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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We came down from the mountains and drove along the plain past Salalah. We passed several villages in the desert.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Notable was the palace’s amazing flower garden, full of all manner of very bright flowers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All three of our cars stopped for pictures on top of a dune.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
After breakfast we reboarded the Toyotas & headed out into a different part of the desert, golden in the morning light.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So in late afternoon we sailed away from Colombo, headed up the western coast of India toward the Arabian Peninsula.
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.
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.
Most people seemed to be dressed in western garb but there were many men wearing sarongs & women in sari’s.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Perhaps this is a good place to show a sample of the flowers on display at this site.
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.
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.
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.
So our visit to Hambantota came to an end, but we would see more of Sri Lanka the next day.