Mumbai Rug Dance

For Mumbai, ‘Good Bay’ in Portuguese,  the air was shockingly clear. Everything was visible from our berth: jack-up drilling rigs, parked down the Bay to the south, to the skyscrapers of the financial district to the northwest. The sky, still smazy, was struggling to be blue and a nice sea breeze cooled us, fresh from the Indian Ocean. Warm and humid, for Mumbai the weather was pleasant.


We stepped down from the intra-port bus, no walking allowed in the port nor would one dare to, across the street from the ‘Green Gate’ and fished into our pockets for our ID cards and shore pass. It would be the third time we displayed them, Indian customs and immigration services being a bit overstaffed. We braced for the onslaught as we stepped through the gate. Not disappointed.
White shirted taxi drivers, touts, tour promoters, beggars, all descended upon us with a crescendo of offers, questions, pleas. We simply wanted a ride the mile or so to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel but that was not one of the offers. All were going for the prize: the tour of Mumbai – ‘I make you best price!’. The word ‘no’ was not in the lexicon of any. We continued down the sidewalk hoping to outdistance them but, instead, the volume increased and the distance from our ears decreased. The First Mate suddenly stopped, threw up her arms and yelled: “Get away from me!”. It had the salubritory effect she sought. The vendors slunk away like kicked dogs.

Down the block a short, bearded taxi driver quietly approached us and asked if we needed a cab. Minor negotiation later we launched off into the infamous Mumbai traffic. Today traffic seemed to move more smoothly than usual, at places we accelerated to almost 15 mph. As four lanes of traffic compressed itself into three lanes of road, the horn protocol prevailed. One beep – I’m passing on your right. Two beeps – passing on your left. Everyone was passing so everyone beeped. Welcome back to Mumbai.

 

DSC05368
Mumbai traffic

 
Alighting at the Taj we decided, since the light was right, to get a few photos of the Gateway of India Arch immediately adjacent. The Arch was erected on the landing point of most European passengers from their ship from Europe. The immigrants walked up the stone steps, crossed the hundred yards or so of park and entered back into Europe at one of Mumbai’s most opulent and famous hotels: the Taj Mahal Palace. Old, exquisitely maintained, formal, courtly, wealthy, a throwback to a different century.

 

DSC05349
Gateway of India Arch, Taj Palace in background

 
The Gateway Arch had been erected to commemorate the state visit of the King and Queen of England. Today it is a symbol of Mumbai, photographed endlessly and basically serving as shelter for stray mongrels. Mobs of people course around it headed for their luxury ferry boats taking them everywhere in the district. The waterfront is constantly in action and crowded. But all of India is crowded. Never mind, the populace is, by and large, docile and polite, minding their own business. We contemplate the condition of the Bay’s waters and step back, making sure none of it gets on us. Too many people, too little refuse disposal.

 

DSC05350
‘Luxury’ ferry on Mumbai Bay

 

Back at the entrance of the Taj we are greeted by smiling and polite door men, bell men, greeters and service staff. The marble lobby floor is covered with a thick oriental carpet upon which a large table of cut flowers, arranged in bowling balls, grabs the eye. All very understated, all very posh. In the older part of the hotel we pass a staircase, fit for an empress: carpeted, wrought iron railings, crystal chandeliers, inlaid ceilings, we can only wonder how many of the quality have made their entrance down those steps. We now get to work.


Our task is to parse the shops in the Taj seeking a new rug for our flood ravaged floors at home. But. As opulent as the Taj is as a hotel, it surpasses itself in its shops. Bangles and bobbles as big as baseballs dangle from displays along the shop corridors. An emerald the size of a small rock is offset by diamonds, gilding the lily. Clothing shops, men’s and women’s, offer the latest of fashion.

 

DSC05358
Emerald necklace and its accessories

 

 

 

None of the shop offerings have price tags attached, leading us to naturally conclude we can’t afford anything. A stern faced, dark suited security guard obviously agrees as he watches us intently, keen to stifle the least act of impropriety on our part. We depart for the other, cheaper, wing of the hotel where we torture a rug merchant in a tiny shop. We ask a minimum of questions while he insists on pulling out rug after rug to display. All are too small for our needs, his shop is too small, and are silk from Kashmir, with prices which suck the air from our lungs. Reconnaissance completed we head back out into the real world.
Behind the Taj a major avenue courses: the Colaba Causeway. Crowded, dug up, congested with every bus and taxi in town, it is also a major shopping area. But not today. Today Mumbai is relatively quiet, at least among the shops. We eye the various shops, all of which offer ‘rugs’ among other wares, shrug and plunge in. The young tout in front of our selected shop is startled from his slumber and his chair by our actual agreement to enter his shop. He stumbles up the steps flipping on lights and yelling, in Hindi, for salesmen. We are not disappointed.

 

DSC05365
The First Mate and her victim

 

 

 

As veterans of Turkish carpet wars for years, we have an idea what to expect. Sure enough, rug merchants world wide are cut from the same cloth. We rest on a large divan on the side of the room while the salesman directs his minions to unroll carpet after carpet on the floor in front of us. Soon so many carpets cover the floor that we have lost track of what we have seen. Reds are dismissed to the right and blues are dismissed to the left. The concept of ‘earth tones’ does not completely translate but by process of trial and error the picture begins to clear for the salesman. Naturally we see the silk rugs first, the finest of Kashmir, until we inquire about wool rugs as silk will be beyond our budget. So we think.
Oh, yes, of course – double knotted! Look here! Look here! This medallion carpet is more beautiful than the square but the square pattern is tradition, you will love it! The patter goes on, each rug is a unique masterpiece we absolutely need. We consult with each other by gaze. It’s time to get serious and talk price or walk down the street to the next shop. I turn the floor over to the First Mate, the family negotiator and heartless nemesis of rug merchants everywhere.
‘Yes, yes, I must eat but I make you a fantastic price as business is slow today’. Out comes the calculator and a price is tapped in, handed to the FM. She studies it quietly. Shaking her head, she taps ‘erase’ and types her own number. We both are biting our tongues to keep a straight face. The rug of interest is a double knotted silk and wool Kashmir prize, hand knotted. The price proposed is incredibly cheaper than those thieves in Turkey would demand, and it is of excellent pile and workmanship. She hands the calculator back to the salesman who blanches and pleads that his children must eat. How can they eat at that price? Please! So sincere.

Back and forth we go – does that price include shipping? Look, look, I charge you no GST on this purchase! No, no, I must talk with the boss, you saw her earlier. He confers with a young woman in the next room, probably about the dinner menu, comes back shaking his head. Impossible! But if you will give just a little more, anything, just a little more! He hands the calculator to the FM, who adds a dollar, taking him at his word. He finally realizes he is up against a hard case. He switches to the ‘surrender and double up’ strategy: ‘OK, OK, I am not making any money but you can have that price. Now, you mentioned another room – which carpet do you want for that room?’

