Monday, March 28, 2016

Dubai, UAE

Monday March 28, 2016

Well, we made it back to the ship from our India excursion. What a trip that was! Sensory overload for sure! The return trip was not an easy one, beginning at 5:00 a.m. and ending 5:00 p.m. We flew first from Jaipur to Mumbai and then from Mumbai to Dubai. There were countless security checks of both our luggage and our persons. Also there were more than a few hiccups including the check-in process at Jaipur where we were told that basically all baggage had to be checked and that we had to give over our passports (which of course everyone was reluctant to do) so they could do a "group check-in" that ended up taking forever to accomplish. Then, in Mumbai, we were told one gate and then a different one and we had to pass through a long security line (into which people were regularly cutting) and finally at Dubai where we faced another long line (also with plenty of cutters) this time at immigration only to be told at the counter to "Report to Office One" because the agents could not "see" our visas on their computers. Fortunately, the Office One fiasco didn't take that long to resolve but once we made it through we got on a bus that bottomed out on an albeit large speed hump. After turning the bus on and off repeatedly -- presumably to restart the air ride system and having no luck -- it began to look as if we might need to switch buses. Fortunately, the problem was solved by backing up and taking the speed hump at an angle and then we were able to continue on to the ship where we were greeted by the head of Hotel Services, a "Welcome Home" sign and razor wire encircling the entire Promenade deck of the ship. 

At airport number one, waiting for our "group check-in"
The immigration line in Dubai (I've discovered that all immigration officials around the world are the same -- slow and surly!)
After the Office One fiasco
Note the barbed wire just below "Welcome Home"

I must admit it was quite a culture shock to arrive in Dubai and see men dressed in Arab garb complete with head scarfs and long white robes. Also the weather was rather strange. I had expected it to be clear and dry here but it was instead hazy (pollution? sand? fog?) and humid. Nevertheless, it certainly felt good to be back on board and have dinner in the dining room and a "Grande decaf soy milk latte with a pump of chocolate" afterwards. We finished the day by getting into bed at eight thirty!

Today the weather continued to be hazy (but a little less so than the yesterday). Also it was less humid but still warm (low eighties). We had an excursion this morning. It was entitled "Dubai's Architectural Wonders" though it might just as well have been called "Dubai Highlights" because the guide had no special knowledge of architecture and the tour included a visit to "Ski Dubai" which I hardly think qualifies as an "architectural wonder". 

Dubai skyline (in part)
Burj Khalifa-- world's tallest building 
Going up -- 124 floors in sixty smooth seconds
Looking down 
And out

Our first stop was the Burj Khalifa which is the tallest building in the world. It pretty much looks like an upside-down icicle. It's hard to make a building that tall look right. It's the architectural equivalent of a seven and a half foot tall man. Interesting and perhaps even useful but at the same time strange and unnatural. We took the elevator up to the 124th floor where there is an observation platform (both inside and outside). The view was better than I had expected that it would be given the hazy conditions. We posed for some silly (and expensive) photographs in front of a green screen. Later the photos were edited to make it look like we were climbing the outside of the building or falling off it. You know, stupid stuff but you kind of have to do it. Or at least we do. I am sure you wouldn't being the more reasonable and self-controlled individuals that you are.

We too posed in front of this green screen in order to create some staged photos which we then bought for an absolutely ridiculous sum of money! I won't share them with you now because we have to have something to show you when we get home!

Second stop was a drive to a suburban beach for a photo shoot with Burj Al Arab. I am sure that you will recognize this building. It is quite well known. What I did not know is that it is the world's most expensive hotel with seven stars and rooms going for, get this, four to seven thousand dollars a night! Yikes! And we were told that it's completely full -- no rooms available. Sorry. I know you wanted to go but you'll just have to satisfy yourself with one of the dozens of five star hotels available.

World's most expensive hotel
With helipad and world's most expensive bar (no joke)
Just couldn't resist including this one

The third stop was also a photo op but more elusive. The intended target? Palm Island. You know the totally artificial island shaped like a palm tree with the main access road being the tree's trunk and the palm fronds/housing developments jutting out in gracefully arched pairs. I have to say I was not impressed with this at all. You really probably need to view this from above. All we could see from the ground were ugly and cheap-looking condominium buildings and the Atlantis Hotel which is located very near the top of the palm tree, straddling the main road, and is a complete monstrosity.

Atlantis Hotel -- ugh
Contemporary mosque that I found much more interesting 

Our final stop of the tour was Ski Dubai which is a skiing facility located inside the Mall of the Emirates. I was expecting some rinky-dink glorified sledding hill but this place is very nearly the real deal. I couldn't see the top of the trail but what I saw was pretty impressive with people riding chairlifts and slaloming down the trails. Very odd but I suppose an effective ploy to get people into your mall. It worked for us and I suspect it might work on you too.

