Monday, March 3, 2008

More on the Buddha, Counting Countries, and What I Plan to Do Next

More on the big Buddha:

The gondola picture in an earlier post shows the Buddha statue on the skyline to the left. Here’s the 33 meter (110 ft) statue from a little closer before I got on the gondola. It was a very scary ride, I suppose because it was, 1) 1000 feet above the ground at some points, 2) the span between towers was miles long in a few instances, 3) I was all alone in the car and therefore left to my own thoughts mostly about what I would do if it stopped. (I kept feeling for my international cell phone in my little backpack), 4) the wind was howling so that, 5) the damn car was swinging—fortunately only slightly, and 6) I realized that I always forget how much I don’t like gondolas shortly after I get off them so that I end up taking them again somewhere else.

Counting Countries:

As of this trip, I've now been to 116 countries as per the Travelers' Century Club list or 106 "DXCC" countries (which are based on radio call letter prefixes). As for “marking” a location as valid, I am at the age where need to ensure that one has to pee at each place isn’t really an hardship to accomplish and makes a good proof of entry, so to speak. I just wanted a criteria that didn’t include just flying over a place or riding through it while asleep on the train. I would count a place if I don’t go to the bathroom as long as I was “setting foot” there. I didn’t count Lord Howell Island even though a cruise a few years ago went 100 miles out of the way to circle it and had a lecturer onboard who gave a talk on the little island as we were circling it only a mile or so from the shoreline. But we never landed there or even dropped anchor. I usually have to actually stand on the place, and as I said I usually look for a john anyway. So that makes it even more official. For all it’s worth, I did “count” Panama when I went through the canal. I figured being “raised” through three locks and dumped in a lake 85 feet above sea level in the middle of the isthmus is definitely “in” the country. So the ship “set foot” there, and I was on the ship. Likewise, I'd probably not count a location if only my passport got stamped but I didn't get off the ship--I'd feel guilty about counting that and probably would at least set foot on the dock to make the visit "official", more so if I found a toilet in the terminal. So I do have my standards and rules.

Despite the results, I'm not motivated primarily by adding to the count. The recent trip added only two: the Indonesian part of Indonesia (the old Irian Jaya, now called Papua which is very confusing since the states of Papua and West Papua share the island of New Guinea with the country of Papua New Guinea. Get it?) which while really part of Indonesia, of course, does count according to the Travelers' Century Club list presumably because of its distance beyond the new independent country of West Timor, and the Solomon Islands. My primary choice of trips is to see new and interesting places even if they aren't additional entries on some list. Of course, "new and interesting" on a cruise can be a new country by some measure. As to how many are left, the total number on the somewhat inflated TCC list is 317. So I guess I have 201 to go! Of course, I do not care to visit some of them and some are awfully hard to get to, at least easily. Some were scheduled on cruises and bypassed at the last moment: Sri Lanka (civil war), Madagascar (high swell that made tendering impossible), and Fiji (typhus threat due to a recent typhoon).

The ARRL DXCC list has 338 "countries" and the TCC has 317 if I counted correctly. My personal totals are 106 and 116 for these two lists respectively. There are only 192 UN members (as of 2006) and may omit countries due to political issues. Both the TCC and the DXCC lists include "isolated" locations such as Hawaii and Alaska, for example, as separate countries, but the main difference between these lists is cultural. The TCC counts different religious regions, for example, as well such as Bali in additional to Java, the main island of Indonesia, since Bali although close to Java is Hindu while the rest of the country is Muslim. The states of West Palau and Palau are probably on the list because of their isolation from the rest of the country as per the "isolation" rule since West Timor now a separate country is between the island of New Guinea (where Papua and West Papua are located) and Java. The DXCC list also counts "isolated" locations but all of Indonesia is counted only once. DXCC adds uninhabited locations--only if they have separate call leter destignations such as the various Antactica territories--but the TCC list specifically exempts locations without populations. Now you know.

