Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Walking on Hamilton Island

Things changed incredibly fast today. One minute we were creeping up on a Kookaburra and the next we were scrambling down the hill. An Irish couple with us was pointed to the Kookaburra and said they were quite brave birds so it was possible to get close for a photo. The sun was shining and there was a pleasant breeze on Prospect Point at the northern end of Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Islands.

The Kookaburras had been laughing at us the whole time we clambered up the 3 KM to the lookout and on the way down we head another bird, a fat, large, black and white bird with no neck but a throaty gobble or cackle. This bird pumped his heavy wings and sailed over to the Kookaburras where he caused quite an uproar.

We waited for the Irish folk we had visited at the peak to see if they could tell us about the bird we sighted and they suggested that it was an Australian turkey but they found a Kookaburra in the tree so that’s why I went off the trail to get a photo but just before I could take the photo a drop of water fell on my nose and the bird took off. In the next moment the sun was gone and buckets of rain were pouring over us.

I put my camera and iPod in the backpack and we headed down the trail. The nearest shelter was nearly 3 KM down the hill so that’s where we headed. The trail went from awkward to slippery. The 18 inch tall steps were more of a challenge than they had been on the way up.

The rain lasted only a few minutes but long enough to soak us. We stopped to wipe our glasses and faces and felt pleased that the storm was over but shortly it started to rain again and again after a second false stop so we were pretty soaked by the time we made it down the hill.

There was no shelter from the sidewalk to the Volendam’s tender but a little more rain didn’t matter by then and the whole walk was worth it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sydney, AU

We entered Sydney Harbour late limping with one broken engine. The ship sat in the harbor with doors below the stateroom decks open to the sea looking as if work was being done to engines but it’s unclear if it was or would be repaired because we left 90 minutes earlier than originally scheduled. Would that much time help us get to our next destination on time? We have 2 days at sea so could 90 minutes matter?

Entry into the harbour brings one past a number of beautiful bays and beaches as well as the house the queen pops into when she visits. Elaborate digs for sure. As we entered, a Celebrity ship sat sadly in dry dock for repairs and I crossed my fingers that there wasn’t a dry dock in the near future for the Volendam.

We docked in Sydney at 9:30 rather than 8 and then there was a delay in clearing the ship to disembark so that frantic people were stuffed in the hall at the gangway location. It was a log jam of people, luggage and wheelchairs so the ship’s powers directed everyone, over the pa system, to vacate the halls and stairs until they were called to return or the gang way would stay closed. Like good do-bees we left and only returned when in-transit passengers were called. Here’s the thing, when we reached the gangway that same log-jam of increasingly desperate people stood there.

People with early flights were desperate about the time and we in transit were just going for sightseeing but we were allowed to repeat “In Transit. Excuse me.” and so make our way off the ship while they were refused exit, Maybe the luggage transfer was the problem. The ship is generally quite organized soi there must have been a reason for the delays still it would have helped everyone to know what was going on because it felt like a mutiny might erupt at any moment on those stairs.

The big thing we did on our first day in Sydney was a tour the Endeavor, a replica of James Cooke’s ship. What a project!

There was a charge to see the ship, a bit of a shock after all the free museums, but it was staffed with devoted volunteers. The original Endeavor sunk during the American war of Independence so a few years ago a wealthy person decided that he’d build an exact replica. It seems he went to jail so things faltered and then there was a new sponsor and that ended but third time’s a charm and the Endeavor replica was carved, fitted and launched – for a mere $17 million US.

The first thing I noticed on board was the array of ropes but while I was gaping at the 29 kilometers of rope a volunteer insisted on showing me the toilets. It’s not that they thought I had to “go” but rather that they enjoyed the shock value of the “toilets”- large boards with holes cut out of them so that one marched out to the bow of the ship, dropped one’s drawers and balanced on this board depositing one’s personal waste through the hole and into the sea. Arse-wiping was done with the frayed end of a rope which was lowered into the sea to clean it off for the next person. Recycling, one volunteer said, is nothing new. Life at sea, I thought, must have been very tough.

The original Endeavor, built in 1768 for considerably less than $17 million, was state of the art for its time. The cook stove was a huge iron stove set on stone set on tin and fueled by wood. A fire burned from morning till mid day cooking first 94 breakfasts and then stewing enough to give hot stew for lunch and leftovers for dinner. The fire had to be put out midday to reduce the danger of fire at night.

To say that conditions were tight gives little of the sense of space available. One could stand in the center of the below deck area but it was necessary to scoot/scuttle through parts of the ship where the ceiling and floor were only about 4 feet apart. Hammocks with 14” of space were strung over tables at night and when the sailors got up hammocks were stowed away and people hunched over to walk around. They lived like this for 3 year – except for those who died of dysentery.

Actually they did well for a long while because Cook was attentive to health. Everyone had to wash hands and dishes with vinegar and they were given sauerkraut for the vitamin C that kept scurvy away. Each sailor had 2 hammocks – one to use while the other was washed and allowed to dry. Once dysentery and malaria joined them on board, it was a mess.

This replica sails every 3 or so years following one of Cook’s routes and one can book a berth if in possession of enough cash and a willingness to part with it.

Day 2 in Sydney started with walking across the bridge. Had we been willing to part with $329 each we could have climbed to the pinnacle while lashed to the iron work and led by guides. We could have looked down from so much further up and could have had the adventure of a greater wind and wider view but the cost seemed steeper than the bridge so we just walked on the sidewalk – no small walk.

The sidewalk traffic was brisk with walkers and joggers. The view looking down on the aquarium, the Hyatt Hotel and all the boats was worth the climb.

