Archive for August, 2018

Maputo, Mozambique (Kruger National Park, South Africa–Day 1)

     We docked in Maputo early in the morning on March 31.  Maputo is the capital and biggest city in Mozambique, with a population in excess of 1 million.  Until after independence was achieved in 1975 Maputo was called Lourenço Marques, after the first Portuguese visitor to this spot in 1544.  Mozambique is still struggling to rebuild its economy and infrastructure after a lengthy civil war that ended in 1992.

     We were signed up with our travel agency for a 4 day/3 night safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park so we had no opportunity to explore Maputo.  Our group met in the Ocean Bar for an expected early departure, but we didn’t leave until the local officials cleared the ship after 8:00.  We would be driving to the safari camp in what turned out to be an incredibly cramped little bus.  It had no room for luggage above or below the seats, which were themselves way too narrow.  So we had to keep our carry on luggage (a backpack with our electronics, primarily) on our laps the whole way.  This crowding, along with very small windows, made photographing from the moving bus difficult.  That’s why some of these pictures aren’t very sharp.

     We drove through Maputo, past the iconic 100 year old railway station and through some rather run down neighborhoods.  We don’t know whether there are better areas of Maputo than we passed through but what we saw looked pretty basic.

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     Outside Maputo we continued driving toward the border.  We passed markets, a mosque & many local folks.

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     We had to leave the bus twice at the South African border.  First we had to pass through Mozambique customs, then board the bus again for about 100 yards, then go through South African customs.  Near the customs buildings were some interesting flora and some buildings.  South African customs went very slowly at first because they were photographing each entrant & scanning their fingerprints, but the machines were not working properly.  This was frustrating because there was another line on the other side of the desk that was moving briskly with no photographs or fingerprints.  Finally, they dispensed with the photos & fingerprints on our side as well and we moved through customs much more quickly.

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     After clearing customs we drove to a parking lot where we were given box lunches.  We drove on a highway, which had an interesting sign at the entry gate.  We listened carefully, but never heard the “boom.”  We crossed the Crocodile River & entered Kruger National Park by the Crocodile Bridge Gate.  Then we drove to the main lodge of our safari camp.

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     On the way to the main lodge we got our first taste of wild animals.  Some wildebeest were lounging near a group of Impala.  A warthog was bathing (hopefully not dead; we didn’t see him move).  In a creek we crossed, a giraffe looked out at us from behind a tree and some rough looking birds were perched in a dead tree.  Note: We have a book about Kruger animals & will do our best to label them all in the pop-up captions, but this is not easy & they may not all be correct (if you don’t know how to access pop-up captions, see “About This Blog” button at the top),

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     Our lodge, Camp Shawu, is one of three that are run by a single company in an area a little north of the Crocodile Bridge Gate.  Our bus took us first to the main lodge, called Shishangeni, where many of the group would be staying.  It is in a wooded area & monkeys felt free to enter the lodge, although the kitchen & dining room workers used squirt guns to chase them away.  It was very nice, but beyond the monkeys there was little in the way of wildlife.  After the long ride on the cramped bus, it felt good to get out & stretch our legs here.

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     Originally, Robert, Mary & Rick were to be the only Amsterdam passengers at Camp Shawu.  The reservations for this safari, less than half the cost of HAL’s similar Kruger safari, filled up well before the deadline so we were too late to book it.  Then they obtained additional rooms at the other two camps run by this company.  Most of the overflow passengers ended up at Camp Shonga but we didn’t make that cut either.  We thought we had been shut out, but then our travel agent obtained two rooms at Camp Shawu & we grabbed them.  This turned out to be a great development for us because Camp Shawu was (at least in our opinion) the best of the three lodges.

      Apparently some other folks backed out of reservations at Camp Shawu because while we were at the lodge our group leader, Tom, announced that two more couples were to be assigned there.  The two couples, Terry & Marsha and Rob & Marlene, completed what turned out to be a very compatible group.  Occupying 4 of the 5 huts at Camp Shawu, the seven of us turned out to be the only guests there.  We all climbed into one of the game drive vehicles for the trip to Camp Shawu where the manager, Daniel, greeted us with refreshing drinks on the central lodge’s veranda.