What Cruises are Next:

If I do the entire cruise I’m looking at in the Fall, while it’s mostly only Mexico (plus one stop in Guatemala) for the first segment I’d then add Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and French Polynesia. I’ll have to look up if Easter Island (probably), Pitcairn Island (probably), and Robinson Crusoe Islands (maybe) count on the DXCC list. They all do on the Travelers’ Century Club list. I had originally booked for this Fall a 16 day cruise from Barcelona to Barbados that stops in Senegal and Cape Verde Islands; so the replacement cruise would be up eight countries rather than just two. Maybe I’ll hit those on a subsequent trip since “crossings” are usually discounted, but the proposed cruise is kind of a one of a kind. It’s three out of four segments on a circle from LA to LA, but I have no interest in the last 16 days from Tahiti back to LA. It’s lots of days at sea—some as much as six in a row—mostly it only stops in ports in Hawaii, and 54 days is really much too long. (So is 36 days, but it would be fun to “live” on the ship for more than a month again.) I did also deposit a cruise for November 2009 that includes Devil’s Island, French Guiana. So I guess it is getting harder to add countries now. I suppose I could go to Europe and take the train to San Marino, Andorra, and Lichtenstein and maybe a ferry from Liverpool to the Isle of Man or from Weymouth to the Channel Islands. Also, I’ve not yet been to the Czech Republic or Estonia, and there are a few Caribbean islands I’ve missed. So there are still easy ones to “bag” if that was really my goal. The 2009 cruise stops at a few Caribbean islands and lots of places in Brazil, including Manaus which is 1600 miles (something like that) up the Amazon River from the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve been to Brazil before; actually my only stop ever in South America was at Rio early in 2001.

Pirates and Cruise Ships

Possible Pirate off the coast of Cebu City, Philippines. (c) 2008, M. Borsuk
Pirates on the High Seas

There's a lot more security on the cruise ships than there was in the old days (none). Even on the 350 or so passenger cruise ship, there are three or four crew members onboard who do both the normal hotel security functions, watch external cameras on security monitors, but look out at the sea when any other vessel appears. There's always a security boat on the harbor side of the ship when we're in port, but often it's a guy in a small motorboat wearing a hat that says "security", the guy not the boat. I suppose he has a radio to call in the troupes, and security on the pier is usually a lot like at airports nowadays. Piracy when we're underway is usually very difficult since there's 250 crew members on a our little boat compared to maybe 12 or so crew members on a containership. (The usual MO of "pirates" is to board slow going containerships at night and empty a container before a crew member comes by with a baseball bat. This is a lot different than what would be useful to a pirate boarding a cruise ship.) Also cruise ships make 15 to 20 knots and have all sorts of cameras and outlooks on the bridge; so stealth would be difficult for the pirates who would pretty much be overwhelmed anyway by bartenders and cabin stewardesses if they somehow could board the ship. And it is said that the cruise ships now have high pressure water hoses and other anti-boarding measures. (On Silveasea, the captain would make any pirates drink grappa, and that would do them in for sure.) Most of all, there is a "Security Officer" on each of the Silversea ships that seems to be sent by Central Casting. He is always a Brit with a movie Scotland Yard accent, tattooed arms (usually of anchors), and very little neck. On some of my cruises the little Asian looking security crew members turned out to be Gurkas. Most priates would not want to mess with them. Overeating and perhaps having a drink or two too many are a risk on a cruise, but being made to walk the plank isn't.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hong Kong to Boulder

23 February 2008, Hong Kong to Boulder Colorado USA

I’m home and suffering from being in a random time zone. Got home at about 4 pm Thursday after traveling for 26 hours. Went to bed at 8:15 pm and slept until 5:30 am Friday morning. That is 8:30 pm Friday evening in Hong Kong; so I was up all night tonight already when I was sleeping. (Get it?) No wonder I am not doing all that well today or is it tomorrow. I prepared a shopping list and immediately left it home as I went out to the supermarket. The cruise was super, and my couple of days post-cruise in Hong Kong were fun, taking lots of ferries and enjoying lots of Chinese food (did I mention that most menus I saw had a section labeled, "Pig Intestines"?) instead of the good but kind of one style food on the ship. My visit to the "2nd biggest (but still very big as you can see from the picture I took during the few seconds I allowed myself to open my eyes in the scariest gondola I’ve ever been in—why do I do still go in such contraptions especially when it’s windy and it’s rocking and so high off the ground and there’s funny noises and I’m all alone in it…?) reclining Buddha on Lantau Island was a highlight—so to speak—of the visit the Hong Kong.