 

rug
The Prize

 
The First Mate is having none of it, she has her prize. We step to the back room and discover the real boss, the Chief, holding the credit card machine. He smiles graciously while another of his minions swipes our card. We are all friends now, we have the rug – they have the money. Tahir, our salesman, insists on walking us to the door, reminding us that should we need more rugs we can always shop online with them at http://www.mahadjoo.com. He sends one of his retainers to rustle up a taxi for us and negotiate the price. Interestingly, the price to the port negotiated by a local is 50 rupees versus the initial offer we had at the Green Gate of $10. So, 85 cents versus ten dollars for the same fare shows the negotiating spread in Mumbai. Bargain or die in Mumbai, what a sport.
Still, we are well pleased with our purchase and the concomitant dance with the rug merchants. Nothing like travel to hone one’s negotiating skills. Our cruise continues.

 

DSC05378
The ‘Green Gate’ at Mumbai Port

 

Advertisements

Singapore

The immigration landing form the flight attendant handed us said “Welcome to Singapore”. In the next panel, in large, bold red letters it said: “DRUG DEALING IN SINGAPORE IS PUNISHABLE BY DEATH”. Welcome to Singapore, island of contrasts.
We flew down the multi-laned East Coast Parkway from Changi Airport in a sparkling clean Mercedes cab, which only proved that taxi service could be first class without being pressured by Uber. The canopy of green which provided us with a shady tunnel was accentuated by a riot of tropical flowers attended by professional gardeners clipping and sweeping their charges all along the way. We were headed into downtown Singapore to the Fairmont Hotel, a relatively new hotel already building a historic reputation. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Fairmont was directly across from the iconic Raffles Hotel, now clothed in contractor’s canvas and occupied only by workmen as it receives face lift that drags on through its sixth month. But the top-hatted door man with the big smile made us forget about antiquity, our baggage and 16 hours in the air.

 

DSC05073
The Fairmont Hotel

 
Seeking a late luncheon, we strolled across the street to Chijmes for relaxation and refreshment. Chijmes is now a collection of eclectic restaurants, from sea food to New Zealand fare, built around a shady park filled with hammocks and bean bag chairs.

 

DSC05017
The First Mate tests bean bag chairs at Chijmes

 

But it was not always so. Originally constructed early in the 19th century by a French priest, it was designed to be both a nunnery and orphanage for the poor of Singapore. It was well supported by the community and had grown into half a city block of buildings with its own chapel. Enterprising entrepreneurs took over when the sister’s order collapsed, turning the chapel into a wedding venue and the orphanage into an upscale restaurant/boutique area. It is a typical story of this island of a mere six million which has turned itself into one of the wealthiest countries is Asia. Singapore is a ‘fine’ place.

The pun is intentional, even expressing itself on tee-shirts. While all manner of business is encouraged and nurtured by the government, the same government sets some very strict standards: no littering, no spitting on the sidewalk, no chewing gum, etc. Each offense can and will be punished with a hefty fine, stinging both local and tourist alike. Best to walk the line in Singapore.
And in walking around the downtown area the First Mate continually marveled at the cleanliness of the streets and modern architecture. While Raffles might be getting a face lift to return it to its glory of the 19th century, many of the office structures surrounding us are flying into the 21st century. The MRT, light rail, station at Esplanade, which adjoins the Marriott, is covered by a wave, or at least a roof which undulates a like a huge wave canopy over the station, impacting the Marriott with sufficient force to cause multiple floors of the hotel to curve like a serpent. Interesting. The nearby amphitheaters, Theaters on the Bay, are sharp sided like a giant external acoustic chamber. Across from them the ArtScience Museum opens like a huge lotus flower only to be upstaged by the tri-towers of the Convention Center and hotel. A marvel, and marvelous.

Reality asserts itself with a jolt, though. Singapore is not forgetting its past. Across from the modern Marriott with its fancy style is a simplistic monument reaching to the sky, competing with the surrounding skyscrapers. The base of this monument, occupying a square block, reads “Memorial to the civilian victims of the Japanese occupation 1942-1945”. It was a cruel and brutal time, the great Pacific War. Singapore was never to fall, ever. It was, after all, ‘the Gibraltar of the Pacific’. Britain’s war plan in case of emergency in the Pacific was: ‘main fleet to Singapore’. Britannia was going to throw the whole weight of the Royal Navy into the defense of her colony in Singapore. Didn’t happen. The old ships and second-class aircraft Britain did send were quickly outclassed by the Japanese aggressors. When the Royal Navy did send two of its most modern ships into the fray, Repulse and Prince of Wales, they were sunk on the first day of battle by clouds of Japanese aircraft. All of Europe was stunned when the Singapore garrison surrendered to an inferior but enterprising Japanese force. The conquerors turned Singapore island into a nightmare, a nightmare the locals won’t forget.


We descend into a pedestrian tunnel to cross under two busy roads at this nexus of style and memory, only to confront another memory to Empire: ‘Our Glorious Dead 1914-1918’. Each step up to the monument is dedicated to the sacrifice of that year. So many lives thrown onto the altar of Empire.

DSC05034
Still, the stroll is shady and manicured, orchids growing in tree trunks, ivies covering the lawns, blooming flowers of unknown nature causing us to pause.

Also causing a pause is the sense of humor of the park planners – here is art. We know it is art as it can be nothing else. It is a small pasture of cow statues, the cows made entirely of milk bottles. Some artist is inventive, also with a wicked sense of humor.

 

DSC05037
Milk bottle cow art

 

Almost as wild as the bronze statues of the “Paparazzi dogs” near the hotel. One wonders.

DSC05070

 
We take the foot bridge over the Singapore River near the Fullerton Hotel, the old post office. It is here that Sir Stamford Raffles landed, declaring to the locals: “I come for trade, not conquest”. Today trade, business, is everywhere in the island, from the downtown finance centers to the giant container loading cranes of the harbor. Nothing stands still.

 

DSC05054
The Merlion – Symbol of Singapore

 

 

We round the corner of the harbor front walk and merge with a steady stream of tourists and amateur photographers all headed to the same destination: the Merlion. This statue, which represent Singapore, must be the most photographed statue in Asia. Its lion’s head, supported by its fish body, spouts a steady stream of water into the harbor as tour boats gaggle and tourists jockey for the best selfie.
Tomorrow we will head to sea, out through the crowded port where every anchorage seems occupied, into the Malacca Straight – a narrow area joining the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where trade has been fast and furious for a thousand years. Singapore is a worthy successor to that industry.

 

Six-toed cats: Key West, Fla.