On the way to the bridge we went to a very classy street market and after the bridge we went to the Powerhouse museum to see Australia’s first steam locomotive, a steam engine built by James Watt and used in a mill for over 102 years, a model of the Russian Soyez (4 and 5), and models of the very tiny Vanguard and larger Sputnik. There were lots of entertaining interactive exhibits and periodically the exhibits roared to life. Near the train the audio would turn on with the sound of horse hoofs clomping on the road and the train engine and whistle and people talking with the call for All Aboard sailing over the din. It was an interesting feature except for the startling effect of sudden noise on the un-expecting.

I, for one, was worn out by the walking and gawking. There are marvelous buildings here and lots of people to look at. The school groups are all defined by their uniforms which include sun hats. There are many stylish people about and several outfits were worth two moments of gawking. The shoes and sandals are impressive. How can anyone maneuver on those tiny spiky heels? How many straps can one pair of sandals have? Who first thought to pair knee highs with spike heels? How many variations on the drawing of a skull can one find on T-shirts or socks? It’s an interesting world.

Then there are the variations in architecture. Sydney is filled with lovely old buildings from the colonial era but the most recognizable structure is the Opera House. Did you know that the roofs are covered in ceramic tiles? I didn’t. The colors of the tiles give the sense of texture from a distance and up close they become a detailed design. It’s huge and elegant outside so no doubt striking inside though we didn’t take the tour but instead went into the Botanical Gardens where we also didn’t take the tour. Not very good tourists, are we?

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Volendam

The Volendam is our temporary home. Our stateroom is on the 6th level, inside. There’s a curtain on the wall behind the bed to give the illusion of a window. Neighboring cabins have windows and sliding glass doors for their verandas. They have small sitting areas and they have to take a few steps to reach stuff but their rooms cost several times what we paid.

We have a king-sized bed taking up half the room and then a love seat, a chair, a table (slightly larger than your Thanksgiving turkey platter) and a dresser. There are 5 closets – one with a small safe – some with shelves – and there’s a bathroom with a shower/no tub. The tiny room forces one to everything away every time it’s ued and generally that’s what we do. It’s a little bit of fun to know where everything is.

Our small suitcases are under the bed but the large one doesn’t fit so it’s under the desk redefining it as a not-desk and making the ottoman easy to trip over in the dark. We’ve one electrical outlet in the bathroom but it runs nothing more than a shaver. To charge the electric toothbrush or to clean the brush heads with the ultraviolet light we must use the outlet on our not-desk. Likewise that’s where we can charge batteries or run our waterpic. Using a waterpic is messy enough over a sink but on the not-desk there’s another level of difficulty.

Our room steward, Dedi, has to clean 29 staterooms twice a day, every day. 29. I think that’s twice as many as the guys did last year. Dedi brings mail – notices of promotions on board, the daily activities schedule, special notes, bills and the condensed New York Times (8 pages long and 2 days old). He cleans the bathrooms and I’ve seen him in a room with a huge washer so think he has to launder all the sheets and towels.

He delivers fresh ice and fruit daily and then he has to meet passengers’ whims. Since people with the verandas likely paid $8,000 or more EACH to be in those large and fancy rooms, it would not surprise me to hear that there are daily whims.

In his spare time he folds towels into animal shapes and decorates our bed with them adding 2 golden coins of milk chocolate and an invitation to order room service breakfast in bed the next day.

Living in this high-rent district it is surprising to see that the self-service laundry is busy all day. It’s $2 per load of wash including soap but we don’t like their soap so brought our own. Often people go to and from the laundry in their robes.

There’s a snack bar, a cafeteria, a restaurant, and a fancy restaurant. One is required to use hand sanitizer before entering any food area and shaking hands is discouraged as is holding the handrails. If people start to get sick all the salt and pepper shakers are removed from tables and stewards come along to offer salt and pepper touched only by their gloved hands.

The best food is in the Pinnacle but there is a $20 per person cover charge and, with the other restaurants “free,” it seems an unjustified luxury though they grill the asparagus and it’s quiet and relaxed while the Rotterdam has hundreds eating there in 2 shifts and all the vegetables are steamed or baked. We had only 2 “free” coupons for the Pinnacle so we eat dinner in the Rotterdam restaurant and breakfast and lunch in the Lido cafeteria. One can eat somewhere 24 hours a day paying only for bar drinks or soft drinks.

The stewards seem to have to serve twice the number of tables compared with last year. Sometimes the wine steward doesn’t make it to our table until the main dish is served. The cut backs are clearly hurting the level of comfort here. The stewards seem exhausted when they walk the halls. Who can enjoy an outing knowing that people are slaving away on board all day? Who can consider room service? The trays must weigh 50 pounds but if the service isn’t used another job is cut. What to do? I’d like to have my brown shoes polished but hate to ask.

Last year the staff had time to visit and many of them worked to learn the language of the passengers but now it’s here-your-are and they take off. We’ve also noticed that the spotless stainless steel and brass aren’t as spotless. The life raft containers look dirty. It’s not that we need spotless but it just shows how pushed the staff members are. Some of the higher level people are short with passengers and I think they are just exhausted. Likely they get grief from crew and passengers.

What else? There are shows every night – comedians and jugglers; magicians and singers; dancers and what-all troupes. Rick generally hates them and I like to give most a chance so go alone. Most seem to come on board for a day or two and then jump off to find another ship. Tough way to live or exciting. Not sure.

There’s a daily movie with popcorn and there are cooking demos and tours behind scenes in the kitchen. There’s a gym, a spa, an indoor and outdoor pool and a couple of hot tubs. There are shops, a casino and a library. The library lends books for free, offers internet for $.55 per minute (for dialup speed) and rents DVDs. One can walk the lower promenade deck with 3.5 laps equaling a mile. Clearly posted are warnings – NO JOGGING. I break that rule occasionally because around the corner at the bow the wind can be very strong and jogging a few steps is the only way to have my feet keep up with the rest of me.