This was my third visit to Hong Kong (fourth if you count an intermediate stop on a cruise that started from there in 1995 right before the "hand back" to China), my 2nd visit since it reverted to China. It's better than ever as a tourist destination and bursting unlike me with energy. My hotel was in the fantastic upscale residential Kowloon neighborhood of Hung Hom, right on the waterfront with an unbelievable view of Hong Kong island. Each of the two nights I watched the very strange laser show in which most of the skyscrapers on both sides of the harbor seem to be having a multi-color war which results in very strange and apparently random lighting effects on entire buildings on both sides of the harbor. It was kind of like 1.1 billion Chinese people all playing with the light switches (albeit in a very synchronized but meaningless way) in all the offices in each building. (This description doesn't do it justice. Ya had to be there.) The hotel was right at a Star Ferry (all these old ferries' names start with "Star") terminal. I could take one to (Hong Kong island) "Central" for HK$ 5.20 and then back to Kowloon for HK$ 1.20 in less time and a lot more fun than walking for a total of less than US $1.00. The trip to the "Big Buddha" involved two ferries, a local bus (don't ask), and a climb of a lot--really a lot--of steps, then the gondola ride, and the 80 mph train to Waichai on Hong Kong island (to use the free internet terminals in the Hong Kong Convention Center), and then the Star Ferry (another US 70 cents) back to Hung Hom. Cool.

Planning for my next cruise, perhaps some of the Los Angeles to French Polynesia run of Silver Shadow this coming fall. For those who might care, my country count visited (according to the Century Travelers' Club list) is now up to 116 and up to 106 using the DXCC list. The criteria for "counting" a country is going to the bathroom there; flying over or riding through it on a train doesn't count therefore. Marking my space in each new country is usually not a problem.

Thanks for letting me share my trip with you, my old and dearest friends and my new friends from my travels. I have to say that I've met wonderful people from all over the world and value each new dinner companion on the ships. As with most cruises, I find that after a week or so I find one or two couples or individuals who I eat each dinner with and look forward to sharing the report of the day with. Even though (as reported earlier in this blog series) it didn't look like it was happening, I found my new Danish friend a great traveler and dinner companion and met and had drinks and/or dinner plus many fantastic conversations with wonderful other guests and now new friends, from the recently retired 747-400 pilot (and president of an historical aviation museum) to a fascinating inventor of natural hydrogen production, heart monitors (being sold to Garmin), and budding vineyard developer.

