AT SEA, EN ROUTE TO DUBAI, UAE
The first feature of this segment, during two sweet days at sea, was the Third Annual Crystal Symphony World Cruise Olympics. It was about genuine athletics and sportsmanship, as well as lots of fun. My only objection to using the word "Olympics" for these events was that the name is so carefully protected that a function like this really should have followed the lead of other organizations who are allowed to use the word - it should have been a charity benefit. How about for the ship's godmother, Angela Landsbury's charity of choice, AMFAR? What could be more logical? I'm sure it will be considered in the future.
On our first day at sea out of Mumbai, hopeful participants were signing up to participate in various sports and games, and to represent the country of their choice. Favorite countries were often the small and forgotten (such as Andorra and Liechtenstein), the ones perhaps least likely to participate in that sport (Cuba for paddle tennis?), and even some countries that no longer exist (The Kingdom of Hawaii). The "Olympian" activities ranged from swimming and the walk-a-thon to more traditional shipboard activities such as shuffleboard, quoits, ping pong, darts, bridge and gin rummy, the very popular paddle tennis and even more popular Officer's Pool Boxing. (I discovered this was the ladies' version of a men's wet t-shirt contest!) Some sports were held dockside like the Shot Put, or further ashore like the 7K run. It WAS a lot of fun, enjoyed by passengers and crew alike.
On the second sea day, most everyone attended the parade of nations and the opening ceremonies way up on the Sun and Lido decks on a perfectly sunny afternoon, presided over by our onboard Olympian, the ever-energetic Mary Lou Retton. Later in the cruise, she gave a tremendous motivational speech that had everyone a little teary-eyed and brought the house to a standing ovation for several minutes. She has an extraordinary spirit to match all her accomplishments.
"Vibrant" Dubai was pretty quiet on a Friday, but the sights were very interesting. We docked at what is the largest man-made port in the world. The new forest of high-rise hotels and luxury apartments, banks, office buildings (including two under construction which will be the tallest in Arabia), is astounding. The roadside plantings and greenswards are extensive and even elaborate. Dubai has been an active trading port for centuries, and clearly continues to be so. This is a great world trans-shipping center. Dubai is so well off that they can afford to de-salinate 90% of the water they use.
A city tour took us around the "creek" that runs through the historical center of town, and to the Gold Souk where a few merchants had agreed to open for us on their holy day. I thought the deals could be very good, if one bartered well. Just about everything is 22k and 24k, but the style of their designs left many people disappointed. The best part of our city tour was the clever Dubai Museum, built beneath an ancient fortress. Almost "living" with moving parts, the many life sized dioramas depicted scenes showing what Dubai was like during several periods of her existence, even one very imaginatively showing underwater scenes FROM UNDERWATER - we walked on the sea floor. They were detailed, well lighted and informative. In one reproduction of the grand bazaar, the spice souk was heady with the aromas of fresh spices, including fresh coriander seeds, an unmistakable and exotic scent. I heard of another shore excursion which the crew took into the desert sands only a half hour away, where they toboganned down the sand dunes as if on snow. Dubai was clean and green and modern as could be. Hot as hell, flat as a piece of toast, and rich as Belgian butter.
In Muscat the scenery was quite different, no loose hand with the water here, actually much more like pulling into Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, than anything I can think of. Here there were craggy hills and mountains, clearly the result of frenetic tectonics of the past - a mini-Himalayas. I joined 11 other guests with 6 guides in 4 new Toyota Land Cruisers (and with one cell phone). We drove for seeming hours south from the port into dramatic landscapes of mountain peaks stabbing into the sky. We went off onto unpaved roads, then finally over dry river beds and through a lush oasis...they really are green and cool and make the most knowing use of scant water resources. At last we came to a place where a very slow underground river surfaced for several hundred yards, and in some places was quite deep. After a sparkling swim in the clear, cool, fresh water, it was amazing to be almost completely dry in about 30 seconds once out of the water, due to the high rate of evaporation. Though this rate seemed very high, the locale was still only what is considered semi-arid, not fully desert. Completely refreshed and feeling years younger, we made our way back to the ship. The whole excursion was 6 hours, not uncomfortable with very little really rough terrain. Also, this was easily the Most Fun Shore Excursion of the entire trip. I'll never forget the wadi in the desert.
It was very nice to have a day at sea again. They seem more precious to me each time we get one. This was Easter Sunday as well and a Formal evening.
This small southern town stretches over considerable distances. From the beautiful beaches (hardly used by a culture so different from ours) to the craggy mountains containing the worldwide pilgrimage site of the Tomb of Job. Cars and busses keep eyes out for wandering goats and camels. Only here (and in a very small area of western Africa) grows the Frankincense tree, ever an important commodity around the word. Hardly anyone leaves without buying a small burner, charcoal, and a bag of the aromatic dried resin.