Six-toed cats. Sunken treasure. Presidents and pirates. Bars that don’t close and legal marijuana (sorta). Endless sunshine. Key West – last city in the U.S. and last of its kind. End of the road on US Highway A1A but the beginning of endless stories. The last occupied island in the string of Florida Keys, Key West shares its space with a shrinking presence of the US Navy but a burgeoning presence of tourists – those who swarm from cruise ships, step daintily off small airliners or make the long drive over the causeways from south Florida.

 

DSC04263
End of the line for Highway 1

 

Fishing is said to have brought a prominent journalist and budding author named Ernest Hemingway to Key West. Always in search for adventure Hemingway took his friend John Dos Pasos’ advice to try the deep-sea fishing in Key West. When he arrived, his newly purchased car was missing so the auto dealership put he and his wife, Pauline, up in an apartment above the dealership. Hemingway wrote in the mornings and fished in the afternoons. The seclusion and rhythm of the place made him imminently productive, completing A Farewell to Arms, his romance/war memoir, which was a huge hit. Pauline induced her wealthy Uncle Gus to purchase an abandoned two-story house for their permanent residence. The results of their remodeling, the tourist spot “Hemingway House”, contains hidden secrets. Forever projecting a macho image Hemingway had a weak spot in his heart for cats. He would say later that they brought out the ‘soft’ side of him, something he was loath to publicly admit. He was gifted a six-toed cat by one of the local captains and began breeding, inadvertently at first, generations of these genetic experiments. The results stroll the grounds in regal style today, masters of their domain and much admired by the tourists. But they are not the only secret. In the backyard lays another.

Pauline began to suspect that Ernest’s extended absences from Key West were more than just journalistic trysts. She would be correct. To get back at him Pauline had the back yard – his boxing rink – dug up and a swimming pool constructed. It was the only pool for 100 miles, the island is surrounded by ocean, and it took two years to complete. The cost was astronomical – more than twice the price of the house. When Hemingway returned and learned the price he blew up and shouted at her: “Why don’t you just take my last penny” as he threw the coin at her feet. She had the penny cemented onto the bottom of the pool. Hemingway left shortly thereafter for Cuba, by himself, where his house outside of Havana is strangely reminiscent of the Key West place.

But Hemingway was not the only semi-permanent resident of Key West. American presidents, starting with Taft and continuing through Clinton, loved the place. Harry Truman appropriated a number of Navy buildings and termed it the “Little White House”, residing here during many of the summers of his administration. Those days are long gone – many of the buildings are historical centers now while the rest have become white washed condos of plantation shutters, red brick and tropical flora growing in riot. B&Bs have claimed other of the old navy officer quarters, built right up to the edge of the harbor but with their modern utilities carefully supported more than a meter above ground level. Hurricanes, you see.

Hurricanes would make Mel Fisher’s fortune. A first-class modern treasure hunter, Fisher relentlessly promoted the pursuit of the holy grail of treasure hunters: the wreck of the ‘Atocha’. In the 16th and 17th centuries Spain had grown fat and lazy on the unfathomable riches it looted from the New World: gold, silver, precious gems. The endless stream of fortune arriving annually propped up a spendthrift crown with endless ambition and little discipline. Over time the stream of good fortune had become an addiction of unearned wealth. Each treasure fleet was eagerly awaited, eagerly craved, eagerly needed.

 

DSC04345
Spanish silver coins – ‘pieces of eight’

Havana was the rendezvous for treasure ships from throughout the Spanish Main: the Manila galleons offloaded their treasure at Puerto Vallarta which transferred by mule to Vera Cruz, thence to Havana. The mountain of silver in Potosi was sailed to Panama City and transported over the Camino Real, a semi-paved mule track, to the Caribbean side and on to Havana. Cartagena’s riches came sailing up the Caribbean to the safety of Havana’s harbor. The rendezvous aggregated the treasure ships into a fleet of fortune escorted by the finest Spanish warships. The Atocha herself was almost new having made the Atlantic crossing only twice. Armed with the most modern brass cannon she was huge for her time: 112 feet long and weighing 550 tons – the finest design of Spanish shipyards.

In Havana treasure administrators tallied the fortune and carefully divided it between the available ships, noting in detail each bar of silver, each silver coin, each emerald ring, each ingot of gold. No modern CPA could have kept better records. Passengers and crew were carefully detailed to their quarters for the two-month journey home to Spain. The captains of the fleet were confident. Their 28-ship fleet was more powerful than any foreign navy and could overwhelm any foolhardy pirate.

 

DSC04324
Gold chains were taxed less than gold bars – so much gold traveled as chains

 

The weather was, and had been, most mild, even if it was the middle of the hurricane season. The seas were calm, the skies were quiet. The decision was unanimous that the fleet should sail for Spain.
Atocha was weighed down not only with stores for her two-month crossing, but also overloaded with a literal king’s ransom: 1,038 silver ingots at 70 pounds each; 125 gold ingots (and various undeclared contraband); 100 chests filled with 2,000 silver coins each; 582 copper ingots weighing over 30,000 pounds. The silver coins were carried in rosewood chests, nailed shut to prohibit tampering. The copper ingots, meant for the King’s smelters in Spain from the King’s mines in Cuba, had two purposes. They would form the basis for new bronze cannons to strengthen the King’s army. And they would be melted into the King’s silver coins to displace some of the silver, a de facto devaluation of the coins, although not an announced one. Some of the gold ingots had no tax mark stamped on them, proving that evading the tax man was an age-old practice.

More cargo arrived: casks of indigo and bails of tobacco, both valuable merchandise. There was no room to store them. Ballast stones from the depths of the ship’s hold were removed and replaced with the lighter weight cargo. Atocha would now be top heavy, unbalanced.
On September 4, 1622, the fleet sailed down the throat of the Havana harbor, saluted by the cannons of Fort Moro at the harbor’s entrance. Spreading out across a calm sea the 28 vessels enjoyed the light airs and brilliant sunshine. It would not last. By morning the wind had risen to gale force and was continuing to rise. Bands of low clouds dumped torrential rains on the fleet. The sea was building until it become frothy and white with spray filling the air. Hurricane.

 

DSC04278
The Atocha foundered in the Keyes during a hurricane

 

Contrary to plan the fleet bifurcated. Some of the captains attempted to head back to Cuba. Others sought the open sea hoping to ride out the storm. The Atocha, and others, ran before the storm – driven north to where they knew the Keys waited for them, small islands and coral reefs which would rip the bottom out of the ships.
As the sea shallowed the Atocha’s captain knew the reefs were near and ordered the ship’s five anchors cast loose, hoping to hold the ship off the reef against the wild wind and monster seas. It was a vain hope. One of the anchors, since recovered, attested to the violence of the day: the one-ton anchor’s shaft had parted in shear, pulled apart by the fight between straining ship and relentless seas. Atocha foundered and sank in 55 feet of water. Of the 260 souls on board only 5 survived.