All of you, please keep in touch

MB, Boulder Colorado

It was a dark and stormy night

18 Feb 08, last sea day between Manila and Hong Kong:

Dreamt of snorkeling last night, only to find when I woke and pulled open the curtains that I could see a fish occasionally out of my Deck 4 window. While this is better than seeing a deer in my pajamas (and wondering how it got to putting them on, to quote Groucho Marks), it seemed to explain why the captain made an announcement as we were sailing out of Manila yesterday evening about “securing loose items and firmly closing veranda doors”. (I had ignored his announcement because all my items are tight and I don’t have a veranda or even a veranda door without a veranda.) Fortunately, even with us making 19 knots NW with a north wind strong enough (force 7-8) to make a relative wind off the starboard bow with gusts of 90 km/hr, the ship’s stabilizers and a prophylactic Walamine pill (which doesn’t have lactose as does Dramamine) has done the trick and therefore I’m not puking into the cabin’s wastebasket. The hotel director told me the wind and rough seas started at 6 this morning, but now the sun is coming out and all is fine with the world. For all it’s worth, I’ve only been uneasy (or rather my tummy has) during one or two days in more than a year and a half of being on the high seas. Today—since the pill—doesn’t count (yet). Friends claim that they (or usually blame it on the spouse) are afraid of getting mal de mer, but it just doesn’t usually pose a clear or expected threat. Feeling uneasy from overeating or maybe drinking might be a risk, but ship’s movement is most likely just, uh, movement. You might cut your ear off shaving, but most of us have two anyway. At least now my window is being washed. Hey, a tuna just went by. Cool. Also the big crashing sound hasn’t been happening for some time. By the way, my suite is amidships on Deck 4. Mostly the motion pivots around my cabin. The most expensive suites are high above the bow. The big spenders apparently opt for the E-ticket ride. The bow was probably an exciting place this morning as the “view from the Bridge” channel on the TV was showing an ashtray rather than looking out the window. Its mounting screw apparently had loosened overnight so that the camera was pointing down instead of out the window.

The stop yesterday in Manila was one of the neatest experiences in my hundreds of port calls ever. After a spectacular arrival into the main Manila harbor, the “Charms of Old Manila” tour (which included the traditional “Santo Nino” dance at the old pre-Spanish Muslim built fort) was pretty nice. The traffic wasn’t bad since it was Sunday in the the +8 hours GMT time zone, but what made the day was all the wives, husbands, kids, and parents of the Filipino crew members—they make up almost half the staff—that were guests onboard. The excitement on the ship and ear to ear smiles of crew members were golden. I was most thankful to be part of this as many of the crew members I consider to be friends, not servants by any means, and introduced me to their families. Regarding the smiles, one young assistant waiter told me that he saw his new baby for the first time yesterday.

The biggest smile was on the crew member’s child mentioned in the previous paragraph is just one month old. The crew member volunteered that he was ending his 10 month contract yesterday and going to his home in Manila. (You do the math.). He told me that he was home only three days before this contract started (!) but was planning on 2 months before the next 10 month job on the ship. It’s a shame that the wonderful Filipinos have such a dysfunctional economy that most of the young people have to be away from home most of the year, sending all their earnings home so that (typically) the oldest male sibling can go to university. The huge smile on my friend might have been due to seeing the kid or maybe his morning visit to his wife before he brought her back for the quick tour. Oh well. The dock area was part of the festivities all day. I took a picture next to the standard Manila transportation “jeepny” and sailed away with yet another dance troupe doing the “Santo Nino” dance (I saw at least 6 versions of the this dance in Manila and a couple of days ago in Cebu City) out my window. It wasn’t yet under water). Fantastic all day experience in Manila and worth the trip alone.

I leave the ship tomorrow in Hong Kong. Because of my exulted status as a “250 day customer” I am exempt from the “put out the luggage with your color coded tag affixed by 11:30 pm” requirement and even can stay onboard for lunch tomorrow before checking into my Kowloon hotel. I can even pack in the morning and then call for someone to carry my luggage through customs. Quite civilized. I’ll probably pack later today anyway as the danger of throwing up into my shaving kit seems to have passed.

The “luxury cruise” experience has its frustrations, some of the other guests—older (but getting closer in age to me: I wonder how that has happened) and set into routines that don't welcome strangers at dinner and some personalities do get on my nerves—and the daily ship's schedule which does not quite changing significantly each day, the lengthy meals, and too much availability of alcohol which makes some of my fellow guests not as nice to be with after dinner as they were during the day. But then seeing a nice older Japanese couple put Tabasco on their pizza or the officer trying to explain the ship to a bunch of Filipino travel agents who are simultaneously listening to their IPODS makes even these annoyance kind of fun. (You do a lot of people watching on a ship--when you're not looking for whales or dolphins.) The ports and the quality of the food, service, and staff makes this a costly but most spectacular addiction—as addictions go. I’m still agonizing over the booking of the next cruise: do I take the quite heavily discounted—it comes to less than staying and eating in a Holiday Inn in Perth Amboy (maybe I’m exaggerating a bit)—LA to Valparaiso cruise this Fall or drop the first segment and go for the much more costly Costa Rica to Bora Bora segments and visit Pitcairn and Easter Island. Wouldn’t those make great way to add numbers 120 and 121 to my country count?