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      Our drive to Camp Shawu was through the Park, so of course we encountered more animals.  In particular, our first zebras & another giraffe, with tiny crazed-looking Oxpecker birds riding onboard.  We also encountered two male lions hiding behind a bush.  We had actually gone by them when Mary called out “Lions!”, then our driver backed up so we could see them.  One of them never bothered to look in our direction but his brother watched us apprehensively the whole time we were there.  We were told that the animals see the vehicles as other animal, which they know are harmless from ample experience with them.  We were told not to stand up because that might destroy the illusion and lead to trouble.

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     Camp Shawu was named after an elephant who lived in this area for some 60 years and had the longest tusks ever measured in South Africa.  It included a central building with a lounge area, a dining area and a veranda, and 5 individual sleeping huts, four of which were occupied by visitors when we were there.  Raised wooden walkways connected all the buildings & an electrified fence surrounded the compound, so it was safe to walk between buildings even at night.  The small size & excellent and friendly staff were great, but what really made Shawu special was its location on the edge of a lake created by a downstream dam.

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     Game drives are scheduled in the morning, leaving before sunrise, and in late afternoon, returning after dark.  The late morning and early afternoon represent free time (at least when you aren’t eating, which occurs frequently).  Mostly we sat on the veranda of the main building watching the wildlife in and near the lake.  The primary occupants of the lake were hippos, which were there pretty much all the time.  They are nocturnal eaters, leaving the lake after dark to seek vegetation, and spend their days lolling around, sleeping or playing or fighting (its hard to tell what is playing and what is fighting).  The hippos were quite loud; they sound a little like Jabba the Hut.

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     During the day the lake shore was lined with many kinds of birds.  On our first afternoon we noticed White-faced Ducks, Egyptian Geese, Yellow-billed Storks, and a Spotted Thick-Knee wading in the water.

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     The lake also serves as a watering hole for a variety of animals.  On our first afternoon we spotted impala, rhinos and an African Fish-Eagle on the other side of the lake.

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     After yet another snack, in late afternoon we boarded the game drive vehicle and set out on our first actual game drive.  On some safaris I have read that each vehicle has a driver/guide and a tracker sitting at the front to spot game.  Our driver, Safiso, was also our guide & tracker.  He has extraordinary vision, time and again picking out animals and birds so hidden or distant that the rest of us had difficulty finding them even with binoculars.  Our game drive vehicles were open on the sides with a roof, providing plenty of visible space along with protection from sun and rain.  It seems that having a tracker sitting in front would often have cut into the view of the animals and landscapes we were there to see.  The seats are tiered so that everyone sits higher than the person in front of them, giving everyone a good view.  We rotated seats throughout the visit and, since there were only seven of us plus Safiso, everyone always had a window seat.

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     A case in point was Safiso’s spotting of some baboons with a herd of impala very far away early in our evening game drive.  They were so far away that none of us would have seen them at all without Safiso’s sharp eyes & experience.

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     We saw some unusual birds: a striking Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, a Swanson’s Spurfowl and a Lilac-breasted Roller (of which we would see many later).

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     We had a long & close look at some White Rhinos.  White birds called Cattle Egrets hang out with them & on their backs, eating insects.  You will notice the long white lines on the rhinos’ face and back, which result from the birds on their backs doing what birds often do after eating!  The rhinos don’t seem to mind (little fashion sense, I guess).

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     We encountered a herd of wildebeest and one of impala.  The impala are called “McDonald’s” by the folks in this area.  This is partly because they are very numerous & often make a delicious snack for the carnivores.  More specifically, though, when their tails are down their backsides look just like a McDonald’s golden arches sign!

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     As dusk turned everything darker, Safiso spotted buzzards in a distant tree & a Red-backed Shrike. Darkness and distance made the pictures pretty blurry though.

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     As the sun set each night we met the other safari vehicles carrying Amsterdam folks for a “sundowner,” which includes drinks & snacks. Always have to have something to eat!

