We recently have learned a few things about pirates in the Atlantic Ocean – yes that’s right, the Atlantic.
Apparently, piracy is big business off the West coast of Africa, as cargo ships with refined petroleum pass through these waters. Several African countries on the West coast are rich in oil, and ship it through the Gulf of Guinea.
Highly organized pirates board these ships, which often have small crews (therefore easy to control). The pirates use weapons to force the crew to stop the ship (or, if the ship is already anchored, to turn over control). Then, the ship turns into an illegal bunkering stop – other ships can obtain the fuel from the pirates for a price much lower than obtaining it legally at a port. Once the fuel vessel is empty, the pirates move on to the next fuel vessel and repeat the process.
In the past, when fuel prices on the legal market dropped, the pirates would ransom crew members instead of selling fuel, as it was more profitable to collect ransom.
Government corruption appears to be heavily involved in this petro-piracy, either through government action/inaction in conjunction with the pirates, or through corruption in general. In this latter instance, the pirates take matters into their own hands to grab “their share” of the wealth.
An excellent article from March 2022 on this issue can be found at:
When we arrived in South Africa, we immediately went by van to Phinda Forest Lodge for a photo safari (we were part of a group of 8 passengers from the ship). Phinda is one of the many lodges owned by a company called “&Beyond” which promotes sustainable travel in natural places that need to be conserved. It is an interesting company founded by members of the Getty family and South African investors, and the business model includes alliances with local Zulu tribes, local landowners and others.
Over the course of 3 days we went on 5 game drives. Before we even snapped animal pictures, we learned a lot about the area and its history – it is partly a sand forest (rare), partly grasslands, partly woodland and partly wetland. With this diverse ecosystem Phinda has trees, bushes, plants, spiders, birds, orchids, cacti and animals not found anywhere else on the planet. The scenery was stunning. With the help of an extraordinary ranger and tracker team (Dan and Bheki) we explored it all.
The game drives were great, and each lasted a lot longer than expected, because we found so many animals – lions (and lionesses), elephants (alone and in a big herd) , giraffes (ditto), zebras, white rhino, hippos, leopards, a cheetah, Cape buffalo, antelope, nyalas, wildebeests, warthogs, suni (tiny deer), monkeys, lizards, turtles, spiders, birds, etc. And we saw lots of babies (lion cubs, elephant and giraffe calves, etc.), too.
Phinda Forest Lodge was great – 16 large glass-walled cabins, lovely staff members, beautiful outdoor dining areas where we enjoyed incredible candle-lit dinners near roaring fires (it was cool and dark by 6:30 pm), and guides to get you from dinner back to your cabin after dark, as animals roam freely throughout the area.
Joe took a lot of pictures, and tried to capture the feeling of being in Africa, in the bush. It was an incredible experience, and we would go on another safari in a heartbeat!
Now, off to check out the West coast of Africa, starting down in Namibia, with the world’s oldest dessert.
India – there aren’t enough words to describe it. Some impressions.
In the course of 6 days in India, we saw only a small part of this country, and yet enough to fascinate us and make us want to see more. Since there are not enough words to adequately describe our experience, and we cannot possibly share all the pictures we have, here are some general reflections.
Before heading inland, we spent a few hours touring the Latin Quarter of Goa, India’s smallest state. It is a charming old area where the buildings have the colonial charm you might find in a Caribbean island vacation spot, with colorful small coffee and tea shops, bakeries, restaurants, art galleries, guesthouses and residences.
We headed from the Mumbai sea port to the airport, expecting crowds. Along the way we passed massive slums, in which there are markets, banks, school systems and residents who work, sorting recycling or working at other jobs. A guide told us that these slums do not carry the stigma that is generally associated with them elsewhere, they are just small places to live in an area where housing is not affordable for many people.
Mumbai has one of the cleanest airports we have ever seen, with lovely art displays throughout. Because the airport is so large, nothing seemed crowded, and we boarded our flight to Delhi. Similarly, the Delhi airport was large and spotless, and crowded.
Leaving the Delhi area and heading to Agra, we passed through greater Delhi, where traffic has to be seen to be believed.
