Friday, August 11, 2017


It was our fourth time in Russia.  We've visited the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific Coast and now the Arctic Coast of Russia.  Before the trip, I told some Russian friends that we were going to Murmansk.  They said, "Why would you want to go there?"  Precisely!

Murmansk is the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. It is located on the Kola Peninsula, not far from Norway.  It is closer to the North Pole than it is to Moscow.  Murmansk is a city of 300,000.  The population used to be 500,000.  When people were no longer forced to live there, they voted with their feet.   The sun does not come up for 2 months in the Winter and it gets bitterly cold up here--the January average temperature is 5F (-15C).  In January, the mercury can dip close to -40F (-40C).  Despite that, the port remains relatively ice free, even in Winter because of the Gulf Stream.

Murmansk is a relatively new city.  It was founded in 1916.  Czarist Russia needed a seaport beyond the reach of the German Navy during World War I.  The city was called Romanov-on-Murman.  "Murman" or "Nurmann" was the Russian word for "Norman" or "Viking".  The Vikings had sailed to this area 1000 years ago.  When the Red Army took over, a couple of years later, they changed the name to Murmansk. 

Our ship docked opposite the huge Soviet era nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin, written in Cyrillic letters.  Not John Lennon, but Vladimir Lenin.  The Lenin can cut through 10 feet of ice.  It sails to the North Pole and takes tourists there.  A friend we met on the cruise, Doug from British Columbia actually did take that cruise.  He told me that several times, the ship got stuck in the ice, so it backed up and rammed through it.  He even took a dip in the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole.

Murmansk serves as the headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet and is a major nuclear submarine base.  To keep the sea lanes open in Winter, the Russians keep 4 nuclear powered icebreakers in the Murmansk harbor.  This is an extremely busy commercial and industrial port, but not known for its scenery.  It is the end of the line on the Kirov Railway from Moscow and St. Petersburg.  We saw many long fully loaded freight trains from the South.

The most iconic sight in Murmansk is the enormous Alyosha Monument honoring the Soviet soldiers of the great Patriotic War, which we call World War II.  This monument is on a hill with a panoramic view of the city.  It is a 116 foot tall sculpture of a brooding soldier dressed in Winter gear with a rifle slung over his shoulder.  It is the second tallest statue in Russia.  It was built in 1974 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the defeat of the German forces in the Arctic.  It contains the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  On the 60th anniversary, in 2004, they added the Wall of the Hero Cities, memorial plaques and capsules containing dirt from the various "hero" cities on the plaques--Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad and others.  Although the names are written in Cyrillic letters, I could generally decipher them because they have some similarity to Greek letters.   Many Russians celebrate their weddings at the Monument despite the usually bad weather.

There are many languages spoken in Murmansk. We're talking Russian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, Byelorussian, and Georgian. but not English.    Dianne is from Georgia, but the Georgian they speak is not the Georgian they speak near Atlanta although Southern Russians do speak with a drawl.

The Murmansk landscape is dotted with dozens of huge Soviet era apartment complexes as far as the eye can see.  In the U.S., these would be called "the projects".  They are drab, gray stone buildings, many with peeling paint.  In Russia, they call them Khrushchevs, after the 1950's and '60's Communist Party leader who ordered the construction.  They are obviously not luxury living, but the Russians don't expect much. 

Before they were built, many Russians lived 3 families in one apartment.  Apartments were scarce because the city had suffered extensive destruction from the German bombardment in World War II. Khrushchev kept the people happy by giving them their own apartments.  Some of these buildings are now being replaced by modern apartments.  I didn't see any single family homes, and I asked our guide about that.    She told me that many Russians do live in single family homes, presumably in the suburbs.

Murmansk does have many of the amenities of Western cities.  We drove past the huge indoor Volna Shopping Mall which has the only McDonald's I saw, the Northernmost McDonald's in the world.  '  A Big Mac in Murmansk costs only about $1.53, less than a third of what it would cost in Norway.

Murmansk has a sister city, Jacksonville, Florida.  That one floored me.    During World War II, much of the allied aid to Russia came by way of Jacksonville.  After the War, Jacksonville sent medical equipment and trained Russian doctors.

We had a nice lunch at the modern and upscale Park Inn by Radisson Hotel in Murmansk.   We ate blinis which are pancakes with fruit and brown sugar.  They also make blinis filled with caviar, fish, melted butter or sour cream.  Russians eat a lot of caviar because they get it locally.  I stayed away from the borscht. 


We visited the statue of the local hero, Sergei Kirov.  It stands in front of the Palace of Culture, also called the Kirov Palace.  Kirov was Stalin's right hand man, a loyal Communist.  He was appointed the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  Kirov was a party guy as well as a Party guy.  He was a hard drinker who lived the good life and perks of his office.  He was popular with the Party cadre, even more popular than the austere Stalin.   Not good.

The Party faithful considered him a reformer, and his influence continued to grow.  Indeed, Kirov gave a speech at the 1934 Party Congress advocating a more relaxed approach in the future.  Apparently he forgot to clear that with Stalin.  The Central Committee elected Kirov with just 3 negative votes.  Stalin received far more negative votes, and those who cast them were probably never heard from again.  Working for Stalin, if you're not totally in agreement with him, that's not good for one's career.  Kirov may have had some indication when he was starting to not get invited to certain Politburo meetings.

Kirov was assassinated in December, 1934 at his office under suspicious circumstances.  All indications were that the assassin, who was later executed, was hired by the NKVD (secret police) on Stalin's orders. Kirov normally had a 4 to 8 guard security detail, NKVD people.   For some reason, on the day Kirov was killed, the bodyguards were all out to lunch or nowhere to be found.  Indeed, after the assassination, Stalin personally interviewed the killer, an unprecedented event.  Then Stalin had the guy's whole family executed. 

This event touched off the Great Purge of the 1930's in which many of the Old Bolsheviks were arrested and executed.  The first thing Stalin did to usher in the Great Purge was to disarm everyone--all Party officials carried weapons, distributed by the Party.  No longer.  There was no Second Amendment in Russia.   After the arrests, the prosecution in the show trials charged these people with "complicity" in Kirov's murder.  They were all forced to confess.  Several years later, all the NKVD agents on Kirov's security detail were also executed because they knew too much. 

After the assassination, the Stalin regime portrayed Kirov as a hero.  Many places were named after Kirov.  There were the cities of Kirov, Kirovohrad, Kriovakan, Kirova and several Kirovsks.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kirovakan, in Armenia reverted to its original name, Vanadzor.  Kirovabad, in Azerbaijan similarly reverted to Ganja.    Azerbaijan also removed the massive Kirov statue in Baku in 1992.  In the Ukraine, it took a little longer, until after the Crimean crisis.  Then the Parliament following its de-communization laws changed Kirovohrad to Kropyvnytskyi in 2016.  The Ukrainians didn't much like the guy.  He was in charge when more than a million Ukrainian farmers, the Kulaks, died of forced starvation or were executed in the 1920's. 

The Murmansk statue was built in 1960 when Khrushchev rehabilitated Kirov.  Today, many things, at least in Russia, are named after Kirov--streets, railways, factories.


The other thing worth noting about this God forsaken area is the nearby relic of the Cold War, the Kola Superdeep Borehole.    During the Space Race, the U.S. and the Russians were also competing to see who could drill the deepest hole into the Earth's crust.  Ultimately, the Russians prevailed on this dubious distinction, and science did learn many new things about the world under our feet.

The hole is located a few miles outside Murmansk, and you'd need an all wheel drive vehicle to get there.   This 9 inch diameter hole goes down 7.5 miles (40,230') into the Earth.  It took 24 years to drill it--longer than it took to travel to Pluto.  At that depth, the rock had been thoroughly fractured and saturated with water, a totally unexpected finding.  The temperature of this superheated liquid water was 180C (356F), far above the boiling point.  The scientists finally had to stop drilling because the high temperatures at the bottom caused the rock to behave like plastic, and the drill could not proceed any farther.  The plan had been to drill down to 15,000 meters (49,000'), but the intense heat destroyed the drill.

To me, the most interesting discovery coming out of this project was the microfossils--the preserved remains of 24 species of single cell marine plants--plankton.  The rocks in which they were found are 2 billion years old.         

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Dianne and I recently took a trip to the Arctic.  It started with an 8 hour plane ride, Chicago to London.  We looked forward to 11 days in which it never gets dark.   On the plane, I sat with a middle aged black music professor taking a new job in London and a Hasidic Jewish rabbinic student with 5 kids.  His wife lives in London.  This motely group of characters made for some interesting and stimulating conversation which made the time pass quickly.