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     As we drove back toward Shawu in the dark Safiso used a hand-held spotlight to search for game.  We didn’t see any game this time but we almost ran into a small owl standing in the middle of the road, possibly a Marsh Owl though it is hard to tell in the dark.  Another bird in the road may have been a Dusky Lark.  Above, the moon & clouds made for a dramatic sky.

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       When we returned to the camp it was time for . . . guess what?  Dinner!  We were read the menu, could choose from two entrees, then ate too much.  The food here was very good in addition to being plentiful.

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     After dinner we retired to our room/ hut.  From inside the hut the hippos sounded like they were right on our veranda.  We actually looked to be sure & they were nowhere near us.  Others had the same feeling in their rooms.  Despite the loud hippos we had no trouble getting to sleep since it had been a long and eventful day.  Good thing because our wake-up call was scheduled for 5:00 AM!


La Possession, Reunion Island (France)

     The morning of March 27 found us docked at La Possession, a commercial port on Reunion Island.  This was not on our original itinerary but when the Madagascar stop was cancelled because of an outbreak of plague(!) this island, about 300 miles to the east, was added.  Discovered in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, it has been French since the 1630’s.  It has a diverse ethnic mix, most of the non-Europeans having come as slaves or, after slavery was abolished in 1848, as indentured servants. Today it has a population of about 850,000 and is a department of France, with seven deputies & three Senators in the French legislature.

     We spent the day on an excursion that circled the entire island.  Reunion has several large volcanoes at its center, but there were fairly low clouds all day so we couldn’t see them.  We started out to the north toward Saint-Denis, the capital & largest city of Reunion.  The highway runs between the sea and large cliffs that are held up by wire mesh because in the rainy season they are unstable.  A new highway is being built on risers over the water, which will presumably protect it from mudslides and storm surges.  We did not stop in Saint-Denis, driving by it on the highway, so all we have is a few pictures from the bus window.

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     Our first stop was at an unusual church, Eglise de St Anne, which has a very elaborately decorated exterior.  We were told that it was built by Hindu craftsmen, from whom it got this decorative style.  The church also had a nice garden in front.

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     Reunion is a volcanic island and Piton de la Fournaise is still very active.  It last erupted in July, 2017.  We visited a large field of cooled lava from this volcano called Grand Brule.  It was not clear to us when this lava formed, but we think it was in 2007.  The lava goes all the way down to the ocean.  Unfortunately the low clouds prevented us from seeing up to the mountain itself.

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     In Saint-Philippe we visited the Garden of Perfume & Spices, a botanical garden containing some 1500 types of flora, many of which produce perfume products & spices as the name suggests. We started out at a hut with a veranda (and a gift shop), then proceeded with a guide provided by the garden.  He speaks only French so our overall tour guide translated for us.

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     So fasten your seatbelts; we saw a lot of unusual flowers & plants.

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     But we thought the most exotic flower was the one we were told was a called a Black Widow flower.  Google tells us, however, that it is a Black Bat Orchid.  Whatever its called (it looks more like a spider), it is quite spectacular.

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     We had lunch in a restaurant at Cap Mechant (naughty cape).  The restaurant was just OK, but out back were some lava cliffs being pounded by surf from large ocean swells.

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     We headed for home up the western side of the island, but first stopped at a large beach.  Swimming is not allowed here, or in many of the other beaches on this side of the island, because of a rash of shark attacks over the last decade or so.  But we weren’t planning to swim anyway & this beach was a nice area to relax, with large palm trees lining it.

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     Every year the CEO’s of Holland America & its parent, Carnival Corporation, come aboard the ship during the grand world voyage for about a week.  This year they boarded in Reunion Island & so there was a big sail away party by the Lido pool, complete with band & free flowing alcohol.  Of course the Lido pool is inside (with a roof that opens) so you couldn’t actually watch the sail away (and it was a beautiful evening), but not many passengers seemed to be sober enough to enjoy it anyway.  We would have to say, however, that the party was a success.

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     After the party & dinner in the main dining room (which had been largely empty at the early seating because of the party) we went to bed.  Next stop, the continent of Africa.