I’ll be posting my pictures to the Google picture site shortly after I get home. Sorry for having to switch to the old e-mail method of communicating rather than updating the blog. I’ll do that—with more pictures—when I’m back to my 1.5 Mb/sec upload and have communication latencies that don’t exceed the sliding window flow control and blog server timeouts. (I used to know that all that meant. Something I vaguely remember teaching now that I think about it)

The sun is out now. Better go up to the “jogging track” and take my 7 rotations in a clockwise direction. I think the roller coaster effect will make it all the better exercise. Whoops, there goes another tuna past my window.

18N 117E at 17 knots heading 330 degrees, South China Sea

The Ceboom

Cebu City, Philippines (15 Feb), Sea day (16 Feb).

Here’s about yesterday in Cebu City and some additional observations of shipboard life:

Spend the day yesterday in Cebu, the first of two stops in the Philippines. The pilot boat came with a large number of officials along with friends and families of the officials as well as house pets, furniture, and I believe passers-by. As about half the ship’s crew are from the Philippines, families and boy or girl friends were waiting outside the security area. Some crew are on 10 month contracts and haven’t seen their families or friends for ½ a year or more. (It is very rare for ship to call in the Philippines since many crew members on some ships break their contracts when they get home, not Silversea’s super staff fortunately.) The captain gave most Filipino crew members shore leave. They came back with smiles on their faces. No doubt from good home cooking.

Cebu City on Cebu Island in the south (but not the most southern island which is Mindanao which was enshrouded in fog when we passed it) is the 2nd most populated city and seaport in the Philippines. I took a tour of a number of museums—all about various colonialists, missionaries, or economic influences—visited the big Spanish style cathedral where you can buy a prayer from a uniformed “candle lady” (10 cents for a small candle, 20 cents for a big candle. No promises made if the big candle’s prayers are answered sooner, better, or more effectively), saw very cute little kids, and a huge high rise housing development for the growing call center business. A matter of fact, all the young high school graduates coming into town for call center jobs has created an economic surge here in Cebu known as the CEBOOM. What joy! “My name is Sue. What is your account number, height, and eye color? Good morning. May I help you?”

The cruise is winding down. Manila tomorrow, then a day at sea until Hong Kong. It’s cold there. Oh well. While they have improved everything tremendously (from a pretty high level, I have to say) since some spotty training issues onboard in the last couple of years on this line, Silversea has apparently decided to really push the booze on everyone, I assume as a marketing thing. I thought the mindless every five minute, “Drink sir?”, by the pool was just poor training, but I’ve noticed that it’s everywhere. Also, they come around at noon and 3 pm with vodka punches by the pool and even remind people at the shows and other events to “get a drink”. As a result there are guests who are drinking beers for breakfast, double rum with ice at noon, G & Ts with lunch, and by show time they are incoherent. I’m really alarmed by the way the other guests are acting even by dinner time and decided to skip most shows (not a hardship although the flown in talent is ok but not, let’s say, Ed Sullivan quality, if you know what I mean. But I do miss the banana man from Sullivan. But I digress) and go to sleep early. I am very convinced that the luxury cruise lines are “chasing each other’s tails”. But for all it’s worth I can’t stop doing these cruises. Better than other vices, I guess, but it’s getting harder to get invited (or want to join) “strangers” for dinner. They are drunks by then. I probably will book two new cruises onboard (and get an additional 5% discount for so doing): one to replace an existing booking and another for next year which includes going 1600 miles up (and down) the Amazon. The new one for later this year is LA to Chile or maybe Costa Rica to Papeete. The later segment, if I do it, will stop in Robinson Crusoe Island, Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, and Moorea and Bora Bora (where I think Mahi Mahi comes from). Come to think of it, the ship will stop in these places even if I don’t do the cruise and maybe I’m wrong about the fish. At any rate (and it’s a high rate indeed), I will evaluate all sorts of things when I return and commit to what sounds right and proper. Now that I think about it, forgot that—I’ll probably go on more cruises.