The naturalist gives lectures and commentaries on the deck and the magician gave a lecture on Houdini. One can purchase “art” though the reputation of on board art (in general) is not reassuring.

There really is always something to do. The TV offers CNN or Turner Classic movies or showings or any lectures or commentaries by the naturalist or entertainer as well as a closed circuit showing of what can be seen from the bridge.

Being onboard I wish not to say I’m hungry but rather that I’m feeling peckish. It seems appropriate to like and want tea but I’m making little progress there. Dinner at 8 feels reasonable though at 5:30 my stomach needs reassurance that it will be fed.

Napier, NZ

In 1931 Napier, NZ was being crushed by the Great Depression but things suddenly turned worse in February when a 7.6 earthquake demolished most of center city breaking gas lines which naturally led to fires that broken water lines couldn’t do a thing about. Then the shaken people endured 600 aftershocks over the next 2 weeks which, it seems, should have sent them packing but it didn’t.

The earthquake pushed this part of the North Island upward an additional 2 meters expanding Napier by a great deal so the city planners talked things over and decided that Napier should be rebuilt in Art Deco style with wider streets and stronger materials. Looking down one finds that the manhole covers are art deco; looking up the street light poles reflect the same design; and looking around many buildings are decorated in mission style, art deco and Spanish

How did they decide who owned the extra land? How did they work it out who gave up old land in order to make wider streets? How did they pay for all of this building during the depression?

I have none of those answers but do have photos of art deco buildings where people work dressed as though it’ s still 1930 something. Vintage cars are popular - 6 of them came to the dock to greet the Volendam in the morning and another 10 stopped by to see the ship off while the local jazz band played and several passengers jitterbugged their way up the ramp. These little towns really try to make the passengers feel as if they’ve been invited to a party.

There’s an opossum store here because they’ve got an infestation of about 70,000,000 opossums who eat at least 21,000 tones of foliage every night. Trappers catch the animals and their fur is made into slippers, wraps, fur trim or sold as skins. I should add that the opossum here is a long-haired relative to the rat-like American version - rather raccoon like in fur.

More popular than the skin is the fur which is worked into Merino wool for knitted gloves, scarves, socks, hats, vests and sweaters. Socks are about $26 and vests start at $250. I didn’t even look at sweaters prices but will admit that the stuff is cashmere-soft. The store’s motto is, “buy a sweater, save a tree.”

The sunken gardens are picture perfect with a stylized water lily sculpture and mini water wheel. Next to this quiet, reserved area there’s a huge skate park with booming rap music and dozens of ramps and things for skateboarders to try to kill themselves on. There’s also an outdoor roller blade park, a huge playground and a beach.

The town provided free shuttle buses through the working port into town. This area exports pulp to Japan for paper and lumber for construction. The other main export is fruit – primarily apples – and a major import is the cruise passenger supposedly, but this ship came in at 7 and nothing opened till 10 or 11 and then the all aboard was 1:30 so it didn’t leave much time for taking advantage of the well-heeled passengers interested in leaving Euros or dollars in port.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wellington, NZ

Wellington, NZ is my kind of town. There are clean, public toilets all over town – so numerous that even I walk right past many of them rather than searching madly to find one.

We walked downtown taking a short cut through the old National Bank building which now houses shops and cafes on its marvelous tile floors. The cable car was our goal and we found it just after a tour bus whose 100 passengers were able to go to the front of the line. Timing is so important.

The ride was okay but the real reward was the cable car museum at the top. Cable car #1 was there in its glorious red paint and car #3 was refurbished in its original cream and green. It was a beauty and crowning it was an almost exact copy of the brass bell. The original bell was eliminated when the car was modernized but the city of San Francisco had an extra antique bell of the proper vintage so they donated it to the museum. Wasn’t that awfully good of them?

When the first cable car went into service the company built a tea room because people trekking up the hill would naturally want to have tea there. The tea room is gone but some lovely photos remain and there’s also a Campbell Stokes sunshine recorder. This is a sphere of clear glass the size of a grapefruit. Under the sphere is a strip of paper. The sphere focuses the sun’s rays on the paper and burns a hole in a strip across the paper as the day progresses. The paper strip was replaced daily, or nightly, and the old strips retained to show how much sunlight there was each day. Very cool.

The other reason to go up the hill is to walk through the botanical gardens which, like most of the museums, are free and manned by volunteers. The succulents were magnificent and everything was impeccably groomed.

The gardens end at an old cemetery, a historic and unusual burial ground. Instead of having a cemetery for each church, early Wellington had one cemetery divided into Anglican, Jewish and “public” sectors. Holding Wellington’s departed from 1840 till 1892, it was adorned with ornate cast iron fences around nearly every plot and the stones showed details of Wellington since they gave the name, birth date and place and death date and place for the first to be interred there along with the name of the ship that person sailed to Wellington if they were not born there.

A couple of things seemed odd to me. One is that subsequent deaths were listed as a name and then something like “beloved wife of the above” or “brother of the above”. Another is that there seemed to be some stones packed without room for a casket between. And the really odd thing is that this cemetery is split by an 8 lane highway. How could that happen?

In order to construct the highway, the remains of 3700 people were dug up and moved to a mass grave elsewhere. The highway went in, the disrupted stones were placed in their appropriate sectors (Anglican, Jewish and “public”) and the remaining parts of the cemetery were named a heritage site so it wouldn’t be disturbed. It’s all in the timing.

Civic square had a marvelous blend of sculptures including an actual drum circle that anyone could beat on at will and a floating ball rather like the Chalice at Christchurch square. Neil Dawson made both sculptures using aluminum and designing them both with ferns.