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Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles Islands

     On March 24 we docked at Victoria, on the beautiful island of Mahe, the largest of the 115 islands that make up the Seychelles.  About 90% of the Seychelles’ population of around 90,000 live on Mahe and Victoria is the nation’s capital.  It has a French & British background, gaining independence from the UK in 1976.  As we left the ship we were greeted by dancers and musicians on a small stage on the dock.

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    We had signed up for a private excursion to tour the island.  Our first stop was in the town of Victoria.  In the center of town is a small clock tower that is a copy of the “Little Ben” Vauxhall clock in London.

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     We walked over to the Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke Market, an open air market surrounded by walls that dates back to 1840.  An egret was perched near the entrance, perusing all who entered.

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     The first floor was mostly a food market, with a lot of fish (this is an island, after all).

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     From the ground floor we could see the sculptured roof of a Hindu temple.  From the top floor, where there were mostly clothes & handicrafts for sale, we looked down on the umbrellas covering the market’s courtyard.

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     We climbed back into the van & headed for a beach.  Mahe is rich in beautiful beaches, not to mention green mountains & breathtaking views.  Really a beautiful place.  Sadly, we don’t know the names of these beaches but they are worth looking at anyway.  We think this one might be called Grand Anse, but are not sure.

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     The Seychelles are famous as the home of many giant tortoises, and Mahe has its share.  We went to a hotel where about half a dozen of them live.  They are huge and looked worn out by the heat.  But some friends saw some of these guys mating in another spot & told us they were surprisingly quick when they wanted to be.

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     These giant tortoises seem to be pretty popular around here as we saw a number of artistic renderings in shop windows.

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We drove up into the mountains and stopped at an overlook with some gorgeous views.

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    We drove higher up to the Mission Lodge.  Now just some ruined walls, this was a school for freed slaves near the end of the 19th century.  On the path to the overlook are several interesting varieties of trees, some of them labeled.

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     Quite a lot of colorful flora are to be found on this tropical island and a good percentage are in this area.  So this is a good place to post some of them.

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     From the mountain we went, where else, to another beach.  This was a very large beach with an island off shore and some large boulders on the beach.  It was very nice, with a good surf, & we spent some time there walking on the sand.

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     The Seychelles are known for the Coco de Mer, an unusual type of coconut native to this island.  It is a double nut in a large and very heavy shell.  It also floats & we were told that sailors found these floating in the ocean before discovering this archipelago.  The trees are male & female and you can’t tell which yours is until it reaches fruit bearing age.  After planting it takes something like 7 years to sprout, then 25 years to mature.  If it turns out you have only female or only make trees, you are out of luck!  The female trees (obviously) grow the large nuts & the male trees don’t.  You should never stand under a female tree bearing nuts because one of these falling on your head will be the end of you.  Other food plants we saw here included vanilla, papaya and breadfruit.

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     We visited one more beach with incredibly clear water & an offshore island where some people were swimming & kayaking.

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     Our last stop was at a craft village.  It is a former plantation with 12 separate studios.  But most of them were closed & the ones that were open were selling souvenirs that didn’t look much like real crafts.  So, really, it looked to us more like a tourist souvenir village than a craft village. Then, on the way back to the harbor, we passed a very upscale condo development on reclaimed land just off shore.  There was a yacht harbor filled with impressive boats. We stopped to walk through a mall to the yacht harbor, a pointless effort when we were ready to be back at the ship after a fairly tiring day.

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     So, after a successful day exploring most of the island of Mahe, we found ourselves back at the ship shortly before sunset.  As the sun began to set there was one more look at the harbor.  The harbor had a number of windmills producing electricity set up on both sides of the entrance.  High on a nearby mountain was a villa owned by the Sheik of Abu Dabi who vacations here often.  He apparently travels from his yacht to his villa via helicopter.  From the size of the villa he must bring quite an entourage with him.

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     Since we were setting sail late at night we had a local dance show after dinner.  It wasn’t one of the most interesting we have seen but it was entertaining.  The people here have basically two kinds of dances: sega & moutia.  The most interesting involved dancing with feet on either side of a pole.

