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Subject:  OT: Jeff takes a trip east - Port Blair, India Date:  2/11/2013  6:06 AM
Author:  OrmontUS Number:  415583 of 610480

21 31 Jan 2013 Dubai, United Arab Emirates ON VX
22 01 Feb 2013 Dubai, United Arab Emirates VX

We have arrived at the perfect time of year. The climate is a mild 84 degrees F (as compared to the summer when it can hit 130 degrees plus).

First of all you have to realize that this place is nuts. The original locals make up a very small part of the population. Up until the 1970’s this place was a strip of beach with a bunch of Bedouin paupers and a small group of merchants living on it and trading from a small port. The tribesmen used falcons to catch small birds to get some variety in their boring diet. For some unknown lunatic reason the Brits gave the territory back to the group of related sheiks who became the emirs who formed the alliance which created the country about the time when oil was found.

The “original people” of the male variety wear a garment which looks like a starched white shirt which reaches to the ankles. While quite a few wear red/white checkered khafia head scarfs, most wear a white one flipped over a pair of black rings with a long tasseled rope stretching down the back. The women wear black robes, some of which have embroidery or black embellishments on the sleeves. Only a few women wear full face veils (but those come in an assortment of varieties which I presume are regional or tribal). One can judge the wealth of men by their watches and of women by their makeup (if not veiled), shoes and sometimes the class of robe embellishment. That said, almost everyone speaks English with their second proficiency in such languages as Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese and so on. Most of the population (and nearly all merchants, taxi driver, tradesmen and other jobs which entail work) are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and similar. The Arab citizens receive a free house (standalone type villa), free education through graduate school, free healthcare (either in the UAE or in any facility they choose world-wide), a luxury car, a job and a stipend of nearly a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. Many major universities in the States and Europe have opened branches here so that the Emiratis don’t necessarily have to travel abroad for advanced degrees. The Dubai Arabs work about six hours a day, mainly as government officials, and managers (while others do all other work). All policemen and soldiers are Dubai Arabs. Everyone else works on visas which have to be renewed every couple of years. If a foreigner reaches age 60 (retirement age) and does not own property, he is deported back to his original country. Foreigners cannot become citizens. Children born to foreigners do not get citizenship here, but take that of their parents. Generally, foreigners leave their passports with their employers. This combined with low labor costs, trade unions being outlawed, and a constant inflow of workers encourages conditions similar to slavery and subjects many foreign women to sexual abuse. While there didn’t seem to be any evidence of anger against the ruling Arabs, the lesson learned by Bahrain a year or so ago would be prudent to keep in mind.

Prices are kept cheap by paying very little for labor, gasoline at about $.35US a liter and so on. While cigarettes and alcohol are available to Westerners (as is non-halal meat), they are not available to the general population. Using these during the day in the month of Ramadan is a criminal offense. Apparently prostitution and drugs are discretely available in most of the hotels.

This Emirate is beginning to run out of oil (maybe a fifteen year supply) and has been feverishly building a group of hotels and attractions which, in many ways, make Las Vegas seem like amateur hour. As these guys are spending money faster than they can make it, many of the projects are subsidized by their cousins in smaller/wealthier Abu Dhabi.

This is a place which thrives on one-upmanship. Since the Dubai Mall included a regulation hockey skating rink, the Emirates Mall put in a full sized ski slope (with lifts, toboggan runs, etc. – all in a climate which reaches 55 degrees Celsius in the summer). While the Emirates Mall is larger (actually second largest in the world – only one in China is larger), the Dubai mall has more stores than any other in the world. The scale is unbelievable. While such common names as Harry Winston, Chopard, Bloomingdales, Galleries Lafayette (and so on, ad infinitum) stretch along miles of lofted interior spaces, so do enormous aquariums with tanks five stories high which you can pay to scuba dive with the sharks in front of the shoppers. Multi-story waterfalls grace metal sky-divers. The “Level 1” shoe department is as large as most Simon’s Properties outlet malls (though there is nothing sold at a discount here in an environment which would even sate Imelda Marcos).

As unbelievable as the malls are (though, unless you are a Russian oligarch buying for his mistress or an Arabian oil sheik), chances are that there is little that most could afford, except halal versions of our popular fast food, in these gargantuan shopping emporiums. While prices for everything are pretty high, every imaginable product is available for those who want variety rather than price value and there seems to be a lot of buying going on.

In a similar vein, the hotels run the gamut of the world’s top five star chains – Fairmont, Raffles, Dusset Thani, Peninsula, Shangri-La, a copy of the Atlantis Hotel (original one is in the Bahamas) as well as a number of indigenous ones like the unique sailboat shaped Bir Arab (Arab Tower) where a night’s stay costs about the same as a small car. The outside of this hotel is graced by a huge water fountain array designed by the same fellows who did the on at the Vegas Bellagio Hotel.