We had originally scheduled a port call in Yemen, but due to recent violence to western tourists it was canceled. Salalah was a very good substitute, another interesting view of Arabia. And so we headed into our last chunk of three days at sea during the cruise.
THE EVENING OF APRIL 6, 1999
I finally learned what it is like to attend one of those supremely glamorous evenings aboard ship I have dreamed about for so many years. A marvelous lady friend and her daughter from my table in the dining room took over the aft lido deck for a "Celebration of Friendship," a party for about 36 of their closest friends and staff. While the invitations were being delivered, plans were struck for perhaps one of the most special evenings ever on the Crystal Symphony (several staff confirmed this with authority). Palm fronds were arranged around the ship's railings, aluminum foil covered all the fluorescent lighting, tables were grouped just so and set with all the fine linen, china, crystal and silver from The Dining Room. Champagne began to flow. Since the Celebrity Guest Chef as well as the Guest Wine Expert were also from our table, a fantastic menu with carefully chosen wines was prepared, served and introduced just for us. The Manila Strings were brought from the Starlite Room to play for our cocktail hour, the Trio from The Dining Room to serenade us through dinner, and the Crystal Orchestra's leader and fine pianist Scott Mitchel played for the balance of the evening. Our Head Waiter and Dining Room Stewards had followed us up to serve, and the Maitre'd stopped by to assure everything was in order. After dinner the Guest Chef, the Executive Chef and the ever-handsome Head Pastry Chef arrived to our standing ovation. A full moon rose and shone. A more enchanting evening I cannot imagine.
Much later after most guests left, the hardy partiers (including the Master) broke into vast quantities of Aquavit and ordered huge mounds of caviar, found their way to the preferred hot tub, and established a benchmark capacity record. A notice was tucked away at the bottom of the second page in the following day's ship's newspaper - "HOT TUB LIMITS: The Norwegian Coast Guard reminds you that the hot tub is limited to 18 persons at any one time - with or without caviar service. Thank you."
This is an example of the kind of really memorable evenings that occur on world cruises and make them so special.
THE RED SEA
After using the stabilizers only briefly after the Maldives and shortly before Salalah, we finally had some seas where we found the stabilizers of little use. Here in the middle of the Red Sea, 60 miles off Sudan about to cross into Egyptian waters, we were heading into a good Force 5 gale of about 30 knots. Combined with our speed of 20 knots, it really looked like we were flying, especially in seas of about 12 feet. The stabilizers give a sense of jerkiness against the pitching (the forward "lunge" movement), but can be very effective with the side to side rolling.
HURGHADA FOR LUXOR, EGYPT
Don't let anyone kid you about the trip from Hurghada, the nearest Red Sea Port, to Luxor. It's long and hot. And no matter what anyone says, their busses are not always very good. In one, we went from sweaters to tank tops, and back, several times (I guess the knob just said "feast or famine"). In another, several of us had to stand on the rear floorboards lest they pop up and deliver carbon monoxide along with the road dust. Hey, sometimes standing up is preferable to sitting down anyway. However, what they all come equipped with is a plain-clothes policeman in the front seat carrying an automatic weapon. We always travelled in a caravan, with fully loaded armored personnel carriers at front and back. I found it unnerving at first to be around so many guns, but eventually became used to it.
Hurghada is obviously on Egypt's list of areas to be developed for tourism. Elaborate resorts are going up all along the pristine coastline at a frantic pace. As the road finally pulled inland toward Luxor, the scenery through the desert was strikingly bold and rough with sharp rocky peaks scraping the dry blue sky. Then finally, the land flattened out and there were some green patches from time to time. Small towns seemed to look like they must have looked for thousands of years with their mud and straw baked-brick construction. The livestock looked well fed. Donkeys are the favored form of transportation. My most amazing sight, though, was my first view of the Nile. Clean and cool and blue, with lush greenery all along the sides, it was as perfect as I had not dared to hope it might be. Here it is not so wide and swift, making it difficult to imagine that its the longest river in the world. And there is never enough time to simply gaze at it.
Luxor is the beginning of where the great Nile Delta begins to spread out it's verdant arms to cradle impossible Cairo and eventually wash past even the great Alexandria on its way to the Mediterranean. Crossing the river, on the west side the Colossi of Memnon welcome you to the vast desert areas where lies the Valley of the Kings (among many other riches). This area resembles nothing so much as the face of the moon in beige, and yet is so remarkable in its riches that it is surely the privilege of a lifetime to see one of the tombs. Of the two we viewed, I felt that of Ramses VI was the most amazing, containing that huge main chamber of which you may have seen video. It is spangled with stars on a midnight sky and completely encircled by the unbelievably elongated figure of a woman. The stylized bas relief figures and detailed hieroglyphics go on and on endlessly around you. The colors have barely faded. You may take non-flash pictures and I have discovered that many of mine came out beautifully - all the tombs open that day were so well lighted. While inside, you can also sense the soft dampness of everyone's respiration, destroying the precious desert dryness that has kept everything in such good condition for millennia. I was genuinely amazed to overhear tourist comments like: "All they had to do around here was scratch things on the walls?" and "Why are they only showing us the old stuff?"