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    And so to bed, with one more island before we reach to African continent.

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

     March 20 found us in Sri Lanka.  When we visited here in 2016 we walked some 13 miles round this town, quite exhausting in the heat & humidity.  We saw a lot, which you can see here:

https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2016/05/07/colombo-sri-lanka/

This is the last episode with a reference back to 2016; all the ports from here on out are new to us (except San Juan, Puerto Rico, which we visited many years ago).

     So this time we decided to sign up for an all day HAL excursion that said it would take us to see Galle, a city on the southwest corner of Sri Lanka with a very long history as a major stop on the east-west trade routes.  This turned out to be a somewhat dishonest description, but more about that later.

     Galle has been important to sea trade since at least Biblical times, when it is thought to have been Solomon’s source for gold, ivory and other exotic things, referred to as Tarshish in the Bible.  It was important enough to be included in Ptolemy’s world map of 125-150 AD. The Portuguese came in 1589 and it was captured in 1640 by the Dutch, who fortified the entire town.  The British gained control in 1796 and held it, along with the rest of what they called Ceylon, until independence after World War II.      

     As we left the ship there was a very polished Sri Lankan dance company performing.

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    We headed out of town through some rather impoverished areas, then south on a highway.  Our first stop was at the Handunugoda tea plantation.  Sri Lanka, of course, was called Ceylon when it was a British colony & Ceylon tea has been famous for quite a long time.  Among other things, this is the only plantation in the world that makes what is called “White Tea,” which is never touched by humans before it is consumed.  The owner of the plantation told us that this originated as a drink only for the Chinese Emperor & the story goes that it was tended & picked by virgins & the first human flesh it touched was the Emperor’s lips.  Today it is quite expensive and the plantation sells the white tea exclusively to a restaurant in France.  The plantation’s tea factory uses equipment that is more than 140 years old.

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     After spending time in the tea tasting room, where many kinds of tea grown here were for sale, we were taken upstairs to a kind of dining room where we were served tea and cakes.  We saw some interesting flora & fauna at the plantation, but were not taken to see the tea fields or the owner’s house as promised in the tour description.

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     Our second stop was to see stilt fishermen.  This was once a serious way to make a living, unique (as far as we know) to Sri Lanka.  Today fish are caught by more modern methods & these guys are strictly employees, paid by the hour to sit out for tourists to photograph.

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     We drove on to the south, passing Galle, then stopped about half an hour later at a hotel where we had an excellent Sri Lankan lunch.  The hotel had a very dramatic staircase, lined with metal sculptures.

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     There was plenty of leisure time after the meal to walk around and take pictures.  We took a few pictures of Galle in the distance across the water.  But the unnecessarylength of the lunch stop would add to the problem with this excursion, as you will see.

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    We got back on the bus and finally headed for the headline destination for this excursion,  the only reason we decided to purchase it (it wasn’t cheap).  After driving half an hour back we entered the Galle Fort, which is what the old city is called.  We parked in front of the library (yay!) & were told we all had to go into the Maritime Museum across the street, where we would have 10 minutes (!) to walk through it.  If we didn’t go into the museum, they said, we might not be able to find the bus.  And this 10 minutes was our ENTIRE stay in Galle!  No going up to the walls, exploring the famous old Dutch Church or “the narrow streets, old churches, cloistered courtyards and shuttered mansions,” as HAL’s excursion description promised.

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     We hurried over and took some pictures of the library while others were exiting the bus, then we followed the group into the Maritime Museum.  The museum is housed in the Great Warehouse, built by the Dutch in 1669 to store spices.  It was moved to this location after the original museum was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. As you can imagine, there could be no lingering to actually learn about the museum artifacts during a 10 minute run-through.

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     As we left the building to board the bus we saw a couple apparently having wedding pictures taken near the museum and also the Archaeological Regional Office of Sri Lanka across the street.