Imagine you are in your car on a fairly busy 4 lane road. Add in very large trucks, bundled high and wide with produce or other goods, add in public buses, add in private tour buses, add in tractors that go slowly and trucks carrying live animals like chickens, add in motorcycles and scooters. Add in pedestrians (yes, on the roadway). Notice all the horn honking to signal when a vehicle is near, and the signs on almost every truck saying “please horn.” Now observe, every now and then, how the traffic opens up and flows around a herd of cattle, walking down the center of the road, in either direction (with traffic or against it). Sometimes it is just one cow, sometimes a herd with a person guiding them, sometimes goats or horses as well. Amazing.
As we left greater Delhi we passed miles and miles of fields, where mustard and other crops are grown, often by farmers and their families. There were many images of an individual person tending a large field without machines to assist. And as dusk fell, we saw more and more children helping out before night came. The scenery was beautiful.
Agra is a busy city, home to the Taj Mahal, a great fort, and other sights to see. Close to the tourist areas the streets are lines with shops and the atmosphere is congested and chaotic. Just a mile or so away, we stayed at a lovely hotel, very luxurious, which seemed to be from another world.
We moved on to Jaipur after Agra. Again we saw incredible luxury next to widespread poverty.
Jaipur is known for its block textiles, and there is no end to the shops selling materials. They line several streets, interspersed with markets for fruit and produce, as well as products of all kinds.
The city Palace in Jaipur sits amidst this mass of markets, elegant and serene. Similarly, the Royal Observatory provides a fairly quiet place to see the 19 astronomical instruments built by the founder of Jaipur in the early 1700s, an incredible way to see the placement of planets etc with the naked eye.
We attended a Hindu Aarti ceremony, which is a morning ritual. Again, a pleasure to participate in a crowded experience where people did not seem to be bothered by the throng, just took it in stride. As in other places, every smile from us was met with a return smile. For us, it felt very comfortable to be here.
Overall, we experienced an assault on the senses, but a great one. Smells (spices, flowers and everything else), sounds ( horns, languages, birds), tastes and sights of every type, all at once, it seemed. We saw clothing of every type imaginable, which varies among the regions, and changes over time. For example, saris are now being supplemented in some places in the North by head and face coverings, influenced by Muslim dress.
So how do 1.4 billion people live together in this dynamic yet traditional country of haves and have-nots?
Is it the belief of the Hindu population that reincarnation will reward their kindness to all living things? We don’t know why things are the way they are, but we would like to return and learn more.
During a visit to Penang, Malaysia we spent some time in the city of Georgetown, the capital. Georgetown is a city established about 150 years ago by British colonizers. It is home to many different ethnicities including Chinese, Indian, Arabian, Burmese and Malay people as well as expats from Eurasia, Thailand and elsewhere.
Beautiful gracious buildings built during British rule are located next to ornate temples and other colorful architectural masterpieces. Some of the temples reflect a mix of Buddhism and Confucianism. In addition to stops at several of these temples, we visited a water village located on one of several long jetties in the Straits of Malacca, located between mainland Malaysia and the island of Penang. We also visited a Clan house.
The water villages were established because buildings on land were taxed, while buildings over the water were not. We visited Chew Jetty, named after the captain of the ship that brought Chinese immigrants to Penang. It was common practice for immigrants with no connection to their new home to adopt as a group the surname of their boat captain. One of the boats that carried immigrants to Penang was captained by Captain Chew, a surname that many of the Chinese immigrants adopted. Hence the name Chew Jetty to describe the area.
As Penang developed, a group Clan houses, or (“kongsi”) were established in Penang by wealthy Chinese immigrants. The goal was to provide temples, housing and assistance to newcomers. The Khoo Clanhouse, which we visited, is one of the largest. You enter the compound through a large walkway, which brings you away from the busy street and into a compound with an ornate temple, a registration office for the newcomers, and apartments for them. Newcomers received help obtaining work, housing, food, etc. until they could stand on their own two feet.