The cruise ship was docked in Dover, about a 2 hour bus ride from London.  Shortly before we got to Dover, we passed the exit for the Chunnel to Calais, France which is only 20 or so miles across the English Channel.  When we arrived at the port, we could clearly see the famous White Cliffs of Dover.  Hundreds of locals were fishing off the pier, facing the beautiful White Cliffs.

The Pacific Princess went full throttle across the rough North Sea which is known for its terrible weather, and it didn't disappoint.  This was our second trip across the North Sea, and it hasn't gotten any better.  We're talking huge swells.  The ship made its way through the heavy gray seas against 40 knot winds blowing down from the Arctic.  From time to time we passed oil drilling platforms which have made Norway a wealthy country.

Our cabin was freezing, and we then realized that we still had the air conditioning on.  The sliding doors of our cabin didn't keep out the cold winds--it was still drafty.  We were queasy for a couple days.  Many other passengers must have been also because they didn't come down for dinner.

We especially like exotic cruises to destinations like the Arctic because most of the passengers have similar interests.  Most have traveled to other exotic locations worldwide, and we get ideas to add to our bucket list.  For example, I was reading the most recent Jean Auel book about Stone Age people, and we expressed an interest in visiting the Lascaux Caves in France which are famous for the primitive wall paintings of mammoths and other extinct animals.    Several people on the cruise have visited there and reinforced our desire to see the caves. Also, I spoke with at least 2 families who traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow by way of Ulanbaatar, Mongolia.  I'd like to try that also, but Dianne is not keen on that idea. 


Our first port was Bergen, a seacoast city of 300,000.  This was our second trip to Bergen.  It is a quaint and beautiful old city, with colorful 18th Century houses framing the waterfront. The city was founded hundreds of years ago as a port of the Hansetic League.  Don't confuse it with the American League or the NFL.  The Hansetic League was a network of merchant guilds and their cities, mostly German, which formed a trade association.   For over 3 centuries in the Middle Ages, the Hansetic League was very powerful and wealthy, dominating the Baltic maritime trade.  It had its own legal system and even armies for protection and aid.

The Hansetic League Museum, built in 1704 overlooks the harbor.  UNESCO has designated it a heritage site.  To visit it, I had to climb a narrow, rickety and dimly lit staircase to the third floor to see a trading room, a merchant's office, sailors' bunks and tools, instruments and maps of the Hansetic network.  On the lower level of the building were the storage and processing rooms for fish and cod liver oil.  The various period items were collected from surrounding farms in the Bergen area.  They don't have a Norwegians with Disabilities Act, so there was no elevator, escalator or ramp to get to it.  Dianne couldn't climb the stairs, so they refunded her admission fee. 

Nearby, we visited the outdoor market, called the Torget (not the Target)  where we saw displays of every type of fish.  The most popular in Norway is laks, which we know as smoked salmon (lox).  The Norwegians don't normally serve bagels with it.

As a seaport city, Bergen is very cosmopolitan.  I was surprised by the number of Chinese and Thai restaurants.   It was lunchtime, and I found a vendor cooking Spanish paella with local seafood in a large wok like bowl.  It was delicious. 

Norway is very expensive.  At the Torget, they have a bathroom for tourists at the information center.  You have to pay 10 kroners to use it, about a buck and a quarter.  Do I pay the buck and a quarter or do I suffer? 

We decided to see the city on the bright red On-Off sightseeing bus.  On our previous trip to Bergen, we walked around downtown and took the funicular railway up to the top of Mt. Floien where our lunch was a $17 cheese sandwich.  (see KENSUSKINREPORT August 21, 2011).  This time, we saw the concert hall named after hometown composer Edvard Grieg.  There is a museum devoted to Grieg.  You can visit his villa, his cabin and even his grave.  We didn't do so. 


Trondheim is world famous for hosting the Winter Olympics.  They have a ski slope where you can downhill ski even when there is no snow.   Tourists flock to see it.

We were blessed with a mild sunny day.  We were told that it was the sixth day this year when the sun was shining.  Hey, it was the end of June.  Most days, it rains.

The shuttle bus from the pier took us to the magnificent Nidoros Cathedral, the most iconic sight in Trondheim.  It was build over the burial site of St. Olav, the 11th Century Norwegian king who is the patron saint of Norway.  He was killed at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and the construction of the cathedral was begun in 1070.  There must have been a problem with the permits, because it took 230 years to complete.  During the Reformation in 1537, the Lutherans kicked out the Catholics and took over the cathedral.  It is used for coronations of Norway's kings. 

The building has been ravaged by fires several times over the centuries although the stone walls remained intact.  The current restoration and rebuilding was begun in 1869 and finally completed in 2001.  The main architect was a guy named Christian Christie who was not related to the New Jersey governor.  Christie had made a name for himself restoring many medieval monuments in Norway.  He died in 1906, and they finally completed the work 95 years later.    Construction can be a slow process. 

We walked around town and saw the other iconic site, the king's official residence, called Stiftsgarten.  At 43,000 square feet, it is one of the largest wooden buildings in Scandinavia.  The building has 140 rooms.  Across the street, we visited the courthouse and city hall where several weddings were being performed.  The colorful murals painted on the courthouse were quite interesting, depicting 18th century barristers.

To see how normal residents live, we visited a hardware store and a supermarket where the prices appeared to be about 50% higher than in the U.S.   When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.  We then found our way to the indoor shopping mall downtown, The Trondheim Torg and visited the McDonalds. 

The main industry of Trondheim other than fishing, is copper mining.  We could have taken a tour of the mine but decided against it.  I've visited coal mines, and it can't be than much different. 


We continued North, past the Arctic Circle to begin 11 days for us where the sun never set.  We crossed 75 degrees latitude, the same as Northern Alaska.  Some showers were in the air on this July afternoon.  We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular mountains and glaciers along the Norway coast. We left the top of Norway and journeyed several hundred miles across open sea in the Arctic Ocean to the Svalbard Archipelago at a latitude of 78 degrees and change--about 800 miles from the North Pole.  Needless to say, it was cold.  About 60% of Svalbard is covered with glaciers.  There are no trees.  Where the land is not covered with glaciers, it is covered with green lichens.  Reindeer and caribou graze on it.

We docked in the principal city, Longyearbyen, a town of about 2000.  This town was founded in the early 20th Century to  serve the nearby coal mines, some of which are still operating.   Most houses and buildings are brightly colored prefabs with pointy roofs.  Houses are built on stilts because you can't dig a foundation in permafrost.  I was told that 70% of the households consist of 1 person.  Most are scientists staying temporarily.  When it's dark outside for over 4 months, people get depressed and want to leave.  They come back in the summer.

Longyearbyen can be dangerous.  It's not street crime they are worried about--it's polar bears.  The city maps have a warning sign:  "Highlighted area.  Safe for walking about without an armed guard."  Back home on the South Side of Chicago, that is normal, so I didn't think anything of it.  The danger is the polar bear who sees you and thinks it is dinner time.  The gun laws  are the opposite of most places.  In Longyearbyen, all residents are required to carry a high powered rifle at all times because of the polar bear situation.  However, they are required to check their guns at the door when entering a retail establishment. 

The island archipelago is called Svalbard, and the largest island is called Spitzbergen which means "jagged peaks".  It was discovered in 1592 by explorer William Barents, and they named the nearby Barents Sea after him.  It is part of Norway, but Russians live there also.  More on that later.

Spitzbergen's other claim to fame is the Global Seed Bank, officially called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is buried in an abandoned coal mine in a sandstone mountain which is usually covered by snow.  It is 430 feet above seal level in a geologically stable area.  Even if the ice caps melt, presumably it will stay dry for a few thousand years. 

The facility was built in 2008, and is funded by the Norwegian government.  The purpose is to keep a supply of plant seeds, "spare" copies if you will, of food crops in the event of loss of seeds in other gene banks during a large scale crisis, e.g. Nuclear holocaust elsewhere in the world.  As I learned, there are 1600 seed banks scattered around the world.  These crises often occur as a result of mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts and natural disasters.  The seed bank in the Philippines was damaged by flooding and later destroyed by fire.  The seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq were lost completely. 

I went to see it, but they won't let you in.  This is sensitive stuff, so it is well guarded.  Not as much as Area 51, but guarded nevertheless.  To get in one would have to go through four sets of locked doors. 

