Blog Update 12/4/10
Hello from Gran Canaria Island which is one of the 7 Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. Our ship is here for the afternoon and evening and we are looking forward to exploring the town of Las Palmas, and possibly doing some shopping. The Canary Islands have had duty free tax status since 1852 which has greatly stimulated trade and thousands of cargo ships call in here every year.
So far we have mostly enjoyed the ports of call on this cruise. Toulon, in the Provence region of France was first but we didn't get off the ship. The main part of town was too far away, it was too cold and ugly out, and there isn't that much to do there. But the next time we are here we will definitely either rent a car or take a taxi to Le Castellet, a medieval village perched on a hilltop overlooking the wineries of the Bandol region. There are narrow cobblestone streets with houses dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries and there is an 11th century castle and a 12th century church. The original entrance gate still stands along with 6 guardtowers and most of the original town walls.
Our second port, Ajaccio, Corsica was an easy town to walk into because our ship docked within blocks of the main streets, and the weather was warmer, at least in the morning. It has a nice walk overlooking the water and seashore, past an old fort and moat, where several burros and goats are now grazing. The so-called tourist attractions focus on the fact that Napoleon was born and raised here and the house he lived in, and that of his uncle, are now museums. The streets are so clean and the buildings interesting and well kept. Of course, the place is also loaded with coffee shops and tourist crap shops. We enjoyed walking around and made it back to the ship for a late lunch at just the right time – before the rain came in.
On the British Airways flight from LAX to London, I sat next to an Iberian Airways pilot who was from Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, our third stop. She told us we would enjoy her home town and we LOVED it! What an absolutely gorgeous setting, with a huge number of yachts and boats in nicely arranged marinas near where we docked. There was an gorgeous promenade along the water leading all the way to the main part of the city and the cathedral, which is the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe. It towers over the city above the Arabic walls which protected the city, and was easily seen from our ship 3 miles away. It also helped that we were having a warm and sunny day. Many Europeans come here as a resort destination because of the beaches and sunny weather. Jack, Elaine and I took the city bus in (1.25 Euro compared to the ship's shuttle price of $6), and then walked back after exploring the main part of the city. The streets and buildings are beautifully restored and meticulously kept, with impressive artistic touches everywhere, such as sculptures, statutes, parks, and artistic streetlights. Across the street from the docking area and up some stairs we found where the crew goes to shop and do internet in an area called Puerto Pi. It was an impressive area and totally local – not dolled up for tourists. Finding free WiFi in these areas is always a treat because it costs $.65 a minute on the ship. Luckily, because we are diamond plus status on the ship, we got coupons for 45 free minutes each, but we still try to find free WiFi in the ports.
The fourth port was Cartagena, Spain which is in the southern part of the Costa del Sol. We have been here before and always enjoy it as it is a very manageable town to walk in with clean streets, beautiful buildings, and good shopping. The free WiFi here is right in the Tourist Information office on the main street. By now we were getting tired of wearing the same outfit all the time, because we only brought one set of clothes for cold weather. So we found a shop where we had discovered some great deals last time, and bought new sweaters and scarves. The sun was out today and it was starting to warm up already, something we knew would happen as soon as we bought more warm clothes!
Yesterday was our first sea day, and we always enjoy the relaxed pace of those. We have been working out in the gym everyday, trying to get back in shape and also work off some of the calories we are taking in. A lot of those calories are coming between 5 and 8:30PM each day when we hang out in the Diamond Plus lounge with Jack, and some other new friends we have made there. Elaine and Jack have a running argument over who likes the free drinks more. It is held up in a lounge called the 19th hole, which is on the 14th deck with panoramic windows and we enjoy watching as the ship leaves port, or as the sun sets over the sea. The nightly live entertainment in the theater has been pretty good, as well. Such an enjoyable contrast to the hectic touring days in India.
Speaking of India, I am aware that I have not finished posting the travelogues from the adventure. I am posting Travelogue #9 today, right after this update, and I will finish writing the last travelogue on the next sea day, which is Dec. 6.
India Travelogue #9
The Greenwoods Resort near Periyar had a great breakfast buffet and we enjoyed it thoroughly before boarding the van again to head up to one of the tea plantations. There was a guide there who showed us the plants and told us a lot about the tea before taking us through the processing plant. Pictures were not allowed inside, but we were able to see the big trays where they spread the leaves out to dry, then chop them up in a big machine, put the crushed bits through mesh to sort the sizes, then put the crushed tea in a revolving tank with warm air running through to dry it. It was very noisy inside the processing plant so we were taken outside to a little outdoor kitchen where he showed us the proper way to make tea, and served us 2 different kinds.