Atocha was one of seven ships lost in the hurricane. The Spanish governor in Havana immediately began a rescue and salvage attempt, hoping to save the fortune now in Neptune’s care. In this uneven contest Neptune would win. Although Atocha was found, sitting on the bottom, intact, she was too deep for divers to salvage her. As plans continued for salvage another hurricane struck, dragging her across the bottom, splitting her open and scattering her fortune across the bottom. Here it would lay for centuries, inflaming men’s dreams, defying men’s efforts.
Enter Mel Fisher. Fisher’s family had long been in the dive business and he was obsessed with treasure hunting. The Atocha treasure was truly the one which had ‘gotten away’ from everyone. No one was even sure exactly where she lay. Fisher was determined to find her and her lost treasure. Employing a researcher as well as divers, Fisher finally determined he was looking in the wrong place – the Lower Keys were her grave while hunters such as Fisher had been scouring the Middle Keys. Carefully searching the bottom of the new area Fisher’s divers found a bit of treasure, then a bit more and then the mother lode – cannons, gold, silver bars, coins untold. Their euphoria at discovery was short lived. Impressed by the immense wealth of the discovery, some $300 million, state and federal governments suddenly stepped in to claim the treasure. Fisher fought them for years in court until his tenacity paid off – the Court awarded the treasure to Fisher and his investors. The whole story plays out in Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum, located only two blocks from the main docks and two blocks from the bars of Duval Street.

DSC04450
Souvenirs available for a trifle

Of all the bars in Key West, and there are plenty, the aggregate centers on Duval Street. Bars, understand, do not, in Key West, represent fern bars where deletants sip chardonnay. Bars, in Key West, are for drinking. They come in all sizes: small bars where if one falls from his bar stool he will be on the sidewalk. Large bars with room for musicians and pool players. Dueling bars such as Sloppy Joe’s Bar and its nearby nemesis Captain Tony’s Saloon. Captain Tony’s claims to be the ‘original Sloppy Joe’s’. Both seek the mantle of ‘where Hemingway used to drink’ but if truth be told virtually any bar in Key West at the time could claim the prize. Tourists don’t seem to care as they flow into these open-air establishments like the sea breeze.

A local man pedals his bike past both establishments, puffing the huge torpedo dangling from his mouth – a reminder to both places that the times they are a-changing. Nobody seems to even notice the art car, decorated in sea shells and pink conch shells from fender to fender, that chugs past. Perhaps the tourists are a bit too overwhelmed to take it all in, certainly the locals don’t care. Nothing is too strange in Key West, last city in the U.S. and certainly the last of its kind.

 

DSC04265
Art car in the Conch Republic of Key West, Florida

 

Free travel advice, particularly for cruisers, at: http://www.captaincruising.net
See the videos at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkU6-5XRStcP3teXPqxgGWw

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

We stood quietly when the sirens began to blow. Even though we were in the first Protestant church built in Jerusalem, we could feel the reverence of the moment:  Israel was honoring her dead.  The dead from the wars of independence, the dead from the wars on terror, still ongoing.  Tomorrow would be Independence Day for Israel, but today was the day to memorialize all of those who had made it possible.  Two minutes of our time seemed little enough to give.

DSC00892
Christ Church, the first Protestant church in Jerusalem

 

Jeff Abel had met us on the pier at Ashdod to guide us on our return to Palestine, Israel, the Holy Land, land of many conflicts, many faces. As we dove into the Jeffmobile and headed for the highway Jeff explained that, due to Memorial and Independence Day celebrations, it may be crowded traveling into town.  He was a master of understatement.  Everyone was on the road and only a skilled, fearless and undaunted driver should attempt a passage.  Boy, there was no mercy on those highways and no bluffing either.  We elbowed our way into the new city of Jerusalem, parked underground and meandered up the Jaffa Road through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City.  We had to pause at the gate in chagrin.  Built by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent over 500 years ago, the Jaffa Gate was the portal through which the British conqueror General Allenby had entered the city.

DSC00882
The First Mate & Jeff Able confer at the Jaffa Gate

 

On foot and with only a modest entourage Allenby strolled through the Jaffa Gate.  He sought to dignify his victory over the Turks in World War I with typical British understatement.  It contrasted, of course, with the German Kaiser’s entry a dozen years earlier.  For the Kaiser the Turks had pulled down an entire section of wall so that he and his army of entourage could enter the holy city seated comfortably in their carriages.  A fitting anecdote about a small desert city, Jerusalem, which is of such little strategic value but of such huge religious value.

Here we find where the Jewish religion solidified into monotheism. Where Christianity was literally born and almost died.  Where the Prophet leaped into heaven to negotiate with God, three times.  Little wonder the eyes of the world are upon Jerusalem.

Jeff led us out of Christ Church and through its coffee shop back into the street of the Armenian Quarter, on to the Tower of David. An interesting edifice, it has served everyone from the time of David, no exceptions: a palace for Herod, a fort for crusaders, now a museum for all of the curious.  Here the curators have done an excellent job by photo, illustration, diorama and narrative, encapsulating 5,000 years of human history and deadly conflict.

Climbing to the top of the Tower we garner a bird’s eye view of the Old City, the walls and the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley. The Old City, content within its walls, looks surprisingly small.  Little wonder, with so many viewpoints crammed into such a small area, that there is friction: the Armenian Quarter butts against the Jewish Quarter and the Christian Quarter; the Muslim Quarter takes the other half of the Old City.  The golden Dome of the Rock out dazzles all other edifices, crying out for attention.  By comparison the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a mute gray.

DSC00910
The Old City with the Mount of Olives in the background

 

Jeff led us down the steps and across the courtyard of the Tower. Here he found other steps which led us up to the walls of the Old City. A symbol of contention through the centuries the walls and been pulled down by the mighty repeatedly, yet rebuilt each time.  The latest, and sturdiest, rebuilding was by Suleiman the Magnificent.  His builders could spare no expense nor cut any corners.  Yet they did – leaving the Tomb of David outside the walls.  We strolled along the narrow pathway peering through various gun embrasures at the modern scene to our west – expensive hotels, pricey condos, cypress trees, landscaping, all making the modern scene a world removed from Jerusalem of a hundred years ago, a hard scrabble, tumbled down place.

DSC01006
Walkway atop the city walls

 

The sun was warm and Jeff warned that it was a long way around the walls.  After a kilometer or so we scramble down the narrow steps to the street and head for lunch near our next stop: the Western Wall.

During lunch we had time to gaze down upon the Western Wall and its plaza before it. The area is crowded with people, locals, tourists, Orthodox Jews.