In this tiny land of superlatives, this town also has the world’s tallest building – the Bir Kallifa (finished with money from Abu Dhabi when Dubai was tapped out in 2009 and therefore named for the Emir of Abu Dhabi).

Another major attraction, the Palm Islands are an artificial archipelago. Major commercial and residential infrastructures were constructed by Nakheel Properties, a property developer in The UAE. The Belgian and Dutch dredging and marine contractors, Jan De Nul and Van Oord, specialists in land reclamation, were hired to complete the construction. The islands are the Palm Jumeirah, the Palm Jebel Ali and the Palm Deira. Each settlement is in the shape of a palm tree, topped with a crescent. The settlements will have a large number of residential, leisure and entertainment centers. The Palm Islands are located off the coast in the Persian Gulf and will add 520 kilometers of beaches to the city of Dubai. The first two islands are comprised of approximately 100 million cubic meters of rock and sand. The Palm Deira will be composed of approximately one billion cubic meters of rock and sand. Among the three islands, there will be over 100 luxury hotels, exclusive residential beach side villas and apartments, marinas, water theme parks, restaurants, shopping malls, sports facilities and health spas. The creation of the Palm Jumeirah began in June 2001. Shortly after, the Palm Jebel Ali was announced and reclamation work began. The Palm Deira is planned to have a surface area of 46.35 square kilometers and was announced for development in October 2004. Before the impact of the global credit crunch hit Dubai, construction was originally planned to take 10-15 years. Two other artificial archipelagos, The World and The Universe, are located between the Palm Islands.

Dubai's lure for tourists is based mainly on shopping and it is designed to be an engine bringing foreign currency into the Emirates. The city draws large numbers of shopping tourists from countries within the region and abroad. Dubai is known for its souk districts. Souk is the Arabic word for market or place where any kind of goods are brought or exchanged. Traditionally, dhows from the Far East, China, Sri Lanka, and India would discharge their cargos and the goods would be bargained over in the souks adjacent to the docks. Dubai's most atmospheric shopping is to be found in the souks, located on either side of the creek, where bargaining is part of the game.

Aspects of Dubai's old culture, while occasionally overshadowed by the boom in economic development, can be found by visiting places around the creek, which splits Dubai into two halves, Bur Dubai and Deira. The buildings lining the Bur Dubai side of the Creek provides the main flavor of the old city. There is a dhow ferry which can be taken across the Creek for 1 dirham.

Dubai attracts the tourists for another reason - because it is the home of the world’s most popular gold market - the Gold Souk. The Gold Souk is located in Deira, Dubai near Baniyas Square. It is a huge gold market having almost 300 shops in narrow streets where the windows sparkle with the gold ornaments. Windows of each shop are jam-packed with gold rings, bangles, ear rings and necklaces (and for those who have a lot of taste – though not necessarily good taste – there are gold breastplates, helmets, wrist cuffs and assorted other doodads suitable for dowries or mistresses). There are an estimated 15 tons of gold displayed in the windows of shops. There are actually two gold markets, the old souk and the new souk. Both are in the same location and display same variety of jewelry. Most of the jewelry in this market is 24 carat or 22 (or 21) carat. The trinkets come in different shades of pink, yellow, rose, white and purple gold. While the prices can be competitive, they are not displayed because they fluctuate with the market. The daily gold prices are set by the UAE government and The National Bank of Dubai. The prices are based on weights (and not per piece as they would be in a department store in the western world). These prices are set regardless of the design of the jewelry. You should also check the jewelry carefully to make sure that there are no flaws or rough edges. Another thing that should be kept in mind is that you will have to bargain with the shopkeepers because, while the price of the gold is fixed, the price of the workmanship to turn it into the trinket you are holding is negotiable. You can also check the selected item from other shops to get better understand whether you are being offered a decent price. (The Iranian and Indian shopkeepers are as fluent in Russian as they are in English here). Of course you also have to keep an eye on the scale. The gold souk is open from 10 am to 1 pm and it reopens from 4 pm to 10 pm. On Fridays, the market remains closed in morning and opens at 2PM in the afternoon. While the idea received a few heckles, the gold pricing spreadsheet I posted actually came in very handy. My wife has a collection of 22K gold bangles from various countries we’ve visited and now has added on from Dubai (priced in UEA dirhams per gram and prorated to 22K).

While shopping in this area, my wife and another lady from our ship followed a tout advertising “copy watches” and “copy bags”. This led us up a number of flights of stairs to a warehouse with a substantial door. While they went inside, I insisted on staying outside the door despite numerous invitations to enter. After five minutes I rang the bell and, since there didn’t seem to be a meeting of the minds, took the ladies and left (moral is don’t bother with this nonsense as it is generally illegal, is not cheap except in Asia and you can get into personal danger if you are not careful).

Adjacent to the Gold Souk is the Spice Souk (or Iranian Souk). This area sports sacks of every imaginable spice as well as buckets of frankincense which is harvested around here. Other items which can be found are dried lemons and juicy dates.

