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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?’

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The quiet, but clean, streets of Salalah

 

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

Muscat, Oman

The ship slowed and the armed guards came aboard at 7:20 pm, just as the captain had said. It seemed odd as we had just turned south out of the Strait of Hormuz and headed into the Gulf of Oman. The Omanis were known to be jealous of their long coastline and an entire fleet of Omani patrol craft continually prowl the coves and small bays of Oman. Seems an unlikely lair for pirates.

No matter, we think, as we wake in the morning, secured to the pier in Mutrah Harbor, the harbor for the capital of Oman: Muscat. Starring back at us, and looking down on us, is Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the last of the ocean liners, as they tell it. Huge, it was built to plow through North Atlantic seas without a ripple regardless of the weather. It now finds itself here with us in Oman, a country like no other in the region.

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Mutrah waterfront

 

We ride the shuttle bus a hundred yards to the Port Headquarters, where we all must pass through metal detectors. Then back on the bus for the short trip to the center of town, the Mutrah souk. At the souk confusion reigns as the 3,000 passengers from the QM2 muscle aside our small contingent of 600 from Seabourn. The locals, however, love it. The cruise ship season is coming to an end in the region and they will not see shoppers in this quantity until the fall. We opt for quieter climes.

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‘One’ of the Sultan’s yachts

 

We winnow through a variety of taxis who seemed overwhelmed with work and not too inclined to engage. Dawood Mohd waves at us from his new Toyota taxi, indicating we should get in. First, the price. He recites the going rate of US$30 for a tour of Old Muscat, the most scenic and classic place. We jump in and head up a narrow road, away from the harbor front promenade, away from the four lane highway, away from the green grass and flower art, into the completely desolate and brown hills. This is the old road from the port to Muscat as history knows it. This road is not on the maps for tourists. Dawood calls it the “Father Road” and, indeed, it was the main road until the current Sultan deposed his father in 1970. Narrow, climbing, a bit winding, hemmed by rocks close to the edge as no shoulders exist. We stop just beyond a narrow pass and look into a low, white village: Old Muscat.

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Two hills frame both sides of Old Muscat, each topped with a stone watch tower. Forts are very big in the region due to its contentious past. In the distance, just beyond the town, is the gleam of the small bay which had served Old Muscat as its harbor. Both sides of the narrow entrance are guarded by old Portuguese fortifications. The harbor is almost deserted now, but the Portuguese had made it a pivotal point in their attempt to turn the Indian Ocean into a Portuguese sea. So much ambition.

We drive down into the old town now, its streets very quiet. Not many people live in this area now, it is mostly government buildings, as the houses are small and old, most prefer the new Muscat area on the other side of the ridges. Dawood is able to pull over almost anywhere to allow for ‘picture taking’, as he puts it, gesturing with his finger. We pass through a wall of some fortification, then through a tunnel to emerge next to the old harbor. We have a nice view of the Sultan’s palace, where we drive right up to the locked gates. A palace guard eyes us warily, but the only ones who seem to come here are taxi drivers with tourists eager for ‘picture taking’. The guard declines to be included in the ‘picture taking’.

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The old Muscat harbor, guarded by Portuguese forts

 

The Sultan is rarely at the palace these days, but its beautiful blue exterior and manicured green grounds are in instant readiness to entertain heads of state from anywhere in the world. Dawood winds the taxi through old and curving streets, pointing out this ministry and that ministry, this museum and yet another. He then pulls into a car park, shuts off the engine and says: “Follow me”. He strolls through an arched tunnel

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Sultan’s palace and parade ground

like he owns the place.

 

We walk out onto a large promenade or parade ground immediately in front of the palace. It is obviously intended as a grand entrance to the palace and Dawood parades on it like a member of the royal family. We are the only people present. Dawood seems pleased that we are impressed by the scale of the palace grounds. Oman is a modest country – no huge glass and steel skyscrapers here. As a matter of fact, no building over 10 stories may be built. No home over 3 stories may be built. It is decidedly low rise, both ancient and modern.