The Khoo Clanhouse was founded in 1835. Three areas make up the inside of the temple. There is a center area to worship of the god of prosperity. A small area to its right is for the worship of ancestors. It contains many replicas of gravestones from China where the ancestors were buried. Since the immigrants could not easily return to China, this area fulfilled a need for a local place to worship ancestors.
A small area to the left is a “hall of fame” with plaques to show the accomplishments of the Khoo family, and to inspire others. The plaques shown in the image below denote one surveyor, a recipient of the Bachelor of Science degree, and two barristers. There are hundreds of plaques in this area. Once a “hall of famer” dies, his plaque is moved to the ancestral worship temple.
We spent a wonderful day in Vancouver, a city we hadn’t seen before, a city that impressed us tremendously. A vibrant cosmopolitan city (developed only about 100 years ago), with a diverse population (1/3 Chinese, with many residents from other parts of Asia), beautiful parks and gardens, a busy port, and lovely suburbs -this is definitely a place we’d love to see again, in greater detail.
The morning we arrived we hiked through an old growth forest in Lighthouse Park, and saw some very tall and old trees. As you might imagine, this climate (we’re still in the temperate rain forest in Vancouver) allows for some incredible plants and flowers, not only in the forest but also in the many gardens and parks in town.
And to make the day very special, we enjoyed a wonderful visit with Bob and Barbara, who trekked up 3 hours from Seattle to say hello – we appreciated the chance to spend time with them, as always.
So now that the USA Presidential race seems to have come down to a smaller field of contenders, our visit to Vancouver was timely; it could possibly be just the place to go if things don’t improve on the homefront!
We will be in San Francisco tomorrow, and back to NJ on Saturday. We’re looking forward to seeing you and catching up!
We have spent this past week visiting several places in Alaska and enjoying the beautiful scenery and the nice local folks. This is a giant state, and our visit only covered a bit of the Aleutian Islands and some of the towns/cities in the southeast part of the state. Alaska’s big business is fishing, but tourism is high on the list, followed by government.
One of the speakers on this ship gave a presentation on Alaska’s vital importance in terms of global relations, given its proximity to Russia and the West Coast of the continental USA. Since we had tried to visit Petroplavask, Russia before we got to Alaska, and learned that this is the hub for Russia’s buildup of marine power, the role of Alaska may be something to keep an eye on.
We learned how life in Alaska is so different from what we expect in other parts of the USA – the terrain is rugged, the areas we visited are rainy (part of a rain forest, actually), and there are relatively few roads; a lot of the travel and transport is done by water (seaplanes, ships, etc.) and air (one out of six residents in Alaska has a pilot’s license). Transport of goods is often scheduled during the cold months, so that the frozen rivers can carry heavy loads with relative ease. The communities we visited are relatively small (Dutch Harbor has about 4300 residents, while Anchorage – a large town – has about 300,000), but there is a great sense of community here and people love being outdoors even if the weather is tough.
During the May-September period, tourists pour into Alaska for all sorts of recreation – fishing, hiking, biking, camping, etc. Despite the large number of tourists, it seems that it doesn’t get crowded because there’s so much land, so many bodies of water, etc. A very large part of Alaskan property is protected from development in various ways, including federally owned property and national parks (both land and water/glacier).
We learned a bit about the history of Alaska; its native people (who have a status similar to Native Americans in the lower 48 states, but who don’t live on reservations); how Russian traditions live on even though the US bought Alaska from Russia in 1867; the 1897 Klondike gold rush; and Alaska’s role in World War II (Fort Abercrobmie Park in Kodiak had bunkers, cannon and other military installations to defend the US).
The gold rush stories are fascinating – people from all walks of life and professions headed north when word hit Seattle that gold had been discovered. Entrepreneurs located harbors and built town centers with access to the main roads up to the Klondike. One of these towns, built on a deep harbor (Skagway) is still a thriving area, despite the fact that its road to the Klondike was horrible (a picture of the start of the trail is attached). Another town, built on a shallow harbor but having a better trail road to Klondike (Dyea) is now just a ghost town.