When we were there, we saw construction equipment around the entrance, but I got a photo.  There had been some water damage in 2016 because of heavy rainfall, and the government is making improvements which include waterproofing the tunnel walls and digging drainage ditches.  There are four layers of protection for the seeds, and the water seepage only reached the first layer. 

The guide told me the vault contains about 2 billion seeds in Tupperware containers, actually, in special 3 ply foil packets, heat sealed to exclude moisture.  One thing you won't find there is genetically modified seeds, prohibited by Norwegian law.  The storage rooms are air conditioned to a frigid 0 degrees Fahrenheit--about the same as your freezer at home.

Most of the time, the Global Seed Bank takes in deposits, and it is free to end users.  The only withdrawal so far was made by Aleppo, Syria.

After visiting the Global Seed Bank, as it were, my tour continued a few hundred yards down the road.  We began a hike up a 1000 foot mountain dotted with small niveous glaciers.  There is no path, and most of the climb is on jagged rocks.  We forded a stream where I got my wool socks wet in the icy water.  We hiked up a slippery glacier, and it was cold and windy.  About halfway up, I couldn't go anymore.  I was afraid I would die of a heart attack.    Fortunately for me, it is illegal to die in Svalbard because the graveyard closed to new business 70 years ago.  The bodies don't decompose in the permafrost.  If someone dies illegally, the body has to be shipped to Norway for burial. 

The guide walked me down the mountain, on the same rugged terrain, but downhill.  A young man named Mats brought a van to take me back to the ship.  I bribed him to take me into downtown Longyearbyen instead, about a mile and a half from the ship.  That turned out to be a good move.

I visited the post office, the small shopping mall, the supermarket.  Several of the stores in town are outfitters and tour guides.  They sell polar bear rugs, seal skins, and reindeer skins.  There are lots of sled dogs, but you won't find any cats.  They are banned, to protect endangered Arctic birds.  If you're planning to hike to the North Pole, this is a good place to start.    "Clothing gear for your expedition."  They do have a Radisson Blu hotel, as well as a couple other hotels.  They have restaurants you wouldn't expect, like Arctic Tapas and sushi. If you want whale stir fry, you can get it here--to go.

I walked back on the road toward the ship.  On the way back, I came upon the Svalbard Brewery, so I went inside.  The beer is brewed with glacier water.   The offered me all the beer I wanted, but I don't much like beer.  Most things in the Arctic are expensive, but alcohol is relatively cheap because there are no taxes.  You can even play golf here, but the course is inside a Quonset building. 

Every year, on March 8th, the residents celebrate shortly after Noon when the sun comes out--for the first time since October 25th.

Dianne took a different tour in Svalbard, a catamaran ride to the Soviet era town of Pyramiden, named after the pyramid shaped mountain outside of town.   She was enthusiastic about the 30 mile boat ride because an enormous gray whale was sighted, larger than the boat.   Her group snapped many photos.  After their adventure, they were warmly greeted at the dock.

The story behind this is that until 1920 the Svalbard Archipelago was not a part of any nation.  Then, the U.S., Britain, Norway and a few others, but not Russia, executed the Svalbard Treaty which granted Norway sovereignty over the area.  The treaty granted the signatories equal rights to develop and pursue commercial activities in the islands.   Within a few years, Russia and over 40 other nations signed the treaty.  In 1927, the Soviet Union purchased the Pyramiden area and acquired the rights to develop the coal fields there.  They established a model community there analogous to a collective farm.  Today, that community is a museum with a window into how workers lived during the Soviet era.    In 1936, a state run coal company, Trust Arktikugol, assumed responsibility for the mining operations of Pyramiden and also Barentsburg, about 60 miles away.

During World War II, the Soviets poured money into this barren area, constructing drab, Soviet style apartment blocks as well as a hospital, a hotel and a recreation center, plus the obligatory statue of Lenin.   The coal mines were not profitable, but the Soviets liked having a presence in the West.  Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russians had other priorities, and the subsidies dried up.    Morale went down, but the crowning blow was the 1996 crash of a chartered Arktikugol plane which killed 141 people, most of them family members of the mineworkers. 

Finally, in 1998, the Russians abandoned the place, lock stock and barrel.  Today, it is largely a ghost town although a handful of workers live there, for limited maintenance and to guide tourists.  Recently the Tulip Hotel reopened for the Summer months only, to serve the tourist trade.  Most of the buildings are locked to prevent vandalism and theft of artifacts, which has been a problem.  You need special permission to go inside.  Dianne's group had lunch at the hotel and they were given a guided tour of the recreation area and the post office. 


We celebrated the Fourth of July at sea.   There were no fireworks because the sun didn't go down.  Tromso is known for its spectacular Northern Lights, but you can't see them when it doesn't get dark.  Tromso is a city of 68,000, the largest Norwegian city north of the Arctic Circle.  It is located on an island near the North Cape of Norway.   It faces beautiful snow capped mountains. 

We explored the city and found there is a lot to see in Tromso.   A short walk from the pier, we came upon a statue of the great Arctic explorer, Roald Amundsen--with a disrespecting seagull perched on his head.  Tromso was the staging point for Arctic expeditions in the early 20th Century.     

Tromso has an aquarium, the Polaria, a world class facility in modern architecture.  We arrived in time to watch the keepers feed the 4 seals.  They do this twice a day with large crowds of tourists jostling for space by the rail.  It was explained to us that seals need mental stimulation, and the attendants throw out small basketballs into the water.  A seal really can balance a ball on his nose.  Then they showed us a panorama film about Arctic wildlife in Svalbard.

Next door is the MS Polstjena, a whaling and sealing boat which was in service until the 1970's.  I donned earphones and heard the whole story as I clambered over the boat.   The voice described seal hunting in great detail, more than I needed to know.  The boat could bring in 3000 seals during the two month Spring hunting season off the East Coast of Greenland. 

I climbed into the control room, the living quarters, and the small kitchen.  Up to 10 men would stay in the hold, pretty much all the time.  The guide explained that between the seal oil and the unbathed sailors, it smelled pretty bad down there.

Nearby, just down the street is a statue of Ludwig Mack who started a brewery in Tromso in 1877, and it still operates today. It wrongly claims to be the Northernmost brewery in the world, but I visited the one in Spitzbergen, hundreds of miles to the North.  Although we didn't take the tour, they charge based on how many tastings you want.  It is $20 or so for two tastings and about $35 for four tastings.  If you're really thirsty, it's probably a good deal.

Tromso's other must see sight is its modernistic A-frame Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965.  I saw it from the ship but didn't visit because it was on the other side of the bay across a long bridge.  In town we walked to the wooden Tromso Cathedral, built in 1861.    The city has only 350 Catholics, but two cathedrals.  Pope John Paul II visited in 1989.

On our way back to the ship, prominently displayed in the city part was the unexpected (to us) monument to honor the 20 Tromso Jews who were forcibly removed and killed in 1943.  Their names are inscribed--5 members of the Caplan family, 5 more of the Shotland family, 3 Sakolskys, Smith, Klein, Resnick and a couple more.


The ship sailed on to Honningsvag, about 30 miles from the North Cape.  This town is not a big deal, but what IS a big deal, at least to Europeans, is the North Cape, the Northernmost point in continental Europe.  The town has a little over 2000 people, but several things about it were interesting to us. 

This area of Norway is called Finnmark County, and the native people are called the Sami.  They have their own separate languages.  We know them as the Laplanders, although the Sami people in Norway consider the term Lapp to be insulting.  Not so much in Sweden and Finland.   They are famous for raising herds of reindeer, and Norway does not allow anyone but Sami people to herd reindeer.  These nomadic folks are of European origin, and they have a 10,000 year history in the area.  The UN considers them as an "Indigenous People". 

You'd think they could have gone somewhere warmer, but they thrived in the North.  Like many other native peoples, they faced struggles when the Norwegians tried to stamp out their language and culture and make them Norwegians.   They were treated as second class citizens by the Norwegians for years, especially in the early 20th Century, but with pressure from the UN and other countries, they are OK now although they don't yet have casinos. 

The downtown area of Honningsvag is about two blocks long and is called Little Chicago.  There has to be a story behind that, and we were determined to find out.   There was a lot of competition between whalers and fishermen, and it heated up into a major bare knuckled brawl in 1904.  According to locals I spoke with, the violence inspired the locals to think of Chicago.  Some things never change. 

One establishment we didn't visit was the ice bar.  That is crazy to us.  It is cold in this area, so who would anyone want to visit an ice bar.  We had visited one in St. Thomas.  They turn the temperature down to 27F.   They hand out parkas, mittens, and scarfs.  To us Chicagoans, 27F is not that cold, and certainly not cold enough to wear a parka. 