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The Sultan has attempted to modernize Oman. When he deposed his father there were only 3 schools in the country. One hospital. Sun glasses were forbidden. Women did not attend school. All this in spite of modest oil revenues. Although Sultan Qaboos’ picture now is literally everywhere, it may be he is looking down on his modern creations: four lane highways, a new airport, international hotels, 5,000 new students in Omani colleges. And peace. Since the Sultan’s father married a girl from the hill tribes there has been peace within the country. They are even at peace with their neighbors to the south, in Yemen. Very low crime. If it wasn’t for jobs or to investigate traffic accidents the police force would be redundant. The First Mate continues to marvel: “it’s so clean”.

We are stopped by another Omani who wants to chat, in perfect English, with these visitors. His flowing white robes, his white headdress, the sandals, all demonstrate the hold the old culture has on the young. Dawood is a bit miffed that this government person, whoever he is is treated differentially, should deign to tell him where to take his tourists. We depart suddenly, if politely.

Back in the taxi we head south down the main highway, only to pull over along the coast. Below us several hundred feet, is a modern yacht harbor, sheltered by breakwater and obviously where the wealthy keep their yachts. Not the Sultan, his two super yachts are over at Mutrah, docked close to the cruise ships. The Portuguese, however, had liked the Omani coastline. It was pocketed with small bays, many of them offering some protection from the Arabian Sea. The very steep hills close to the bays meant it was very difficult for an opponent to surprise or even attack ships at anchor here. No one pines for the old days, though.

We continue up the four lane highway to the Omani Parliament Building. The Parliament here is based upon an unusual concept: the Sultan appoints half the members and the other half are elected by the people. The purpose of the Parliament is to ‘advise’ the Sultan. The Sultan is still an absolute monarch. Few seem to care, however, as all Omanis have jobs, education if they desire, and gasoline is US$1/gallon.

Dawood now represents that he will show us a magnificent sight: it is a palace where we can stay! As we drive though the palace gates we note a sign: Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The grounds along the drive are a garden, manicured like the Sultan’s. Apparently it is part of the regular tour for taxi drivers as the bellmen are most accommodating and wave Dawood over to the side. He points: “Go in. Take picture.” We wonder what all the excitement is about, so we stroll in to investigate. Oh my, is our first thought.

The hotel lobby is huge and towering, dark and muted as an Arab home in the desert would be. Over the center of the lobby hangs a three story high chandelier. The walls are carved in ornate Muslim style and the floor is all marble. In the corner are couches with a huge coffee pot, the symbol of Arab hospitality. I’m impressed and the First Mate heads for the reception counter to check on rates. A very pleasant young Omani girl is more than happy to print off the rate schedule for us, even as she chats us up in perfect English. Unfortunately, she informs us, the hotel will be closing this fall for renovations. Our jaws drop and we have to laugh, she giggles with us. Talk about guilding a lily. But, one must keep up with the times. Still, today we can snap up a deluxe sea view room, with king bed, for a mere US$499/night.   Upgrading to one of the usual suites will be a bit more. We don’t ask.

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The coffee pot – Arab symbol of hospitality

 

Back in the taxi we only nod when Dawood asks if we were impressed. Then we smile. Heading back into town he points out Al Jalali Fort, Al Minani Fort, Riyam Park with the world’s largest incense burner and finally the souk, where we started. Dawood certainly gave us the deluxe tour and threw in a few languages lessons in Arabic. All we can recall, though, as we stroll off to renew acquaintances with haggling in the souk, is the word for gratitude: shook-ran, Dawood.

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Mutrah souk

 

 

Doha, Qatar

So, is Qatar pronounced ‘cut-ter’? Or ‘gut-ter’? Or ‘gui-tar’?

The Qataris don’t seem to mind how it is pronounced as long as they are also pronounced ‘rich’. And rich they are. No place in the Mid-East seems to have more water than Qatar. If water was a source of pride and invaluable resource in the past centuries, then Qatar must have been rich then, also.