Lunch was a Lebanese mezza combination (falafel, humus, baba ganush, tabouli, kibbeh, tichinna, extra thin pita).

While both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have inexpensive municipal bus systems, taxis are very reasonably priced and if four people take a cab, the fare is generally only a few dollars each.

The UEA dirham is legal tender here as well as in Abu Dhabi.

23 02 Feb 2013 Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirate VX

As we left the ship, there was a group of Bedouins doing a “line dance” to blaring Arabic music carrying camel crops and long swords. A variety of local delicacies (dates, some sort of hot white ginger drink, Turkish coffee, confections and so on) was handed out, a falcon was available to hold for photos and my wife (in an uncharacteristic moment of flightiness) got a henna job done on her hand with delicate flowers on each finger by a black robed old woman who used something like a miniature pastry tube to freehand flowers and patterns. This sepia colored die should wear off in a few weeks I’m told :- ). The Sheik visited the ship with his wives as it was the first time the MS Rotterdam has docked here.

The largest of the seven emirates by area (and the home state of the country’s leader as well as being the capital city), Abu Dhabi accounts for over 80% of the total land area of the United Arab Emirates. The name Abu Dhabi means “Father of the Deer” for some reason that has not been explained to me. This Emirate has enough oil (and money) to last 150 years or more. Abu Dhabi is more conservative than Dubai and Arabic is far more widely used here than in Dubai (where most people tend to use English to communicate) and relatively few of the Arabs speak more than a few words of English (though many of the assorted foreigners do). This emirate combines beaches and desert oases with some of the most vibrant city life in all the UAE. It's hard to believe Abu Dhabi was just a quiet fishing and pearling village for centuries, but the discovery of oil has recently transformed this capital city into one of the wealthiest and safest tourist destinations in the world.

Having visited a number of mosques, the one in Abu Dhabi took my breath away. While I’ll reserve judgment until I personally can make a comparison, I’ve been told that it is more impressive than the Taj Mahal (Mirror mirror on the wall …). When prayers are not in session, it may be visited by non-Moslems. As is usually the case, you must leave your shoes at the entrance and dress respectfully. The women who visit the mosque will be required to wear an abaya if they are not appropriately dressed (I always carry a khafia which my wife used as a head scarf so she avoided the black sack), which are available at the woman’s entrance (always ask if there is a separate entrance for women at a mosque – everyone uses the same one here). The decorations are gorgeous, with inlaid marble flowered floors, and matching 3-D marble flowered walls. Photography is allowed, but men and women are not allowed to touch each other's hands while inside (security will yell if you forget). I have seen some pretty extreme buildings in my life, but this one beats them all (which I guess is what a few billion bucks can buy you if you have tasteful and imaginative architects).

A number of the passengers aboard have traveled with us on other ships and we have a nodding acquaintance with them. At the Mosque, I heard my name called and had the extreme pleasure of seeing a couple of Canadians who we have a closer relationship with (and who we shall be traveling with in the fall) who had decided to join the ship in Dubai. It is indeed a small and wonderful world we live in.

The Emirates Palace Hotel is another beautifully decorated building. This immense building was full of high end jewelry stores and Russian guests.

A fascinating blend of modern-day development and intriguing history, Abu Dhabi offers a diverse array of experiences, from riding the world’s fastest roller-coaster at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi to visiting the world’s largest indoor theme park. We decided not to take a trip to the Oasis of Al Ain in the emirate’s heartland, or drive out to the peaceful Liwa desert, at the entrance to the Empty Quarter (which extends into Saudi Arabia), home to some of the tallest sands dunes on earth. They are in the process of building off shore, a la Dubai as well.

We decided to cap our visit with the Qasr al-Hosn (Al Hosn Palace) - the oldest stone building in the entire city of Abu Dhabi. Originally used as a watchtower protecting the city's only freshwater well, the Qasr Al-Hosn was eventually converted into a palace. It remained the permanent residence of the region's ruling family until 1966, when it was renovated and later opened to the public. The palace is commonly known as The White Fort, though its bright white appearance is only a recent development, part of renovations in the early and mid-1980s.
In the afternoon, we visited the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and the eighth largest mosque in the world. It is named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder and the first president of the United Arab Emirates. He is also buried there. The Mosque is large enough to accommodate 40,000 worshippers. The main prayer hall can accommodate up to 9,000 worshippers. Two rooms, with a capacity of 1,500 each, are located next to the main prayer hall and are for the exclusive use of women. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque holds two world records: world's largest carpet and world’s largest chandelier. The Emirates probably have a full time Guinness office busy recording records.

It normally doesn’t rain while I’m on vacation and I’ve been known to go for months without getting hit by a drop (it occasionally rains, but I’m usually eating in a restaurant looking through a window at it). I’ve been thinking of renting myself out to beach resorts :- ). Anyway, today it rained for the first time in a couple of years in Abu Dhabi. Not a lot. One long thunder clap and about three minutes of drops (we were in a cab at the time, so again I guess the record holds). I’m not sure if this is evidence of global climate change or just the result on my visit giving them the weather they want :- ).