Te Papa is the museum of New Zealand. I won’t mention the admission cost or the volunteers but will say that it’s amazing. The whole building is a sculpture with huge open spaces and more interactive displays than we had time to mess around with. What we didn’t see is the only Giant Squid on display in any museum in the world. We didn’t see it because they are still building the special squid tank and it’s not scheduled to be finished till next week. Bummer. I find the Giant Squid fascinating. This isn’t the largest ever found and it’s not perfect since a lot of its skin was lost and it has only one of those soccer-ball-sized eyes left but it’s bound to draw the crowds.

Tomorrow – Napier.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Picton, NZ

Picton, New Zealand would fit inside Wellsville with room to spare but for the port and marina. We walked from the dock through town and up to a lookout point on the snout. Other people might call it a peninsula or point.

The hiking trails begin on the other side of the bay accessed by Coat Hanger Bridge so named for the thin wires that make up the sides. We trudged sometimes and sometimes strolled to reach Queen Charlotte Observation Point. The map showed toilets, a picnic area and an information site so we kinda expected a bit of civilization there but there was a pit toilet (somewhat less than we were accustomed to and populated by flies who seemed to object to any intrusion), a picnic table and a placard naming all the bays and sounds one could see –and one could see for miles. The view was worth the roughly 3 mile trek upward.

We snacked on peanut brownie cookies and water as our reward for reaching the top and just before leaving a couple we’d passed earlier came. They looked a tad disappointed when they realized that there was no food service. Thinking they looked puckish, I offered and they accepted a dousing of hand sanitizer and a cookie. They refused any more than that and to earn his snack the man shared that with his GPS he knew we had walked 5.27 km from Coat Hanger Bridge. Rick and I had gone further since we missed the start and had to work back. More than that - we’d walked from the ship since we missed the shuttle that ran every 20 minutes. All told we likely walked 7 plus miles out and back.

We passed the whaling museum to buy a bit from local artisans. One man carved stones and another was a wood turner who lived 80 km away. I bought a used book from a man who has been selling used books on the dock for 12 years. A used paper back is $4 to $15, a fraction of the $40 and upwards of a new paperback. (I suspect the Library does a good business.)

He said that everything was expensive and that’s why there are so many used clothing and used furniture stores. Houses range from $300,000 to $500,000 for ordinary buildings and we had noted a sign in a Realtor’s office that they’d negotiate prices over $800,000. Who even counts that high?

Where does this money come from? Most of the towns have lost their manufacturing jobs and this service industry idea isn’t going to maintain the standard of living with $13 cups of soup, $15 sandwiches and $300 Keens. Things are slowing down everywhere. The docks at Dunedin (done Eden) and Christchurch were loaded with wood and wood pulp but there was no activity there at all. The mountain of wood pulp just sat. The stuff was meant for China but now it seems to sit. We saw little happening with any of the pulp or lumber piles.

There were 12 container-movers in Christchurch but only 6 were at work.

We did see some dandy old cars on the Picton pier. A man there said that someone buys old Cooper Minis, packs them 8 to a container after taking off the wheels, sends them to the US to be refurbished and then sold at double the outlay. Who would think shipping cars to the US would be a money maker?

There was an intense rain at about 2 while we were at the Internet Café. Later the Captain announced that his engineers had done a great job holding the ship steady and apologized for those who had to wait to come onboard since the gangplank was unsafe in the wild winds. This place is the land of 4 seasons a day.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch, NZ
The cathedral here offers a lookout from the top of the steeple for those willing to pay for the right to climb 134 steps. The cathedral’s vaulted ceiling is as impressive as any and is visible at ground level so that’s where we started the day.

Cathedral square is a pleasant place. The tourist trams drive through every few minutes and people have little shops under umbrellas. Most of them are only vendors but one woman offered her own little paintings as well as hats and scarves from the wool she spun and knitted. Jay will have such a hat to wear next winter if our luggage makes it home.

There was also a man who did some carving and also designed work to be done by his “friends.” One carving he had was a tiny, intricate NZ lizard that is not a lizard. It certainly looks like a lizard but the description in museums makes it clear it is not a lizard though the commentary does not advance to the next step to tell what it is. Rick bought the not-lizard carved into a seed.

Nearby Neil Dawson’s sculpture, chalice, towers above the square. It sort of looks like a flower vase and then rather like a lacy ice cream cone. The form is natural aluminum color on the outside and blue inside but the open work allows both colors to show. It was dedicated just before 9-11-01 and has since become a magnet for protestors. People climb the sculpture and present their grievances or hold rallies at the base.

No protestors were on hand for us though an aging hippie juggled while another sang and played guitar and a third begged for money to go home. There was a unicycle lying sadly on the sidewalk but nobody put foot to pedal.

We also missed the wizard, a local guy who welded two VW front ends together to create his car which he parks while he rants and raves on a variety of topics.

We did see Victoria Square near city hall. There was a lovely bridge and a huge round flower garden that functioned as a clock. With flowers rather than numbers, the huge hands were meant to rotate and give the time but right now it’s only correct twice a day.

Johnson’s grocery is packed to the gills with tea and biscuits. They had a big sale on a new shipment of tinned haggis which we resisted choosing instead cashews to break the bite of afternoon hunger. The owner apologized to us, as did most people, for the cold weather. It was only a chilly 70 degrees here. What would they think of Wellsville in winter?

Queen Victoria not only had a park but also a clock dedicated on her 50th anniversary of the throne. It was pretty but not as pretty as the peacock fountain in super-huge Haley Park.

This was a hoot – Christ College. It was clear we were near when the trickle of boys wearing gray knee socks and shorts with white shirts and black and white ties turned from occasional to swarm. It’s a college –not a university - so boys go from out of elementary school at about age 11 or 12 and stay through high school. It’s completely grand.

