills on each side & a few rows of stone seating on one side.  Rehearsals were in progress there as well, so we didn’t have an opportunity to explore it or take any interesting pictures.  We walked back into the archaeological site & headed toward the Temple of Zeus.  We passed some workmen who were using a pulley system to reassemble a huge pillar inside a scaffolding.  We also saw a rectangular stone that had once been a pedestal for a bronze statue (perhaps of one of the Olympic champions).  The two holes cut into the top were for the statue’s brpmze feet; this was only done for bronze statues.

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     The Temple of Zeus was completed in the middle of the 5th century BC.  This was the largest building at Olympia, its shape & size being comparable to the Parthenon. The temple was some 68 feet high & 235 feet long.  In front was a large statue of Nike, goddess of victory (now in the museum), standing on a high pedestal. This was where the Olympic victors were crowned with Olive wreaths. Inside was the colossal gold & ivory statue of a seated Zeus, some 43 feet tall, which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  The sculptor Pheidias spent 12 years at the site creating this statue.  The statue sat in the temple for about 1,000 years before being destroyed sometime n the 5th century AD, perhaps by fire after being carried off to Constantinople & perhaps with the destruction of this temple itself.  In 426 the Roman Emperor Theodosius II ordered this pagan temple burned, and two earthquakes during the 6th century competed the job.

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   Finally, situated at the southwest corner of the area is the Leonidaion, which contained living quarters. Near it is the Workshop of Pheidias, where the sculptor spent more than a decade crafting the great statue of Zeus.  It was identified by sculptural tools & a cup inscribed “I belong to Pheidias” found in the building.  The two pictures of a brick building below are probably the Workshop rather than the Leonidaion (we didn’t get close enough to be sure).

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     We left the archaeological sight and headed for the museums.  Near the entrance we passed the Hill of Kronos that overlooks the sight & some bright red flowers (geraniums?).  On the road to the museum we saw a roadside shrine, which we were told are common in Greece to commemorate those killed in accidents, and an olive grove.

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     We visited the Ancient Olympic Games Museum, set on a hill above the archaeological site.  Originally built in the 1880’s, this museum was abandoned after being damaged by an earthquake in 1953, but was repaired & reopened in 2004.  It has a thematic organization focusing on the Olympic games.  Among the items here were an ancient discus, the wheel of a chariot, small jars in which athletes carried their olive oil & iron scrapers they used to remove the oil & sand after competition, and pottery jars with athletic themes.

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     We drove to the Archaeological Museum on the other side of the site, opened in 1982, which houses a rich collection of ancient artifacts found at Olympia.  In the central hall were the reassembled statuary that had been on the pediments above each end of the Temple of Zeus.  Pediments were triangular in shape and these groups of statues were made to fit those dimensions.  The west pediment, pictured below, depicts a battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (half man, half horse). This is considered some of the best surviving examples of so-called severe style of early Greek sculpture. The central figure is Apollo, attempting to restore order.

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     The Temple of Zeus also displayed reliefs of the twelve labors of Hercules.  Called Metopes, these were situated just below the pediments, six on each end.

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     The Nike of Palonios is the statue that originally stood on the tall base sitting in front of the Temple of Zeus, shown above with the temple.  It is quite large & its dress was originally red. An image of this sculpture was prominent on the medals awarded at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the Ancient Olympic Games Museum is a model of what it originally looked like, standing on its tall base.

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The statue of Hermes holding the infant Dionysus was probably sculpted by Praxiteles in the 4th century BC.  It was rediscovered in several pieces in the Temple of Hera in 1877.  This is considered one of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture.

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     Two more statues we noted are from the Roman period:  one of Emperor Hadrian & one of Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife. We also saw some lion heads that were originally water spouts on the tops of buildings.

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     A couple of interesting ancient helmets were in a glass case together.  One was a Persian helmet from the 5th century BC, with an inscription in Greek identifying it as “booty” the Athenians “took from the Medes.”  The other was a helmet with the inscription “Miltiades offered to Zeus,” dedicated by the victorious general after his victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC.

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     Leaving the museum we headed for lunch.  It was a pretty good walk back to the bus, passing an area with shops & a café whose patio was covered with blooming Wisteria.  We had a HUGE and delicious Greek lunch at a lovely restaurant with a swimming pool & brightly colored flowers in its garden.

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     We made one more stop, in the modern village of Olympia, where we spent some time exploring the many shops (this is, after all, primarily there for tourists).  Then we headed back to the ship for a fairly early departure. The next day, just north of Sicily, we passed the island of Stromboli, one of the most active volcanoes on earth.  We passed this island at night in 2013 and, although you couldn’t see the island very well in the dark, it was erupting regularly every 10 or 15 seconds, sending fire into the sky that was clearly visible rather far away.  This time it was daylight and we passed a lot closer, but the volcano was only smoking, no fireworks.  Amazingly, this island is inhabited; there’s no telling where people will choose to live!  We spent one more night at sea on this welcome sea day.

6. Rome, Italy

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Athens, Greece

     We woke up with the sunrise on the morning of April 12 near Piraeus, the port for Athens.  We wanted to disembark early to maximize our time in Athens, where we would be on our own.  We had toured the Acropolis & its new museum and seen other highlights on our last visit here,, so our objective this time was to see the National Archaeological Museum, one of the world’s greatest museums of antiquities.

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     We were docked at a terminal about half a mile further from the port exit than the one we were at in 2013.  This made for a much longer walk to the subway than we had anticipated, maybe 2 miles.  But when we finally got there, it turned out that tickets could be purchased from real people (rather than machines), although ours didn’t speak English.  However the signs were in English as well as Greek so it was easy to find our train & get into the city.  The train was pretty slow until it got out of Piraeus, but we got to our stop fairly quickly overall.  It was less easy finding our way from the Metro stop to the museum but it didn’t take too long. Although the neighborhood seemed a little seedy, with a lot of graffiti on the buildings, the museum is quite impressive, with some colorful flowers in the beds on the grounds.

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     This is a vast museum, too much to really cover in one day, but it is helpfully arranged largely in chronological order, beginning with the 5,000 year old Cycladic artifacts from the islands around Delos.  We will only be able to touch on some of the things that stood out for us as we perused the museum’s collection (or at least a large part of it).

     Displayed in one of the early rooms (right through the door in the picture above) were the hoard of gold artifacts from Mycenae first discovered by Heinrich Schliemann (the discoverer of Troy) in the late 19th century.  Mycenae was the center of Greek culture in the time of the Trojan War, a period known as the Mycenaean era.  These artifacts were recovered from a circular tomb called “Grave Circle A” that held 19 bodies, apparently members of the ruling class of the day.  The most famous item is what Schliemann (jumping to desired conclusions, as was his wont) called the “Mask of Agamemnon,” a solid gold mask made to cover the face of a dead man (notice the tiny holes under the ears for tying it around the head)..  This could not have been Agamemnon because it dates to about 250 years before the fall of Troy around 1300 BC, but it is still a stunning artifact.

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Other items from Mycenae included wall frescoes, an amphora (storage jar) & a bone helmet made of boar tusk, which was strong but also flexible. All were similar in style to items we had seen in Crete in 2013, suggesting a Minoan influence on Mycenaean style.  Note that the raised stone pieces in the frescoes are original, while the completion of the painting around them is a speculative modern reconstruction.

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     The earliest Greek sculpture (from about 700 to 500 BC) are called kouroi:  Kouros (male) & Kore (female).  They are stiff & straight & stylized, apparently influenced by Egyptian statues.  The men are naked & the women are clothed & all of them had slight smiles (or smirks) and were brightly painted, even the skin.  The first Kouros below, dating from about 600 BC, once stood at the entrance to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Typically, he is naked with his left foot forward but his hips straight rather than swiveled.  The second, a Kore, is from about 550 BC. She holds a flower in her left hand & tugs at her dress with her right (an attempt to show movement). Her dress was once painted red & has flowers & swastikas (good luck symbols to the ancient Greeks) down the front (see closeup).  The third is a later funerary Kouros from Attica, dated to the 530’s BC.  It is a bit livelier than the earlier one.  The fourth is a woman, seemingly in a very early flat style, notable for the traces of red paint still clearly visible on the marble.  Nearby was a base for a Kouros from Athens, circa 510 BC, depicting a wrestling match in relief with the bodies in a much more animated light.

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     The large (6’ 10””) & imposing bronze statue below is called the “Artemision Bronze” because it was found in a shipwreck off Cape Artemision, north of Athens, in 1928.  The weapon he is throwing was not found, so it is not clear whether this is Zeus, throwing a thunderbolt, or Poseidon, throwing a trident. It has been dated to 460 BC, the beginning of the Classical period of Greek sculpture (although this is more in what is called the Severe Style that preceded it).   His eyes are hollow but were once filled with white bone.

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     An interesting sculpture that looks like it lined the roof of a building (possibly at Epidauros) includes a row of water spouts in the form of lions’ heads.  A funerary urn from Marathon (probably) dating from the 420’s BC, made by a painter called Polygnotos, depicts Helen’s abduction, by Theseus.  Then there is the much more dynamic “Artemision Jockey,” circa 140 BC in the Hellenistic period.  It was recovered in pieces from the same shipwreck as the Zeus/Poseidon above & pieced back together in 1971.  It is a large sculpture that dominates a room otherwise full of Roman copies of Greek sculptures (this was an industry for the Romans). The jockey appears to be a young boy, originally painted black with non-Greek looking features, which may indicate he was at least partly Ethiopian.