If you miss the shopping of 5th Avenue or the Champ Elisez, the 18 ultra-modern malls scattered around the city will meet your needs. Of course, there’s also the Al Meena Souk for those looking for a more traditional Middle Eastern environment.

As was the case in Dubai, the UEA dirham is the coin of the realm.

24 03 Feb 2013 At Sea

Again we have pirate precautions (blackout curtains at night), but not as extreme as before (no pirate drills).

25 04 Feb 2013 At Sea

Tonight they gave out paper pirate’s hats at dinner : -). The ship is still blacked out to hide it from the buccaneers. After the show we stepped out on our veranda and looked at the stars shining over the Arabian Sea. The dome of the sky was littered with stars and planets in a way that I have not seen for many years.

26 05 Feb 2013 At Sea
27 06 Feb 2013 Marmagao (Goa), India VX

India is the Coney Island of my youth. A place of constant sensory overload. Allow me to explain. When I was a small child, home air conditioning was not wide-spread and not everyone had the ability to take their family for a drive out of the City. The solution was to go to the beach. On a hot July weekend day, more than a million people would descend on that strip of Brooklyn beach. There were no “beautiful” there. This was a crowd of those only able to afford the subway for their weekend “vacation”. Each family brought a colored blanket which clashed with the arbitrary one next to it. Each group spoke a different language (though these subgroups would tend to clump together). The odor of a vast variety of food mixed with that of garbage which had been left in the sun too long. Whistles blew, the crowd noise was a dull constant roar intermixed with the crashing waves, the crying of lost children and the screaming of lost parents. The food at Nathan’s ran the gamut of their famous hot dogs through raw clams on the half shell, frog’s legs, barbeque and almost anything else that would sell. The mob ate in a crowd with oil dripping from their sandwiches down their forearms. The noise and motion of rickety wooden roller coasters, elevated subways and carousels mimic the traffic of tuk-tuks, buses and small cars. The Boardwalk freak shows, midways full of “games of chance”, the Wonder Wheel (a Ferris wheel where many of the cars swing on rails as if to fly off the gadget), a Parachute Jump tower dropping screaming beachgoers into the air and a Steeplechase park full of mechanical horseraces, clowns with electric prods and wild motions adds another layer of noise, color, motion and confusion. This is just a taste of India.

India is a country that stretches every sense to its breaking point. The colors of the saris and countryside threaten to blind the eyes. The odors infuse the sinuses with a continual mixture of the divine and the vile. The food is “tasty” as the constantly changing blends of spices (oversimplified by trying to cram them all into the singularity of the word “curry”) intrigues the palette. The vast array of languages is distilled to the one most commonly used with us – English, which with Hindi are the two official languages. While the accent is often lilting, the use of vocabulary in normal conversation (let alone when an Indian is being obsequious) is flowery, imaginative, crammed with adverbs and adjectives and far exceeds the ability of most Americans to equal. Accuse an Indian of trying to bamboozle you and you will spend the next few minutes listening to a cornucopia of protests, explanations and offers.

This is a poor country where the majority of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Our use of the word “poverty” in the US to describe our bottom economic tranche is disingenuous when our poor with their cell phones, cars, plasma TV’s and food stamps matches their comfort level against that of the teeming poor of India. That said, over 75% of the population is literate and India has more universities than any other country in the world.

India is also the country of origin of many of the world’s largest (and some of the oldest) religions. These include Buddhist, Hindu, Janus and Sikh followers. I was constantly surprised by the diversity. I was taught in school that Goa was the primary source of Indian Christians, but our driver in Cochin had a cross tattooed on his arm and a rosary dangling from his car’s mirror. The 30km path to the port was lined with a variety of churches (not all of them Roman Catholic). My perception was that the problems of 1947-1948 split India’s population with Hindus staying in India proper and Muslims ending up in Pakistan. It turns out that over 30% of India’s population is Muslim and they seem well integrated into the diversity.

The center line on roads are just suggestions here and it is not unusual for games of advanced versions of “chicken” to take place with vehicles heading in both directions in the same lane of traffic (larger vehicle apparently has the right of way). Pedestrians are at the bottom of this food chain and you take your life in your hands simply crossing the street. Driving is on the British side, so those used to seeing cars come from the left (as in the US) are frequently confused and chance becoming road kill.

Traffic is noisy in India. There is a law which says that any time you pass a vehicle you have to blow your horn (ad every truck has a “Blow Horn” sign painted on its back). Since chaotic is an understatement when it comes to Indian driving, there is more horn blowing than a Manhattan corner with a broken traffic light.

Vehicles are often decorated and the road is a riot of cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks (motorcycle front/rickshaw behind), tongas (bicycle or horse front, cart behind) and motorcycles (the “record” I saw was a motor scooter with five passengers – man driving, two women behind and two babies). Pedestrians don’t count in this game.