Muslims do not come here as they may enter the Temple Mount to access the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa Mosque through their own entrance, forbidden to all but Muslims.  The crowd before the Western Wall, Christians and Jews, waxes and wanes.  The Western Wall is all that is left of the Temple, either the first or the second one.  Solomon built the first temple above the city of his father, the City of David.  It became sacred to the Jews when Solomon dedicated the temple to God, for God responded, I Kings 9, that “…his eyes and heart will be there forever.” Many interpret this passage to mean that this location is just a bit closer to God than other places.  Hence it has become a pilgrimage spot, sacred to Christians and Jews.

We descend the steps into the plaza, having first passed through the metal detectors of security. Security is everywhere on the outside of the plaza.  As we stroll across the plaza Jeff points out the First Mate’s entrance to the Western Wall.  Women, who have little standing in traditional Jewish culture, are not allowed entry into the main prayer area – men only.  But, traditions aside, a smaller area for women to enter and pray has been set aside.  We part as she clutches the written supplications that the ladies of her bible study group have given her to deposit in the Wall.

DSC01042
Women’s area of the Western Wall – note cracks stuffed with supplications

 

The stones which constitute the foundation of the Wall area are massive, huge.  Therefore the cracks between the stones are large enough for a hand to reach in.  Here thousands of supplications to God have been deposited by pilgrims.  Every few months the rabbi in charge of the Wall removes the papers and buries them on the Mount of Olives.

Jeff and I stroll into the men’s area. There is no need for me to don a kippah as Jeff informs me that my ball cap will do nicely – covering the head is all that is required.  Jeff is a secular Jew who explains many of the traditions of the area with his tongue firmly in his cheek.  As he rattles on about walls, temples, digs and other matters I only half listen, gazing at the Wall and all it represents.  He then leaves me to place my own supplications within a large crack in the Wall.  The men’s side of the wall is fairly quiet, the women’s side crowded and noisy.  Having been here before I am amazed that there are so few men.  Jeff suggests we enter the tunnel.

The tunnel has been dug northward along the Wall and is a huge edifice. Apparently it has gone too far as geologists have detected instability in some of the buildings in the tunnel area, caused by the digging.  But for now it is an almost exclusive enclave of the Orthodox Jews.  Jeff, hardly orthodox, strolls in like a lion.  A small lion.  Inside the tunnel are more chairs, prayer tables and prayer books.  The Orthodox pray against the Wall, some rocking back and forth.  Jeff points out the large cabinets which store both the prayer books and the scrolls which are read during worship by the Orthodox.  We step to a back room and here are huge book shelves of research material on all matters of religion and Judaism.  During his explanation of this material Jeff receives a sharp admonition in Yiddish from a nearby Orthodox.  No translator is needed to decode Jeff’s reply.  Silence ensues and Jeff continues his lecture.  Interesting.

DSC01057
Orthodox area inside the tunnel

 

The tunnel is a fascinating area but it is time to meet the First Mate, who, being female, cannot desecrate this area. She is patiently awaiting us in the plaza area and falls in behind Jeff as we head for the Dung Gate.  We are headed for David’s first prize: the City of David.

DSC00940
The City of David – Sidron spring is in the foreground

 

Excavations are underway at this ancient Canaanite village, er, city, which was old when David arrived on the scene. Relatively small, it was a walled city with little going for it.  The climate was arid; it was far from trade routes or the coast.  It sat on a small hilltop protected on three sides by modest valleys, its most valuable asset being the spring which outcropped from the hill just below the city.  It was the only reliable source of water for some distance and a resource worth protecting.  A wall had been built to protect the path down to the spring.

The spring has a long patrimony and that history is in much dispute today. The archeological record is not clear but, for sure, it was the locus of much activity. Hezekiah had the spring walled off to exclude invaders.  Then he had a tunnel cut through solid rock which would divert all the water from the spring into the tunnel flowing below the city.  Besieging armies would benefit nothing.  Modern historians dispute this account, pointing to shafts and tunnels previously constructed by ancient Canaanites.  But whoever built it, the deed was prodigious.  The chisel marks can still be seen in the solid rock lining the tunnel.  Imagine – working by torchlight far underground with only a hammer and chisel to remove solid rock.  Working from both ends the tunneling teams eventually met in the middle, but not until after several mistaken attempts.

Jeff leads us down into the tunnel, which now sports electric lighting and steel mesh steps. The route down is steep, even with steps and handrails.  For the ancients it must have been an exciting descent and challenging return.  As usual in life we come to a cross roads.  The tunnel forks and Jeff asks us: “Do you want the wet route or the dry route?”  Continuing in Hezekiah’s tunnel means wading thigh deep in the running, chilly, spring water until its exit at the Pool of Siloam.  We opt for the dry foot route: through the old Canaanite system to the street outside.  Once in the street we stroll down to the Pool of Siloam and reconnect with the small but swiftly running stream, just before it disappears into the rock down the slope.

Back out on the street we realize just how hilly the Jerusalem area is. The hike back up to the Dung Gate will be uphill all the way.  In a show of neighborly ecumenicalism Jeff steps into a small Arab coffee shop and speaks with the owner.  Seconds later the owner’s cousin appears in his taxi, ready to carry a secular Jew and two Christians back to the city walls.  As we roar up the steep hill the driver is busy on his cell phone, face timing with his daughters who insist on saying ‘hello’ in English to his customers.  Cute kids, we say ‘good bye’ also and pay their father the best five bucks we have spent that day.

It is now early evening and we notice, as we enter the Dung Gate, that the foot traffic is all outbound from the Old City. Shops and kiosks are closing but Jeff is not done.  We will walk across the city to the Jaffa Gate but travel on the Via Dolorosa, the way of Christ.  Condemned by Pilate, probably at the Antonia Fortress, Jesus was given his heavy wooden cross by the Roman soldiers and compelled to drag it to his place of execution, Golgotha.  It is uphill all the way; the struggle must have been fierce.  Churches dot the way where legend says he suffered.  The Emperor Constantine’s mother would command the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the spot of execution.

DSC01141DSC01145

Along our uphill hike Jeff makes a detour into the Muristan. Here we view the stone monument to the Knights Hospitallers, the Knights of St. John.  Under the leadership of the monk the blessed Gerard, they established a hospital on this site in the 11th century to care for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.  Their Order would morph over the centuries to more than hospital keepers – they would become fierce guardians of pilgrim caravans, the spear tip of Christian armies during the Crusader Era.  Expelled from the Levant by Muslim forces they would become Knights of the sea.  We will see them again in Acre; again in Rhodes as the Knights of Rhodes; again in Malta as the Knights of Malta. Remnants of the Order linger today as philanthropists or humanitarians in medical aid around the globe.