That evening we saw the sound and light show at the massive Temple of Karnak - dramatic with color, rich with music and story, and tremendously crowded. Also, tediously long for my taste. The following morning, with some last mist still rising from the Nile, we walked the elegant Temple of Luxor before the long return to the ship.
The next day dawned with the Crystal Symphony traversing the Suez Canal, slightly behind several U.S. warships. Funny to be on the ship and have such a warm, dry day. And funny to be surrounded by land. I didn't expect to see monuments on each side commemorating the dead of the last war which resulted in the transfer of most of the Sinai Desert to Israel. I didn't know there was a super-highway being built that would begin in Morocco, cross through all the North African nations, go high over the Suez Canal (where I saw it under construction) and hopefully, one day, continue well into nations much farther east. I had no idea that "docking" in Port Said meant pulling up to the end of a crooked pontoon pier half full of the most energetic vendors ever.
PORT SAID for CAIRO, EGYPT
It is a long bus ride to get from Port Said into Cairo. And we were so late, the sound and light guys at the pyramids agreed to wait and give us straggling Crystal guests a private show. Braving a strong, cold, nighttime breeze (they rent blankets!) coming right at us, we all had great front row seats and the show was very good. It was similar to Luxor but with the added interest of lasers used to explain a little about hieroglyphics and the inner workings of the pyramids. Also the Sphinx generated interest.
The scene at the great pyramids of Giza was quite different early the next morning. The cool, ethereal shapes of the night before were replaced by the hard reality of millions of blocks of sandstone which have in their own way withstood the ravages of time for 4,500 years. Slowly, the pyramids seemed larger and larger as the morning sun rose. The tireless Sphinx finally awoke to another day of thousands of people wondering what he REALLY looked like, back when, and what he could possibly mean.
Our back-and-forths through Cairo revealed a vast lower class, but not as grim as India.
The next big event of the day was an all-too-brief visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, housing some 136,000 exhibits. We decided to have a look at Tut. If you saw any of the travelling show of the Boy King, Tutankhamen, that toured the U.S. some years ago, you saw so very little. The extent of the artifacts and the quality of the workmanship could almost dazzle the dead back to life. And we are told he died young and unexpectedly, so most of this was just "thrown together" in a hurry.
Egypt is the great jewel box of the ancient world, a must-see on every true traveller's list.
ASHDOD for TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
I missed Israel. My alarm went off and I knew I just couldn't appreciate a nine hour tour to Massada and the Dead Sea. I've been to Israel several times, and will come back many more, God willing. This was one of the smartest things I did. I was overtired from Egypt, but got a chance to rest back up. Then I finished packing. (What a shock to discover all I'd actually accumulated during the 54 day voyage!) My flexibility paid off. I was then able to enjoy the final day at sea, sadly peppered with final goodbyes, and still have the energy and stamina to make it home in good shape.
PIRAEUS for ATHENS, GREECE
I've loved Athens and Greece for 30 years, but I'm always holding back a little, always reserving some space for a caveat learned in the past or one about to be discovered. This time it came in the guise of a stubborn bellman at 5:30 in the morning, who insisted that there was no need to get to the airport two hours early for an international flight. To me, especially in a place where many transactions are completed casually if at all, I didn't think this was a good idea. I finally convinced him that it was up to me where I wanted to wait for my flight, to please call the taxi immediately. Indeed, the British Airways counter was being heavily bombarded, security was as slow as honey dripping from a well made baklava, BOTH times, and we took busses out to the plane - which takes time. It all reminded me why I so prefer to cruise: you rarely run into this kind of nonsense.
In fact, I figured out several things on this wonderful voyage:
More than the Hotel aspect, the Food, the entertainment, the Ambiance, more than anything else, cruising is a form of transportation, the most natural way of moving about the planet. Has been for a long time. The best use of cruising is to discover the world at a gentle pace that allows time for processing the cerebral and sensual overload that is life on land. In a perfect world, there should be little need to be always torn through the air by jet to get from one place to another. You should be able to go by ship as was common only 50 years ago. I think they just haven't got everyone's itineraries figured out quite yet. Right?
And for once in all my cruising, I finally got enough days on a ship, was finally sated. There was enough time to get all the rest I could possibly need. I could have continued to Lisbon, but I had genuinely had a complete experience and was satisfied. I had been able to let go of time, to find my own pace and time. Now and then I'd think, "Don't I have to go yet?" But for weeks and weeks the end was too far away to see. What a dream come true.