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     A bronze statue of a young athlete was found in the sea off Marathon, dated circa 330’s BC.  Notice the white eyes still in this one. The appendage pointing up from his head is a leaf from a victory garland around his head.  The bronze Statue of a Youth, circa 330’s BC, was recovered from a shipwreck near Antikythera.  Some think this is Perseus, who would have been holding the head of Medusa, and others (more likely correct) think it is Paris, presenting the apple to Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. Found in the Aegean sea is a statue of Augustus Caesar,circa 10 BC, which was originally mounted on a horse.

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     Finally, perhaps the most interesting & unusual artifact in the museum is the Antikythera Mechanism, recovered around the turn of the 20th century from the same shipwreck near Antikythera as the Statue of a Youth, above.  It is in many pieces and badly corroded after a couple of millenia under the sea.  It is clear from its surface that it is a mechanism operated by gears of various sizes & examination of what is inside with x-ray and other technologies has disclosed its complexity and inscriptions.  After a century of study it has been concluded that this was an astronomical calculator, combining several different calendar systems, predicting eclipses, calculating the dates of various Panhellenic games, and perhaps locating the positions of the sun, moon & the 5 planets then known on any future date.  It has been called the first computer and mechanisms of comparable complexity did not again appear until the European astronomical clocks of the 15th century.  Several modern versions a working model of the mechanism are on display in the same room.  After seeing this we left the museum, to be sure we would get back to the ship in time for our fairly early departure.

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     We returned to the subway & boarded a train headed for Piraeus.  The train was not crowded but there were several young men standing around us making it impossible to move into the train from the area in front of the door.  As we approached the next stop they circled around us and one of them started pushing Rick aside, as if trying to get to the door even though he was already there.  He politely said “excuse me” a couple of times.  When the door opened they all got out & Rick felt a hand reaching into his pocket from one of them who had a sweater draped over his arm.  Obviously, this was a pickpocket gang.  Although the whole experience was rather unnerving, the bottom line is that they got nothing before getting off the train because Rick’s wallet was well secured in his front pocket.

     As the ship was preparing to leave the Captain made an announcement pointing out that there were a number of Syrian refugees camped on a dock not too far away.  Of course, everyone has heard about the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece this Spring, but this was our first actual exposure to it.  We don’t know what the status of these people might be, perhaps they are being vetted before being admitted to Europe.  But it seemed clear to us that people, & whole families, would not choose to live like this unless their conditions at home were truly desperate.

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     It was very sunny & the water was very blue as we sailed away.  We did not visit the Acropolis on this visit, but you could see it clearly from the ship leaving the port, probably some 6 miles away.  We had beautiful views of Piraeus (a city in itself) & of Athens as we reached the deep water.  It seems the light is different here & makes everything sparkle on a nice day.

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Haifa, Israel (Caesarea, Akko)

     [Note:  As I write this we are at home.  As you can see, the blog fell behind a bit in the last portion of the trip, but rest assured that the entire thing will be completed, despite all the competing demands on our time here in our natural habitat.  Hopefully, it won’t take too long, although we are leaving town again in June for a few weeks.  It should be completed by then, but who knows?] 


    On April 9 we docked in Haifa, Israel.  When we visited here before,, we arrived at night after a two day tour of Israel and thus had no time to see the city.  This time we took an excursion to the ancient cities of Caesarea and Akko that was promised to finish with a visit to the Bahai Gardens in Haifa.  But to our disappointment it didn’t.  So after two visits we have not had a chance to see Haifa at all beyond the view from the port.  Maybe next time.


     Located on the coast halfway between Haifa & Tel Aviv, Caesarea was initially built on some Phoenician ruins by Herod the Great in the last two decades BC.  Named after Herod’s patron, the Emperor Augustus Caesar, it was an important port & served as the capital of the province of Palestine under the Romans and Byzantines. It was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century & then by the Crusaders in the 12th.  The Crusaders were ousted in 1265 by the Mamluks, and the town then lay largely uninhabited until 1884 when a group of Bosnian Muslims settled there.  It was occupied by Israelis at the beginning of the 1947 war, when the remaining occupants were expelled and the village houses destroyed.  Since then the area has been largely devoted to archaeological excavation, and is owned today by a foundation.  A lot of these ruins have been reconstructed & it is difficult to tell what is original and what has been added.  There are about 5,000 inhabitants in the area.

     Our first stop was on the beach outside the town where a Roman aqueduct traverses the beach.  This is one of three aqueducts that served Caesarea. It has two channels, built at different times, which are visible from below as a seam in the ceiling of the arches.  An impressive structure, it originally extended some 11 miles.2a. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)_stitch2. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)1. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)5a. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)_stitch

     Our first stop inside the city was at the Roman theater.  It has been restored and often hosts concerts.  While we were sitting in the seats another group of visitors standing on the stage sang a hymn.  It was very nice, but seemed a little out of place in a Roman theater.

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     After viewing a movie we walked down to the harbor, which is broad and picturesque.

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     On the left of the harbor are the ruins of the palace built by Herod that was the residence of the Roman governors of the province.  Notably visible is the swimming pool built on the edge of the sea.  A stone was unearthed near here inscribed with the message that “Pontius Pilatus” had erected a building dedicated to the emperor Tiberius. Part of the palace was later partitioned into private quarters & the palace was abandoned entirely at the end of the Byzantine era.

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     In the middle, facing the harbor, was the Hippodrome, built in 9 BC and described by Josephus.  The “Actian Games,” instituted by Herod & named for the naval battle in which Augustus defeated Marc Antony & Cleopatra to claim the empire, were held here every four years.  In addition to athletics & gladiatorial combat, they included chariot races that went seven laps of this track, one of the largest in the Roman Empire.  One part of the wall in front of the grandstand was covered by faux marble fresco, but we couldn’t tell whether that was original or a modern demonstration of something that might have been there.

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     Beyond the hippodrome was a complex of walls of various buildings, some with (rebuilt?) archways.

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     Some of the buildings in this area had mosaic floors (some reproductions?) that must have been beautiful when in use.

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    Of particular note is the public bathhouse, which is particularly well preserved (or restored), with marble columns & mosaic floors.  This was a public meeting place where, in addition to bathing, one could exercise & get a shave, haircut or massage.

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     On our way to a huge & delicious lunch in a restaurant near the water we walked along the city wall built by the Crusaders, complete with moat.  Near the restaurant we saw some Roman sculpture & the minaret of the mosque built by the Bosnian settlers in the 19th century.  No work was being done because it was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.  Across from the restaurant was a hillside covered with ongoing excavations called the Crusaders’ Market, thought to contain houses & commercial buildings.

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     After lunch we left the city through a gate built by Crusaders, designed with sharp turns inside to deter invaders, and boarded the bus for the trip to Akko.

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     Before leaving Caesarea, here are some of the flowers we encountered there.

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Akko (Acre)

     First settled about 5,000 years ago, Akko is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the Middle East.  During the Biblical period it was a Phoenician city.  While Akko is its official name today, it was known as Ptolemais during the Hellenistic through the Byzantine eras & as Acre during its occupation by the Crusaders.

     Acre was an important port in the middle ages under Islamic rule starting in the 7th century.  It was captured after some four years of siege by the Crusaders in 1104 and became their main port.and provided great wealth to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Saladin recaptured it for Islam in 1187 but in 1191 it was restored to the Crusaders by forces under Richard the Lionheart of England & Philip II of France.  They retained it until 1291 when the Mamluks took over.  Acre was the last Crusader foothold in the Middle East.

     Our first visit was to the ruins of the fortress built in the 12th century by the Knights of St John Hospitallers.  It was unearthed in recent times under a prison built by the Turks.  A number of Zionist underground fighters were imprisoned here by the British during the period after World War II when the Zionists were pushing for independence, and some were executed here.  Apparently in the movie Exodus Paul Newman’s character was imprisoned here.  In 1947 the Irgun, Zionist independence fighters, broke into the prison & released the Zionist inmates (and more than 200 Arab inmates as well).

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     Inside the fortress were several halls and/or chambers with vaulted ceilings, all nicely lighted with historical exhibits and some art on display, called Crusader Halls.  Our guide told us that before the underground fortress was discovered there were rumors of underground passage.  Some of the Zionist prisoners dug down through the floor of their cell & discovered a bit of stone ceiling of a room filled to the top with dirt.  Obviously this was no use for escape, but it was apparently the first modern evidence that the Crusaders’ fortress was still there.

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     The largest Crusader hall is the Refectory, or dining hall.

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     Under the Refectory is a tunnel.  There is a famous tunnel here that leads to the waterfront, thought to be a means of escape in the event of a successful attack, but this was not that tunnel since it ended in what was once the Crypt of the Crusaders’ Church of St. John.  The Turks used this area as a post office.  This tunnel was very narrow & there were parts where even short people like us had to bend over to avoid the ceiling.  It was fairly dark in the tunnel & we were moving the whole time, so the pictures are a little unfocused.  As should be obvious, Mary was in front of Rick in line.