DSC01150
Memorial to the Knights of St. John (Knights of Rhodes/Malta)

 

Back in the new city the Jeffmobile drops us at our hotel off Ben Yehuda Street, the main pedestrian mall. Our hotel overlooks the street, now filled with pedestrians.  Under normal circumstances this would be a lovely spot, but tonight it’s guaranteed to be a lively spot.  The eve of Independence Day is filled with fireworks, loud crowds, rock bands in the plazas.  Lively.  We slip out for a fish dinner at an outdoor bistro, watching the crowds continue to build.  Back at the hotel we agree, yeah, its loud out there.  But also, yeah, we’re tired.  The Jeffmobile will appear at the door first thing in the morning.  Good night.

DSC01162

 

Free travel advice, particularly for cruisers, at:  http://www.captaincruising.net

See the videos at:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkU6-5XRStcP3teXPqxgGWw

 

 

Suez Canal

 

 

It was a very pleasant surprise for us. Maybe not so much for the subscribers of the bonds, but for us, yes.

Under its new leader, al-Sisi, Egypt has gilded the lily, improved the Suez Canal. Certainly there have been other, and necessary, improvements of the Canal since the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps cut his ditch in the desert in the middle of the 19th century, revolutionizing travel between Europe and the Indian Ocean.   But for us it is a matter of time.

Previously, in an earlier voyage through the Canal, we had run into the ‘Suez roadblock’. We had swung on the hook for an entire day, along with a huge northbound convoy, waiting for our turn to enter the congested waterway.  Since, coming from the Gulf of Aqaba, a convoy position will not be assigned until the ship is remarkably near Suez City, we had been stuck at the back of a very long queue.  Today, not so much: expedited service for the Seabourn Encore, we will lead the northbound convoy.

P1030141
Northbound convoy in the Suez Canal

 

 

 

A canal joining Egypt with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean was a dream of 4,000 years. Early pharaohs toyed with the idea.  Pharaoh Necho did much more than toy – he threw 100,000 lives into the desert in an attempt to dig a canal between the Nile River and the Bitter Lakes area.  He failed.  It was the Persian, Darius the Great, who actually completed the canal after his conquest of Egypt more than 2,500 years ago.  And he did it to link Egypt to the “…sea which begins in Persia”.  How do we know that?  During the de Lesseps’ construction project a fresh water canal had to be dug from the Nile to the construction zone in the isthmus of Suez.  The moderns dug along the Wadi Tumilat and continually discovered large stone stelas left behind by Darius.  On the stelas were carved a description of the project in Persian.  Darius’ bragging rights.

We enter the Canal at Suez shortly after sunrise, the Encore leading the convoy.  Behind us, trailing out as far as we can see, are huge container ships and automobile carriers, each of which appears large enough to hoist the Encore on board and sail away.  We are spaced out nicely and proceeding at a leisurely eight knots.  The first of three Suez pilots has boarded while we were still waiting for our green light.  Of course we must have approval to proceed, but the Canal administration is also waiting to confirm the arrival by bank wire of our toll fees.  Canal fees are one of the prime sources of revenue for Egypt.  Which brings up the bonds.

Al-Sisi had offered canal construction bonds to the people of Egypt for this new project, paying 12%. The bonds were quickly snapped up.  He raised over $9 billion.  Some analysts have questioned whether the return will be there for Egypt, or if this was just a massive construction project to capture the attention of the people.  Either way al-Sisi pushed three years of construction into one year and the results are there for all to see.

The new construction area is north of the Bitter Lakes so the canal from the Bitter Lakes to Suez is still one way. We drift along on a quiet morning of bright sun and light breezes.  None of the passengers are too excited by what they see of the southern part of the Canal.  Perhaps it’s the early hour.  Perhaps it is the redundant and monotonous view of pale yellow sand dunes on both sides of the Canal.

DSC00762
South bound convoy at anchor in Bitter Lakes

 

The bright mid-morning sun accompanies us into the Bitter Lakes. Despite the increase in traffic lanes further north the Bitter Lakes is still the anchorage of choice for the southbound convoy as they patiently swing on the hook awaiting our convoy to clear the channel.  Large mooring points are located along the channel in cement islands but the ships seem to prefer their own anchors.  Along the narrow Canal large bollards can be seen set in cement along the bank, ready to secure any ship with engine or steering problems while they await the rescue tugs.  Rarely does there seem to be a problem.

We cruise through the Bitter Lakes at our comfortable eight knots and without pause. Hmmm.  Interesting.  Previously we would have waited here for the second southbound convoy, now no need to stop.  Ahead we see what appear to be sand islands in the middle of the Canal.  We are approaching the area of the new construction and about to enter the new eastern channel.

DSC00778
Entering the new eastern channel north of the Bitter Lakes

 

 

 

While the new, eastern channel, is open and in use construction along the Canal continues apace. Diggers, trucks, cranes all grunt and puff as we pass.  New ferry crossings have been constructed to transport autos and cars across the Canal.  Strangely enough the huge and expensive ‘Friendship Bridge’, a long suspension bridge across the Canal built a dozen years ago with Japanese help, remains closed.  The government feared, four years ago, that terrorists could drive onto the bridge at mid-span and explode a bomb, dropping the bridge on passing ship traffic.  With the number of military personnel visible around the Canal it seems odd that a resolution to the problem has yet to be reached.  The lack of access to the eastern side of the Canal is hamstringing the new container port on the east side.  Further south, near Suez City, the government is tunneling under the canal.  Perhaps a new security plan will be forthcoming.

The spoil for the new channel has been dumped in huge berms on both sides of the eastern channel giving our voyage a tunnel effect. We are able to peek out, through breaks in the spoil islands between the channels, at the south bound traffic.  Our peaceful drift up the Canal is occasionally interrupted by the horns and whistles of the construction crews along the banks, who wave enthusiastically to us to remind us how welcome we are.

Fishermen drift by, still casting their nets as they have for hundreds of centuries, yet another reminder than the Canal is a salt water canal connecting two seas. The tide may rise as high as six feet at Suez City, but at the Mediterranean exit at Port Said the tideless Mediterranean barely laps up one foot at high tide.  There is little in the way of current within the canal, another sign that Napoleon was wrong.

DSC00771
Fishermen in the Suez Canal

 

When the French Directorate ordered Napoleon to Egypt he was to seize Egypt (and its endless supply of grain), harass the British and ‘…cut a canal at the Isthmus of Suez’. Napoleon, ever cagy, realized such a task was impossible with the Royal Navy controlling the seas.  He realized the Directorate was giving him a lifelong task in Egypt and he had ambitions in France.  So his engineer reported that the Red Sea end of the project was 40’ higher than the Mediterranean and that such a canal would result in “…disaster” for the Mediterranean.  Naturally he dropped the project and marched on Palestine and glory.