Goa is both the smallest Indian province and one of the richest. This is an area which spent most of the last 400 years as a Portuguese colony – a vestige of Vasco de Gama’s coup in creating a route around Africa (along with Angola and Mozambique) to obtain the valuable spices which come from this part of the world (black pepper used to preserve and flavor foods being one of the main ones). Because the Portuguese brought missionaries as well, most Indian Roman Catholics come from this area.

These strong Portuguese influences make Old Goa unique in India, and many major monuments are within walking distance of each other, making this part of Goa's history easy to explore. The Arch of the Viceroys, built in 1597, commemorates the arrival in Goa of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. St. Catherine's Cathedral, which took 80 years to build, is said to be larger than any church in Portugal itself. And if you're drawn to miracles, the Church and Convent of St. Monica Christon is home to an image of the crucified Christ which is said to have spoken and opened its eyes. Goa is also world renowned for its beaches and if you speak to the average Indian, it seems to be some sort of unreachable hedonistic nirvana.

There is a discernible military presence throughout India. There is high security at the hotels (metal detectors, X-ray of bags and full body searches to enter) and in many ways the environment reminds one of Israel, but not as consistent. Police and troops have numerous roadblocks and do spot checks, but according to our driver, traffic infractions can “go away” for a handful of rupees.

Every port in India seems to have its own rules as far as what is required to leave and re-board the ship. It is not only that the rules are burdensome to the point of stupidity, but they are so inconsistent that it boggles the mind that this country can ever grow up.

That said, we are taking a bit of a detour over the next couple of days to see the Taj Mahal. We’ve always wanted to see Rajasthan and, if only for a day or two, at least take in the Taj Mahal and a fort or palace or two (I’m sure we will spend some time in India in the next year or two to expand on this). We are bypassing the port of call at Mangalore, a beach and temple city and staying overnight in Agra and then New Delhi. We will be rejoining the ship at Cochin in a couple of days.

The side trip was structured by another passenger whose car was filled and I copied here arrangements. To be honest, the selected tour company was a bit of a problem, so I can’t recommend them (though, as the saying goes in the “Most Exotic Marigold Hotel”, “everything works out in the end. If it’s not OK, then it’s not the end”). We generally travel independently and rarely use packaged tours, so when we do I demand perfection to justify the additional convenience and cost. Comparing our experience to the other parallel cars in our group, the tours were inconsistent and the meeting of what was promised incomplete. But, as in flying, any landing is a good landing and this tour while not up to my expectations (and other cars didn’t fair as well in some cases) at least got us to the Taj and back in one piece.

If I was setting this up independently, I would consider the train (first class recommended here) from Delhi to Agra. The highway trip was uninspiring. The toll road and its adjacent sports complex were both built by “JP” whose 5 star hotel we stayed at in Agra. The scenery was uninspiring and consisted of large mustard, wheat and sugar cane farms. The long route that some of the cars used to return gave a “better” picture of rural India, but was longer and more harrowing (from a driving point of view) and might be fun if you were not running on the tight schedule we had.

Shortly after we arrived at the Goa docks, our chauffer was supposed to pick us up and drop us at Goa airport to board our flight (on Spicejet) for Delhi. When he didn’t show up and we called, it turned out he hadn’t been paid. After a few more phone calls to the tour company and the driver, he showed up over an hour later. Now, I’m becoming a bit paranoid about arriving in Delhi and not having a car to take us to Agra. Fortunately the driver was there to meet us. After arriving at Delhi International Airport in New Delhi we drove the 211 km to Agra and met up with about half a dozen cars of passengers from the ship at an Indian restaurant. It seems that, while our driver spoke reasonably fluent English, some of the others didn’t speak for the entire drive. After dinner we checked into the Jay Pee Palace Hotel for an overnight stay within sight of the Taj. We had taken the independent tour because the ship’s excursion was about $2,700 a person. We opted for 5 star hotels – JP Palace in Agra (after speaking to the others and hearing their experiences, I’m not sorry for this decision) and paid about $500 a person (every other carload took 3 star hotels for about $425 a person, but it sounds like some of those used were closer to 2 star) and some of the stories, while providing humorous relief to us, didn’t make them smile very much. While part of our choice was “in for a penny, in for a pound”, we have found by experience that 5 star hotels are fantastic and reasonably priced and it’s generally not worth compromising in this neck of the woods. India has yet another tier (may as well call it 6 star) typified by the Taj and Oberoi chains and these are among the most elegant hotels in the world (but seemed an unnecessary extravagance considering that our time was so compressed that we didn’t even get to walk out of the door from our room leading to our private garden at the JP Taj in Agra. While a grand for the two of us to see a building seems extravagant, I figured that people spend that to go to Disneyworld and hell – this is the Taj :- )

Driving through the back roads near Agra had us pass numerous Indian weddings. Moslems marry during the day, saving on the expenses of the typical Hindu nighttime wedding. The Hindu affairs we saw included uniformed men holding brightly lit battery powered candelabras, musicians, white horses and fireworks. These lined the road and poured out of the entrances of dedicated wedding halls and hotels.