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      We walked up some steps to the street level where we passed through a shop & into a corridor that seems to have been part of the old prison.  Today it is something of a shopping mall, with restaurants & shops (many closed for the Sabbath).  We left through the souk, teeming with vendors & shoppers, & walked back to the bus through the very crowded streets.  Then we drove back to Haifa, without stopping at the Baha’i Gardens.

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     We sailed that night to Ashdod, the port nearest Jerusalem.  But we had visited Jerusalem & Masada, the prime sites in that area, just three years ago.  We thought about going into Ashdod for a look around (it is a very ancient port city), but Mary was still not recovered from the desert fever she picked up in Dubai & we were both quite tired.  So we stayed on the ship & treated it as a sea day in the hope that some extra rest would prepare us for the port-intensive run through the Mediterranean (7 ports in 9 days).

Suez Canal

     The first canal in this area was built almost 4,000 years ago, connecting the Red Sea to the Nile River.  It was used off and on for a thousand years, alternately silting up and being cleared again for use.  Napoleon looked into building a canal here in 1799, but his engineers erroneously calculated that the Mediterranean was 33 feet lower than the Red Sea.  Forty years later it was discovered that the two seas are at the same level and in the 1850’s Said Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, approved a French canal effort directed by Ferdinand de Lesseps.  Because the canal required no locks it could be built primarily by digging and moving sand & in 1869 the Suez Canal was opened to shipping.  When de Lesseps tried to use the same method to dig a canal through Panama, of course, he failed miserably.  Opening the canal also provided a route into the Mediterranean for numerous flora & fauna previously resident only in the Red Sea, altering its ecosystem permanently.  This is called the Lessepian Migration.

     After a sea day sailing around the Sinai Peninsula we found ourselves anchored before sunup on April 8 off the city of Suez at the northern end of the Red Sea.  There were a lot of other ships anchored nearby.

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     We were to be the second ship in a convoy that was set to enter the Suez Canal before sunrise to spend most of the day sailing through it into the Mediterranean Sea.  The Canal is about 121 miles long and and at least two convoys of ships traverse it every day, one north bound and one south bound.  Our lead ship, which looked like a small military vessel, headed for the canal as the skies began to lighten & we followed it in.

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     As we began sailing slowly north, the city of Suez was on our left & the barren Sinai Peninsula was on our right.

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     Entering the canal behind us was a huge container ship which we were told was one of several identical ships that are the largest container ships in the world.  If memory serves, it has a capacity of 22,000 containers and was carrying 14,000.  Each container is the size of a large tractor trailer.

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     All along the canal were military posts & watchtowers.  Some were obviously occupied & some less clear, & some had messages for us on the ground outside.  They looked like lonely places to be stationed.

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     We continued up the canal, which is actually the dividing line between Asia, on our starboard (right) side, and Africa on our port (left) side.  We saw some of the tall conical dovecotes common in Egypt.  The pigeons drop guano on the inside that is used for fertilizer and are also eaten as squab.  We came to the first of several lakes in the canal where convoys used to wait for ships going the other way to pass by (no more, as we will soon see).

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     We passed an oil tanker that had become disabled and had been sitting here for several months while its oil is drained into another ship, repairs are made, and the oil is pumped back in to complete the canal journey.  This must be pretty unpleasant for the crew, not to mention very expensive for the owner.

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     We next came to the place where the canal divides into two parallel channels, one for northbound and one for southbound.  This is brand new; the channel on the east (right) side for northbound ships just opened in August.  Before this one of the convoys had to wait in a lake until the other passed by, slowing everything down considerably since there are quite a few ships in each convoy.  The new parallel channels will enable traffic to increase by about 40%, and this will greatly increase Egypt’s income from the canal.

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     In this area from the lakes to the divided channels were a number of small fishing boats.  After entering the parallel channel we continued to sail north.  Most of the scenery consisted of large hills of sand, but they are laying asphalt roads on both sides along the waterfront.

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     The ongoing canal upgrade project includes more than the new channel.  They are building several tunnels under the canal & a new town on the Sinai side, which we were told is expected to be a vacation destination for Egyptians.  We saw a mosque & apartment buildings under construction there. Currently crossing the canal is done mostly by ferry, of which we saw a few.  There is an old bridge at one point that rotates to let ships through, but it doesn’t reach across the new channel, so its difficult to see what use it will be in the future, unless they build a tunnel there to complete the journey to the Sinai side.  In this area there were some statues & logos in the area between the channels relating to the canal.

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    We passed Ismailia, where the canal headquarters are located, but it was on the side of the other channel so we only got a distant view.  This town was named after Ismail, the Egyptian pasha at the time the canal was opened.  It has two noticeable monuments: a concrete monolith commemorating World War I dead, and a monument shaped (we were told) like an AK-47 to commemorate the Egyptian dead in the 6 day war with Israel.

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     Once we reached Ismailia we began to see ships from the southbound convoy in the opposite channel.  the hills of sand (perhaps the material removed in digging the second channel) made it impossible to see more than the very top of the ships at first, but later the sandbanks in the center became lower & a better view of the ships was available.  As you can see from the pictures, the ships maintain a pretty good distance between them, presumably for safety reasons.

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     As we neared the northern end of the canal we came to the one bridge that spans the entire canal.  It was built by the Japanese & is called the Japan Egypt Friendship Bridge.  We spent a long time approaching it at the slow speed used by canal traffic, & only saw one car cross this imposing bridge.  It reminded us of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” that was supposed to be built in Alaska a few years back.

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     After the bridge came Port Said, the city at the Mediterranean entrance to the canal that was named for the Pasha who granted de Lesseps authority to build the canal.  We had docked in Port Said during our Grand Mediterranean cruise in 2013, although we spent the day visiting Cairo rather than in Port Said. See The canal was widened long ago to permit northbound ships to exit directly into the Mediterranean, bypassing Port Said.  We did that, so our only glimpse of Port Said was from a distance.  Having thus completed our interesting encounter with the Suez Canal, which is so different from the canal in which we crossed Panama, we sailed on toward more adventures in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Aqaba, Jordan (Petra & Wadi Rum)

At its northern end the Red Sea divides in two: the left fork leads to the Suez Canal & the right fork is the Gulf of Aqaba.  We sailed up the gulf & docked in Aqaba early in the morning on April 6.  Aqaba is an ancient town & was an important stop on caravan routes.  In biblical times the town here was called Elot. Because of its access to fresh water as well as the Red Sea this was a strategic location during World War I, when T.E. Lawrence and an Arab raiding party captured it by approaching over the desert while all of Aqaba’s defensive weapons faced the sea.  This is a climactic moment in the film Lawrence of Arabia, but the director didn’t like the look of Aqaba so he shot this sequence in Spain.

Today Aqaba is the only port of the otherwise landlocked country of Jordan.  It has become a flourishing beach resort area & a popular diving spot with submerged coral reefs. Right next to Aqaba, just across the border, is the Israeli city of Eilat.  From the ship we looked out on Aqaba from the seaboard & Eilat from the port side.

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We spent the day on a private excursion.  Heading out of Aqaba early in the morning, we saw a huge Jordanian flag flying on a very tall flagpole that our guide said had been the tallest in the world until (who else?) Dubai built a taller one.  We drove through the mountains, passing desert villages & Bedouin encampments.

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     Our major stop for the day was Petra, an ancient city carved out of rock some 2000 years ago by a group called the Nabateans.  This is where Indiana Jones found the holy grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it is the setting for Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, and it is on the modern list of the seven wonders of the world.  Petra was an important trading center in ancient times, a crossroads on several caravan routes where the Nabateans extracted payments for passage.  At the end of the first century AD it came under Roman control (the Emperor Hadrian visited), but its importance declined as sea routes replaced desert crossings for trade and the city was largely destroyed by earthquakes.  Hidden away in a valley that is difficult to see, much less to visit, Petra was lost to everyone but the bedouins living in its caves for some 500 years, until rediscovered in 1812 by Jean Louis Burkhardt.  After another visitor’s drawings were published in 1839 Petra became a destination for particularly hearty travellers & near the turn of the 20th century archaeological excavations began.

One approaches Petra through a town called Wadi Musa.  This means “Valley of Moses,” and the name comes from the Bible.  There is a spring here (called the Spring of Moses) that is supposed to be where Moses struck the rock with his staff to produce water for the Israelites during their wandering in the desert.  The local king (of what was then Edom) is said to have denied them permission to travel through the area, but Moses’ brother Aaron died before they left & was buried on top of a nearby mountain called Jebel Haroun (Haroun is Aaron in Arabic), where there is still a white shrine visited by Jewish, Muslim & Christian pilgrims.

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It is a very long walk (about 2 miles) into Petra from the gate, and the ground is very rocky & uneven.  For those who can’t do that, horses & carriages are available (for a price). It is all downhill going in, so you know it will be uphill coming out (when you are already tired).  While the slope is a moderate 5%, it adds up: one book said it amounted to a total equal to a 45 story building.  The Romans built a road here, but most of it is still covered by rock & dirt from the flash floods that sometimes inundate the lower part of this area.  They have dug down to the Roman road in some places, but it is made of worn down rocks & is almost as uneven to walk on as the rest of the path.

Most of what is left in Petra are tombs & caves where the Nabateans buried their dead.  First we came to some “god-blocks,” huge rocks about 20 feet tall carved into cubes that may represent gods protecting the city’s water supply. A little further on is the Obelisk Tomb & Triclinium (or dining room), which may be one monument or two.  The top is a cave containing graves fronted by four large obelisks, with a figure carved into the rock between the middle obelisks. The bottom is a single room with tables & chairs for holding banquets for the dead.