Next we stopped at a very large catholic church (St. Francis) which was made of a bluish colored stone and architecturally interesting. Kerala has a large percentage of Christians although there are also Muslims and Hindus here too. Shanji says they all are pretty accepting of each other and live together happily as neighbors. We have seen LOTS of churches since we have been here, and Sunday is pretty much a holiday with a lot of the businesses closed. In the north, where there aren't many Christians Sunday is not a day that everyone has off from work.
The third stop was at a cattle market which takes place only a couple of times a month. The van pulled off to the side of the road and let us out to take pictures. Below us, in a field, were hundreds of cattle, most with colored paint on their horns or colored dots or numbers painted on them. I guess that helped identify who was the owner or seller. On the road, where our van was stopped, there were big cargo trucks and also smaller individually owned trucks which were being loaded with cattle. And wow, did they cram them in there! By the time the trucks were loaded and driving off, you couldn't have stuffed a piece of paper in with them. Also, the cattle seemed so pathetically thin! If they were on their way to market, there wasn't much meat on them. Probably this could only happen in the south of India because the Hindus revere cows and would never do this to them, but in the south, the Christians are in the majority, and they eat beef.
A bit further along the road we stopped next to a rubber tree field and Shaji explained the whole process. They cut a groove into the bark of the tree and the liquid latex comes out and is collected in a little cup attached to the tree trunk. They cement a sheet of plastic around the trunk and over the cut area and the cup, to keep rain water from getting in there. They have to reopen the groove each morning and then collect the latex each afternoon or evening, so this process demands regular labor. The trees last a long time, and the plantation owners are doing very well financially. We passed some of their houses and they are always big, behind walls, with nice courtyards, and colorfully painted.
Arriving at the Whispering Palms hotel near Karakoram, there was a very nice buffet lunch waiting for us, with lots of food choices so the ones having problems with India food could eat something else. Shaji had managed to get the use of the houseboats that the hotel owned, so some of our people stayed in those and the rest of us had nice rooms in the hotel. In the late afternoon Shaji arranged for ice and some appetizers to be put on the smaller boat and we all brought the booze we had purchased earlier, and we had a happy hour boat ride out on part of the Backwaters. It was great to be out on the water for sunset, and to see the houses, rice paddies, coconut trees along the banks. As it started to get dark and we headed back towards the resort, the engine crapped out. They couldn't get it going again, so eventually they brought the other boat and towed us back. There was some entertainment of a drum and flute before the dinner buffet, which was another delicious meal which even included lobster. While we were waiting for dinner, a big busload of Indian people arrived, got checked in, and then had a separate dinner in another room. Shaji pointed out that it is good to see that it is not just foreigners who are interested in touring India – they are finally becoming affluent enough to travel in their own country and stay in these same nice hotels. The next day, at the swimming pool, we chatted with a young woman who was obviously Indian but who said she now lives in New Jersey and is scheduled to be an American citizen by next year. She is studying nursing. She was on a vacation with her family, who still lived in Kerala. This was a theme we encountered all over Kerala: get educated, learn a skill and English, and emigrate to an English-speaking country for better opportunities. There were billboards all over advocating this, and Shaji said the schools are packed with people planning to do this. It is part of the reason why Kerala is one of the more affluent states.
The next day (the 19th) we didn't have to leave until about 11, and we were traveling to Allepey by boat, so all we had to do was go to the lakeshore. The boat was not one of the houseboats but it was covered, which we appreciated because the sun was hot. Shaji took us to a small building on one of the banks where they serve seafood and toddy. Toddy is a palm alcohol drink and Shaji explained how the men have to climb the trees and attach a container to capture the juice of the flower, after they cut into it. Later they have to go back and collect it, so they climb the trees twice a day. The juice ferments very fast and is sweeter when it is fresher, becoming quite potent and bitter after only about 6 hours. We tasted the fresh stuff and it was good. The local people drink it when it has fermented longer because they want more of a “kick” from it. It is cheap and they can afford it. Apparently these little Toddy huts become quite the gathering places for the local villagers and Shaji said all the gossip gets spread around there.