Agra was the capital of India during the time the Moguls ruled and the Taj Mahal was a tomb commissioned by India’s ruler to act as a tomb for his favorite wife (his others are buried in lesser, but still spectacular, tombs on the grounds).

We went to the Taj to see the sunrise and took a tonga from the gate. The grounds were nearly empty.

It is difficult to put into words the beauty of the Taj Mahal. Where the mosque in Abu Dhabi is much larger and gaudier, the Taj is a delicate jewel. The proportions, details and design are breathtaking and it is no wonder that this building is considered without peer. I took a couple of hundred photos of the building and seemed to find new details and perspectives wherever I looked. I have seen just about every iconic sight in the world at one point or another and this one is among the finest. It is difficult to reach, but no more so than the Pyramids, Angkor Wat, Matchu Pichu, the Great Wall of China, Petra, Corcovado and the rest and the effort is rewarded by a unique experience.

While the timing didn’t work out for us, the Taj is opened in the moonlight at the full moon and a couple of days on either side and I would recommend seeing it this way as well if possible.

Afterwards, (about when the tour busses started to arrive) we returned to the hotel for a huge buffet breakfast with dozens of Indian and Western choices. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and went to a smaller tomb, the Itmad-Ud-Daulah (sometimes called the “Baby Taj”) and Agra’s Red Fort, a huge edifice built out of red sandstone by the Mughals. It brings visions of lines of turbaned soldiers dressed in the uniform of the maharajah in the movies.

The driver took us to a shop which sold inlaid marble in the style used at the Taj. We then got into an argument with the tour manager when we said we didn’t want to go to a carpet factory and a jewelry factory. In fact, since we only finished breakfast a couple of hours before, we didn’t want to go to his chosen restaurant. We then wanted to make sure we were returning to Delhi by the toll road we had come by (2 ½ hours vs. 4 ½ hours by the older route). He strenuously objected to this with sort of a side to side movement of the head (think “Bollywood” movie dance movement) trying to be positive, never saying “no” explicitly, but never agreeing to my demands. When I finally decided it was the tolls that bothered him, I said that we would pay the tolls (total of about 350 rupees or $7 for the five of us to save two hours of back road driving).

The following four paragraphs are full of touristic history and metrics about these sights for those who care:

Taj Mahal is regarded as a building whose architectural beauty is without peer. Built entirely of white marble, the Taj seems to glow in the light of the full moon. On a foggy morning, the Taj seems to be suspended when viewed from across the Yamuna River. Taj Mahal was built by a Muslim, Emperor Shah Jahan (died 1666 C.E.), the Mughal ruler of India. It is a "eulogy in marble" as an expression of a "dream." Taj Mahal (meaning Crown Palace) is a Mausoleum that houses the grave of queen Mumtaz Mahal in its the lower chamber. The grave of Shah Jahan was added to it later. The queen’s original name was Arjumand Banu, but in the tradition of the Mughals, important ladies of the royal family were given another name at their marriage or at some other significant event in their lives, and that new name was commonly used by the public. Likewise, Shah Jahan's real name was Shahab-ud-din, and he was known as Prince Khurram before ascending to the throne in 1628. Taj Mahal was constructed over a period of twenty-two years, employing twenty thousand workers. It was completed in 1648 C.E. at a cost of 32 Million Rupees. The construction documents show that its master architect was Ustad ‘Isa, the renowned Islamic architect of his time. The documents contain names of those employed and the inventory of construction materials and their origin. Expert craftsmen from Delhi, Qannauj, Lahore, and Multan were employed. In addition, many renowned Muslim craftsmen from Baghdad, Shiraz and Bukhara worked on many specialized tasks. The Taj stands on a raised, square platform (186 x 186 feet) with its four corners truncated, forming an unequal octagon. The architectural design uses the interlocking arabesque concept, in which each element stands on its own and perfectly integrates with the main structure. It uses the principles of self-replicating geometry and symmetry of architectural elements. Its central dome is fifty-eight feet in diameter and rises to a height of 213 feet. It is flanked by four subsidiary domed chambers. The four graceful, slender minarets are 162.5 feet each. The entire mausoleum (inside as well as outside) is decorated with inlaid design of flowers and calligraphy using precious gems such as agate and jasper. The main archways, chiseled with passages from the Holy Qur’an and the bold scroll work of flowery pattern, give a captivating charm to its beauty. The central domed chamber and four adjoining chambers include many walls and panels of Islamic decoration. The mausoleum is a part of a vast complex comprising of a main gateway, an elaborate garden, a mosque (to the left), a guest house (to the right), and several other palatial buildings. The Taj is at the farthest end of this complex, with the river Jamuna behind it. The large garden contains four reflecting pools dividing it at the center. Each of these four sections is further subdivided into four sections and then each into yet another four sections. Like the Taj, the garden elements serve like Arabesque, standing on their own and also constituting the whole.