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Museum of Islamic Art

 

We board the shuttle bus at the port for the trip around the corniche into the downtown area of Doha. We are late as we are still wrestling with the jet lag monster. We can see the downtown area across Doha Bay, which is actually part of the Persian Gulf. Downtown sits on a curving spit of land which forms a 7 kilometer crescent around this area of the Gulf. Qatar itself is a large thumb of land which protrudes prominently into the Gulf from the Arabian Peninsula. Doha is halfway up the eastern side of the thumb.

 

Our bus joins the steady stream of traffic in front of the Museum of Islamic Art. Al Corniche Street frames a long green belt which runs from the Museum into town. Sprinklers jet over the grass and non-native shrubs, art work decorates the long sidewalk and fountains appear from time to time, pumping water skyward in various creative schemes. Even the large government building, which has no name but a very large fence, benefits from a three story high waterfall, cascading down its side. Opulent for a desert kingdom.

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Someone remarks that, from a distance, the Doha skyline appears to be a ‘mini-Dubai’. Indeed Prince Charles would welcome the unusual and creative designs of the skyscrapers in Doha. And skyscrapers they are, no mere office buildings for Doha. Qatar is the proud owner of a huge natural gas field which sprawls from its northern shore halfway across the Persian Gulf. The revenues make the Qataris the wealthiest people in the Mid-East by per capita income. They display their wealth.

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The shuttle drops us in front of a large glass and steel high rise office building. We stroll around to obtain our bearings, then enter the building. Suddenly it dawns on us that this is a huge high rise shopping mall. It has all the upscale shops for modern convenience. Open in the middle, the center area soars to the ceiling upon which are displayed shapes reminiscent of Arab sailing dhows. Looking down we discover the floor is solid ice. This shopping mall has hockey markings on its ice and is obviously used for hockey matches. More opulence.

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Shopping mall complete with ice rink

 

Qatar became independent from Britain in 1971, well after its first oil production commenced, but well before the huge natural gas reserves became known. The gas reserves are what is driving Qatar forward, making them a regional player which truly punches above its weight by the weight of their excess cash flow and their willingness to spend it. One has only to walk down the street of this ultra-modern town to see that the Qataris may honor their traditions but they have also embraced modern life. Skyscrapers such as “Dolphin Energy” and “Ministry of Energy” line the street. It is a canyon Wall Street would be proud of.

Time limits our exploration of this glass and steel canyon of wealth. We retreat to the shuttle bus stop, chatting up the bus starter. He is a young man like most in Doha – an expat from Pakistan. Eighty percent of Qatar’s population are expats. Qataris hold the key jobs, most of the work is contracted out to expats.

As the bus pulls out of the downtown area we pass the final expression of Qatari wealth. And humor. The front of the 25 story building is named ‘Ministry of Culture and Sport’. Its green glass exterior is, of course, gleaming in the sun, beating back the rays. But the glass front is designed is sort of an unmistakable two tone. This creates a distinctive slanted line down the front of the building, ending in a footer which crosses across the bottom of the building’s front. It looks, for all in the world, like a giant hockey stick superimposed on the front of this building of sport in this desert kingdom of wealth.

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Ministry of Culture & Sport

 

BTW, it’s “CA-tar”.

Dubai Creek

It was a balmy 92 degrees Fahrenheit when we pedaled away from the Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel. A ‘cold front’ had blown down from Mesopotamia and passed through the Emirates last night. A fairly brisk and pleasant breeze is blowing from the north, the skies are clear and tourists are strolling the corniche which lines Dubai Creek.

Although it was Easter Sunday there would be no sunrise service for us today. Here, in the land of Islam, worship services are on Friday. Since the Christian community is so small it must conform to the mores of this society – the Christian churches meet on Fridays also. Although our arrival was late last night, there was no mistaking the predominant religion in this region. As we walked through the airport concourse we passed designated prayer rooms in the terminal (separate men’s and women’s). Our hotel’s elevator had one floor clearly labeled “accounting and prayer room”. On our hotel room ceiling is affixed a decal with a large arrow, pointing the direction of Mecca for the faithful. Fortunately our hotel room windows are double paned, sparing us the 4am call of the local imams.

The Sheraton Dubai Creek was one of the original group of hotels constructed as Dubai began to flower, rich with oil wealth. While some distance from modern attractions such as Dubai Mall, the Burg Kalifa or the beach, it is conveniently located just across the street from the government center and in the center of what was, at the time, the action: right in the middle of Dubai Creek.