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     That was it.  The bus drove around the main street to the gate & we left the fort & headed back north to Colombo.  On the way we passed a Buddhist temple and a funeral, among other things, but our stay in Galle . . . the title and supposed central destination of this excursion . . . was a total of 10 minutes in a maritime museum.  That’s not what we came for and we never would have signed up for this long and expensive trip if we had known that only 10 minutes of a 7.5 hour excursion would be spent there. It certainly took a lot of gall to title this excursion a trip to Galle!  After complaining (we weren’t the only ones) we were given a 15% refund, but in our opinion that was pretty lame compensation for not only failing to provide what was promised but also using up our only day in Sri Lanka in the bargain.

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     Perhaps the best part of the visit was the sail away.  Its always good when you sail away from a large port at sun down and Colombo’s port is situated where you can see a number of landmarks from the ship as you go.  We saw the candy striped red and white mosque, the brand new lotus blossom tower that was scheduled to open the week after our visit & the huge stupa on stilts over one of the entrances to the port.  Then the sun set as we sailed past the last lighthouse & out to sea.

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      So after dinner we went to bed, having left our last repeat port until San Juan, Puerto Rico.  From here on in it’s all new to us, which certainly increases the sense of adventure.

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Phuket, Thailand

     We docked in Phuket on the morning of March 17.  Last time we were here we had a great time riding elephants & visiting temples.  See it here:

https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/phuket-thailand

So this time we decided to go in an entirely different direction.  If you have seen the movies “Man With The Golden Gun” or “The Beach” you have seen the craggy limestone islands that lie a ways off the coast near Phuket.  We joined a private tour by speedboat to see these islands & maybe do some snorkeling there & have lunch.

     We got off to a good start, driving to the nearby boat dock & boarding the speed boat.  There were about 15 of us, more or less, and the boat was open on the sides & back for a good view while also protecting us from the sun with a roof.  It wasn’t too long, however, before we began to encounter some very high waves & swells.  Not only did this slow us down substantially as the boat was constantly rising on the waves then crashing down after, but a couple of people began to get seasick (one a member of our family).  So the sea conditions (and the condition of the passengers) prevented us from going to the islands we had hoped to see.  Instead we headed for some closer islands.

     We landed at Khai Nok, a tiny island with a hill and a beach.  It was crowded with visitors, who were taking pictures on the beaches, sitting in the many beach chairs under umbrellas and shopping at the many food stands.  We were told that a large percentage of the visitors were Chinese, who do not swim but just take pictures of each other standing in the water.  This was not what we had hoped for at all, but at least we were able to relax for a while on dry land.

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     In the ocean near the island were a number of fishing boats & there were some rocky islands visible in the distance.

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     A few people went in the boat to a nearby island to snorkel, but they were snorkeling right off the boat so most of us stayed behind and relaxed on the beach.  When they returned we all boarded the boat and headed for another island where our guide hoped we could be accommodated for lunch.  Since our itinerary had changed the place where we had lunch reservations was too far away.  The guide went up to the restaurant on the first island but they didn’t have room for our party.  So we headed off to another island where she was confident we would be served.

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     On the next island we hit pay dirt.  Not only would they host us all for a delicious Thai lunch with fresh caught fish, but no other tourists were there to spoil the beauty of the long beach.  We went ashore & headed down the beach to the open air restaurant.

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     An old wooden dock extended out into the water and a number of fishing boats were in the area.

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      We had a delicious & very plentiful lunch at tables set up on a platform open on three sides with the kitchen at the back.  The dog who lives here was sacked out for the duration & next to the platform we found a pair of fish lying on the sand . . . no, wait, those are actually sandals.

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     After a last look at the still deserted beach we headed off to the new floating dock to board our boat for the trip back to Phuket.  We got a close look at some fishing boats that were tied up to the dock.

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     We sped away from our lunch island and headed back to Phuket.  As we neared the port we passed some navy ships at anchor.

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     After some shopping in the market set up on the pier we sailed away shortly before sunset.  We could see in the distance Thailand’s Big Buddha sitting on top of a mountain.  It had not been finished when we saw it in 2016, but now it is, we were told, the largest sitting Buddha in the world, surpassing the Big Buddha we visited on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

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     After dinner we hit the sack after a day that turned out much better than it started.

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