Agra Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Agra, India. The fort is also known as Lal Qila, Fort Rouge and Red Fort of Agra. It is about 2.5 km northwest of its much more famous sister monument, the Taj Mahal. The fort can be more accurately described as a walled palatial city. It is the most important fort in India. The great Mughals Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb lived here, and the country was governed from here. It contained the largest state treasury and mint. It was visited by foreign ambassadors, travelers and the highest dignitaries who participated in the making of history in India.

This was originally a brick fort and the Chauhan Rajputs held it. It was mentioned for the first time in 1080 AD when a Ghaznavide force captured it. Sikandar Lodi (1487-1517) was the first Sultan of Delhi who shifted to Agra and lived in the fort. He governed the country from here and Agra assumed the importance of the 2nd capital. He died in the fort in 1517 and his son, Ibrahim Lodi, held it for nine years until he was defeated and killed at Panipat in 1526. Several palaces, wells and a mosque were built by him in the fort during his period.

After Panipat, Mughals captured the fort and a vast treasure was seized - including a diamond that was later named as the Koh-i-Nor diamond. Babur stayed in the fort in the palace of Ibrahim. He built a baoli (step well). Humayun was crowned here in 1530. Humayun was defeated in Bilgram in 1530. Sher Shah held the fort for five years. The Mughals defeated the Afghans finally at Panipat in 1556. Realizing the importance of its central situation, Akbar decided to make it his capital and arrived in Agra in 1558. His historian, Abdul Fazal, recorded that this was a brick fort known as 'Badalgarh' . It was in a ruined condition and Akbar had it rebuilt with red sandstone. Architects laid the foundation and it was built with bricks in the inner core with sandstone on external surfaces. Some 1,444,000 builders worked on it for eight years, completing it in 1573. It was only during the reign of Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, that the site finally took on its current state. The legend is that Shah Jahan built the beautiful Taj Mahal for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Unlike his grandfather, Shah Jahan tended to have buildings made from white marble, often inlaid with gold or semi-precious gems. He destroyed some of the earlier buildings inside the fort in order to make his own. At the end of his life, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, in the fort, a punishment which might not seem so harsh, considering the luxury of the fort. It is rumored that Shah Jahan died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with an excellent view of the Taj Mahal. This was also a site of one of the battles during the Indian rebellion of 1857, which caused the end of the British East India Company's rule in India, and led to a century of direct rule of India by Britain.

Empress Nur Jehan built Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb, sometimes called the Baby Taj, for her father, Ghias-ud-Din Beg, the Chief Minister of Emperor Jahangir. Located on the left bank of the Yamuna River, the mausoleum is set in a large cruciform garden crisscrossed by water courses and walkways. The mausoleum itself is set on a base about 50 meters square and about 1 meter high. The mausoleum is about 23 meters square. On each corner are hexagonal towers, about 13 meters tall. Small in comparison to many other Mughal-era tombs, it is sometimes described as a jewel box. Its garden layout and use of white marble, pietra dura, inlay designs and latticework presage many elements of the Taj Mahal. The walls are white marble from Rajasthan encrusted with semi-precious stone decorations - cornelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, onyx, and topaz in images of cypress trees and wine bottles, or more elaborate decorations like cut fruit or vases containing bouquets. Light to the interior passes through delicate jali screens of intricately carved white marble. Many of Nur Jahan's relatives are interred in the mausoleum. The only asymmetrical element of the entire complex is that the cenotaphs of her father and mother have been set side-by-side, a formation replicated in the Taj Mahal.

7th Feb| Agra to Delhi (211 Kms)

We then drove the 2 ½ hours to New Delhi for a night at the Le Meridien Hotel to be prepared for our early morning flight back to meet the ship at Cochin. New Delhi is the capital of India and a worthy sightseeing destination in its own right. Unfortunately, other than a brief run past the presidential palace and a number of other impressive buildings dating from the British Raj, our sightseeing were pretty much limited to a large emporium which sold Indian goods and souveniers. While they protested that the prices were fixed, when pressed, barganing became the name of the game. Our haul was a small painted elephant and a refrigerator magnet (my wife wanted to get one of the long shirt type things with the matching scarf and tight pants that are worn in the north of the country, but none she liked were available in her size. She forbade me to consider rugs :- ). The British used to force Indian leaders and maharajas to spend time in Delhi in the fancy buildings (palaces) so they could keep an eye on them.

(28 07 Feb 2013 Mangalore, India VX )

8th Feb| Delhi – Cochin (By air)
We are too early for breakfast (which was included in the room price), so I’ve arranged for the hotel to fill boxes (about the size for a 15 inch cake) with various foods from their buffet to take on the flight with us. Our driver drove us to Delhi airport to board our flight for Cochin. This is on Indigo Airlines at the ghastly hour of 6:20AM (in case of a problem, I wanted to make certain we had time to shift plans and still make the ship), so we are up before the chickens (at 4:20AM). Our driver seems to have the flu (I tried not to get infected by him, but I wonder if he’s picked up the “ship plague” - none of us are coughing at this point, but we’ve all had this thing not long ago).