Dubai Creek is a bit mislabeled. It is more a small river or large canal such as one sees in Venice. Water taxis crisscross the Creek at convenient points, hauling tourists and some locals between the businesses on both sides of the Creek. Ocean going dhows pull far up the Creek to load large cargos of vacuum cleaners, latex gloves and assorted what not for distribution to small ports all along the coast line which would be bereft of these modern necessities without this commerce. It was not always so.

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Trade via dhow continues as centuries past

 

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Emirates was no prize: remote, poor, a backwater sliding downhill economically as the Japanese cultured pearl industry virtually ruined the local pearl diving industry. Travelers tell of the elite living in adobe houses while many of the commoners still lived in reed huts. Indeed, our British friend, Brian Beck, visited Dubai as a young engineering office in the British merchant marine in the middle of the century. Even then he reported ‘nothing to see’. As they unloaded their cargo of containers at the mouth of the Creek he said you could see for miles and there was little in view – a few distant buildings and that was all. Trucks appeared out of the desert, picked up the containers and disappeared back into the desert. No more.

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The construction crane – national bird of Dubai

 

 

Today the construction crane is the national bird of the Emirates. A flock of them occupy the western bank of the Creek and stretch themselves halfway to the sky. Dubai has decided to erect a ‘heritage and diving center’ to capture its past before it is subsumed by the tidal wave of modernity. Any community whose population is 80% expatriates is always in danger of losing its identity; Dubai is no different.

We pedal along the Creek side and note the air coming off the water is almost cool. A city park is planted with fields of red pansies and the stones of the water taxi stations are swept clean. All is in order in Dubai.

We lock our bikes to a rack at the Deira Old Souk water taxi station as there will be no room for them where we are going. Joining the herd we cross the street at the traffic light and step into opportunity, also the past. The ‘Old Souk’ refers not only to the age of this market warren, but also to the tradition of trafficking in almost anything the customer wants to buy. Further south in Arabia that thought is taken to its most literal extreme, but here in Dubai it is more focused on the civilized customer, principally tourists. We stroll slowly past the shops of the Spice Souk, only mildly interested in the bags of frankincense, myrrh and every other spice. We are headed to the Gold Souk.

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Spice souk shop

 

There is little doubt when we arrive: the merchants have been kind enough to erect a wooden roof with golden pillars over the principal alleyway of the souk. Clearly decreeing ‘Gold Souk’ the two story awning provides shade for shoppers from the relentless sun. No bikes allowed. Indian men pass among the shoppers with trays of cold water and fruit drinks. No really, they protest, free.

How does one pick a shop from among so many? So much gold. Gold in everything: bracelets, necklaces which would complement Cleopatra, golden rings, chains, even a golden coffee pot, the symbol of hospitality in the Arab world. We drag our feet slowly through the crowd which seems not the least bit hesitant. I finally suggest we take the store with the best air conditioner. We step into the Al-Romaizan Gold & Jewelery, LLC, store, Branch #2.

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Shopping begins

 

Four young Arabic men are busy at the counters, engaged with multiple customers. We creep our way slowly to a counter, eyeing the staggering wealth just hanging from the ceiling. A young salesman is eyeing us. We make it plain to him that we want a short, gold necklace. He reaches to the rear, on the counter, and produces a dozen different styles. Your pick? The First Mate shorts through with a practiced eye. Four thousand years of civilization unfolds before my eyes. The merchant tries to entice the buyer with something she cannot live without. The buyer assures the merchant she can. The dance continues at the hand held calculator, with much typing, thrusting of the calculator only to see a shaking head and a counter offer typed into the calculator. Back and forth they go, the lad even throwing the necklace on the scale to prove the number of grams of gold being offered. The buyer only shrugs, after all it’s only gold. A sales colleague joins the haggle, much conversation in Arabic. More typing, thrusting of the calculator. The buyer shrugs. The seller capitulates. The bargain is struck. But wait! This is a cash only deal. Cash only! We walk out of the shop fairly pleased with ourselves. Having checked on the price of gold prior to shopping we realized he was making a modest profit, but not a huge profit. Three women in black burkas have taken our place at the counter, the salesman listens attentively and the dance continues.