Will muddle on until Hong Kong and spend a couple of nights before flying home on the 21st. I plan to visit “the 2nd biggest reclining Buddha” on Landau Island. Will report on Manila and Hong Kong probably immediately after I’m back.

Missing everyone back home. Go figure.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Existential Wewak and Irian Jaya

10 – 11 Feb, Wewak and Irian Jaya:

Wewak, Papua New Guinea

Wewak is much smaller and less developed town than Madang but with the appeal of being untouched. Kids smiled and hid behind their moms, and the high point of the half day “Wewak Environs” tour was, uh, the high point of Wewak’s environs. We looked at the hill from where the tender let us off, went up to the hill, Japanese memorial by the way, and took pictures of the ship, then walked down to a lovely beach via a rain forest path, then back to the ship via a museum full of obscene native wood carvings and the local produce market. My kind of tour, actually my most favorite and what got be first in love with cruises. We were the only cruise ship to call at Wewak in a year. A native dance troupe was brought on the ship to perform by the pool. They had never been on a large ship nor had experienced air conditioning, but they shook hands with me—all of them—and thanked me in good English for welcoming them. Fantastic experience despite the heat and humidity.

Papua State, Indonesia

Irian Jaya was split in 1999 into Papua and West Papua but all the signs still called it by the old name of Irian Jaya. Jayapura is the capital of Papua, Indonesia and is much more developed. Although a former Dutch colony rather than English and Australian Wewak and now part of the largest Muslin country, the folks we met were just as friendly and the art work in the tourist stalls just as obscene. I tried to get my fellow passengers to buy native penis sheaths for the formal night tomorrow. (There were three sizes, but few of the guys seemed to be interested in designs on those in the small or medium sections.) At the tender pier—a military landing craft actually—I asked to be photographed with some new friends. I was immediately accosted by two reporters and a photographer from the local newspaper who interviewed me. I was asked why I wanted to visit Jayapura, what was my best experience of the tour, and if I was concerned about “security issues”. I said, “What security issues?”, and we all had a good laugh. Well, they actually did.

It’s kind of warm here.

We sail out of the anchorage this evening for 3 days “at sea” until arriving at Cebu City, Philippines on Friday. I’m eyeing a Barbados to Rio cruise for November 2009 via Manaus up the Amazon. It’s only money.

Friday, February 8, 2008

We'd like to have you over for dinner

Madang, Papua New Guinea, Saturday, 9 February:

This local city is in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve seen in my travels. The arrival this morning was from inside the “Observation Lounge” after the 30 minutes it took for the lens system in my Canon to defog. It was hot and humid even before dawn off the north coast of New Guinea. Go figure.

The full day tour included a lengthy visit to a village in the mountains. This was the home of 16 families in lovely decorated thatch roofed elevated houses. The whole village welcomed us with a speech given by the Elder in excellent English, the kids were shy, a path had been hacked through the rain forest for us, and everyone had red stained teeth from chewing bettle nuts, a mild narcotic. Just like Boulder. We visited a market in town, a luxury level hotel (for a toilet and postcard stop), and got a “singsing” native dance show. (Pictures of all to be posted on my picasaweb site after I get home of course). Even at the “most” touristy location, the kids were the highlight of the trip while the mothers were fishing for supper. This was one of the very best stops of my 250 or so days of ocean cruising. Alas, so few places like this will be around much longer.

Tomorrow is Wewak, 180 miles west of here. I’ll post updates from there and Irian Jaya (Papua, Indonesia) the next day when I can. I’m having a super time—best onboard in a long time—but events with dear friends in Boulder have made reality from fantasy.