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We passed some goats grazing near the path & came to the small bridge over the Wadi Musa stream.  A dam has been built here in modern times to deflect the water during the wet season, which otherwise would flood the canyon that contains the path into Petra from here.  A tunnel on one side of the road was used by the Nabateans to divert this flow.

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The last mile or so into Petra is along a path through a very narrow & beautiful canyon called the Siq.  This narrow split in the rock was probably first opened up by an earthquake & its tall wavy walls of various colors were developed slowly by wind, sandstorms & flash floods.

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There has been a lot said about the colors of Petra.  A famous 1845 poem, written by a man who had never been there, called it “a rose-red city half as old as time.”  Agatha Christie described it as “blood-red” & had one of her characters say it is “very much the color of raw beef.”  In actuality, as you can see from these pictures, the rocks are mostly beige or reddish brown (although some say at dusk it has a rosier hue), but on closer inspection there is great variety in the color.  The variety is probably more beautiful than a flat red color would be.  Some of the pictures below were taken in the Siq & some inside a restroom built inside a cave in Petra.  Our guide announced a rest stop there & told those of us who declined that we really should stop in there to see the rocks, if nothing else.  He was right.

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The Siq has a number of stone carvings & shapes.  It has a very long but narrow aqueduct running along one wall, which presumably brought water from Wadi Musa into the city.

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At the end of the Siq the first thing in Petra to come into view is the most famous, the so-called Treasury.  Carved out of the solid rock wall, with no freestanding components (other than one pillar that replaced one that collapsed in antiquity), this is the building where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail.  The sudden appearance of this sophisticated carved building between the natural wavy walls of the Siq is quite dramatic.

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This building was probably a place of worship, built in the 1st century BC.  It is called the Treasury because of a rumor that the urn carved into the top façade was full of money.  You can still see the bullet marks where early visitors tried to release the money by shooting at the urn, which is actually solid rock.  You can’t approach the Treasury today beyond the foot of the stairs, but there are a few rooms inside (although they are bare with none of the stuff Indiana Jones encountered there).  The parallel lines up the sides of the building may have been footholds for the workers carving the rock.  The Treasury from some angles actually has a reddish hue.

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Recent excavations in front of the Treasury have disclosed two tombs built on a lower level. Presumably that was the original level of the ground here & the Treasury was built above these tombs. The area in front of the Treasury is the scene of a lot of hustle & bustle since it’s the entrance to the city, including souvenir stands & camel rides.  There were a lot more people than normal on the day we visited, a large proportion young girls on school trips from Amman who were here on some kind of special school day.  They seemed to be particularly interested in having their pictures taken with Western women for some reason.

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From the Treasury we continued walking downhill into what was the city.  We passed several structures carved into the walls, and also some mounted police and an old man playing a string instrument.  We also ran into some of our tablemates down here, who had come on a HAL excursion.

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At the end of this road, where it angles to the right, is the theater, built in the 1st century AD before the Romans took over.  The entire edifice, other than the pillars behind the stage & the ends of the rows of seats, is carved out of solid rock.  The openings above are all that remains of some buildings that were superseded by the theater.  Originally there was a high wall behind the stage that would have cut off the view of the interior from the outside. Notice how the colors can vary, depending on your perspective & the amount of sunlight.

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After the theater we came to what is called the Royal Tombs, a row of the biggest and most elaborate tombs in Petra high on the face of the East Cliff.  There is a modern stairway up to this level.  Rick climbed up for a few photos, while Mary stopped halfway up because she wasn’t feeling well.  In this area there were souvenir stands, some selling “ancient coins” that our guide said were about a week old.

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Among the tombs along this wall from Rick’s perspective (they continue around the cliff out of sight), three stood out.  From left to right are the Corinthian Tomb, with a design similar to the Treasury but in far worse condition, the Silk Tomb, notable mainly for its multiple layers of bright colors, and the Urn Tomb.  The Urn Tomb is in excellent condition, with several rows of arches below its façade supporting a large forecourt. It appears that its good condition stems from its conversion into a church (or perhaps even a cathedral) in the 5th century.  The Urn Tomb & the Corinthian Tomb are thought to have been built for Nabatean kings.

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From this height one could see a number of caves that have been eroded by wind & water into wavy multicolored natural sculptures.  You could also see further into the valley, which was once full of houses in a teeming city of some 30,000, all of which were destroyed by earthquakes.  Some archaeologists think they are all still buried there & that what has so far been uncovered here is only the bare beginning.

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Sadly, we had no more time to explore further.  It really takes 2 or 3 days to fully explore Petra, particularly its high places.  Even if more time had been available we probably couldn’t have done much more, since there was still a 2 mile uphill climb to leave Petra & we were already pretty worn down.  So we turned around and trudged back up through all the wonders we had already visited.  Afterwards we had lunch in a restaurant in Wadi Musa.  And even in the desert there are flowers.  Summing up, Petra was one of the real highlights of the entire voyage; in fact at the end of the trip the passengers voted it the top sight (& site) of the entire trip.

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     By now it was mid-afternoon and after the experience and challenges of seeing Petra one might think that would be enough for one day.  But no!  We climbed on the bus for the long drive to Wadi Rum, a mountainous desert area that rivals Petra for spectacular beauty.

You have probably seen Wadi Rum without knowing it, for many of the beautiful desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here, where Lawrence spent quite a lot of time.  This is where (in the movie) Lawrence meets the Howeitat tribe’s difficult leader played by Anthony Quinn & this is where the Arab force sets out to cross the desert to capture Aqaba.  (We traveled from here to Aqaba on a highway in about 1.5 hours & I have read that people often hike it, without the camels Lawrence’s forces rode, in four days, which sounds quite different from the epic & lethal desert crossing depicted in the movie.)

We only had a couple of hours here, driving in a caravan of 3 4X4 trucks, so we saw very little of it, but what we saw was more than worth the trip.  After boarding our 4X4 we drove into the desert past some mountains shining in the late afternoon sun.  One is called “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” although it only seems to have five pillars.  This is also the name of T.E. Lawrence’s memoir of the Arab Revolt & the locals will tell you the book was named after the mountain, but in fact it is the other way around.

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Our first stop was at a place called “Lawrence’s Spring.”  There is supposed to be a spring on the mountainside where T.E. Lawrence wrote that he often brought his camel to drink.  Be that as it may, we didn’t go up the mountain, but there is a water trough here that is fed by a long pipe disappearing up the mountainside.  There is a Bedouin tent and nearby are some ancient inscriptions on rocks, some of which may be Nabatean & some Aramaic (if we understood correctly).

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Our next stop was the most fun.  It was a tall hill of red sand up against the side of a rock cliff.  The sand here is very red because it is rich in iron ore.  Some of us climbed the sand hill (not easy, small steps are better) from which there were wonderful views in all directions.

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We drove to another mountain (perhaps Jebel Khazali) which had on outcropping that looked like a face, we don’t know if it is natural or not but it looks sculpted.  This mountain is split by a narrow canyon on the wall of which are ancient Thalmudic petroglyphs, made by a tribe related to the Nabateans.  We had to negotiate a narrow ledge well into the canyon to see all this.

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We stopped for some supersweet tea in a Bedouin tent (where souvenirs were also available), then we drove to a spot to watch the sunset.  In a ravine nearby was a Bedouin encampment with a solar panel to provide electricity.  We saw a number of Bedouin encampments in Wadi Rum & we were told that they are no longer nomadic because they want their children to get an education in the local schools.

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We returned to the Amsterdam too late for dinner, so we ate in our room.  We later discovered that while we were away most of the razor wire was removed from the ship, the water & acoustic cannons were taken down & the supplemental security team disembarked.  Having made it through the danger zone unscathed, we set sail around midnight around the Sinai Peninsula toward the Suez Canal.

Salalah, Oman

     On April 1 we were in Salalah, the largest city (175,000+) in the southern part of Oman, not far from the border with Yemen (I know it was April Fools Day, but this really happened).  Salalah is the capital of Dhofar province, which is separated from Muscat by the huge desert called the Empty Quarter.  In ancient times this area thrived as the source of frankincense, which was shipped from here to Africa, Europe & Asia.  Most of the frankincense today comes from Somalia & Yemen, but Omani frankincense is considered the highest quality.  This was also a major source for Arabian horses in the 19th century. The Omani court was located in Salalah under the last Sultan, who rarely left his palace here.  But when Sultan Qaboos overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1970 the court was moved back to Muscat.

     In Muscat we were told that the people there (and really all over the Arabian peninsula) consider Salalah a “paradise” because of its substantial rainfall & moderate temperatures.  In July & August, when the temperatures in Muscat & Dubai hover well above 100 degrees, the annual Khareef (monsoon) keeps things fairly cool here.  As a result, tourists from the north stream to Salalah during that time of year for a beach holiday.

     The port is a long way from Salalah, there is nothing of interest near it and a taxi to town is quite expensive. So we signed up for a HAL tour of the area.  We drove into the city to visit the Sultan’s palace, where the coup was staged in 1970. But there is a high wall around the palace so you can’t see very much.  The area is nice though, with palm trees & lots of green.