In the local bakery, we ordered a "Lille Chicago" which turned out to be a chocolate mousse cake.  It was very rich and sweet, and we could only eat a few bites.  We walked down the street to the market where we bought some Pringles for about twice what they charge in Chicago.  On the ship, we had met a retired man named Harold who had once been the product manager of Pringles when he worked for Procter & Gamble.  I learned everything I wanted to know about Pringles and then some.  For example, it only worked with Idaho russet potatoes--Maine potatoes didn't work well.  The problem for him was that between McDonald's and Procter & Gamble, there weren't enough Idaho russets.  Harold had to meet with the potato king Mr. Simplot himself to work it out.  Then they had to come up with new technology to make each chip precise and also to properly space the chips in the cardboard tube so that it didn't look like the box was only half full.  So I bought a box just to see for myself. 

At the museum, we learned about the seafood industry.  Everyone in Norway eats fish and seafood--its the main industry.  They brought in king crabs from Siberia.  These critters are 5 feet across and weigh 25 pounds.  They are an invasive species, so the government encourages catching and eating  them.  The locals run crab fishing safaris for tourists. 

The town of Honningsvag exists for tourism.  During World War II, there was a major battle nearby, and the city was completely destroyed except for the church.   Today, hundreds and maybe thousands of people visit the town daily.  They board dozens of tour buses for the drive to the North Cape.  Many others drive their campers up the narrow two lane road which is open only in the Summer months except for a couple hours daily in Winter only for convoy driving.   They get a lot of snow in Winter.   At the North Cape they have separate parking lots for buses and for cars and campers.  Hordes of people milled around, taking photos of the sheer cliffs and the monuments.   Many of these people brought small kids in strollers over the rough ground. 

It was cold!  We visited on a sunny July day which is apparently a rare event in the area.  Strong winds off the Arctic Ocean brought the wind chill into the single digits (Fahrenheit). Our guide said they get 15 sunny days a year.  But then, for three of the months, the sun doesn't come up and it is dark all day.  The Gulf Stream moderates the temperatures somewhat, and the ocean does not freeze over, but it creates huge snowfalls each Winter.

The scenery at the North Cape is spectacular.  The rocky cliffs overlooking the Arctic Ocean are more than 1000 feet high.  There are numerous glaciers on the aprons.  Nearby, herds of reindeer and caribou graze on the slopes. 

The Norwegians built a modern facility, North Cape Hall, to accommodate the crowds of tourists.  they get 200,000 visitors a year.  It has everything you could want--a movie theater, post office, cafeteria, museum, a large souvenir gift shop, and it is on multi levels.  In the cinema, we watched a 15 minute video depicting the seasons.  On the North Cape, there are two seasons, Winter and Spring.  July is considered Spring.  Then Winter comes back with a vengeance.

The large globe monument is the symbol of the North Cape at 71 degrees latitude.  Thousands of visitors photograph it each year.  People come to see the Children of the Earth monuments--circular clay reliefs molded by 7 kids from different nations in 1988 expressing their creativity.    These reliefs were then cast in bronze and framed by granite.  They stand outside the North Cape Hall.   Next to that, as part of the exhibit, is the full size Mother and Child sculpture by Eva Rybakken.  The Children of the Earth organization awards an 18,000 Euro prize each year to a person or project who has shown compassion or helped suffering children in the world.  It is presented at North Cape.  Another monument is an obelisk overlooking the cliffs which honors King Oscar II, the sardine guy, who visited the North Cape in 1873.


Farther down the Arctic Coast are the Lofoten Islands with beautiful green mountains  rising starkly out of the sea.  This area is dotted with small fishing  villages and dairy farms.  People live in colorful houses overlooking the fjords. 

The Lofoten Islands are famous for the Maelstrom, the strong tidal current which occurs twice a day.  The tidal currents can reach speeds as high as 20 mph.  The water currents funnel through a narrow channel between two islands. The unusual shape of the seabed with a shallow ridge amplifies and whirls the tidal currents.   The effect would be comparable to water draining down a sink or bathtub. 

The Maelstrom is the subject of countless literary works and films.  Edgar Allen Poe's Descent into the Maelstrom and Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are two noteworthy works, but they greatly exaggerate the effect.   In Poe's story, two fishermen are swallowed by the maelstrom and one miraculously survives.  The Norway Maelstrom is even mentioned in Melville's Moby Dick.   As a practical matter, although small craft can be in danger from the swirling waters, large ships are not. 


Geiranger is a town of only 180 permanent residents although a few thousand more come each Summer to work in the hotels and B & B's.  The town is nestled between a mountain and the fjord.  Our ship sailed several miles up the winding fjord amidst magnificent scenery.  The fjord, with sheer rock faces on both sides, is a UNESCO world heritage site and is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Most visitors to the area take the trip to the summit of Mt. Dalsnibba, 1500 meters (4757') which overlooks the fjord.  The two lane road to the top is winding, to say the least.  There is no center line.  It has 35 switchbacks each way.  Navigating that road in a tour bus takes special talent.  The road is closed in Winter  because of avalanches, but it is dangerous in Summer also because cars are competing with the tour buses.  If you veer off the road, it's a 2000 foot drop. 

The nearest hospital is in Eidsdal, 2 1/2 hours away over another road, the Eagle Road, open in Winter.  Don't get sick in this part of the world.  In Geiranger, the doctor comes every Wednesday. If you get sick on Thursday, you're in trouble.

On the lower levels of the road, the view is breathtaking.  As we got higher up the mountain into the clouds, it was raining, and on the top, it was snowing, not unusual in July.  Traffic was gridlocked at the top, with probably a dozen tour buses and a thousand or so people squeezing into  a small gift shop and lined up for the rest rooms.  The view up there is amazing, at least on a clear day, as we could tell from looking at the postcards.  With the snow and the clouds, we couldn't see much.

What we could see is that at and near the peak, somebody laboriously piled rocks resembling trolls on thousands of flat rock surfaces.  Trolls are uniquely Norwegian.  Sweden and Finland have other stuff like dwarfs, elves, etc.  I thought about the children's story about the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

The mountain has hundreds of glaciers and waterfalls, large and small.   The road runs alongside a raging alpine river, a white water rafter's dream.  Actually it's not--nobody could survive the rapids and waterfalls. 

About halfway up is Flydalsjuvet, a giant overhanging rock.  Many tourists climb out on that rock for photo ops.  It's a 2000 foot drop down the granite cliff.  I didn't go out there.  I remembered the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire.   It used to be the state symbol until one day a few years ago, when it broke off and tumbled into the valley.  No sir!  I did get a lot of good photos.

On the way down, we stopped for tea and a Danish (a Norwegian?) at the beautiful Djupvasshytta Lodge by the shores of a deep blue glacial lake, Djupvatn Lake.

Our guide was a co-ed from Lithuania with a good sense of humor.  This was her Summer job.  She told us of the legend of the Seven Sisters and the Suitor--waterfalls.  The suitor was determined to marry one of the seven sisters.  He proposed to each one in turn and was rejected each time.  Maybe he should have gone on the Bachelor show.  The discouraged suitor turned to the bottle, and none of the Seven Sisters ever married.  Good story.

This area is also famous, at least in Norway, for its pizza.  You've all had Norwegian pizza, right?  Pizza Grandiosa, produced in this area, is Norway's most popular frozen pizza. 


For our last port in Norway, it was a sunny, mild July day.  Haugesund is a fairly large town of 36,000 in Southern Norway.  Historically, it was considered the birthplace of Norway when King Harald Fairhair and his Vikings united the country in the year 872. 

Today the main industries in Haugesund are a herring factory and a plant that makes oil rig equipment.  We walked around the commercial district which has a pedestrian mall and an enclosed shopping mall.  One block has many restaurants with un-Norwegian names like Tony's Pizza and Rabinowitz's CafĂ©. 

We found an ice cream store and stopped in for milk shakes.  Well, the store takes no credit cards, no Euros, no British or American money.  Only Norwegian kroner, about 8 to the dollar.  Frustrated, we left the store and came upon a bank a block away.  I went in and exchanged dollars for kroner.  The two shakes cost 98 kroner, and they were delicious. 