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Haggling over price, the time honored tradition

 

We stroll back to our bikes and head back up the Creek. The sun is lower now, not as fierce, a nice breeze blows over the Creek and the ride is quite pleasant. We note the crowds on the water taxis, either tourists riding the Creek or locals simply crossing from one office to another on the other side, but cheaper, and faster, than a taxi. The water taxi stations, covered piers pontooned in the Creek, look all in the world like the vaporetto stops in Venice.

 

The further north we go on the Creek the more industrial and less scenic it becomes. Finally we arrive at the port area where the Creek empties into the harbor and the Persian Gulf. We are reluctant to join the auto traffic in the bridge under the Creek to reach the corniche on the other side. Besides it is time to return the bikes.

Later that evening, from our hotel window, the Creek lights up with dinner dhows slowly drifting up and down the Creek, entertaining their diners. The construction sites across the Creek are bright with lights as work continues into the night. The brisk breeze has caused a haze to settle over the city as it has picked up the desert dust, erasing the horizon. A half-moon settles over the large mosque across the Creek and traffic moderates on the roads. Quite begins to descend on the Creek area. It will remain so until, as for hundreds of years, the 4 am Imam calls the faithful to prayer before dawn, ensuring they are ready to start the next day.DSC00177

 

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

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

Swallowed by Whales

 

 

Upstairs or downstairs? It’s a question of modern life, particularly in modern air travel. And especially when moving with an entire small town of 400 or 500 people. We were on our way to join our ship in Dubai. Research on modern jumbo jets, the whales, the biggest of the big, seems to be in order. Lufthansa, the German airline, would be our foil. The reigning champion of ‘jumbo’, the 500+ passenger A-380 versus the previous champ: the B-747-400 with only a modest capacity of 400+. Head to head, toe to toe, may the best whale win.

The Middle East has metamorphosed into a low fare hub. From Houston fares for a flight to Dubai are cheaper than fares to Europe, go figure. We have discovered a “Z” business class fare, offered by a codeshare partner of Lufthansa, for little more than a premium economy seat. We grab it. We will travel with the elites.

On our first leg the Houston departure gate should be chaos with over 500 people attempting to board the A-380. Not so – German efficiency has grabbed order from the chaos and boarding, which begins 50 minutes prior to departure, flows smoothly. We stroll into the large jet-bridge and turn left at the arrow pointing to “First class and business”. We feel a rush of elitism. The proletariat are compelled to proceed straight ahead to ‘economy’. Interestingly we begin a long climb up a jet-bridge with switch backs and an uphill slope. We step onto the airplane only to realize we are on the second deck. No boarding the aircraft and then struggling up a narrow stair with bags, as on the 747. The second deck of the 380 is all first class or business, with a few rows of economy in the very rear. The first class cabin in tiny but the business class is huge: 78 seats. Suddenly we don’t feel so exclusive.

We stow our bags and build our nest in the two seats on the window side of the aisle on row 14. Being a blogger I am now compelled to grab my camera and document everything. I use my schoolboy German on one of the flight attendants – who laughs and says it’s ok, she’s from Copenhagen. She agrees to call the cockpit for me, to arrange for a tour. Then she is polite enough to lead me there, lucky thing or I would have been lost. Forward through first class, down a wide staircase, left through premium economy and up a narrow hall to the flight deck.

Captain Wolfgang and his two colleagues greet me with professional courtesy and curiosity, they don’t get many visitors to the cockpit at Lufthansa. We swap airline stories and I confess I’m from the old technology of the A-330. They get a big laugh out of that as all modern Airbuses are based on the same architecture: the single aisle best-selling A-320. The A-330/340 family was later designed as the long haul wide body members of the family. Then Airbus bet big that the carriers would, in the future, be seeking huge planes to reduce frequencies between large destinations. So the super jumbo A-380 was born. Could be they are wrong?   The A-380 has not reached its sales goals and no U.S. carrier has bought one.

