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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Thursday, 7 Feb 08:

The Solomon Islands were a 3 1/2 day sail from New South Wales. There was a reoccurrence of ethnic violence as recently as 2006. The entire Chinatown in Honiara, the capital, was destroyed in 2003. I toured a mostly recovering definitely third world country and saw lots of decaying infrastructure: potholed streets, a botanic garden reverted to jungle, a sad looking but beautiful parliament building (built by a Japanese construction company with US money, go figure), the very moving US Memorial within sight of most of the WWII battlefields here on Guadalcanal, but also saw lots of smiles and a very busy downtown. Most communications are firmly of 1960s variety and are via short wave. (Even Internet access uses Packtor-2 on HF, probably to Australia.) But the Australian and New Zealand peace keeping force is down to a token size, the people I spoke to have a great attitude even though the Solomon Islands have a way to go. I must say that it is somehow refreshing to visit a place with lots of potential, no Starbucks or McDonalds, just starting a tourist industry, and apparently quite aware of what needs to be done to recover from the past. Population might be a problem in “H4” since kids apparently grow on trees. See picture.

The cruise is going very well. The very multi-national staff is working well together onboard, my lactose free chocolate desserts keep coming each evening—last night was a chocolate hazelnut soufflé and the night before a very rich chocolate sorbet—and I have met a number of nice dining companions. Last evening I had dinner with a Danish HR guy who recently took the super luxurious “Silk Route” train from Hong Kong to Moscow and a long retired English professor from Illinois. Most of the passengers on this cruise are from Australia and GB.

After breakfast we will get cruise by Plum Pudding Island near Gizo, the location where JFK’s PT-109 was rammed. No doubt a narration will be broadcast from every loudspeaker and bloody maries will be served. Another “sea day” tomorrow and then the three stops on the island of New Guinea.

For the time being the satellite link from the ship appears to be having problems uploading pictures. I'll add the pix later when I can. Regards from 9 degrees south.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Warm but rainy today (at 9:10 am) as we angle away from the coast on the 1st day of 3 towards Guadalcanal. Seems like the first real day of the cruise. There really wasn't much to do in Newcastle, but I took at 3 mile walk around the coastal area watching the surfers and visiting the out of place imitation European type cathedral. A highlight was observing the matching drilling of a band of Sea Scouts. (I have no idea what Sea Scouts do, but they were marching and apparently being hollered at so that they do it properly. I asked an Australian couple onboard and was told that "it's an Aussie thing.")

Since Newcastle is only 2 hours from Sydney, a few new passengers from around the area who boarded in Sydney actually went home for the day to keep stuff they forgot to pack to maybe feed the cat. My guess is that they really just wanted to say they could go home for the day. Let's see them do that in Papua New Guinea.

Formal night tonight. I was invited to dine at the "Security Officer's Table". Hope he will join us. Planning on the maiden night of my hand tied bow tie. No chance it will look perfect and be mistaken for a clip on type. Last night I ate with an English/Swiss couple--he was on 60 minutes some years ago for "suing the Swiss government" for some reason he didn't state nor if he was successful--along with the dance host (a retired salesman from California), a Danish retired banker who I met the night before, and tonight's entertainer, a young French-Canadian singer. Chose last night to avoid the "world renown comedy magician" and went to the top deck to look at the upside down Orion.

Having some problems confirming uploads to the blog pages. This might be due to the cable cut that has disrupted Internet communications in Asia. I would appreciate confirmation that the "M/v Silver Whisper" and this post are visible along with one picture each.

Probably no new post for a few days unless something really exciting happens. The fire in the cigar bar didn't reach that level of exciting. I went to see if they were serving the Scotch I like and was disappointed it was only a fire. Oh well.

Friday, February 1, 2008

M/v Silver Whisper

Friday: Sydney Embarking Ship

I embarked M/v Silver Whisper early at 10:30 am. (This a perk of the number of days previously traveled on the line. The other is free laundry.) Most of the passengers are multiple repeaters. I've met quite a few folks who seem to know my name. Quite a few crew members remembered me and seemed to have forgotten details; so they were friendly. It is in many ways like coming home for me. The early boarding process allows for a nice lunch in the dining room with the other “old timers”. Thef mahi mahi was very nice white Burgundy with a duck breast appetizer salad. Just like my usual lunch at home. The Maitre d' is a former head waiter who I liked a lot, and he has already arranged for my custom Danish pastries each morning and milk free chocolate desserts each evening. At 5 pm I am hid in my cabin (actually it's called a "suite" as it is really two rooms) because I was informally exempted from the life boat drill. Go figure. But whoops, my door buzzer just rang. I thought I was busted. But it was a waiter who brought me caviar and blinis. A very taste snack. We sail out of Sydney Harbo(u)r in a half hour. I better finish my canapés and position myself at the bow to supervise. It's the same captain who I sailed with for the last two cruises; so I am expected to watch.

We sailed (electric motored?) at 6 pm. I failed to mention that as the caviar arrived, fearing the life boat drill transgression being discovered and getting a SOLAS violation being entered into my permanent record, I stood up quickly to answer the door buzzer and whacked my head on the edge of the TV. (They’ve replaced the old CRTs with LCD 16:9 sets; so everything is very short and fat. No one cares about geometric errors. Oh, what has happened to the world… But I digress.) The flat panel TV has sharp corners and one caught me above my left eye. The kid with the caviar pulled a band aid out of his pocket. Apparently caviar caused LCD injuries are common. The picture taken by a fellow guest as we sailed out should show clearly the band aid on my damaged head. I am recovering nicely and should not be an object of pity at dinner Saturday.

Saturday: Newcastle

Took the shuttle bus into town and asked to be dropped at the huge Anglican cathedral that dominates this town of 200,000. Newcastle is a two hour train ride from Sydney. I had considered taking the train here during my 3 night stay in Sydney and leaving myself a note, but the joke would have been hard to justify. Oh well. I did enjoy a 3 mile walk around the town, checking out some lovely surfing and bathing beaches, a group of sea scouts marching, and a funky shopping street where one can buy Aussie meat pies and strange looking lavender colored stuff, a specialty of here. Also lots of coal. Dozens of huge freighters anchored off shore waiting to be loaded to sail to Japan with coal. We sail at 6 pm for Guadalcanal, a 3 ½ day trip. I don’t look so scary as I’ve removed the band aid and discovered only a little scratch. Will wear my Mr. Potato Head tie as tonight is jacket with tie optional.