The very heavy traffic coming in the other direction, into Delhi, consisted almost entirely of trucks. Apparently, these are not allowed to enter the city after 7AM in order to reduce congestion. Our direction will shortly be filled with buses and vehicles heading to the cities of office buildings housing call centers dedicated to customer support of major US companies.

Where I was able to get an exit row seat on the way to Delhi, on the outgoing flight I was cramped into a coach seat so tight that my knees were jammed against the next seat. Otherwise, this was a decent flight. We had so much food in the boxes prepared by the hotel that we were able to give piles of it to some of the other passengers from the ship who were taking the flight (and who weren’t so lucky in their choice of hotel – none of the other groups got any food. In fact, we had five bottles of complimentary water in our room and they had none. And of course our rooms had enough amenities in the toilet to outfit a small shop).

We arrived at Cochin airport, and our driver picked us up.

29 08 Feb 2013 Cochin, India VX

One of the finest natural harbors on the Arabian coast of India, Kochi (also known as Cochin) was once known as the center of the Indian spice trade. Subsequently, the town has a distinct European feel, due to the fact that it was once inhabited by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. Their influence on the town's forts, palaces, museums, and old churches is still evident today. It is also the center of one of India’s Jewish communities who were traditionally involved in being spice merchants (and who suffered a harrowing time when the city was controlled by the Portuguese as the Inquisition was active). While most of this community moved to Israel a couple of decades ago, there are still a number of Jewish families living here. The best streets to shop in Kochi are Market Road, Marine Drive, and Princess Street. The market scene is bustling and while there, you'll find a wide assortment of cool trinkets, handcrafts, and antiques. If you like your food spicy, zesty, and peppery, prepare to be amazed, stunned, and fulfilled! The beaches around here are also spectacular.

We had decided to explore the Kerala backwaters by taking a motor boat ride through the waterways lined with dense tropical vegetation, and observe rural Kerala lifestyles that you would never see from the road. This would have passed through one of the India's most beautiful and serene landscapes to the district of Alappuzha.

While our plane landed on time (at 9:30AM) and we had a driver who picked us up (good news), he spoke no English (bad news). We had received an email from the ship (relayed through one of the other groups – I am still being obstinate, based on principle, about using the ship’s lousy internet connection) that we would have to visit Indian Immigration at the harbor before being allowed to re-board the ship.

So we decided to head right to the ship and drop our bags off (and judge how much time we had available).

Our driver took us on a typically exciting drive for the 30km to the port. One entertaining event was when we were heading in the proper lane (minding our own business), when a truck came barreling down towards us (forced into our lane by a larger truck on its side of the road). As we swung further towards the shoulder, a motorcycle passed the truck on our side and only avoided becoming a smear and a bunch of bent tin by continuing on into the jumble of people, shops and vehicles on the far side of the road.

Our driver became confused and spent much of the time on the phone while driving getting instructions. Finally, after a few U-turns, we pulled up to Indian Immigration.

The Indian Immigration officer wouldn’t talk to us until I sat in a chair. Then we started a confusing rigmarole of showing passports and visas and photocopies of both culminating in our receiving a card to be filled out. We then had an argument with our driver to get him to leave the comfort of the rest of the vehicles and head towards our ship (more of the head-wiggle movement involved). When we reached the port, a soldier told him that we were at the wrong gate. We then went to the right gate and found out that the entry cards we had been given required an official stamp. So we went back to the Indian Immigration office and entered a chaotic environment where our passports and their photocopies were intermixed with each other. My wife started to explode at that point and I had a hard time trying to keep her from yelling at the Indian bureaucrats (generally, no matter how dumb or incompetent government officials are, it is not a good idea to yell at them if you have a deadline). Eventually, the mess was sorted out and we got our little papers stamped and went back to the front gate to the port. We then found out that our vehicle did not have the proper permit to enter. After looking at each other, we picked up our shoulder bags and simply walked to the ship. We got on board at about 1:30PM, having spent a good part of the day simply getting there from the airport. We’ll postpone the boat ride until another trip.

30 09 Feb 2013 At Sea

We are about 70 miles south of Sri Lanka and there are pods of large whales passing every few minutes on the starboard side of the ship spouting like geysers. Pirate restrictions have been lifted and Promenade Deck fire hose nozzles are being changed from those that shoot a stream to those used in fighting fires. Black & White formal ball tonight.

31 10 Feb 2013 At Sea

There are large fish (about a meter long) jumping vertically out of the water about 20 meters from the ship which tells me there are even larger fish swimming below. We also see swarms of small flying fish flapping like large butterflies across the top of the waves as they run away from our ship.

Posted from Port Blair, Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal, India

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