The grass is like a golf green and the buildings like palaces. We could only go as far as the bollards. Don’t begin to think that I know a bollard from a not-lizard but the sign limiting our passage was near some sort of short polls so we guessed those were bollards. The boys were so totally proper that none of them could possibly be the source of the common graffiti around NZ.

A gentleman at the museum guessed that tuition would be about $20,000 a year for borders. He said that a lot of the farmers sent their sons to school there to continue the family tradition at Christ College.

Rutherford’s Den was another marvelous, free exhibit. There’s this building – part castle/part Hogwarts – constructed in 1874 as a high school. In a forward thinking mood, it was made to accommodate not just boys but girls. After 99 years the school moved to a new campus and the old school became shops and studios and restaurants but the rooms used by Ernest Rutherford to experiment and to lecture are now a museum about this man who appears on the NZ $100 bill.

The lecture hall is just as it was in his day and it is possible to sit there and listen to recordings of his teachings about the atom. He developed many theories about atoms including that they were mostly empty space. He helped develop the Geiger counter and to calculate the half life of radioactive substances. He also taught science to young people in that very room.

When a great scientist dies any number of things might happen to offer tribute. Somehow his neighbor thought that she’d just take a couple of his diplomas and make them into lampshades. The museum was able to recover the lampshades but as diplomas they are a bit of a mess.

There was a long list of stuff we saw and did there but this is already longer than you likely hoped.

Dunedin, New Zealand

Dunedin, South Island, New Zealand

We spent the day in Dunedin. The ship actually docked in Port Chalmers but it’s a tiny town and the big deal is Dunedin so we took the free shuttle in.

All the towns here have had free shuttles for us. One of the other passengers told us that, last year on one of the big cruise ships, 2,000 passengers landed and tried to take public transport into town creating a mad house. The bus drivers would only take a few people on each run because they had all their regular passengers to pick up so it took 2 hours to get off the dock on the public buses. The cruise passengers were pretty angry, these people said, and the cruise lines worked together to get free shuttles.

This made the taxi drivers unhappy because they had a captive crowd for the $40 ride to Dunedin (and similar situations in other towns) so the free shuttles agreed to run only an hour after docking so that people in a hurry would take taxis. In spite of that there were buses ready to run as soon as we docked though they hid inside of a building at the end of the dock. As in other towns, the drivers are volunteers but unlike other towns there was no second volunteer to give commentary on the bus.

In town we found a few interesting things. The old train station is covered in Royal Dalton tiles on floor and walls - 700.000 of them.

St. Paul’s Cathedral was built with $60.000 in 1919 on the site of a previous church established in 1863. Construction included 38 steps of Takaka marble outside and Gothic-style pillars with a vaulted roof of Oamaru limestone inside but money was short so a temporary chancel (where the altar is) was built. It took 50 years to get the money for the permanent chancel and what they built was poured concrete cast in a simple, modern style with clear glass windows. It looks a bit unusual with the two different styles in one building.

We saw a few other interesting things such as beer delivery by tanker truck. It reminded Rick of the septic pumpers and made me think of a milk tanker. The driver said he’d been delivering beer to pubs for 18 years. This particular brewery once had a fleet of 50 tankers spreading beer all around the south island but with so many new micro breweries and the influx of bottles and cans, there are now only 2 tankers at work. He was pumping 600 liters into this particular pub.

The other odd thing was the public toilet. It was a little stall with a toilet inside. When one entered and closed the door lights came on. The toilet paper dispensed from a machine activated by a motion sensor. The toilet flushed only when one used the sink to wash hands and then the door opened with a button. After use, the door closed and the many sprayers throughout the room washed it all down. It was free and almost as much fun as the singing Charmin toilets in New York when HM, Susan, Norma and I went. (I can be so easily amused.)

We went to a marvelous museum with all kind of displays including art from China and an exhibit on Darwin and fossils of the giant birds and turtles that once lived here and it was all free. Just can’t get over the free museums.

We visited with a large curly dog and a black and white cat. The dog blocked the way into a store and the cat was at the finest post box in New Zealand. We dodged the occasional rain – storms that lasted about 90 seconds and then disappeared. It was like that all day. Bits of rain; lots of sharp wind; sun; clouds; and then another short downpour.

Back at the ship I stayed on deck to see the tug bring us out of dock and to watch all the birds and see the sheep on the hillsides. The Great Northern Albatross (found in the south but found after another species had been named the Great Southern Albatross) sailed in large, lazy circles over the lighthouse and cormorants dove in the sea. At the end of the harbor a rainbow appeared with a brilliant neon color scheme. Great day!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Day at Sea

It’s our third day at sea and when the ship is still, I miss the rocking. I’ll have to eat those words along with a round of little pink pills if the waves pick up but for now it’s true.

We’ve been in Fiordland National Park on the southern island of New Zealand since early morning –Sunday for us. We went to the bow to watch the sun almost rise. This little area gets something over 23 feet of rain a year. That is not a typo. There’s so much rain that it runs off the rock cliffs and into the water rapidly so that there are a few feet of freshwater supporting an entire ecosystem above the salt water life.

Spencer, our naturalist, joked that NZ is the land of 4 seasons in one day. Off one end of the ship is the sun while the other is crushed under clouds. The wind is brisk and between an announcement about some rock formations and beautiful weather, clouds rolled in over less time than it took to grab cameras and go down 3 levels. People were already rushing in, shaking off rain that was pounding in at a 90 degree angle.

This, Spencer chortles, is great because the rain causes nearly instant waterfalls off the cliffs. One little waterfall spouted nicely this morning looking near enough to feel the mist and seeming a few feet high. It was a couple of miles away and 500 feet tall. One’s sense of scale is blown to bits by an ocean.