The tourist guide said we could visit the Scandic Maritim Hotel and see a 22 minute film about Norway on the wide screen.  It was along the fjord, several blocks from the commercial area, but we walked over.  On the way, near the harbor bridge, was a store called "Shabby Records", a name created by a marketing genius who probably got fired.  Apparently they sell classic phonograph records.  We finally got to the hotel, and the desk clerk showed us into the auditorium.  We were the only people there, so we could make as much noise as we wanted.  We thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

After the film, we walked up to see the town hall which claims to be the world's only pink city hall.  The impressive neo-Classical 1931 structure overlooks a large park and a fountain.  What we found interesting about Haugesund is that the city was built according to a plan, a quadrature system with parallel and perpendicular streets, unusual for Europe, but then the city is only about 150 years old.  The corner houses on each block are architecturally stylish, with towers and turrets of Classical, Swiss and Jugend styles.


Sunday, March 5, 2017


It was Chinese New Year's Eve in Singapore where most of the city is Chinatown.  The Year of the Rooster.  Giant colorful roosters adorned the main streets in town.   The locals scrambled around, doing last minute shopping before stores closed for the holiday.  People were in a partying mood.   Chinese music was blaring from loudspeakers.

Our dinner reservations were at the Mouth Restaurant.  This was to be authentic Chinese food.  It was so authentic that none of the staff spoke English.   Fortunately for us, the menu was in both Chinese and English.  We pointed to the menu so the waiter would get our orders right.   There were six of us seated--the four New Yorkers,  Dianne and I.  The women ordered Maine lobster, and the cost was fairly reasonable.  I had tenderloin beef tips with Kobe sauce.  I think Kobe is Japanese, but that's close enough.   Everyone had spring rolls and shrimp fried rice, and it was delicious. 

Outside as night fell, it was a sea of neon lights and wall to wall revelers.  We reflected on our adventures of the past two weeks.


Sri Lanka is a teardrop shaped island off the South coast of India.  It used to be called Ceylon.  Today its official name is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka which sounds scary to most Americans, but actually, compared to India, it is very progressive.   The government is the oldest democracy in Asia.  Most of the people are Sinhalese, with minority populations of Tamils and Malays.  There is also a small aboriginal population.

In contrast to India, the capital city of Colombo is very clean.  The people are hard working and prosperous.  You don't see much poverty in Colombo.  The prevailing religion is Buddhism, and many of the houses have shrines in front. 

Sri Lanka under British rule until 1948 was essentially a plantation economy.   The most important crops were cinnamon, tea and rubber, and they are still important although the economy is diversified.

Several years ago, Sri Lanka was the battleground in a civil war.  Government forces were battling a terrorist group called the Tamil Tigers.  Don't confuse these guys with the Detroit Tigers.   Tamil is a state in Southern India where many Sri Lankans are descended from.   The Tamils make up about 15% of the population of Sri Lanka; they are primarily Hindus; and they claimed to be persecuted by the Buddhist Sinhalese.  Their aim was to set up an independent country on the North part of the island.

According to our guide, the Tamil Tigers were a Marxist organization run by a psychopath, one Velopillai Prabhakaran who was wanted by Interpol for murder, organized crime, you name it.  Their contribution to world culture was the suicide vest.  They pioneered the use of women to wear the vests. 

The organization's other claim to fame was its assassination of two world leaders--former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lanka President Ramasinghe Premadasa in 1993, not to mention other high ranking officials.   The U.S. declared the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization, even more fearsome than Al Queda.  Eventually, in 2009, the Sri Lanks military caught up with Prabhakaran and killed him in a gun battle.  With the loss of their charismatic leader, the terror organization faded away quickly after that, and the country today is safe for tourists. 

Kandy Kingdom

Kandy, a city of 125,000 in the central highlands, is the second largest city in Sri Lanka.   It is interesting, not necessarily because of its name, but for the fact that beginning in the 1400's, it was the capital of the Kandyan Kingdom, an independent country which successfully fended off the Portuguese, the Dutch and others, until the British defeated them in 1815 and incorporated the kingdom into Ceylon. 

Even after that, the Kandy people weren't easy to subdue, and the Uva Rebellion in 1818 created a tragic situation.  Between the British massacre of thousands, and European diseases like smallpox, the population of Kandyland was decimated and was never a threat again

Kandy is considered a sacred city to the Buddhists.  Its most famous shrine is the Temple of the Tooth and should be on the bucket list for dentists around the world.  It is one of the holiest places of worship and pilgrimage for Buddhists because it contains the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha.  Apparently somebody got the Buddha's dentist to testify that this was the real McCoy, and the pilgrims overwhelmed the place.  The Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

You may recognize Kandy from the movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which was filmed there. 


Before you get in trouble,  I want to point out the Thais pronounce the city  "Poo-ket".  .  Phuket, on the coast of the Andaman Sea, is a popular resort area of Thailand.  Among its sister cities are Nice, France and Las Vegas.    Phuket suffered major damage and loss of life in the great tsunami of 2004. 

We hired a local guide to drive us to the Tiger Sanctuary.  We first signed a waiver that no attorney would recommend signing, and we were allowed to walk into a tiger cage containing 5 full grown tigers.  We were accompanied by a photographer and a trainer wielding a 2 foot stick to control the animals.  The Tiger Sanctuary appears to derive much of its income from selling photographs and t-shirts with photographs engraved upon them.    The tigers were raised from infancy, so they are accustomed to people.

As you can imagine, there are lots of rules.  Don't approach the tiger from the front.  Don't start running.  Don't take flash pictures.  Sudden movements are out.  Beyond that, you can pull the tail, rub the animal's belly, hug the animal.   I would expect that the tigers were fed before we entered the cage, so long as they didn't feast on the previous group of tourists.  As a practical matter, tigers sleep a lot in the daytime, and the handlers sprinkle water on the animal's paw to get him to raise his head or open his mouth. 

No visit to Phuket is complete without visiting the Big Buddha, built about 10 years ago as a tourist attraction for devout Buddhists and other tourists.  It is set on the crest of a tall mountain outside of town, and the view is spectacular.  This statue of white Burma marble is enormous and can be seen for miles around.  It is about 150 feet high and over 80 feet in width at the base.  It was and is financed with private donations.  We found donation boxes all over the place.  This is the Buddhist version of the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janiero. 


Our cruise ended in Singapore, the Lion City, one of the richest cities in the world.  Its location straddles the shipping lanes through the Straits of Malacca, one of the most lucrative trade routes in the world.  Its wealth is derived from its industrious people, mostly Chinese,  who control those major trade routes.   You can see all of this from the top of the Singapore Flyer, a huge Ferris Wheel from which you can see container ships backed up offshore for miles in the harbor.  Many of these are for rent, like Hertz Rent a Container Ship.

This was our second trip to Singapore, and we once again stayed at the nearby Conrad Centennial Hotel, across the street from the massive Suntech Mall on three levels.  The malls in Singapore dwarf those in the U.S., and it is easy to get lost.   We stopped in the mall currency exchange to exchange our leftover Rupees and also some dollars.  You get 140 Singapore dollars for 100 American dollars. 

After about a  mile of wandering in the mall, we finally found the McDonalds.  For lunch, I got the Golden Prosperity Extra Value Meal.  It consisted of a juicy beef burger, black pepper sauce, a crispy hashed brown and some onion on a sesame seed bun.  The price was reasonable and I thought the sandwich was pretty good.   I don't think they serve that sandwich in the States.  Dianne didn't like it, however, so I took her to the nearby Burger King. 

We had only a day to spend in Singapore, and we wanted to visit the market where the local shop.  We took a taxi to the Bugis Village, a mile or two away.  This was the low rent district, with many stalls selling bogus (you can joke about the name) merchandise like t-shirts, caps and cheap tops catering to tourists.  There is a classier mall across the street also with the Bugis name. 

Gum Control Laws

In the West, Singapore is known for its strict gum control laws, passed in 1992.  The same law also controls alcohol and tobacco.  It is not against the law to chew gum, only to sell or import it, broadly defined--you can't bring it into the country for any reason.  This law is strictly enforced, and there is a $700 fine for spitting it out on the street..  There is an exception for dental or nicotine gum provided you have a doctor's prescription.  The reason for the law is that vandals were gumming up the works (elevators, keyholes, mailboxes) in high rise housing, and the door sensors in the $5 billion local railway system.  The repairs were costly and time consuming. 

Draconian fines and possible imprisonment solved the problem.  We're talking up to $100,000 for gum trafficking (first offense) and up to 2 years imprisonment.   As a result, the streets and sidewalks of Singapore are very clean.  There is not even a black market for gum.