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     In back of the palace is the Al Husn Souk.  It was Friday, the Muslim sabbath, so more than half of the shops in the souk were closed.  But most of them sold mainly the same goods so that wasn’t really a problem.  The souk is atmospheric so it was interesting to walk around even if you weren’t interested in buying anything.

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     We next stopped at a row of fruit stands in front of a plantation.  Salalah’s ample rainfall makes it possible to grow coconuts, bananas & a variety of vegetables here.  There are a number of plantations growing this kind of produce, with extensive irrigation.  Notable at the fruit stands were the tiny & flavorful Lady Finger bananas, coconuts & okra.

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     We drove through town & up into the mountains.  The town has a lot of buildings with pointed or round topped windows, giving it a character often lacking in cities with a lot of modern square buildings.  As mentioned last time, we were told that Oman has a policy requiring some traditional Arabic features in new buildings, so they aren’t just concrete boxes.  Here are a few examples, taken from the bus window.

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     In the mountains we visited the supposed tomb of Job, the character from the Bible who never lost his faith even though God deprived him of everything & everyone he loved.  In front is what is supposed to be Job’s footprint (it’s big, so he must have been a huge guy).  On the grounds was a great variety of colorful flowers.  This is a Muslim holy place, so there was a mosque.

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     We saw a great many camels in this area, mostly wandering by themselves or in small groups.  Our guide told us that all of these camels are owned by someone, but they let them roam free because camels form a strong attachment to their homes & will always return on their own.  He said that in the past there have been camels stolen by Yemenis and Saudis, but their owners didn’t worry & a year or two later they showed up back home.  Camels were in the mountains, some wandering up to folks at Job’s tomb, & they were in the valley as well.  Our bus was held up a couple of times by camels very slowly crossing, or walking along, the road.  One group of camels being led by their owner had to move out of the center of the road to let the bus pass & the owner was none too happy about it.

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     We came down from the mountains and drove along the plain past Salalah.  We passed several villages in the desert.

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     We finally reached the hilly area where Boswellia trees, which produce frankincense, grow wild.  These trees are short & gnarled, but very tough, & have a peeling bark.  It appeared that the trees were just beginning to grow leaves when we were there (makes sense, since it was April). These trees begin producing the frankincense sap when they are about 10 years old & can be tapped (by making a small incision) several times a year.  Just about all frankincense is taken from wild trees because they are very difficult to cultivate.  Frankincense smoke is aromatic (if you like that sort of thing) & supposedly repels mosquitos. The sap can also be eaten, which reputedly gives a very clean feeling in the mouth.  Research is being conducted to use it as a medicine for several diseases, including cancer.

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     Our last stop was at Al-Mughsail Beach.  The beach is beautiful but was pretty deserted the day we visited.  Next to it, though, is Marneef Cave, which was well attended.  It is more a rock formation on the side off a hill than a cave, but it is quite nice.  A little down from the cave are some blowholes.  During the summer when the tides are heavy water shoots up through these holes for about 20 yards.  At least that is what our guide said; all we saw was a little mist coming from the holes. Oh, well.

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     After leaving Salalah Amsterdam headed southwest, to round the southern point of the Arabian Peninsula & head into the Red Sea.  Through this period we had Yemen on our starboard side; this is also one of the areas where pirates are most active.  We found out later that a second security team was on board all the way to Aqaba (the deck lights were turned off so they could watch the seas at night) but fortunately there were no incidents.  Last year this part of the trip came just after the war in Yemen began & we were told that Yemeni planes were often overhead, but there was nothing like that this year.  We entered the Red Sea through the very narrow Strait of Tears, at which point you can see Yemen on the starboard side & a couple of islands belonging to Djibouti on the port side.  We also passed some fishing boats in this area.


     The day after leaving Salalah we attended the Lebanese dinner in the Pinnacle Grill.  It was really good & was accompanied by a couple of performances by the belly dancer on board.


Muscat, Oman

     March 30 found us in Muscat, the capital of Oman. It was occupied by the Portuguese from about 1508 to 1650, when their ouster was completed by the capture of Muscat.  Oman was something of a naval power in the the 18th & 19th centuries, its control extending as far as Zanzibar on the southeast African coast, and Muscat became its capital in 1793.  But Oman became a backwater by the mid-20th century, when it was under the control of Sultan Said, who never left Salalah & wouldn’t spend his substantial oil wealth to improve the country.  In 1970 his son, now Sultan Qaboos (pronounced like the last car of a train), staged a coup supported by a disgruntled populace.  Having received a modern education in Europe, he has spent lavishly to modernize the country & improve the well being of its people, & he seems to be more than popular among Omanis.  But this is still an absolute monarchy & is socially conservative.  Sultan Qaboos was in Germany when we visited, where he has gone several times in the last few years for treatment of apparently serious health issues.  He apparently has no children and has named no heir, so no one knows what will happen after he dies.

     Although we had intended to explore this port on foot Mary’s illness from Dubai dictated signing up for a bus tour, which turned out to be a pretty good one.  We left early in the morning for a fairly long drive along some busy thoroughfares through the more recently built areas of town to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, opened in 2001 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Sultan’s rule.  With a central dome & 5 minarets it is the third largest mosque in the world.  It can accommodate 20,000 worshippers in its two gender-segregated prayer rooms & adjacent courtyards.

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          The buildings & courtyards here are all made of brightly shining marble.  We walked through some of them to visit the women’s prayer room, which can hold 750 worshippers. In addition to the marble buildings and arches, a lot of very fine woodwork can be found at this mosque, especially in the doors & ceilings.  As in most mosques, shoes must be removed before entering & there were racks provided to hold them.  There is a strict dress code as well, particularly for women whose heads must be covered with a scarf and who must wear clothing reaching to neck, wrists & ankles.  You are scrutinized before entering & we saw a group of women who had folded their bare arms under large headscarves being turned away.

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     We walked through courtyards to the men’s prayer room under the dome, carrying our shoes to a new rack there.  Stepping inside this vast room is literally breathtaking.  At first the massive chandelier hanging from the domed roof in the center seems unreal (the pictures don’t capture this).  It is crystal and was made in Germany, the second largest in the world; just cleaning it (after it is lowered to floor level) is a massive undertaking.

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     Measuring some 70 yards by 60 yards, the carpet in this room is the 2d largest hand-loomed Persian carpet in the world (after the mosque in Abu Dhabi).  It took 600 women four years to complete it.

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     Our guide showed us around the room & explained its contents at length.  When asked why the men’s room is so much bigger than the women’s he said that many fewer women come to the mosque, and less often, because it is not a religious obligation for them as it is for the men.  He showed us where the Imam stands & gave us a short lesson on the Koran.  The mosque was full of interesting artistic details.

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     Outside in the courtyard we retrieved our shoes & walked to another courtyard where dates & coffee had been prepared for us.  We were also given booklets promoting Islam.  One area had a series of colorful tile work niches that were inspired by the 15th century architecture of Samarkand in the time of Tamerlane.

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     As we drove back to the old part of the city we passed government buildings & modern neighborhoods.  These were basically commercial & residential neighborhoods of little intrinsic interest, but apparently there is a policy in Oman requiring all new buildings to have some traditional Arabic features, such as pointed windows or crenelated or domed roofs, and there is a rather low height limit.  This keeps the city from becoming characterless, as have parts of some of the cities we have visited.  In this spirit, even our bus had traditional looking drapery along the tops of its windows.

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     We passed through the city gate to Muttrah, the old port area of town near where Amsterdam was docked.  Here we visited the Muttrah Souk, a labyrinth of shops under a wooden roof.  Unfortunately we only had about half an hour here, but it was a fun half hour.

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     After the souk we visited the Bait al Zubair museum.  This was the home of a prominent family, built about 100 years ago.  They still own & operate the museum.  There were interesting displays of traditional clothing, jewelry & weaponry, representing something of a social history of the region.  Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside, but outside in the courtyard was a colorful collection of variously painted statues of goats or sheep.  It looked like the public art sometimes seen in American cities, in which each of a series of identical statues of animals is decorated by a different local artist – in Washington, DC, we had donkeys & elephants & in Nags Head, North Carolina they had flying horses.  On the front of the building was an enormous poster of Sultan Qaboos, whose face can be seen a lot in Oman.

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     Next we visited Al Alam Palace, the Sultan’s offices & formal reception place.  He does not live here.  It was built in 1972 & looks like it.  It is right on the waterfront between two forts built by the Portuguese in the 1580’s, Al Jalali & Al Mirani.  You can see the large flagpole atop the central building is empty; we were told that this flag only flies when the Sultan is in Oman & this day he was in Germany.

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     Notable was the palace’s amazing flower garden, full of all manner of very bright flowers.

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     On a large hill near the palace is a section of the original city wall & three Portuguese watch towers.  A lot of these small, often round structures can be seen in the old part of Muscat around the port area.

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     The sail away party had an Arabian theme, with colorful divan pillows, water pipes & a belly dancer (who stayed on the ship until Aqaba, giving lessons in Arabic & belly dancing).  We were told that some of the passengers made off with divan pillows, big water pipes and perhaps even rugs.  These were not party favors, but the real thing that the ship stores for occasions like this.  It never ceases to amaze what some people feel entitled to do.  This is especially dumb, if it really happened, because there are security cameras all over the ship, so they undoubtedly know who the culprits are.