I went to a couple of cooking demos this morning and learned that the mashed potatoes are made with cream, butter, milk, cheddar cheese, nutmeg, rosemary and thyme. Rick was a bit headachy and stuffy and never thought to suspect the potatoes as a source of nutmeg. The demos, for me, aren’t so much about cooking as about finding what I can and can’t eat. There’s food everywhere and we are admonished never to let ourselves feel peckish.

Keeping peckish at bay required recipes that start with “peel 40 pounds of potatoes and 40 pounds of onions.”

There was also a fruit and vegetable carving demo. What that guy could do with a watermelon, 10 minutes and a sharp knife. Amazing. He made flowers from beet and/or turnip slices, from carrot chunks, sweet peppers and onions using celery stalk leaves and nesting it all into a vase made from a cantaloupe. (Aussies, Brits and Americans have different names for all sorts of stuff making conversation interesting.)

The library on board is something out of a BBC production. People – all gray-haired if haired at all – sitting in chairs, playing scrabble, reading the papers or books or snoozing in soft recliners. The voices curve words with a charming British lilt. What am I doing here and what if someone realizes I don’t belong?
Dunnedin NZ tomorrow.

Thrown off a Tram; Tossed by the Sea

To paraphrase an old warning – it’s all fun and games until someone vomits a stomach out. That is, people are always joking about rough seas but then the waves start and it’s not so funny, It’s rather hard to come up with a seasick-joke while on a pitching, rolling vessel in a storm.

Captain Bos announced last night that because of high winds the ship would need the help of tugs to leave the harbor. I guess that Ships can maneuver well when under speed but the starts and stops make it less responsive. But he also warned us that at 9 p.m. and for at least 30 minutes that sailing would be rough. He laughed saying that the promenade doors would be locked and that we should use care in moving about the ship.

Was he lying, in error or just manipulating those of tender stomach? My guess is that Captain Bos does not make mistakes regarding this vessel and I, for one, feel nicely manipulate.

The ship did start to become active at 9 p.m. The dining hall pitched and stewards grabbed bottles and stacked plate covers with feet splayed for balance and arms stretched to hold as much as possible.

As the stewards strained against the movement, the rest of the place shouted or yelped – as if on a lurching Ferris wheel. The ship rolled back and nervous laughter sprinkled over the room. Not a minute later another wave tipped the ship and my mind started seeing us as a miniscule cork on the vast ocean.

In my head a screen scrolled terms on an endless loop – rollicking, rolling, pitching, tossing, undulating, sloping, rising, falling, plunging, swelling, heaving, lurching, churning, surging, leaning, slanting, dipping, tumbling (but never, never, NEVER sinking).

By 9:15 my internal conversation became, “You’re halfway there. Hang on. In 15 minutes it will be over.”

The countdown continued and as the numbers decreased my suspicion regarding the Captain grew but my stomach started to adjust. I could last longer. I could keep my dinner and ride out the storm for another half hour.

After dinner Rick and I tried to look out on deck but all the lights were out (to protect the birds) and the doors were locked (to protect us). The force of the wind could be heard and felt as it rushed through the tiny gaps around the doors.
We made way to the stateroom passing others in the halls. Everyone either hung onto the rails or lurched down the narrow halls. One man asked if I was drunk or just pretending – wise guy. A woman said that someone opened a stateroom door and she plunged in, an unannounced and unexpected guest.

When Rick and I got to our room he moved our gift bottle of sparkling wine to the sofa and turned just in time to catch the sailing fruit bowl. At the same time all four drawers on our night stands slid open, then shut, then open. We locked the top drawers and put shoes in front of the bottom drawers to hold them shut.
A towel in the top drawer kept stuff from rolling back and forth inside the drawer but what would hold my stomach? Had the captain warned the rough seas would last all night my composure might have wavered long enough to forget to swallow. Because of the captain I convinced myself that the rough seas were temporary and while waiting for the problem to end I adjusted little by little and fell asleep but remember thinking that putting a baby in a rocking cradle might be child abuse.

This day had started with going ashore in Melbourne, Australia. We walked around town and went to some museums and it was all very civilized. Melbourne has a legion of volunteer guides in red hats and vests. They man the tourist information desks and stroll the streets looking for people to help. All of them assured us that the trip back to the dock was easy on the 109 tram.

Melbourne has a marvelous free tram that goes in a loop around downtown all day long and gives a commentary on the attractions and architecture at each stop. We rode the tram a couple of times. Once while we were on it, the driver got off. It was a bit curious until we realized he was going to the public toilets on the corner.

There is also a free public bus that has a larger loop than the tram. It seems a very generous and hospitable service. How nice if New York offered that to tourists.
Our ship sailed at 5:30 so giving plenty of time we boarded the 109 at 4:00. The 109 is part of the regular public transit system so there were kids and people going to and from shopping and work as well as not a few cruise-ship-folk.

Getting around Melbourne was easy stuff. No problem at all except that this tram driver announced she wasn’t going to go to the docks but would return to the city. The tram had about 120 people on it and there were another 50 at the stop intending to board it, not to see people get off and watch the empty tram scuttle away.

The next 109 tram stopped and people squeezed on. The driver tried to shut the doors when he felt that the train was full but people kept pushing on and then the doors wouldn’t close. He was very angry as he came by to reset the doors and then to turn off the engine and turn it on again. At each stop the doors would open and people in the train would try to discourage anyone from getting on but 3 people would get off and 20 would crush on.