The Western press seized upon a 1994 case in which an American teen, Michael Fay was sentenced to caning for vandalism.  Fay was actually prosecuted for using spray paint, not chewing gum.  Notwithstanding the press coverage, caning is not a penalty for gum offenses.  We may find it cruel and unusual punishment, but under British rule before Singapore became independent, caning was a very common punishment. 

A BBC reporter suggested to long time President Lee Kuan Yew that such harsh penalties would stifle people's creativity.  Yew's response was, "If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana!"

Gum control came up in the negotiations between the U.S. and Singapore for a bi-lateral free trade agreement.  The negotiations dragged on for 5 years until 2004, and the sticking points were the War in Iraq and chewing gum.  The Wrigley Company hired a Washington lobbyist and obtained the help of my congressman Phil Crane who was then chairman of the Subcommittee on Trade, to get gum on the agenda.  It was a sticky situation for Singapore, and the parties agreed to amend the free trade agreement to allow certain medicinal gum (Orbit) provided it was sold by a dentist or pharmacist who would be required to take down the names of buyers. 


Sunday, February 19, 2017


India is a land of contracts, to say the least.  They don't appear to have zoning laws.  As a result, you see magnificent luxury buildings standing side by side with shanty towns.  The residents of the shanty towns live in squalor.  Garbage is strewn around wherever you look.  Pigs and goats roam freely through the trash, foraging for food.  Did I mention the cattle which are sacred to the Hindus.  These folks feed the cattle and presumably used them for milk, but they don't eat them. 

There are over a billion people in India, and the cities we visited, Mumbai   (Bombay), Delhi, Agra, Mangalore and Cochin are teeming with people.  India has 29 states and 7 union territories.  In ancient times, the country was named after the Indus River which flows across Pakistan which used to be part of India. 

Fashionwise, India is the only country where Nehru jackets are still in style.  Our tour bus meandered through the fetid streets and crowded markets of Mumbai.  There doesn't appear to be a lot of street crime despite what one would expect in poor areas.   Eventually, we reached a modern expressway built over the bay and then we quickly got to the airport.

Several billboards display the larger than life likeness of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is the most powerful man in the country.  He grew up poor, the son of a street vendor in Gujarat state, not far from Mumbai.  He is considered a Hindu nationalist, right wing politician who greatly upsets Pakistan.  That alone makes him popular in India.   Modi's policies are intended to achieve economic growth for India, and environmental concerns take a back seat.  For example he took action to suppress the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other human rights groups on the grounds that they interfere with economic growth.   These groups, the Muslims and others compare Modi to Donald Trump, and not in a good way.  India also has a president, but that position is largely ceremonial. 

Modi has created some controversy recently when he made a big push to convince the people to use toilets.  In India, that can be an uphill battle.  Even with government subsidies to encourage people to install them, people still have to be persuaded to use them.   Until then Indians must watch where they step.  The Untouchables will clean up the mess.

Speaking of Untouchables, in India, people live by the caste system.  These are not the Eliot Ness Untouchables.  The Indian Untouchables are also known as the Dalits (Sanskrit word for "oppressed").  We're talking millions of people.  Incidentally, today, it is illegal in India to use the term "Dalit" (the D word) to describe a class of people.  Now they are officially called "schedule caste",  The caste system dates back to ancient times, but the British Raj found the system useful in administering the country.   Essentially lower caste people could not own land and were restricted to certain menial jobs.

The way it works is that there are 4 castes.  The Brahmin (priests) are on top; then come the Kahatryla (warriors and rulers); Viasya (merchants, landowners, skilled workers) and Sudra (unskilled workers).  Then, below that are the Untouchables, or out of caste (outcasts) who were restricted to jobs like cleaning latrines, street sweeping and collecting garbage.   They were segregated from polite society.  These folks were not allowed in temples and forced to live outside of town.  It is not necessarily a racial thing because the Brahmins and the Dalits are of the same racial stock.  However, in my observation, many of the poor were dark skinned.

In India, occupations were and are handed down from father to son.  There is not a lot of upward mobility in India although the Indian government has affirmative action policies to help out the lower castes.   The Prevention of Atrocities Act was passed in 1989, but we still read about ugly situations like gang rapes.

Today there are Dalits in the legislature, and some have achieved high office, such as President and Chief Justice.   The first female speaker of the Indian legislature was a Dalit.  By and large though, the poor kids, at least the ones we saw, don't attend school, so there is not much hope they will ever improve themselves.   

The Indian government does have a welfare system, but traditionally it has been corrupt, with middlemen taking a share of the money/food intended for the poor.  The government is trying to do something about that, but obviously, much needs to be done.

Because of the squalid conditions, we were warned not to eat street food, drink only bottled water and not breathe the air.  The latter is hard to do, but many people wear masks.   The dreaded "Delhi belly" is to be avoided at all costs.  The more modern version is "New Delhi belly" which  you might catch from eating at the New Delhi deli.  Safety doesn't appear to overly concern the Indians.  We saw many unsafe conditions like excavations not roped off and no danger signs.   People have to look out for themselves.

We flew from Mumbai to Delhi on Jet Airways, a local Indian airline.  They serve you a full Indian lunch on the 2 hour flight.  I took my chances and ate the spicy curry dish with no ill effects.   Our friend Cheryl from New York also ate the food.  The rest of our traveling companions pretty much stuck to the naan bread which is like a tasty flatbread.    The naan bread is like non bread and can be compared to a tortilla.

Delhi was the capital of India for many years until they built New Delhi close by.  We stayed two nights at the 5 star Trident Hotel in Delhi.  The buffet was an epicurean delight with many varieties of meats, seafood, breads, desserts, all prepared Indian style.  Indian cooking makes generous use of rice, lentils and curries.  Many dishes are vegetarian, but lamb and chicken are popular.  Most dishes are served with pungent sauces. 


No visit to India is complete without seeing the Taj Mahal.  It is located in Agra in the North Central part of the country in Uttar Pradesh state.  We took a high speed train South from Delhi.  The train station in Delhi is an experience by itself.   Thousands of people pass through the station each day, and keeping it clean is a futile job.  The trains generally run on time.  Most Indians get around by train if at all possible.  As our train waited in the station, another train was pulling out, and I saw several men quickly sneak onto that train while it was moving. 

We had our own railroad car at the back of the train for the 120 people on our tour.  The train car has seen better days but it is functional though not luxurious.  On the back of the car is a bathroom with a hole in the floor and outlines of where to put your feet when you do your business.  I'm not sure what they do for No. 2.  On the other end of the car was an "American" style bathroom with an actual toilet for the women. 

To our surprise, they serve you a full lunch on the train, but we had just eaten on the airplane and after watching the sights, we were in no mood to eat.   The train pulled out of the station and cruised through the outskirts of Delhi where we could observe how the Indians live, and it isn't pretty.   The effluvia is everywhere.  Were talking run down shacks with tin roofs.  Most of the people burn trash out in front of their homes, apparently for cooking..  Plastic bags don't burn efficiently so they accumulate near the tracks.  To me, it seems like the government could hire thousands of idle people to pick up trash, but they don't.  Many of the people tend small garden plots to raise food.  In the countryside, people worked the fields without equipment.  Cattle roamed freely among the people.  We even saw a large sow with her piglets foraging through the garbage. 

In the countryside, the train picked up speed, eventually going over 100 mph, but had to slow down when  entering a town because of people and animals milling about near the tracks.   I was amazed this ancient train could go that fast.

In Agra, a tour bus took us from the train station to a transfer point a few blocks from the Taj Mahal.  Then we had to transfer to a smaller, electric powered bus, probably for security reasons, to get to the Taj.  When we arrived, we were besieged by an army of peddlers and panhandlers, shoving trinkets in our faces.  The panhandlers are pathetic.  Most are missing limbs or handicapped in some other way, some severely.  I'm not sure what kind of safety net is provided by the government for these people, but the idea here is to make you feel so bad you hand them a few Rupees.  From my considerable experience with panhandlers, if you give to one, many others will magically appear out of nowhere.

The Taj Mahal is magnificent, of course.  It looks just like the pictures.  Often it is partially obscured by smog which is everywhere in India.  The Indians burn coal and garbage, and this stuff gets in your lungs and permeates everything.  Fortunately, the day we visited, the smog cleared up somewhat and we got a good view of the structure. 

The 4 minarets framing the main building are not physically connected to it.  The architects recognized that Agra is in an earthquake zone and didn't want a quake to topple them onto the main structure.  The building is remarkably well constructed for a 17th Century building.  The architects noted that the soil is sandy, and they sank caissons down to the bedrock to support the building.  That was revolutionary for the time.