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     We went out on the aft deck for the sailaway.  From the ship you could see a watchtower shaped like a giant incense burner, the Muscat Fort (really a couple of watchtowers on the waterfront), and the sun setting over the mountains behind the port.  I forgot to show you the Sultan’s yacht, looking like a cruise ship, so I will include that here even thought it wasn’t taken from the ship.

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     As we sailed away we had a very nice view of the Corniche, a curved waterfront row of houses & shops (including the Souk) across from the harbor.  Anchored near our ship were three Iranian military ships.  Further out in the bay we passed the palace, with its forts on either side, looking quite different from the water.  We saw some dhows (wooden boats of the type that used to do all the shipping in this part of the world) & mountains.  And then we were once more at sea.

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates

     On March 27 we arrived for an overnight stay in Dubai.  This was a sleepy fishing village as recently as the 1970’s, with no paved roads & camels in the streets.  But then came oil (discovered in 1966) & an ambitious, over-the-top construction program started around 2000.  Today this is a glitzy city of impossibly tall buildings selling luxury at premium prices.  As someone mentioned, Dubai is pronounced like “Do buy,” & that’s just what they want you to do.

     Dubai is the largest of the United Arab Emirates, which was formed in 1971, although it is not the capital (which is Abu Dhabi).  And it seems to be trying to garner the world record for everything, from largest shopping mall to tallest building.  We were told that the construction program is still only about 30 % complete.  Most of the people here are from elsewhere, but the 20 % or so that are native Dubaians want for nothing.  The ruling Sheikh provides them with housing, health care, education & even money.  Foreigners recently obtained the right to buy land here, but we were told that once a foreigner reaches age 65 he or she has to leave.  No one not born a Dubaian can achieve citizenship. Pretty harsh.

     When we arrived the air was quite hazy because, we were told, of a sand storm somewhere in the desert.  There is no way to walk out of the security minded port (whose gate is more than a mile from the dock), so we took the shuttle provided by HAL to the Dubai Mall . . . yes, the largest shopping mall on the planet.  It has more than 1200 stores within its 12 million square feet of space & 120 cafes & restaurants.  Much of it is quite opulent.

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     This mall not only has stores, it has an ice skating rink, a waterfall & a huge aquarium with 33,000 fish.  You can walk through a glass tunnel under the aquarium or ride a glass bottom boat across the top.

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     One atrium contained a huge dinosaur skeleton bathed in blue light.  It is a Diplodocus Longus, discovered in Wyoming in 2008, undoubtedly one of the largest in the world (are you getting the theme here?).

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     Although western dress dominated we saw quite a few people in more traditional Arab attire, an interesting contrast to all the modern opulence.  In the back of the mall was a bridge leading to a smaller mall called Souk Al Bahar.  It had a more traditional ambience.  We bought a couple of ordinary toothbrushes there for the nighttime shown out below which cost $10.  There was a whimsical portrait of a camel in an art dealer’s shop in the Souk.

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     The bridge between these malls goes over a small man-made lake.  This is the site of the Dubai Fountain, the world’s biggest (yes) dancing fountain.  At night it has shows, with sound & light, during which the water jets “dance” to the music.  We are told that it works periodically in the daytime, without the sound & light, but we didn’t see that. 

     On the other side of the fountain is the Burj Khalifa, the (you guessed it) tallest building in the world.  Well over 800 yards tall (more than 300 yards taller than the next highest building in the world), Burj Khalifa has 160 floors. Opened in 2010, this was supposed to be called the Burj Dubai, but during the economic downturn the UAE gave them a $15 billion bailout to enable its completion so they changed the name to honor the president of the UAE. This makes the naming rights for American sports stadiums seem very cheap!  This building certainly is very tall, but we didn’t think it was very attractive.

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     We were signed up for an overnight excursion into the desert so we decided to take the shuttle bus back to the ship & get ready for that.  But there was no shuttle bus there & none came over the next half hour.  Finally we managed to get seats on a smaller shuttle being run for crew members, which was packed not only with crew but with other passengers waiting for a ride back to the port.  When we got back one of the regular shuttle buses was just sitting there with no one on board, the driver relaxing with nothing to do; we don’t know where the other shuttle buses might have been.  Pretty irritating!

    At about 4:00 we left on our small (12 people) excursion to the desert.  We rode in three Toyota Land Cruisers for about an hour, passing the new Universal Studios being built here (only the gate was finished) & the camel racing stadium.  This is a big sport in these parts. We were told that a good racing camel can cost more than $1 million & that the ruling Sheikh had lost $10,000,000 on the races the day before.  We stopped at a camel farm for a close & personal introduction to camels.  Most of the camels here are for milking, not racing, and there were a number of babies who were still nursing.  We were told that there are no undomesticated camels left in the Middle East at all.  You see a lot of unattended camels wandering around, but all of them are owned & most are branded.

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     Our driver/guide Mervyn drove us to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Mervyn (like almost everyone you meet here) is not a native of Dubai, but first came here as a child in the 1970’s from his native Sri Lanka. His father was in the British military (from where we presume the “Mervyn” came) & came here to help direct a new school.  He vividly recalls that era when there were no cars or large buildings in Dubai, just sand and people living a Bedouin lifestyle.  The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve was created in the early 2000’s & encompasses 225 kilometers, about 5% of all the land in Dubai.  While there we saw some of their projects to enhance the desert environment for wildlife.  Only a limited number of people can visit the reserve each day & only approved guides can lead parties in the reserve.

     The reserve is a very beautiful ocean of sand, right out of Lawrence of Arabia. There are sand dunes aplenty, with ripples created by repeated gusts of windblown sand.

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     After we got a little way into the Reserve the real fun began.  The drivers went up & over & down the dunes at speed, exciting if you have a strong stomach (one woman in another of our cars came close to losing it).  It appears that there is a track for the cars to do this, since they all took the same route, including a lot more that came after us.  But the route is marked only by the faint tire tracks in the sand, so the drivers must be required to know the route.  We were told that the vehicle of choice is a Toyota because most cars are not built to withstand the desert environment.

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     All three of our cars stopped for pictures on top of a dune.

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     Interestingly, the sand is not all one color.  Most is the usual buff color, but some is red (from iron ore) & some is black (from volcanic rock).

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     A little while later we approached a ridge on which were some men with about a half dozen camels lying in the sand.  We were to ride these camels a short distance into our campsite. The camels wore knitted face masks to ensure they wouldn’t bite. They had double saddles on their backs, each with a sturdy metal bar for riders to hold onto & well cushioned to protect the camel.

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      So with the assistance of the handlers, who held the camels down on the ground for us, we climbed on board our camel. It was like climbing onto a bicycle except that the camel’s hump was higher & getting your foot over the top was much harder.  Once we were aboard they told us to hold on tight to the metal bars & the camel stood up, back end first.  It felt like sitting on a catapult & being launched forward suddenly with a lot of force.  But we held on & set out on our caravan to the camp site.  Rick was sitting in back, & the camel behind us kept trying to put his or her head into his lap!

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     At the camp the handlers got the camels to lie down, one at a time, and then helped us dismount.  But one camel decided to lie down on its own out of turn.  There was no handler there yet, but the rider apparently decided it was time for her to dismount anyway.  She fell backward while pulling her leg over the camel’s hump & fell on her tailbone.  She was in enough pain (she could hardly walk) that they took her to a hospital right away & Tom, our Cruise Specialists host, went with her.  We didn’t see or hear from them again for the remainder of the excursion, so now our group was down to 10. In the group picture earlier, she is the second from the right. (We have since seen this woman back on the ship, so she is OK, although still in a lot of pain.)

     Our campsite had 8 tents on wooden platforms with lanterns & chairs outside & a double bed inside.  There was a large dining tent where you would sit on a pillow on the ground to eat & a sitting area with couches also made of pillows on the ground.  Huge hookahs were at the sitting area along with a fire pit.  We ate a wonderful dinner prepared on site, including marinated lamb chops, fish, skewered chicken, marinated prawns, pita bread, hummus, and sweet cakes for dessert.  There was to be some additional time in the sitting area after dinner including smoking the water pipes, but we were bushed & had no interest in smoking so we went to bed.  Unfortunately, in the middle of the night Mary woke up with chills & a fever, apparently having contracted some exotic desert disease.  Over the next few days it repeatedly got better & then worse, and this continued for several weeks.

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     In the morning we were awakened by an amazing racket put out by the birds (& maybe animals) in our little grove of trees just before the sun rose.  Rick got up & took some pictures of the sunrise & of some of the noisy culprits.  In the distance just at sunrise we could see a mountain range, which disappeared again once the sun was fully up.  Mervyn told us that these mountains were in Oman.

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     As the guides made us breakfast Rick took some more pictures of the camp site, less romantic but much easier to see in the daylight.

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     After breakfast we reboarded the Toyotas & headed out into a different part of the desert, golden in the morning light.

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     We were able to see several of the wildlife species in the reserve, the Arabic Gazelle & the Arabic Oryx.  These are native animals that are being carefully cultivated by the Reserve, which provides them with water & irrigates plants for their food & has even set up a salt lick.  The Oryx is an interesting story.  Native to this area, they had died out before the Reserve was established.  So Dubai purchased 70 of them from institutions in the United States to repopulate the reserve & today there are some 300 of them living here.