Mall of the Emirates 
Ski Dubai (excuse the reflection)

Which brings me to shopping malls. This seems to be the most notable characteristic of Dubai -- lots and lots of shopping malls including, naturally, the world's largest with 1,200 stores (and they are expanding). That and the fact that all these "architectural wonders" have been built during the last fifteen years. I mean what can you say about a place where shopping malls (plural) top the list of must-sees and nothing (or very nearly nothing) is older than fifteen years? It's not India -- which has been a continuous civilization for six thousand years -- that's for sure! 

R and I left the tour at the Mall of the Emirates. We did a little shopping there before we headed via metro to the Dubai Mall which is, as I mentioned before, the world's largest mall. Not that we explored the whole thing. Indeed I think we went into only a few places but it was enough believe me. I got to shop at Bloomingdales (the only branch located outside the U.S.) which is one of my all-time favorite department stores. And this was a really good one. R was very patient with me despite the fact that his tooth was hurting him badly (he has had recurring tooth pain throughout the trip and unfortunately it seems to be getting more serious). He also picked out a pair of seriously cute Kenzo shoes for me that I can't wait to show you.

The ship leaves in a few minutes (at 11:00 p.m.) and our next port of call will be Oman.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Jaipur, India (Day Two)

Friday March 26, 2016

Up and out this morning at 8:30 a.m. First stop was a photo stop at the Palace of the Winds. We had driven by this building yesterday but you really can't take a good photograph from a moving bus. So this time we double parked and crossed three lanes of crazy traffic, braved some crafty hawkers ("Where are you from?") all in order to take a good photograph of just a facade (there is no palace behind the Palace of the Winds).

Palace of the Winds 
Crossing the street 

Our destination this morning was the Amber Fortress whose name has nothing to do with "amber" as in the honey-colored substance from which jewelry is made. Instead, the name "Amber" is a shortened version of the name of a Hindu goddess. Anyhow, this Amber fortress is a pretty large complex. It consists of an extensive wall, an artificial lake, two or three military forts (at least one of which is a foundry also) and a palace for the Maharajah and his family/retinue.  We concerned ourselves primarily with the palace complex. But first in order to get there we had to board jeeps (4 people per jeep) and ride to the top of a rather steep hill. Although this was a short drive it was packed with a typically large dose of Indian flavor including elephants (transporting other visitors), smoke, sewer smell, exhaust, hawkers (riding the bumper while simultaneously trying to sell us stuff), stray dogs, begging children and of course the ubiquitous honking horns. 

Looking up at palace across man-made lake
Same only closer. Note the elephants taking people up to the fort
View to upper fort

Once atop the hill we entered a courtyard where we waited for the tickets to be purchased while hawkers assaulted us from all directions. Vendors are a nearly continuous annoyance when traveling in a big group. We've had them at almost every port we've visited. They vary in degree of persistence with the Indian vendors taking top prize. This persistence is highly irritating to some. I personally don't enjoy it but have discovered that the best way to deal with it is to avoid eye contact. You mustn't look at the merchandise either -- not even a glance because they will take that as an opportunity to continue with renewed vigor.

Jeep ride
"Vendor Plaza"
Entrance gate
Inside the palace

Our visit to the palace featured frescoes done with vegetable dyes, scalloped archways (love those), Venetian plaster walls, lovely screens with geometric patterns, lots of balconies and views of the lake, walls,  other forts, town, garden and scrubby, dry landscape. The highlight was the Hall of Mirrors which featured some 2 million mirrors arranged in decorative patterns with a distinctly Mughal (that is Indian Islamic) flair.

Frescoes done with vegetable dyes
Hall of Mirrors
And close up
Courtyard Garden

After returning in our jeeps to the bus we headed off to our next stop. We drove for awhile and even finished with a long stretch on an unpaved road before arriving at a lodge/camp. Here we went for an elephant ride. Our mahout (elephant handler) was friendly enough but not nearly as gentle with his elephant as the one we had in Phuket. Plus our elephant kept clearing his nose/sneezing by blowing "elephant perfume" (mostly, please God, just water) all over us. Not fun. Also the platform put us back-to-back making conversation difficult. Still it was fun (not everyday do you get to go  on an elephant ride) and the Indian lunch afterward, served al fresco was very tasty.

Road to elephant camp
Feeding "Sneezy"

The group was split into two buses: those who wanted to go back to the hotel and those who wanted to go shopping. We were among the non-shoppers. Back at the hotel we quickly to take showers to get the "elephant perfume" off. Later we did some shopping at the hotel in a gift shop/English language bookstore (wahoo!). Of course I bought some books! Dumb but there you have it. It was straight to bed after dinner because tomorrow we return to the ship and must get up at five in the morning. Bummer.

We discovered a new technique for combating hawkers: the rugby scrum 

Jaipur, India

Friday March 25, 2016

Okay, first off let's take care of a couple of things. Firstly, The "Pink City" of Jaipur is not pink. It's what I would call "terra cotta" though others in our group (including R) declared it "salmon". Secondly, Jaipur is nothing like Bermuda. Not sure why I say that except that when I think of pink buildings I think of Bermuda which Jaipur is not like -- at all.