The rest of the ride we were passing locals in small wooden canoes who had been out fishing or collecting mussels, or some of the big houseboats. The houseboats are of varying sizes, some of them with 2 to 4 bedrooms, a kitchen and living room on them and the crew does all the cooking. The outside walls and roof are woven reeds and some are very fanciful looking. Shaji said there are now about 500 of these boats in this area and they are so popular in the Nov-Jan high season that they cost between $500 and $1000 a night! They are very comfy and most also have a diesel generator and TV. They travel slowly down all the waterways, which are called the Kerala Backwaters. People have houses along these waterways, there are towns, businesses and even a “bus” boat route for the locals to get around. The rice paddies are located in fields behind the dikes that have been built up to keep the river water from getting in.
Our hotel in Allepey was beautiful and right on the water with manicured landscaping and an open-air restaurant. Lunch was ready when we got there and the food was good. There were only 12 rooms at this hotel and we were using 7 of them, so the staff really catered to us, including fixing special foods requested by Shaji. The rooms had open air bathrooms, which we also had at our last hotel. There were only outside walls and no ceilings. This hotel also had a spa area and one of the included activities was to get an Ayurvedic massage. Elaine and I went in for ours after a swim in the pool. This was the first massage we had allowed since about 31 years ago when we stayed at The Spa hotel in Palm Springs. These ladies really covered us with oil and had us slipping and sliding all over the table. Also, there was no concession for modesty – we were naked the whole time. It was an interesting and educational experience, but I don't think I would ever repeat it. The oil did some nice things to my skin, however it took lots of washings to get it out of my hair!
As soon as we cleaned up after the massage, our group left for a boat trip through the nearby waterways in a big wooden boat which is usually used for hauling lumber, I suspect. Shaji wanted to show us the life along the waterways and also get us to a special spot for sunset pictures. By the time we got there, it was starting to rain. He had brought along a lot of umbrellas so we didn't get soaked on the way back. This was the only hotel we stayed in which had mosquito nets over the beds and although the bugs weren't too bad, there were some and we were glad to have the nets.
The next day (Nov. 20th) we took another boat across the river and Shaji lead us on a walk through the village which was spread out over there. He explained everything about what the people had to do to live there, all about the rice paddies, which were actually lower than the river, how they collect and prepare the mussels. We saw many houses which had water in their courtyards so the people had to wade to get into their houses, which were thankfully built up a few steps. Some guys also showed us their makeshift gym, which had weight lifting equipment in an area protected by tarps, and they encouraged Elaine to try the machines.
Later that afternoon some of us went in the van into the main town of Allepey, which was much bigger than we had expected. We went to the liquor store, which is where several men behind a protective screen sell booze to people through little windows. There is always a long line of men, and when Elaine and I got at the end of the line, the guys quickly hustled us right into the back where we got to look at the goods and make our selections. We don't know if we got this special treatment because we were the only women, or because we were foreigners. India wine isn't really that good, and it is fairly expensive (by California standards), and we quickly learned to buy Grover wine. I tried some of the Indian whisky and that was perfectly fine, and the Indian rum is very good.
Anna and Shaji visited an orphanage for teenagers while the rest of us went down to look at the beach. It was starting to get overcast and dark, with rain threatening, so we just stayed a few minutes but there were quite a few locals doing things on the beach, which had nice sand. There were food stalls there too. And another big sign was up about learning English and emigrating. By the time we picked the others up, it was raining, and by the time we got back to the hotel there was so much water on the ground that we had to wade to our rooms. Usually there isn't this much rain at this time of the year, although it always has more than the north. We took our booze to the open air restaurant and we all sat there and talked until dinner was ready. A young Indian couple was there, visiting from Delhi, so we chatted with them. She was an investment banker and he was in computers and they clearly were from affluent families. They told us they had been married for 9 months and that theirs was not an arranged marriage. They said that more of the young professionals in the large cities are marrying for love and not doing what is usually done. But Shaji said that there is also about a 40% divorce rate among love marriages and hardly any divorces among arranged marriages. Perhaps it is because there is such a stigma about divorce, and arranged marriages get more family support.
That night for dinner, Shaji had arranged for us to have some of the mussels we had seen all the local people collecting. They were delicious and we ate several helpings of them with no problems, but Jasmine and Peter were both sick overnight and the next day.