People who wanted to mine gold needed to make a commitment that they’d bring enough with them to survive one year – this meant about 600 lbs of flour, hundreds of pounds of cured meat such as bacon, mining tools, tools to build houses, etc. The National Parks Service information says that the miners needed to lug 1 ton of goods from their starting point in Alaska (which they would reach after travelling from San Francisco or Seattle, for example), up the narrow, steep trail into the Yukon, and then cross the Yukon River before reaching the gold fields. And, if a miner wanted to use a horse, mule, dogsled, etc. he’d need provisions for that animal, and might schedule travel during the winter in the case of dogsleds (which are easier to move over ice and snow than over mud and dirt). Skagway grew into a large town as the miners came, with all the vices that are present with desperate, hungry, lonely men; we heard many stories about the con men and others who took advantage of the situation, and how local heroes rid the town of its bad actors.
We also spent several days checking out glaciers (frozen packs of ice that can be miles long and wide, and come in all types, depending on the land masses near them). Joe has some great pictures of this, as well as the various parks where we hiked on beautifully maintained trails and enjoyed the scenery, whether we had rain or sun. On Glacier Bay, we saw 2 tidewater glaciers, rare because glaciers don’t often reach the sea; tidewater glaciers are found only in Scandanavia, Chile and Alaska. Hubbard Glacier, which we visited on a nice sunny day, is 75 miles long, 300 feet high on its face, and covers 1350 square miles in area.
National Park Service rangers boarded the boat for a day and gave us a nice education about the forests, glaciers, tides (high and low tides in this area vary about 25 feet most days) and wildlife. We had the chance to use all this knowledge in the past week, and we saw some whales, harbor seals, sea lions, eagles and even bear (from a nice distance).
And last but not least, we learned how vital the dogs and dogsleds have been to life in Alaska over the years. It’s not just the Iditarod 1150 mile race (which, by the way, women seem to win a lot), but it’s also the story of Balto. In 1925 a diphtheria epidemic threated Nome, Alaska. Medicine was sent from Seattle to Anchorage, and then had to get north to Nome. Sled dogs were harnassed to make that trip of 674 miles and they completed the trek in an epic 127 hours. Balto, who was 6 years old at the time, led the team during its final leg of the trip, withstanding weather of -23F degrees and near whiteout conditions.
So Alaska is everything we hoped it would be, and more. Just beautiful, with room for many more visits, I hope!
Hope you are all well, and looking forward to seeing you soon – we’ll be back in a week!
We arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska on Saturday, and the mood on the boat was noticeably cheerful – not sure if folks were glad to be back in the USA (using familiar currency and language), or glad to be on land after 3 days at sea (we had two Thursdays, because we crossed the international date line), or glad to be on the last leg of this long cruise, with only 2 weeks left to go.
In any event, hundreds of us poured off the boat to see the town, which is where the “Deadliest Catch” TV show is filmed. We expected a kind of “Northern Exposure” town (remember that old TV show?) but it was a little different. About 4000 people live in Dutch Harbor. This is a major fishing port, and has been the #1 commercial fishing port in the USA for 19 years. There is also an international airport here, which gets a lot of action because so much travel in this part of the world is by large or small plane. Apart from the port and the airport, there are 2 nice museums, some businesses, and some eating/drinking places, spread out over a few miles on a few roads (no town center, per se).
We visited the Museum of the Aleutians, and learned a bit about the history of the Aleutian Islands and the Aleuts, including its Russian history, its role in WWII (the only place in the USA bombed besides Pearl Harbor, and location for 9000 troops during the war), the fishing/whaling/sealing that has sustained people in this area for thousands of years, and how people have survived in this harsh environment over time. Although it was a little strange not to find any temples or Buddhas, this is still a very exotic part of the US with a history unlike so many other states.
This area hosts a lot of outdoor activity in the warmer months, and is home to many parks where you can enjoy birdwatching, hiking, biking, golf and other fun.
There’s a lovely Russian Orthodox church in Dutch Harbor as well as the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension; for one week each month a priest comes by plane to the Cathedral to attend to the spiritual needs of the parish. Similar visits by plane are made by medical professionals and others who care for people in remote areas. The local middle-high school has under 100 students in total (that’s about 12 per class).