Of glory there is much honored here along the Canal. Near Ismailia, although difficult to see from the eastern channel, rises the monument to “The Defense of the Suez Canal, 1914-1918”.  The WWI remnant, two sandstone towers soaring out of the desert, commemorates the British led resistance to the Ottoman Turk attack on the Canal early in the war.  Strangely the monument was erected by the French.

P1030146
Monument to the Defense of 1914-1918

 

Further along the channel the muzzle of an AK-47 assault rifle, topped with a bayonet, jars the landscape. The monument is about four stories high and adds some edge to our otherwise serene voyage.  It also serves as a reminder to the turmoil and conflict within the region for, oh, the last four thousand years or so.  This monument commemorates the successful defense of Ismailia by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War against the Israelis.  The rest of the war didn’t go so well for the Egyptians.

P1030153
Monument to the Defense of Ismailia

 

 

We pass other monuments and works of art. Sometimes it is difficult to discern the context of all being said by displays.  A large stone art work welcomes us to Egypt.  Further along is another war memorial – tanks and valiant figures striving in the desert.  More modern, and peaceable, displays garnish the center islands between channels.  Here is a bronze to a construction worker, there another bronze of a woman bordered by sphinxes.  A long parade of flag poles celebrates the flags of the nations whose ships use the Canal.  Ever wary, the banks at strategic places are lined with large green panel boxes – bridging equipment for the Egyptian Army.

We glance over the side just in time to see the pilot boat roar away from the Encore. It is headed for a small harbor filled with similar boats – the Canal pilots’ station for the northern end.  Looking ahead we can barely make out Port Said to the west and, to the north, the open sea.  The Mediterranean.  It is only 2:30pm – we have made the passage in just over 8 hours, remarkable.

Some passengers grumble, some laugh: “It wasn’t very exciting”. No, de Lesseps effort here at Suez was completely different than his disaster at Panama.  Here he dug a straight ditch in the desert, but one that changed the world.  At Panama his hubris would collide with Mother Nature who would administer a stern and heart breaking lesson.  But for us, a pleasant day and a rapid passage.  We wave as we pass the shrimpers trolling the bottom of the Med and wonder: ‘who could ask for more?’

 

Free travel advice, particularly for cruisers, at:  http://www.captaincruising.net

See the videos at:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkU6-5XRStcP3teXPqxgGWw

 

 

Pirates

 

The captain of the Queen Mary 2 keyed his public address microphone and spoke directly into it, sending his voice booming throughout the ship and its open decks, informing all of his passengers, everyone on the Seabourn Encore, all the ships in Mutrah harbor and inquiring minds for miles around exactly what his anti-piracy measures would be for the next leg of the voyage.

The sound reverberated around Oman’s fabulously reflective hills, invaded the souk, coursed across the harbor waves and awakened sleeping dogs. The speech went on and on, at length assuring of little risk while simultaneously instructing passengers what to do if fired upon. No one could miss it. Personally, I preferred the skipper of the Encore’s method: a short letter in every suite.

DSC00473 - Copy

 

Piracy is simply stealing, a human act which has been with us since man began to walk. When man went to sea he took stealing with him, hence piracy. When the Somali government fell apart and the country degenerated into civil war and chaos, the country’s economy collapsed. People starved. Millions tried to flee. Some turned to piracy, which proved, initially, to be fantastically profitable.

The ‘head pirate’, who took no risk, supplied starving farmers and fishermen with small boats, arms and the promise of riches if they were successful. The fledgling pirates put to sea in swarms, immediately seizing small tankers, cargo vessels, fishing boats, anything that could be ransomed. Since there was no government in Somalia, only the muscle of strong men, stolen vessels were brought right into Somali harbors where the pirates awaited their payday. Shipping companies and their insurers were obliged to fly over the harbor with bundles of cash, kicked out of the airplane doors, to obtain release of their vessels and crews.

Somali piracy exploded, pardon the pun, until it threatened the entire Indian Ocean west of India. Pirates operated north into the Red Sea until they ran into the curtain of Saudi firepower, forbidding more northerly expansion. No pirates tried the Persian Gulf as the area is so militarized a pirate could not survive more than a day or two. Soon shipping begin detouring far out to sea around Somalia, necessitating a change in tactics for the pirates. Pirates began hijacking fishing dhows. The dhows could tow two skiffs far out to sea where the prey had hidden. For some ships the sudden appearance of small, high speed pirate skiffs some hundreds of miles from the coast was a huge and dangerous surprise. For several years piracy was so lucrative that land prices in northern Kenya soared – the Somalia pirates were fleeing their country, also, after making their big score.

dhow 2x
Dhow towing skiffs

 

 

Today, not so much. Industry and governments banned together to police the seas and mitigate their risks. Naval vessels patrolled the Arabian Sea. Convoys formed. Ships strung concertina wire on their decks and aimed high pressure fire hoses at likely pirate boarding places. Armed guards were hired. The sun set on the heyday of Somali piracy. But. Not all pirates went away.

Still, it would be a bold pirate indeed who would attempt to tackle a whale like the Queen Mary 2. First, she is known to charge around at speeds in the 22-24 knot range. Fast. Second, counting the decks from sea level to the first open deck, a pirate would need a rocket propelled grappling hook to reach an open deck. Then he would have to pull himself up the side of that 10 story building moving at high speed on the open sea. It would be a thrilling attempt.

Days later, cruising west at 17 knots in the Arabian Sea, the Seabourn Encore has the sea to herself. Not another vessel is in sight anywhere to the blue horizon. Empty. I spoke with one of the armed guards who said this was boring. Back in the heyday of piracy he said the ocean was “…full of high speed skiffs and fishing boats who weren’t fishing.” On one occasion a skiff raced past them at about 25 knots with a man standing in the bow, holding a fishing pole. As the guard used his stabilized binoculars to observe the skiff, he noted two other pirates in the stern of the boat looking back at him with stabilized binoculars. They exchanged friendly waves and the pirates continued on their hunt for easier prey. Today – empty blue sea.

Late in the afternoon, with the sun dropping lower in the sky and reflecting on the sea, a dhow could be seen far off the starboard side, halfway to the horizon. It was proceeding on an opposite course and towing two skiffs. A glance at the bridge indicates that it has the full attention of the bridge team. Later the dhow alters its course to the west, then the southwest, paralleling our course. It was circling the area, probably good fishing there. Odd that it was fishing adjacent to the main shipping lanes going into the Bab el Medab Strait between Africa and Arabia.