The driver finally threw us all off four stops from the docks at 4:55. We started walking near 2 young girls who said that it took them 25 minutes to walk to the docks from that point. We charged ahead – make that I charged ahead and Rick tried to slow me. We saw two 109 trams pass us but they were stuffed with arms and legs and head pressed up against the glass doors and walls like so many human flowers between the pages of an old dictionary.

We wanted the next tram but we were walking on the pedestrian path and the tram ran on the track on the other side of a fence. Then one stopped when we were near the crossway. I chased it down but the tram started to leave. I banged on the side and the driver opened the door. Rick caught up so we were both able to get on and head toward the dock. There were no more trams behind u so missing it would have meant at least a 10 minute wait. We could relax except that, just after my panting from our 10minute jog, this tram driver put us off too. There were too many trams in the station and it couldn’t go all the way so we walked again and made it into the customs area at 5:15. Screening took a little while and then we were on the ship with 5 minutes to spare. Rick said that we were never in danger of missing the ship but I don’t know about that. So, after that relaxing trip back from the city, we pitched and rolled on the ship until landing an hour late in Burnie, Tasmania.

Burnie Tasmania
The people of Burnie are about as proud of their city and as nice to strangers as any people could be. They have the cleanest air and purest water in the world. The tip of South America is to their west but the air and water that reaches Tasmania doesn’t touch other land for thousands of miles. Burnie was a bit of a mess until the 70s when making paper, acids and paint pigment were their main industries. All those industries have ended or cleaned up their acts in the past decades and being clean and green seem to be taken seriously by almost everyone.

As in Melbourne the guides are volunteers. There were 29 cruise ships in Burnie this year after only 13 last year and all of them were met by a free shuttle bus with volunteer guides and drivers.

A free shuttle bus took us to the tourist information center where volunteers gave out brochures and sold tickets on the Burnie Attractions Bus. Volunteers also manned the volunteer-built Burnie Pioneer Museum which was constructed with wood, windows and doors from old structures in Burnie so that it looked like a 1900 street scene but it was a reproduction.

We took the bus to Wilf Campbell Lookout and took photos of the dock and our ship and the panoramic view of the harbor.

The next stop was the Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden. This is also volunteer-built and run. The Rhododendron society somehow got title to 30 acres of bush land and then started tearing down trees to build terraced gardens with, so far, 23000 species of plants. They’ve been recognized around the world for their collections of rhododendron. They have species from all around the world and the plants are grouped with the other plants that would occur with them in those areas so there is a North
American area and a Korean area and another Japanese area and they are working on a Chinese layout.

This guide had just sprayed the hillside to kill everything there so he could plant the Chinese varieties. What, I asked, had he sprayed with?

Roundup, he said – good stuff. He knew that Monsanto guaranteed that Roundup broke down in 2 weeks and totally disappeared. He sprayed 30 liters of Roundup every week and had been doing it for years without a mask or gloves and believed that it was safe though he was diagnosed with cancer recently. Funny he should put it that way.
I told him that Monsanto was the company that brought us Agent Orange. He wasn’t concerned though. He said it was suspicious people like me who believe in the myth of global warming.

We made a few more visits and then took the free shuttle back to the dock with time to spare. A retired bricklayer on the ship is a resident of Burnie and he said that nearly everyone in town (and that’s 20,000 people) volunteers for something. Everyone helps in some way and it’s not a chore but a social due that everyone enjoys and supports. Doesn’t that sound super?

In the night the sea became rough again. I could barely move in the morning. The ship rocked. Rick said he enjoyed it and timed his breathing with the movement of the ship. Not so for me.

Captain Bos shut down the elevators, put motion sickness bag dispensers at every elevator, emptied the pools and hot tubs and made motion sickness pills available at the hotel desk. On the deck all the cushions were taken away from chairs and they were all folded and tied tight to the side rails. I later talked with one of the shop workers and he said that even seasoned sailors experienced seasickness that day.

Rick brought me some of the seasickness pills with the directions reading - “Do not take on empty stomach.” The whole thing about needing these pills involves the stomach not wanting to keep food inside. With part of a slowly eaten bagel and the little pink pill I could again maneuver and we did a few ship-board activities including visiting with some Australian women who had been sailing for 50 years. We also got back into eating which one can hardly avoid doing on a cruise ship.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Out of Sydney
We walked about Sydney for part of the day finding the maritime museum and looking at buildings, crossing a great old bridge and considering a visit to the aquarium when we return in a few days. Boarding the ship was, as generally, an efficient exercise in maritime organization.
There were many staff people on hand to check our documentation and take security photos. All passengers must certify in writing that they do not have a fever and that they haven’t had any gastro intestinal illnesses in the past 48 hours. Passengers aren’t supposed to have been around anyone who is sick. I wonder what happens if people admit to any of this. With 1400 passengers it’s hard to believe that nobody has been sick but perhaps so since most of them (most of us) are “seniors” and away from the runny-nosed kids.
One must use hand sanitizer before entering the ship or any restaurant on the ship. Passengers are encouraged to use only their own lavatories and if public restrooms are used, there are paper towels at the doors so that one has no need to touch the door handle.
The captain is very entertaining and uses the public address system to encourage extra hand washing and to tell people what’s going on. Apparently when the ship stopped in Sydney it was necessary to use an emergency braking system. While one might wonder the reason, he kept that to himself but told that using it caused some electrical problems that had to be straightened out before we could set sail.
He has addressed the group many times since to update on a low pressure system near Tasmania. This system has a pressure of 28.4 millibars, I think, and it is lower than another system on the island that was producing a cyclone as he spoke. He promised to put sea sickness bags near all the elevators, a move that will lead me to take the steps. Supposedly at about 8 p.m. tonight we will be near the edge of the storm which is moving northward. He is still hoping that the storm will shift or dissipate before we get to it.
The captain said that all outdoor lights will be turned off at night. During storm birds are disoriented and tired by high winds and will fly into the ships drawn by lights. There are, already, some dead birds on the ship’s deck.
He also said that when we reach a certain point that the ballast in the ship will be shifted to compensate for winds. He shut the pool which had major sloshing over the sides this morning and he suggested that while walking we always have one hand on a part of the ship to steady us.
This is in sharp contrast to the regular admonition against touching hand rails or ship walls. Apparently it’s better to get sick than to fall down. He expects attendance at dinner to be relaxed tonight and I’m wondering if we should get a second late lunch/early dinner or just drink water.
Last night the flashlight in Rick’s night stand rolled back and forth several times and I wondered what it would be like if the ship’s movement increased. Tonight I may find out. It’s mid afternoon now and the curtains are waving a bit. I think it’s time to take his suggestion of clearing the desk and table and putting everything inside of drawers.