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     Mervyn explained quite a lot about the desert ecology before we left the Reserve to return to Dubai.  For example, he said that the bushes you see clumped here & there can take up to 100 years to grow to full size.  For flower lovers, the only thing we have from this arid port is an Acacia tree, which was sporting yellow flowers as well as seed pods.

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   We got back to the ship about 10:00 AM.  Our plan had been to spend the rest of this day at Dubai Creek, not too far from the dock, which is the old part of Dubai that dates back to its Bedouin period.  But Mary was sick & we were both tired so we stayed on the ship instead to recuperate.  Maybe next time.  But the trip to the desert alone made this a most memorable stop.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

    March 21 found us in Colombo, the capital & largest city in Sri Lanka with a population of some 3 million people.  This was an over night stop, so we would be here almost two full days.  Called Ceylon for many years when it was subject to Dutch & then British control, Sri Lanka recently ended a lengthy civil war with the rebel Tamils during which Colombo was subject to repeated attacks, most notably a car bomb in 1996 that killed almost 100 people & injured more some 1500.  As a result, the central administrative area adjacent to the harbor, called “Fort” after an old Portuguese fort that is long gone, was subject to strict security measures that made it very difficult to visit.  Some of that is still there, but a lot less than before apparently since we were able to walk around most of the area without hindrance.

     Since we were docked right in town we decided to tour the city ourselves on foot.  We had some maps & written guidance, but repeatedly lost our way in this large, complex & crowded city.  But really, much of the wandering around made the visit more interesting because we got a taste of the local streets off the beaten tourist path.  On our way out of the harbor area we were repeatedly accosted by “Tuk-tuk” drivers (very small taxis) seeking a fare.  They do not easily take “no” for an answer, following us in their vehicles & urging us to engage them for a tour of the city.  Twice we were stopped by men carrying what they claimed to be tourist bureau identification, who wanted to steer us to a good taxi. We found that people falsely claiming special status was not uncommon here, & a false id is quite easy to make.  We hoped that this would only happen around the port, as in most other towns with this problem, but it continued all day long, to the point where we stopped being polite about it.

     Anyway, we shook them all off & headed for our first landmark, the clock tower near the President’s House.  Originally built in 1857, a decade later a lighthouse beacon was added to the top & it served as the local lighthouse until the surrounding buildings grew tall enough to cut off the sea view of its light.  The grounds of the President’s House were blocked off by walls & guards, so we headed for the business district to the northeast.  We noted that there seem to be a number of small mosques in this area, & we passed the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, inside which is a statue of Buddha with a neon halo (the picture is blurry because it is in a dark room & we were outside on the street).  On one block of interesting old colonial era department stores we passed Cargill’s department store, apparently a venerable landmark in this city.

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     We walked on toward Pettah, an area with a huge & busy souk.  It is arranged in the traditional manner, with particular specialties gathered together on each street, so that most of the gold shops are together, most of the fabric shops are together, etc.  On the way there we passed another clock tower, smaller but apparently modeled on the one near the President’s House.  We also passed the Old Town Hall, built in 1873.  There are so many shops open to the street, some with interesting items we are sure but many with cheap goods or household items uninteresting to a visitor, that picking out something good would be difficult, particularly because the shop keeper would begin pushing his or her goods at you as soon as you showed any interest.  Some folks love to haggle in these places, but we have never seen the charm in trying to save a dollar or two that might mean quite a lot to many of these less wealthy folks.

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     We came to the Jami ul-Aftar Mosque, a glorious candy-striped building completed in 1909.  Many people think it is just gaudy, but we thought it had an interesting style.  It is quite big & could be seen from the ship.

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     We walked on through Pettah’s interesting but dirty & nerve wracking streets.  It was nerve wracking because you had to dodge vehicles & handcarts that weren’t interested in stopping or giving way & because sidewalks were unavailable, either because too crowded or piled with stuff.  We continued to be approached by tuk-tuk drivers and individuals on the street.  It was awkward because some of these people on the street may have been just trying to be friendly, but others were looking to make a few bucks, and it was impossible to distinguish between them since all seemed nice at first.  For example, we were approached by one fellow who claimed to be the pilot of our ship (not likely), and another who claimed he worked in Amsterdam’s engine room, yet asked us where we had arrived from and where we were going next. So the only thing we could do was greet everyone politely then disengage as soon as possible.

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     We managed to find the Dutch Reformed Wolvendaal Church just when we were about to give up looking for it.  Built in 1749, when the Dutch still ruled Ceylon, it has a rather simple interior & its exterior is in need of repair.  A number of old gravestones line one side of the building, dating back to the 17th century, before the current building was erected.

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     As we walked back down the hill toward downtown we noticed that women dressed in saris were common, though not dominant, in Pettah, whose population is largely Tamil.  That was not true elsewhere in town.

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     Our plan had been to explore Fort & Pettah on the first day, then the near southern districts on the second day.  But we got back to Fort around mid day, so we decided to continue on south.  We walked past an old pillared building with military guards that we found out later is the old Parliament Building and now the President’s Secretariat.  Just beyond it is a canal (the Dutch built a number of them here) that leads to an interior lake.  We didn’t walk up the canal, but we did see some nice birds bathing & swimming there, including egrets & what looked a little like crows, along with what we think were endangered spot-billed pelicans that live here.

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     We walked down the long Galle Face Green, a large park along the water’s edge created in the 1850’s.  This area is more lively at night when lots of folks come out for picnics & promenading, but it was pretty nice to watch the surf in the insufferably hot & humid weather.  There is a pier that attracted a lot of visitors, including several women in saris with classes of children dressed in white, and a few food vendors along the road.

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     We stopped for lunch at the Galle Face Hotel that forms the southern end of the park.  Dating from the mid-18th century, the hotel has hosted many notables, from Mark Twain to Harrison Ford, whose pictures are on display in the bar area where we ate.  We ran into some friends who were on a HAL tour that lunched in a courtyard here on an extensive buffet of curry & other local cuisine, but we just had a sandwich & a beer . . . in a delightfully air conditioned room.

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     After lunch we decided to walk to Barefoot, a store that had been highly recommended.  We knew it was a ways further south, but we didn’t know how really far it was.  We passed the US Embassy & the Prime Minister’s residence, surrounded by a wall with soldiers in watchtowers above it.  But most of this very long walk was through uninteresting commercial & financial areas.  Fortunately, Barefoot turned out to be a really interesting store, so we didn’t feel this long walk had been wasted.    This is Sri Lanka, so there were plenty of nice flowers around the city.

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     On the way back we stopped at a McDonald’s for water (it advertised curry specialties), but mostly we just wanted to get back to the ship & off our feet. As we passed Galle Face Green there were a lot more people there than before & there were families enjoying the beach at the end of the park, which also had more pelicans.

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      We walked back to the dock.  Shortly before entering the harbor, the last tuk-tuk of the day pulled up and offered to take us to the ship for $1 (this is the price they always quote, but others have told us that it went up after they were in the vehicle).  It was only about 500 feet, so it wasn’t even worth that much.  We walked past a lighthouse that doesn’t seem to work any more, which we think must be the one built by the water after taller buildings blocked the clock tower light.  And we entered the port by walking under a huge stupa sitting on legs about 10 stories high, where the port controller’s office is located. 

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     It turned out we had walked 13 miles on our first day in Colombo, easily a new record for us.  We woke up the next day, March 22, still tired & sore all over, so we decided to stay on the ship.  After all, we had seen most of what we had planned for two days on the first day.  There was a row of tourist oriented shops on the pier across from the ship & we spent some time looking there, but found nothing we wanted beyond a tee shirt.  Interestingly, although these shops had been open & available for the entire two days, when the all aboard time arrived (everybody knew when it would be), security officers had to go out to these shops to corral passengers who couldn’t tear themselves away.  The antics of the passengers on these cruises are always entertaining, if baffling.

     After Colombo we will be sailing north toward the Middle East and into pirate infested waters, including the Straits of Hormuz & the Persian Gulf, then around the Arabian Peninsula into the Red Sea & up to the Suez canal.  In Colombo preparations for this began as crew members strung razor wire along the edge of the open walking deck, deck 3, which is where anyone would try to board this ship & also where our cabin is located.  Just outside our window they also installed one of several water cannons, fire hoses attached to nozzles over the edge of the ship that can be turned on anyone trying to climb aboard.  On deck 6 they also have sound cannons capable of breaking the eardrums of anyone in the water near our ship.  The captain explained that we would be under constant surveillance during this passage, from the ship’s radar & security guards posted on the outside deck (with deck lights off at night), and from AWACS planes flying above & satellite coverage.  In reality, there probably isn’t much real danger to us because Amsterdam can do 25 knots, easily enough to outrun any pirate boats, and a cruise ship with 1500 people on board is not a likely target for pirates, who want cargo to ransom.  But its good to know that all these precautions are being taken.

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     So in late afternoon we sailed away from Colombo, headed up the western coast of India toward the Arabian Peninsula.

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Hambantota, Sri Lanka

     On March 20 we arrived at Hambantota’s spanking new cruise port.  This was Amsterdam’s maiden visit & only the 2d by any HAL ship, Rotterdam having visited here a couple of weeks earlier.  We were told that the local tourist board had a special meeting the day before our arrival to prepare.  We were met on the dock by dancers & musicians, as we had in a number of ports.  As our bus left the port we passed a large crowd of taxi drivers waiting to recruit passengers leaving on their own.  We were glad we were already engaged.