 

Late that afternoon the First Mate suddenly pointed out the window and said: “What’s that?” Glancing up a flash of white bobs by on the sea, a couple hundred yards out. Probably just some garbage floating on the sea. Then the garbage turns sideways, revealing a skiff with several Somali yachtsmen in it. I grab the camera and step outside to record the adventure, only to have the heat and humidity fog the camera lens. The Encore charges past the yachtsmen at 17 knots and they make no movement. Reaching the promenade deck I encounter 3 members of the ship’s deck division, standing at the rail, smiling. I ask if they saw the skiff and they laugh, admitting that they waved but the Somali yachtsmen did not wave back.

DSC00577
Somali yachtsmen trolling for treasure

 

The Encore slips through the Strait after sundown, the lights of Africa visible on the port side, town lights from poor and troubled Yemen visible on the right side. All is quiet. Early the next morning, upon reaching Saudi waters, the armed guards, complete with their aluminum suitcases, disappear over the side into a pilot boat and are gone. The skipper slows the Encore to a leisurely 12 knots, just enough to make our next port, Aqaba, on schedule. Our cruise continues.

Free travel advice, particularly for cruisers, at:  http://www.captaincruising.net

See the videos at:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkU6-5XRStcP3teXPqxgGWw

Land of Frankincense

DSC00547
The Frankincense tree

 

The frankincense tree would be called an imposter elsewhere. But in this land of dust and desert the fact that it exists at all is almost miraculous. Oman is a strange land, perched on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, lapped by the Arabian Sea and cooled by the winds from far out in the Indian Ocean. The onshore monsoon season was the time of the return of the sailing ships from trading in India. It was a time of profit, also a time of rain as the monsoon winds struck the mountains of Oman, the air rose, condensed and rained for months on end. Rivers ran, grass grew, brown turned to green, livestock grew fat. Then it ended.

The monsoon winds reversed and rain became only a pleasant memory. Day after day the sun shone, the land baked, green turned to brown. But the frankincense tree survived. It is more of a shrub or scrubby tree. Surely ranchers in south Texas would cut it down as a nuisance. But, in its time, it was more than miracle – it was profit incarnate. It was transported to and traded at markets all over the known world, sometimes for its weight in gold. It was offered as a gift to the Christ child at his birth by wise men who knew its value.

This brushy tree suffers the death of a thousand cuts. The farmer makes a small cut in the bark of each branch of the tree. The sap is allowed to ooze out onto the branch and harden. The hardened sap, frankincense, is then picked off by the farmer. There are at least three kinds of frankincense, the most valuable kind is the green. It is purported to have special powers of health and healing, not to mention a preferred odor when placed in the frankincense burner.

DSC00508
Taraq Castle

 

We stoop low as we step up into the living quarters at Taraq Fort. Centuries ago the sultan established this fort, consigning it to one his most trusted retainers to maintain his hold on this district. The fort is of adobe and three stories high at its citadel. Inside it is dark and cool as the thick adobe walls try to retain the cool from the night against the heat of the relentless sun outside. Couches are festooned with brightly colored pillows and rifles hang by their slings from pegs on the wall – always at the ready. One never knows when the night watch will fall asleep and the thunder of the hill tribes’ horses cannot be heard inside. The rifle is the only thing between slaughter and survival in the constant feuds and fighting – fighting over trade, fighting over water, fighting over power. Those days can still be sensed in the fort and even heard further south in Yemen. Peace is better.

Back in the bus Salim, our guide, now promises us a ‘fantastic’ sight. Winding down a hard topped road we observe the walls of an ancient city sited upon a shallow plateau which looks out on a small river basin leading to the sea. “Samhuram”, he points. A UNESCO World Heritage site. The city’s walls have been repaired and sidewalks constructed around the perimeter. It looks pretty good for being 5,000 years old. Khor Rouri Creek obviously provided the fresh water and link to the sea. From here traders sailed to India, traveled to Greece, bargained in east Africa. Their bargaining point: frankincense. In societies that were transported by horse, camel or donkey, each leaving the usual flotsam behind, or societies which could not afford to waste water on the delicacy of bathing, the smell of burning frankincense was a valued addition to the scene. Priests would swing frankincense burners in their religious rites and physicians would prescribe frankincense for many ills. The trading port of Samhuram was the gate to much of this trade. The inside of the city now is a ruin and reconstruction has barely begun, but the location and its import were apparent to UNESCO, who thought it significant to the world.

We explore the ruin as long as the sun allows us, then slink back to the air conditioned bus. We head back into town to learn more of frankincense in the Museum of the Frankincense Land, the air conditioned museum of frankincense. A modern, well done museum (with cool air) we are told ‘no pictures’ by the wary and attentive museum guards. The museum includes a maritime room, detailing the trading days at sea of the local Omanis. Unfortunately none of this can be documented by camera.

DSC00552

Back on the road Salim directs the driver to pull over at a roadside fruit stand: it is time for a banana break. Wandering down the stalls we have a complete selection of fresh fruit, some imported from India, but much, such as the bananas, raised locally. Behind the stand is a cement irrigation ditch bringing a steady stream of water through a virtual plantation of banana trees. It is an Omani secret, the Falaj.

Two thousand years before Christ people in this area sought to capture the rains of the season with a complex water transport system. The hills, where the monsoon rains had fallen, were replete with springs. Wells were dug near the springs and one of three types of rock lined ditches were constructed. Water flowed downhill under its own pressure, ala a Roman aqueduct, and was diverted to the local need. Water which had to be transported some distance was flowed through a covered canal, ensuring that it could reach flat, dry plains below. The same system is used to water the bananas today, four thousand years later. Clever. A government map depicts hundreds of Falaj systems in the hills above the coast throughout Oman.

DSC00564
Frankincense shop in Salalah

 

With that nature of insight it was surprising the Omanis had stagnated in modern times. Leadership, one supposes, as the old sultans were afraid of opening their country to the world. Now, the modern sultan slaves mightily to play catch up. Instead of only 3 schools, thousands of children now enter colleges each year, both male and female. Instead of only one hospital in the country everyone receives medical care. Here in Salalah Harbor a large container port has been erected. We inspect its empty piers as we drive from the ship. In town large cement plants are busy grinding the local limestones for export; a huge natural gas plant is under construction to export Oman’s LNG. Four star hotels are being erected in town but one wonders who will come here to the beach, virgin and rocky as it is. We are informed one new hotel is full of Polish tourists, as they have been offered great discounts to make the flight. Hmmm. The streets of Salalah are new and clean, the office buildings modern. But Salalah is not overrun with hustle and bustle. Quiet and modest.

This land of Oman has an interesting past. Who knows what the future will bring to the Land of Frankincense.

DSC00571
The quiet, but clean, streets of Salalah

 

Free travel advice, particularly for cruisers, at:  http://www.captaincruising.net

See the videos at:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkU6-5XRStcP3teXPqxgGWw