10 pm
The sea is getting rough and the winds picking up. Oh my.


Our first notable encounter on this trip to Singapore occurred in the Rochester Airport. We learned that our checked bag weighed 55 pounds and that the excess 5 pounds would carry a $150 surcharge. Holy cow. We moved things around and made our carry-on heavier and bulkier but saved the $150. Looming in the near future is the notion that we have neither space nor weight for any treasures we might find on the trip.
Having dealt with the suitcase we concentrated on the serious task of getting to Singapore. We didn’t wait long in Rochester before we flew to Chicago where we waited and flew to Los Angeles where we waited and flew to Hong Kong where we waited and flew to Singapore. More expensive tickets might whisk a person along in fewer steps but no matter the route Singapore is on the other side of a large world.
It was interesting to look at airports along the way. If ranked only by the style, cleanliness and art in airports, Singapore and Hong Kong would leave the US bleakly behind. Both those airports are new and elegant as is the subway system in Singapore. Full of mosaics and large spaces, it’s like traveling though an art museum. The tracks are hidden behind glass walls whose doors only open when the trains are there. The safety and cleanliness of such a system are without question.
Singapore is a new, tiny country. They say they have no water supply on the island but I’m guessing that means in quantity for the population because people have lived here for a long time.
Again, in the modern context, there are no natural resources yet the country seem to provide for the people. It was a Sultanate and then the British claimed it. Japan took it in the Second World War and it spent a bit of time as part of the Malay Federation but racial tensions and the political pressure of Indonesia forced Singapore into independence and they’ve done well.
With pockets of Chinese, Indian and European as well as other ethnic groups and huge areas of poverty Singapore took an interesting approach to racism decades ago. They built low income housing and required that every floor have families of different ethnicity. Over time people have come to see each other as neighbors and not as ethnic groups and this has helped bring the country together. Perfect? Not likely but real progress is made all the time.
It seems that the country’s pride has also helped. Singapore doesn’t talk about military wealth or power. How could they? It’s tiny with a small population. What they talk about is being educated. What they show is cleanliness and landscaping. There is public art everywhere. The economy seems strong and the country seems “together” at least to visitors. That’s not the impression one gets from LXA.
While in Singapore I am oversized and under bling-ed. There are sparkling Indian saris and rhinestone embedded T-shirts. Shoes and boots are jeweled and the sun dances over handbags and jewelry. The size-zero women become inches taller on heels which seem no impediment to traveling stride after stride over the streets and into shops. Even if a few sparkles were added to my backpack and perhaps my sneaker laces, I would still be a few sizes out of the ordinary.
Singapore is changing. Though the flowers blossom on every elevated walkway and the parks are amazing pockets of jungle one can find the occasional bit of litter and the stainless steel panels in the mass transit areas show fingerprints. Taxi drivers say that they wait 30 minute for a new fare and some shops are permanently shuttered. Hotel occupancy is down and we heard only the occasional German or French conversation.
Western food has pushed into Singapore where Kentucky Fried Chicken is presented as an American Classic and people choose Subway sandwiches over won ton mee or masla dosi. As a result some people have attained a Western girth and, according to the papers, related Western diseases. Since everyone is covered by the same health plan, it is in everyone’s interest to be healthy so warnings are posted on snack foods to eat in moderation. Commentators in videos at the Museum urge Asian food and rejection of Starbucks. Change is tough.
Rick and I discovered, on our last day, the best masala dosai in the world. I say this with great conviction. The best spring rolls in the world can be found at the Chang Dao Nest in Thailand. We’ve eaten spring rolls everywhere and those are the best.

We’ve eaten masala dosai in a lot of places too including our month long trek through India and this was the best. Called Sree Sagar Pte Ltd, Pure Veg Restaurant, it is the establishment owned by Mr. Ananda Rao K.

The dosai was perfect. The masala had a wonderful flavor that made me just keep chewing it to make it last. The onion was mild and the other spices were able to blend and carry through. I don’t know the name for the coconut dipping sauce or the red sauce but I ate every drop of both. The sambal was, again, perfectly spiced. I also had a samosa. I could have eaten those samosas every day for years. If I could write about food the way Emilie does, you’d understand how good this stuff was. I had eaten some masala dosai the day before elsewhere and it was okay but when I tasted Mr. Rao’s food there was no comparison.

I have a photo of Mr. Rao and his cook and will post it when possible but if anyone out there is going to Singapore, stop by the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market and find him at the end of the row on Street 1 or go to his restaurant at 212 Serangoon Road. He has a website - www.sreesagar.com but what he really has is the best masala dosai in the world.

Rain interfered with our walking in the evening so we went inside a mall and were amazed by the number of people walking around a mall on a Sunday evening. Slightly over half the stores were open and hundreds of people gathered in groups in chairs or on the floor or leaning over the railing talking in that mix of Asian languages that just sounds like Singapore.