Our day started out sunny, and passengers from the ship got out in the early morning and walked to some of the local attractions (1-2 miles). Within about 3 hours from our arrival in Dutch Harbor, clouds formed and a brisk wind swept in. Passengers started coming back to the ship, well in advance of the 4:30 pm deadline for reboarding. By noon a nice sleety rain had started, and it was COLD out. The ship was able to leave port ahead of schedule because nobody was outdoors by mid-afternoon. And I think you probably heard a low buzzing noise in the lower 48 states by 5pm, since it appeared that almost all passengers were snoozing before dinner (not me, however!).
So while we sometimes lament the density of where we live, we can also be thankful that it’s not too remote and hard to reach.
Best to all,
PS – Internet coverage for the next few days is supposed to be sketchy, so you may not hear from Joe or me during this time.
Just a few hours heading north in the Pacific Ocean and you go from relatively mild early Spring weather in Japan to sub-zero snow in Russia! We visited Korsakov on Monday, on the island of Sakhalin, about halfway between Japan and Russia in this area of the world. This island was settled by the Japanese during the Edo period (approx. 1600-1870), but has been the subject of contests between Japan and Russia since that time, through the end of WWII, when the island was awarded to Russia. Not many people live on the island, and much of it is forested. The island industries include farming, fishing and tourism – this island is a haven for birds, seals and other wildlife, so lots of people come to take in the natural wonders.
The island also holds many Daccha – the summer houses of the Russians. We passed many on our drive – small houses on small plots of land, with vegetable and flower gardens ready for planting when the weather thaws.
We travelled to the capital city of the island (Sakhalin), and visited a Russian Orthodox Church constructed in the “old” way – no nails, just wooden pegs holding the logs together. On our trip we passed many churches, some with the colorful and picturesque onion shaped domes.
We visited the Anton Chekhov Museum, and learned more about this writer (who was also a physician). Chekhov visited Sakhalin in 1890, to interview convicts in Russian work camps; he wound up staying for three months, taking a regional census in addition to compiling the prisoner interviews which ultimately became “Sakhalin Island.”
While in Sakhalin we also visited the Regional Museum, which was established by the Russian population during a period when the Japanese ruled the island, to preserve and commemorate Russian history and its people. The Museum is in one of the only buildings on the island that retains its Japanese style architecture.
After another rough night on the sea (lots of ice and lots of speed to make up for the very lengthy immigration processing we experienced at Korsakhov), we have arrived at Petropavlovsk, one of the most isolated large cities in the world (no roads connect it to the outside world). The captain wasn’t entirely sure we’d be able to anchor and visit this island, as the weather is sometimes too inclement to permit tender service. He told us today that last night “we drove the boat like we stole it” in order to make time.
Petropavlovsk was isolated from the world until 1991, especially during earlier years when it housed Russia’s largest nuclear submarine base and military radar installations.
Petropavlovsk is surrounded with natural beauty in the Kamchatsky Peninsula, a mountainous region on the Bering Sea that is part of the Ring of Fire (the circle of volcanoes that encircle the Pacific). This peninsula has 68 active volcanoes (that’s 10% of the world’s active volcanoes), 5 nature reserves, the world’s densest population of brown bears, and a thriving fishing industry.
While on this part of our journey, we’d learned a bit about Vitus Bering, who founded Petropavlovsk (which he named after his two sailing ships in 1740, the St. Peter and the St. Paul). Bering was a Dane who explored Russia and the Aleutian Islands, trying to ascertain where Alaska ends and Russia begins, or whether they were connected by a land mass. The 53 mile gap that we call the Bering Straits is now the water that separates Asia and North America.
Looks like we’re in for very cold weather for the next couple of weeks, but we hope you are all enjoying the start of Spring, and we will be too, very soon!
PS – the sad end to our story – the wind at Petroplavask was so strong that the tender boats could not safely get passengers to the dock, so we spent the afternoon on the ship, and most of the passengers were somewhat thankful that we didn’t have to brave the cold wind (you can tell some of us are getting old).