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     Hambantota is a small town (about 12,000) that is likely to get a lot bigger soon.  Originally settled by Malay fishermen, Hambantota has the largest percentage of Muslims of any town in Sri Lanka. Its name is a corruption of “Sampan-thota,” which means port for sampan boats. It was all but destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, which killed a large portion of the townspeople in just a few minutes.  It has been rebuilt near the original spot and the Sri Lanka government (headed by a Hambantotan) now plans to make it the second largest city in Sri Lanka.  They have already mostly finished a new port that is one of the deepest in the world, which is where we docked, and are building an international airport as well.

     We really didn’t get to see much of Hambantota (which we understand has little to see) because we were on an excursion to Mulkirigala, a fascinating series of ancient temples built into caves in a mountain.  On the long bus ride to the site, we were able to see some pretty countryside & some village scenes as well.

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     Most people seemed to be dressed in western garb but there were many men wearing sarongs & women in sari’s.

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     Mulkirigala is a huge rock outcrop more than 600 feet high.  There are seven Buddhist temples built into caves on four levels.  There are 533 very steep steps to reach the top (getting steeper & more difficult the higher you go).  The temples date back to 300 BC & were completely restored in the 18th century.  (Note that the caves were pretty dark & no flash was allowed, so a lot of these pictures are blurrier than we would have liked)

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     On the first terrace were two temples, each of which had a 45 foot long reclining Buddha (unfortunately difficult to photograph because behind glass). There were also many colorful paintings on the walls & ceilings showing Buddhist & Hindu gods & stories.  As usual, you were required to remove your shoes before entering each of the temples.  Also on this level we encountered a number of monkeys, with what looked like Beatles haircuts & dark ears that looked like they had been pasted onto their fur.

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     We walked up the stairs to the second terrace, where there is a stupa as well as a temple.  Inside was a reclining Buddha, thankfully not behind glass this time, with some attendants.  Reclining Buddhas, as we understand it, represent Buddha on his deathbed.  If his feet are together he is still alive, if apart he is dead. More interesting paintings were on the walls.

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     The third level has four temples, although it is not clear at this point which of our pictures applies to which temple.  Anyway, two of them have reclining Buddhas (one of them is the only dead Buddha on the site).  One of them has a separate vestibule, paved with Dutch floor tiles and its walls covered with dramatic sculptures.

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     The climb to the fourth level was really unreasonable, with steps cut out of almost a cliff wall.  But we made it up there (and down, which may have been harder, since you had to do it ladder-style).  No temples up here on the very top of the mountain, but there was a stupa & a small building called a dagoba, where another monk was selling blessings.  Behind the top you could scramble down (no steps) a hillside to stand on the top of the rock & look out over the countryside for quite a ways, so Rick did that.

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     So then we climbed down, which sounds pretty simple but actually wasn’t.  You might wonder what we could have been thinking going up those last flights of steps, but everyone got down OK.

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     Perhaps this is a good place to show a sample of the flowers on display at this site.

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     At the bottom are a number of shrines, one of which was attended by a couple of elderly men in sarongs.  We got back in our bus, but had to wait 20 or 30 minutes for the last passenger to show up.  We were beginning to wonder whether, if someone fell off the top, anyone would notice them.

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     Our final passenger finally showed up (we never heard what delayed her) & we drove back to the ship.  We passed more town & country scenes.  Sri Lanka has, since ancient times, been building earth & stone pools for water retention that they call “tanks,” which have served very extensive irrigation systems. Usually they build a small dam around a depression in the earth.  We saw a few of these on our trip back.  There was also a pond where egrets, ducks & other birds had gathered.

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    As in Cambodia, we thought the written language of Sri Lanka was quite beautiful.  Here are a few examples with English translations. Note that there are two official languages in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese & Tamil.

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     So our visit to Hambantota came to an end, but we would see more of Sri Lanka the next day.

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Phuket, Thailand

     On St Patrick’s Day, March 17, we arrived in Phuket, an island at the very bottom of Thailand.  I know this will be a disappointment for some, but the “Ph” in this name is not pronounced like an “F,” and the name does not rhyme with bucket.  The “h” is silent & it is pronounced “Poo’-ket,” which I guess is bad enough.  Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by Europeans, retaining its ruling monarchy, famous to westerners from The King And I (which is disliked here for its portrayal of their king as a strutting buffoon in need of tutelage from a young European woman). 

     Phuket is primarily a resort area today, known for its fine beaches.  A dozen years ago it was a victim of the devastating tsunami that killed thousands here. Our day here turned out to be sunny & hot.

     We are not beach people & there really isn’t much to do on your own here, so we signed up for an excursion to an elephant refuge.  In 1989 commercial logging was outlawed, which left a great many elephants (who moved the timber) & their handlers without a job.  Siam Safari was opened that year to help them out as a sanctuary & hospital for elephants.  In 1994 became the first company to offer elephant trekking in Phuket & it has received recognition for its care of the animals. Today there are between 6000 & 7000 elephants in Thailand, down from 100,000 in 1900.

     We set out in the morning for the bus ride to the elephant camp.  Near the end of the ride we spotted the 125 foot Big Buddha they have almost completed, sitting on top of a large hill.  It is, indeed, very big & very white.  We transferred to a smaller vehicle which took us up a mountain to the camp.

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     We had understood that this was just an elephant camp, but it turned out to have much more than that for visitors.  First we met a water buffalo, had a ride in a buffalo card (slow & not too exciting) & were shown a demonstration of how water buffalo are used to help plant rice.

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     We were shown how rice is husked & prepared for market.  They showed us how to prepare pineapple curry, which was really delicious (Rick had two bowls).  Then they showed us how rubber is produced, from tapping a rubber tree to rolling it out into sheets in what looked like the top of an old fashioned manual washing machine.  They come out in the middle of the night to tap the trees, wearing head lanterns with flames in them.  Each day one diagonal line is cut in the tree & a spout & cup are mounted to catch the sap.  Rubber trees originated in the Amazon region of Brazil & they prohibited the export of the trees, which gave Brazil a very lucrative monopoly on rubber.  But saplings were smuggled out to Britain, who replanted them in Asian colonies from which they spread to Thailand.  The guy who smuggled them was a wanted criminal in Brazil, but was knighted in Britain.

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     Next we were taken to meet a young elephant, who was mostly interested in being fed.  She kept moving, walking around her pen then coming back to the people who were there.  Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, have much smaller tusks & have two large bumps on top of their heads. All of the elephants at the camp when we visited were females, with no visible tusks.

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     We rode elephants through the jungle for half an hour.  Our elephant was named Boso.  You mount the elephant from a platform & sit on a bench mounted on the elephant’s back . . .  easier than stepping into a tender boat from the ship! A skilled handler sits on the elephant’s neck & controls the animal.  It seems that the handlers work with the same elephant all the time.  The had short sticks with a curved metal point to direct the animal, but this was used gently on top of the elephant’s head to indicate directions.  We never saw anyone hit any of the elephants.  We were told that we were a very light load for an elephant, who can carry really large weights.

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     We walked through the woods, swaying gently from side to side. A couple of times our handler asked us to move a little to balance the load.  It was easy to slide back & forth on the bench as the elephant walked, but there was (happily) a metal bar across our laps to keep us from falling out.  The handler kept his feet behind the elephant’s ears, which probably assists in directing it.  Occasionally an elephant would stop to get a bite to eat, or to scratch an itch on a rock, or other rather natural things.

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     We stopped at a scenic overlook of the seashore.  As we approached it we noted the head of the Big Buddha peeping over the trees on top of a nearby mountain.  The elephants rested & milled around for awhile at the overlook, while passengers snapped pictures of each other, before heading back.

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     So then we returned to the camp & dismounted onto the platform.  This was a really fun outing.

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     At the elephant camp we saw quite a bit of pretty flora, and some unusual fauna.  In particular was a very large yellow spider, scary but fortunately too far away to do any damage.  And there was a very tiny frog.  I didn’t see it when taking a picture of a water lily. It was only later when I cropped and enlarged the water lily picture that I noticed what looked like a worm on one leaf.  Enlarging it further, it turned out to be a tiny frog, probably only about an inch or so long.

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       We came down from the mountain & went to lunch at one of the best local restaurants located right by the water.  It was delicious Thai food (& lots of it), but not as delicious as that pineapple curry we had at the camp in the morning!

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     After lunch we visited Wat Chalong, the largest Buddhist temple in Phuket, which was built in 1837.  It is very colorful & elaborately decorated.

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     While we were walking to the temple there was suddenly loud explosions, sounding at first like gunfire.  It turns out that there is a tradition here of setting off firecrackers in a small building near the temple as thanks for a wish fulfilled.  It was startling (& very loud) at first, but it happened a number of times while we were there, so it must be pretty routine.

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     Down a short path from the temple is a much more recent building called the Chedi.  It is 3 stories, much larger than the temple, & houses in the top story what is reputedly a bone fragment from the Buddha himself.  It is in a reliquary & in a room behind glass, so you can’t really see it.  But the Chedi is quite beautiful, with the first floor filled with gold colored statues of Buddha & others.

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     We returned to the ship & sailed away from Thailand as the sun set, ending our sojourn in Southeast Asia & heading for Sri Lanka, with two sea days before us.

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