Jaipur "pink" -- Palace of the Winds
And close-up

Okay, so we cleared that up. Now let's get down to what we did yesterday. Most of the day was spent riding the bus from Agra to Jaipur. It's approximately a five-hour drive. We got a healthy dose of the real India along the way. First up was the departure from Agra which is not the nicest place I've ever seen despite being home to the Taj Mahal. Then we passed through the countryside. We drove past lots of wheat fields where they were harvesting mostly by hand from small plots. Interestingly it is not legal to own more than 1,000 acres of arable land in India. It's written into the constitution so  it's not likely to change. Not that there are any big farms that I saw. These are family, subsistence operations. We also saw many brick making factories and lots of cow manure with straw circular disks that are used for heat and fire.

Leaving Agra
On the road between Agra and Jaipur 
Holy Cow(s)!

We stopped for a "comfort stop" after a couple hours and we ended up spending more than thirty minutes at this place because some of our bus mates were going crazy shopping. I mean they were buying blouses, goblets, tchotchkes --all sorts of stuff. I felt like saying, "People -- we are at a truck stop here. I mean would you do this at a Pilot truck stop in America? Have we completely lost our minds?" On these bus tours there is always a conflict between shoppers and non-shoppers. It seems that on our bus the shoppers are in the majority. Normally I would count myself among the shoppers but shopping here in India is geared toward women (purses, bags, bangles, etc.) or is stuff that I don't want (paintings on fabric, magnets, cheap fake turbans, etc.)

Back on the road, we made it to the Jaipur ITC Hotel in time for lunch. After a brief rest we were back on the bus to head to downtown Jaipur. The traffic was pretty heavy and the "vibrancy" of the street life was overwhelming. Honking horns here, there and everywhere. Cars going in every which direction. Cows wandering in the street. Buses and TukTuks filled to overflowing. Food being prepared curbside in unsanitary conditions. Beggars. Hawkers. People living on the streets. Monkeys crossing between buildings and climbing wires.  Goats feeding on trash. Crowds. Cricket games going on in any conceivable spot. Dogs wandering. Trash everywhere. Colorful clothing. Muslims. A family of four passes on a moped (with the mother sitting side-saddle). People bathing. An electrical substation right smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Crowds. Produce being sold off the sidewalk (on burlap bags). Bicycles with impossibley large payloads. Signs. Traffic. A horse-drawn cart. A man-powered cart. Tricycles. Merchandise exploding out from shops onto the sidewalk. And did I mention the constant honking?

People power!
Colorful clothes everywhere 
Stores explode into street

Our destination was an astronomical observatory in the heart of the city. It consists of numerous dials and angled constructs pointing towards various celestial bodies. With the help of these various instruments you can tell the time, date, astrological sign, and probably more things which I: a) don't remember or b) never heard/understood in the first place. We had a local guide but I am afraid his explanations tended to take for granted a rather high understanding of astronomy which I, for one, do not possess. Still it was cool to see and appreciate the work necessary to have made all these calculations.

Sun dial
Local guide explaining how it works (to no avail)

After our visit to the observatory we visited the administrative center for Jaipur which is now, in part, an art gallery. Plus we saw some of the Maharajah's palace (but not all because the family still lives in part of the building). The architecture was clearly influenced by Islam with lots of gorgeous geometric designs and scalloped archways. My favorite portion were the Peacock doors.
Maharajah's palace
City Palace
Peacock Gate

When we were through with the City Palace we got back on the bus. We were supposed to stop for a shopping opportunity at a textiles place. However, the traffic was a nightmare. Apparently this "Holi" Holiday is turning into a big long weekend and thus a chance for Indians to vacation. It must have taken nearly an hour to go approximately two blocks. So our tour leader decided to forgo the shopping expedition for today, promising to go tomorrow. And our driver decided to abandon the direct route to the hotel and instead took us the long way round. I am not sure that it saved us any time (in fact I am pretty sure it did not). However, we surely saw more of Jaipur than we otherwise would have and the parts that we saw weren't exactly on the tourist trail. We saw shantytowns that I won't soon forget. This was a level of poverty that boggles the mind. People living in the most makeshift structures with dirt floors and tarps for roofs. Everything filthy and depressing in the extreme. We saw the original gypsy people who according to our tour guide left India for Europe, got lost and never returned. He said, and I believe him, that the name gypsy is a corruption of the word Egypt-y which is where it was thought that these strange people came from. We saw lots of pigs foraging in trash. And the ubiquitous cows. Plus a camel or two being walked home from work no doubt. Again it was a wild ride and we were grateful to get back to the hotel where nothing but dinner was on the schedule. We went to bed early thus concluding another day in the exhausting kaleidoscope that is India.

Trash eating 
And again