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Capt. Wolfgang’s A380 flight deck

 

Looking around the cockpit, things look familiar but there are some new gadgets and bells and whistles. The basic Airbus look and feel are present. It vaguely dawns on me that something is amiss: the cockpit windows don’t seem to be as large as the 330’s windows. Pondering the idea later it is evident that the 330 didn’t have a second story sitting on it. On the 380 the cockpit is on the main deck so the second deck is entirely above it. Strange feel.

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Modern gadgets and narrow windows in the A380

 

I peek into the crew rest facility just behind the cockpit. There is only one bunk. I question the crew and they roll their eyes. Unlike U.S. airlines which require one relief pilot for flights over 8 hours and two relief pilots for flights over 12 hours, the Lufthansa pilots shake their heads. One of their ‘productivity’ concessions was flying all long haul flights with only one relief pilot. And, they point out, there is no seat in the rest area, only a bunk. But they do have a video monitor!

Departure time nears and I return to my seat. Block time tonight from Houston to Frankfurt is 9 hours and 45 minutes, but Capt. Wolfgang says the actual flying time will only be 9 hours, they have a nice tailwind. Push back commences and I begin to see some of Wolfgang’s challenges. To taxi from the international ramp they literally have to squeeze between the aircraft at the jet bridges and an Air New Zealand B777 parked on a hard stand. From our lofty perch high on the second deck we are actually looking down on the top of the 777. Hmmm, that’s pretty impressive, we are a long way to the ground. The A380 inches forward very carefully due to its size. It then crawls along the taxiways toward the runway. The video monitors at passenger seats display the taxi progress of the airplane on the airport map exactly. Nothing happens rapidly.

 

Gaining the runway the 380 starts to rumble forward, gathering speed. The top deck is quiet and smooth, despite all the huff and puff of the engines outside. Finally, at 156 miles per hour, the nose wheels lift from the runway. It’s not a graceful leap into the sky, more of a slumbering lumber, but airborne we are. Staggering a million pounds into the air does not pretend to be nimble. The rate of climb is slow as the aircraft accelerates and retracts its high lift devices. Finally speed and lift combine and we begin our climb to cruise altitude. At this point Wolfgang is forgotten.

Our business class seats are a miracle of modern technology which require some thought. The seats are electric and push button, but which button? An array of options face the user: recline, seat back, footrest up, lie flat, partial, only experiment can answer. The video monitor is huge as the airline chose to place it in the seat back in front of the user. All the better to see but harder to reach. The tray tables must go down before they can go up. The storage pockets hold sundry treats, just like an Easter egg hunt. And the flight attendant: she stands poised above us, pencil ready to record our choices from the menu. She then magically reappears with a bottle of wine in each hand. Such service. We chew our way into the night with little thought of Wolfgang’s toil.

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Pre-dinner snacks in Business Class

 

But even a million pounds must give way to Mother Nature. Prior to joining the ocean tracks the airplane surfs up, then begins a mild buffet. The seatbelt sign comes on and the cockpit notifies us of a “jet stream”, pushing us merrily along but stirring up the air, also. The window shades slide down as we digest one of the better inflight meals we have ever had. Perhaps it was the Italian wine, but the food was actually good. Selecting the ‘lie flat’ button the seat reclines obediently. The newly found bed is very narrow but infinitely more comfortable than a coach chair. We drop into nepenthe until we hear the tinkle of the breakfast glasses. Peeking out from under our eyeshade, sure enough, there stands the flight attendant with orange juice. Time for breakfast, we have only an hour to go.

The arrival into Frankfurt follows the usual meanderings and delays of air traffic control, proving even a super jumbo cannot escape the system. We touch down on the runway unmistakably and slow amazingly fast. Turning onto the taxiway the 380, once again, creeps its way along. Entering the ramp it is apparent it is returning to the hive, or more properly, rejoining the pod of other whales in Frankfurt. The terminal is wingtip to wingtip with 747s and 380s.