The 231 foot high Taj Mahal is constructed of white marble which is quarried locally.  The structure is a fusion of Indian and Persian architecture.  The marble was decorated by local craftsmen who carved intricate inlay designs decorating them with semi precious stones.  You can't see them except up close.  There are other buildings in the complex including a museum, but we didn't visit them.

Shah Jahan built the Taj as a mausoleum to his queen, Mumtaz Mahal who died in 1631 at age 38 shortly after giving birth to her 14th child.   It was a love story, although the Royal Emperor had other wives also.  Her last wish to her husband was that he construct a beautiful and incomparable monument over her grave as a token of their worldly inseparable love (her words, not mine).  This was a classic jobs program.  It took 20,000 laborers 22 years to finish the Taj Mahal. 

There was a fair amount of intrigue inside the palace.  Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son Aurangreb who placed him under house arrest in Agra Fort.  He was held in the Burj Muasamman tower with a marble balcony and a view of the Taj Mahal.  After he died, the government rehabilitated him and placed his body in the mausoleum next to his queen.

Agra was the capital of the Moghul Empire in Medieval times.  Moghul as in Genghis Khan.  The imposing 94 acre Agra Fort was the residence of the Moghul emperors until 1638 when they moved the capital to Delhi.   The fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.    In effect, the fort is a walled city.  It occupies the high ground and from the back one has a commanding view of the countryside and the Taj Mahal, about a mile and a half away.   On the way from the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort, I stopped at McDonalds for a snack. 


Our bus drove us back from Agra to Delhi on the Interstate, at least the Indian version, and traffic was light until we got to Delhi.   The distance is about 140 miles.   The traffic in Delhi as well as in Mumbai, is horrendous.  Delhi is incredibly congested, and the last 20 miles through the city can take 2 hours.  A three lane highway becomes 5 lanes with drivers cutting in and out.  Many people drive motor scooters which can squeeze between lanes, obviously very dangerous.  As I said earlier, safety is not a big concern in this part of the world.       To get us back to the hotel more quickly, our bus detoured off the main highway to see the capital complex in New Delhi.  We passed the prime minister's house and the legislature. 

The people got used to Delhi, and then they came out with a new version, Delhi 2.0, or New Delhi.  In contrast to Old Delhi, New Delhi was built by the British in the early 20th Century and became the capital of India in 1947.  The two cities together, comprising the National Capital Territory, are enormous with over 16 million people. 

To return to our cruise ship, we flew Jet Airways from Delhi, back to Mumbai and change planes to Mangalore in the Southern part of India.   We later learned there is a direct flight from Delhi to Mangalore, but apparently Celebrity determined it cheaper to fly the long, indirect way.   In Mumbai, the airline made a decision to keep us on the same plane.  However,  we had to change seats to correspond with our boarding passes for the second flight.   Most of us had bags stored in the overhead compartment   The other passengers got off the plane, and they started loading the plane with the new passengers before we got a chance to find our new seats and move our overhead bags.  The result was bedlam. 

The new passengers were about 80 Muslim pilgrims, mostly old women dressed like nuns and missing teeth.  These Indians were hostile.  They had sharp elbows and didn't hesitate to use them while pushing their way through the narrow aisle.  The women were illiterate and could not read their boarding passes.  Our friend Cheryl from New York took charge.   She stood in the aisle, and these women assumed she worked for the airline.   They would show her the boarding passes, and she would point out the correct seat. Order was restored.

Indians, at least the civil servants are very bureaucratic.  You must sit in the seat corresponding to your boarding pass--or else.  Security is tight.  They check your tickets and boarding passes at every turn.


Cochin is located in Kerala state in the South of India.  Culture is different in Cochin than in the Northern part of the country.  The weather is hot and steamy, even in January.  Cochin is tolerant to many religions.  Cochin has a Jewish presence thousands of years old.  Many of the Hindu buildings have 6 pointed stars engraved in them.  Although the star is similar to the Star of David, it is also a Hindu symbol.  Some of the Cochin Christians were thought to be Jews who were converted by the disciple St Thomas who traveled there in ancient times.  Many of their customs are similar to those of the Jews. 

We drove through Kerala state on the way to the coast, taking in the sights.  To our surprise we saw numerous Christian churches and schools.   Near the coast are waterways and canals on which thousands of people live on houseboats, many of which are elaborately decorated.   Others rent out their houseboats to tourists like us, sometimes for days at a time.  We took a pleasant cruise for an hour or so through the backwaters of Kochi observing how people in this area live. 

One restaurant promoted its "homely" food on a billboard.  We didn't stop in but we guessed the presentation would be less than attractive. 

Cochin got its name from the fact that it was like China.  For centuries, Cochin has been a cosmopolitan city, a key trading center with the Arabs and the Chinese.  The Jews' presence in Cochin goes back to the days of King Solomon.  They were called the Malabar Jews and their merchants were very prosperous.  They controlled the pepper trade.   The ancient Jews were dark skinned but those who came from Europe in the Middle Ages were light skinned and called the Paradisi ("foreign Jews) or "White Jews". 



Monday, February 6, 2017


An old popular song by the late Debbie Reynolds was called Aba Daba Honeymoon.  It sounds like it could have been recorded in Abu Dhabi, but it wasn't.  The lyrics go something like "Aba daba daba daba daba daba...etc."  The song was written in 1914, long before Abu Dhabi became a city.

In fact, Abu Dhabi didn't even exist until 1970. Until then, it was a collection of tents used by the fishermen and pearl divers who populated the area.   The British ran the place.  The pearl business went South with the invention of cultured pearls which could be created inexpensively.  Those simple people are long gone, but if they can prove they or their parents lived here then, they get a free ride from the government.  Only about 20% of the people in Abu Dhabi are citizens, meaning that their parents or grandparents were living there at the time.   The rest are Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos who make up the labor force.   The Arab citizens are steered into management positions. 

The labor force consists of contract workers.  Companies import the workers and must provide health insurance and benefits.  Most of the workers send money back home.  Because of oil wealth, there is no poverty in the United Arab Emirates. 

The oil industry, or course, transformed everything here.  The ruling families are sitting on billions of dollars of wealth, and they spend money freely on mega projects, as well as foreign policy and politics.  Abu Dhabi today is an ultra modern city of over 2.5 million with modern high rises, superhighways and shopping malls dwarfing those in the West.    Traffic is heavy, and most of the cars are high end sedans--Lexuses (Lexi?), Mercedes and BMW's.

Its not easy to get to Abu Dhabi.  There are no direct flights, at least from Chicago.  There is a direct flight from New York to Dubai which is about 100 miles North.  The cities are connected by an expressway.  We flew first class on Royal Jordanian Airlines from Chicago to Amman, Jordan, and then from Amman to Abu Dhabi.   In ancient times, Amman was settled by Greeks who called it "Philadelphia".  

Our flight was comfortable on first class, and the food was good.  We left frigid Chicago on January 6th at 9:30 PM.  By 10:30 they serve you a full dinner and then expect you to go to sleep.  In first class, the seats fold out so you're lying prone.  It's not the same as sleeping on a real bed, but you can get some rest.   The flight to Amman takes 12 hours, and they wake you up before landing to serve you breakfast, another full meal.  The layover in Amman was about 3 hours.  The airport was crawling with security.  In that part of the world, they take no chances.  The plane landed in Abu Dhabi shortly after 1 AM.  We had a lot of luggage, but it all arrived at the proper destination in one piece.  Abu Dhabi issues you a visa upon arrival at no charge.   

By this time, everything about the trip was too good to be true.  Until the driver we hired to take us to our hotel didn't show up.  You know how those guys greet you at the exit, holding up signs with  names on them.  Well ours wasn't there.  We went to the taxi booth, and they were happy to pick up a fare.  Actually, the cost turned out to be about half of what the hotel would have charged us. 

We had to exchange dollars to Abu Dhabi money.  $100 U.S. buys us about 360 Dirhams.  I expected everything to be pricey, but actually the prices in Abu Dhabi are significantly lower than in New York or Chicago.  The taxi driver drove us down the mostly empty expressways and got us to the Ritz Carlton around 3 AM.  The Ritz is a magnificent hotel.  The whole country is like that.  We couldn't see much at 3 AM, but the staff was friendly and helpful.  I didn't want to get charged for the hotel limo, and they straightened it out for us. 

The Ritz is across the street from the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, described to us as the world's largest mosque.  At least it's the largest in Abu Dhabi.  It covers 30 acres, not counting the parking lot.  In Abu Dhabi, across the street is relative.  There is an expressway to cross, and driving there is actually a couple of miles.  The hotel and mosque are on the outskirts of town several miles from downtown. 