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Lufthansa A380 – note early generation Delta B767-400 in background

 

 

We now have a 5 hour layover, sitting around a lounge, fighting off jet lag. We miss Wolfgang and his efficient crew. It is part and parcel of modern air travel. Finally our flight to Dubai is called at 1:30 pm. We stagger toward the gate.

Our second investigation is on a Lufthansa B747-400, the original whale in the air. Here we are also upstairs. We board with the rest of the business class passengers, entering the whale on the main deck. We are then pointed toward a narrow stairway leading to the top deck and our seats in row 83. We struggle up the steps to find our semi-private compartment. As the top deck of the whale is considerably smaller than the 380 we discover there are only 6 rows of seats here, with two seats on each side of the aisle. Private. But, oddly enough, there are several families here, traveling together to Dubai. Expats at work.

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B747 upper deck with only 6 rows of business class seating

 

Throwing the bags into the overhead bin I whip out the camera and corner a flight attendant. It’s easy to find the cockpit here – straight ahead up the aisle. But recalling my previous reception it was clear that an introduction is necessary. The flight attendant leads me up to the flight deck where I meet Captain Barbara and her cohort, First Officer Christoph. They also are a bit surprised to see me but realize that I speak Boeing and we relax into pilot talk. Since the flight to Dubai is only 6 hours there is no relief pilot, they are on their own. They do not seem to mind. We talk Airbus vs. Boeing and Barbara shows her colors: “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going”. A loyalist to the end. Personally I found the Boeing seats uncomfortable and the technology a generation behind. All a matter of opinion. But the end is coming for the 747-400, due to its high operating expense. U.S. carriers have all announced their retirement schedules for the B-747 as the wide body fleets transition to the two engine airplanes. But Barbara sees no Airbus in her future, she avers with a laugh. Suddenly it’s departure time and the crew goes from relaxed and bored to busy. I escape to my seat.

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Capt. Barbara and F/O Christoph in their B747-400 office

 

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Time to go to work

 

Upstairs on the 747 the business seat appears almost identical to the 380’s seat. Things seem a bit older and a bit more worn, but that’s because this aircraft has been in operation much longer than the 380. We receive the same attentive service from the flight attendants but as the flight is ‘only’ six hours the menu is not as opulent. Plus fatigue has begun to set in badly.

We lower our seats and try to catch up with the sun, but where ever it is, it isn’t in our world. We drop off and even the tinkling of the light snack dishes do not rouse us.

An hour out of Dubai I study the video map of the world around us. It brings back memories. Below us is the Zagros Fold Belt of Iran, a series of folded and faulted mountain ranges hiding oil & gas if you can only find it. It was a puzzle to the early oil finders. Down the coast is the city of Bandar Abbas where, 40 years before, we had operated a small detachment of reconnaissance aircraft at the request of the Shah. The ‘we’ was the U.S. Navy and our invitation went away with the Shah. Today relations are not so friendly.

Captain Barbara announces our descent into Dubai but, once again, the whale cannot escape air traffic. Christoph is flying the aircraft and our video monitor describes the perfect holding pattern he executes over the Persian Gulf, due to the high traffic volume approaching the Dubai airport. On we fly with turns this way and that until we finally cross the beach and see the city. On into the desert we go, watching the ground lights fade away behind us and the video map showing we are almost half way across the Emirates now (small though they be). Finally we turn back for the airport and our map follows Christoph’s line up with the runway. As we sink toward the sand and the airport environment becomes visible out the side windows, uh-oh. It seems the video program still has us two miles from the airport when Christoph eases the whale onto the pavement. Nice landing but something in the navigation system is not updating. Oh well, after 16 hours flying time our minds are too confused to focus. It is 10:30 pm now as we schlep our roll aboard cases down the narrow stair, joining the crowd headed out door 2 left and into the Dubai terminal. A smiling ‘auf weidersehen’ bids us adieu.

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Lufthansa B747-400 enroute

 

So, who won, Airbus 380 or Boeing 747-400?

The only impartial judge would be the First Mate, who had no dog in the fight. Her verdict: “I’d do either one again, especially in business class. It was nice.”

It appears the airframe is not as important to the customer as the experience. On Lufthansa it was ‘ausgezeichnet’!

 

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

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