Everything is named after Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004.  The expressway is the Sheikh Zayed the First Expressway.  I don't think there is a Second Sheikh Zayed.       As I previously noted, this was a city of mud huts until about 1970.  Now it's an architect's dream.  It looks like Las Vegas without the gambling.  We're talking high rises, expressways, a Corniche, wide canals. 

Taxi rides are relatively inexpensive, compared to New York or Chicago.  After getting some much needed rest, we hired a taxi to take us downtown.  Our concierge gave us the names of three malls to visit.   Instead of shopping, we asked the driver to give us a grand tour of the city. 

We found all the familiar sights of home--McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and even Popeyes.  Chicken is popular in the Middle East where people don't eat pork.  The driver was Pakistani, spoke English,  and liked to talk.  He drove us downtown and back, past the Emir's palace, the World Trade Center, the Marina Mall. 

At the Emir's Palace, which is now an upscale hotel, security peers into every car, not to look for terrorists,  but to make sure women aren't wearing shorts.  Most of the guests in the hotel are Arabs, wearing traditional garb, the men in white robes and head coverings, and the women clad head to toe in black.

The following day, when we were settled in, we signed up for a Gray Line tour.  The driver took us to Heritage Village which relives the good ol' days before 1970.  We saw goatskin tents and mud huts from the time when Abu Dhabi was an obscure fishing village.  Merchants in small market stalls sell cheap clothing made in China.  Sheikh Zayed transformed all of that when the oil companies came.  To the locals, Sheikh Zayed is like George Washington is to the Americans.  He served as president of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004.

With all that wealth around, it was logical to build Ferrari World.  They built this massive project on Yas Island, an artificial island.  Turns out, Ferrari World is not a car dealer, although there is a Ferrari dealer in town.  This is an amusement park with the largest and fastest roller coaster in the world, The Flying Aces.  It is 206 feet high and travels 75 mph.  You can experience 5 g's.  You can also practice driving a Ferrari 200 mph in simulators.    We chose not to pay the couple hundred bucks to see another Disneyland in the Middle East. 

The Grand Mosque is worth seeing.  Since it is a place of worship, tourists must comply with the dress code.  Those who are not dressed appropriately, and there are many, must rent overclothes to wear.  Men and women must wear long sleeves rolled down.  Although the instructions told us not to wear sandals and we didn't, many people did wear them and were not turned away.  Security people, all Indians and Pakistanis, are prominently stationed to make sure everyone is dressed properly.  The singer Selena Gomez visited here last year and was criticized for posing for pictures at the mosque with her ankle shown. 

Did I mention that the mosque is very large?  In the center is the 180,000 square foot outdoor parade ground (my term), or courtyard, which can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers at one time.  The carpet, made by Iran's Carpet Company is over 60,000 square feet and weighs 35 tons. 

Going to the bathroom at the mosque is a new experience.  The men's and women's rest rooms are on opposite sides of the building, about a quarter mile apart.  To locate them, you follow the signs to "Ablution" which means ritual cleansing.  The escalator took me down to the men's room.  To my surprise, a security guard directed me to remove my shoes and store them.  They provide slippers at the entrance to that facility.

The mosque even has a library.  It was significantly smaller than I would have expected, a large room, perhaps 2000 square feet.   The books and publications cover a range of Islamic subjects like science, civilization and calligraphy.  Most were in Arabic, although some books were in English, French, Spanish, German and even Korean. 

The United Arab Emirates is run by several prominent ruling families.  The UAE was formed in 1971 when the British departed.  Sheikh Zayed was appointed president and was re-appointed 4 more times until his death.  There is no legislature.  When a ruler passes on, the ruling families vote to name a successor. 

The Sheikh runs the show, and in a 1997 interview with the New York Times, he declared essentially that an elected legislature would just create a lot of dissent and confrontation.  The people wouldn't want that because they have everything they need.    He told the Times that the country is based on the Islamic religion and that is what the people want.  The current president is Sheikh Zayed's son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, age 69, who has served since 2004.   In the UAE, the President is always from Abu Dhabi, and the Vice President is always from Dubai. 

With regard to human rights, as we know them, forgetaboutit.   Adultery is punishable by 100 lashes if you're not married; death by stoning if you are.  Abortion will get you 100 lashes and up to 5 years in prison.  Apostasy is punishable by death.   If a woman gets raped, in the UAE, it's probably her fault, and she may be prosecuted for crimes like alcohol consumption.  A Muslim woman marrying outside the faith can be charged with "fornication".  If a woman wants to marry, she needs approval from a male "guardian".   Most of the prosecutions in this regard are against expatriates like Indian and European women.  They are probably not going to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees.  As tourists, we just observe and say little.

In our hotel room, we settled down to watch TV.  There are channels in Arabic, English, German and Chinese, and probably other languages I wasn't familiar with.  After flipping the channels, we decided to watch the camel races.  Camels may look awkward, but they can run as fast as horses.  The jockeys are robots.

We spent 4 nights in Abu Dhabi.  When our friends came in after the second night, we signed up for a late afternoon and evening desert safari.  We rode out to the desert in a caravan of 4 wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers.  The desert is called the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter.  There is not much except sand which the wind whips up into 100 foot dunes.  At the golf course, the sand traps can be brutal. 

We got our first experience with dune bashing, or off road driving.   The drivers let the air out of the tires for better traction on the loose sand.  Then they drive recklessly through the drifting sand dunes, making hairpin turns and zooming over the crests of the dunes down 60 degree grades.  Golf carts would tip over under these conditions.  The Toyota Land Cruisers have heavy carriages and can hold their own riding at seemingly impossible angles.   It was like riding a roller coaster without tracks.
We drove up and down at high speed for almost an hour, and my stomach was starting to protest.  Eventually we got to the camp where we would enjoy a barbecue dinner and entertainment. 

The entertainment featured camel riding and ATM's, or were they ATV's, to do your own driving over the dunes.    They provided a belly dancer, an attractive Russian girl, dressed in traditional Arab dress.  The camp spread out Oriental rugs over the loose sand with pillows to sit on.  The food was good and plentiful--BBQ chicken, lamb and even pork skewers. 


Dubai is another modern city on steroids.  Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the two largest cities in the United Arab Emirates.  The population of Dubai is over 2 million, only 10% of which are citizens--Emiratis.  About half of the people are Indian or Pakistani.  Although the oil industry financed most of the early  development, Dubai has relatively little oil.  Most of the wealth in Dubai is based on trade.

The literal high point for us was the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, about 2700 feet high.  Burj means "tower" in Arabic.   On the ground level is the super sized Dubai Mall with about 1400 stores including Bloomingdales and the British stores, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.  For an admission fee, they take you up to the observatory on the 125th floor.  For an additional 100 bucks per person, they take you up higher in another elevator to the 148th floor, the New Deck Observatory, over 1800 feet high, and give you a nice lounge with fewer people, a cold drink and a photo with a better view.  We don't figure to be coming back anytime soon, so we paid the extra money for the extra comfort.   The building has 163 floors total, but the ones above the 148th are mostly used for mechanical and communications.  It was a nice day, and the view was spectacular.  The building was originally called the Burj Dubai, but ran into financial trouble until Sheikh Khalifa stepped up with a loan.

The nearby Burj al Arab is another iconic building, shaped like a sail.  It is located on the Umm Suqein Beach, which we visited.  It overlooks the Persian Gulf.  An over zealous critic described it as the world's only 7 star hotel.  In reality, there is no such designation--it's a 5 star hotel like many others in the area.  We didn't stay there; the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi worked for us.

Money will buy you almost anything.  They build a series of artificial islands, many with luxury resorts build on them.  Dubai just built a 50 story picture frame, I'm not making this up, intended as a tourist attraction.  Most of us have heard about the indoor ski resort at the giant Mall of the Emirates where you can snow ski in 120 degree weather.  For 68 bucks, you can buy a Ski Dubai Polar Pass which gets you in the park and use the chair lift.  However, if you want to ski, it costs extra. 

In the West, we heard that alcohol was banned in the Persian Gulf countries.  Not so.  A quick perusal of Time Out Magazine for Dubai revealed 18 nightspots where women can get free drinks on Wednesday nights.  On Tuesday, they have their choice of 35 establishments offering up to 4 free mixed drinks.As far as ethnic food, you can get African, Asian, British, Caribbean, French, German, Italian, Peruvian, Russian, Thai and a few others.  Notably missing are Jewish delicatessens.