Saturday, March 30, 2013


I went around the Cape Peninsula by car last year, and it was so lovely I decided it was worth doing again.  We were supposed to leave at 7 a.m., but that was a mixup with the tour company and the van wasn't scheduled to show up until 9.  We got them to come at 8.  There were three SAS professors, one student, me, three Chinese people who didn't speak any English, and a German scientist in Capetown for a conference on TB vaccine.  I didn't know there was such a thing, but he says it has been around since 1921 and only works on children.  There has been no new progress in 40 years, and adults still have to take four pills a day for six months.  They are looking to improve that, and Oxford has a clinical trial for a vaccine going on here in Capetown.

We drove through Capetown to Cliff's Bay and saw a lot of people out on the park along the coast walking their dogs, exercising, etc.  It looks very pleasant.  Formerly this area was reserved for whites.  Blacks caught there who were not servants would be transported to the inland black tribal area, even if they had been born in Capetown and lived there all their lives.  Even now you see very few blacks.  Two bedroom condos here cost about $300,000, so most couldn't afford to live around here.

We passed a huge township that looked full of poverty and despair.  Our guide said most of the residents have been moved to better housing, but foreign immigrants from Zimbabwe and Mozambique have moved in, creating a sinkhole of desperation since few have jobs or any way of making money.  Hence the nearby towns, mostly white, have very high crime rates.  A real downside to otherwise really nice neighborhoods by the beach.

Seal Island
We went to nearby Hout Bay, which looks like my idea of a New England fishing town on what must be one of the most beautiful bays in the world. We got on a small boat to go on a 45 minute cruise to Seal Island, located on one end of the bay.  The swells were so high i was seriously thinking of putting a life jacket on.  We feel so safe in our big ship, but a 30 foot boat is another matter!  We got right up to the rocky outcroppings to observe about 500 seals sleeping on the rocks or cavorting in the ocean.  They are so darn cute!

Boulders Park
 We drove across the peninsula to have lunch at a seaside, open air restaurant in Simons Town.  I expected to order the fish and chips, since that is a natural selection at a seaside restaurant.  I couldn't pass up the chance to have an ostrich burger though.  It was the same price as the beef and chicken burgers.  We passed an ostrich farm and stopped to greet the birds.  I probably ate one of their relatives.  After lunch, we went to nearby Boulders, a park with a walkway through a rock studded coastal area.  There are many penguins around.  They are black and white, but much smaller than the Antarctica penguins we are used to seeing pictures of.  Penguins and people were swimming in an area sheltered by large rocks.  

 Critters seen today

Next stop was Cape Peninsula State Park.  We passed the crosses commemorating explorers Bartolomeo Dias and Vasco da Gama before stopping near the lighthouse.  I had hiked partially up the trail to the lighthouse last year and it was not an appealing project after lunch.  Everyone else seemed to be feeling the same way, and most of us elected to hike DOWN to Cape Point, where the driver said he would pick us up.  He said it would take 45 minutes but I think we took much longer.  I thought it would be a regular trail, the way it started out, but we ended up scrambling up and down over bare rock and wooden slats.  There were no handrails and the wind gusts were strong enough to push you over the cliffs.  I wish I had had a walking stick because my balance was not the best and the wind did not help.   We finally made it down to the beach and the Cape of Good Hope sign, which designates furthest southwest point in Africa.  The southernmost point is actually further east.  For a long time this was considered the furthest south though, since it is where the ships turned from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans.

We had planned to stop at a winery on the way home, but, alas, most everything was closed due to a holiday.  Mandela is back in the hospital, and I think the whole country would shut down for  a day of mourning if he died.  The blacks love him because of his sacrifices for the struggle against apartheid, and the whites revere him because when he took power he could have done anything, but elected to include everyone in the new South Africa.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Amy Biehl was a Fulbright scholar from Orange County, California, who came to South Africa in the early 1990's to make a difference.  It was the last gasp of Apartheid, and there were frequent killings of blacks and whites.  In August, 1993, Amy was driving some black girlfriends home in a township and was caught up in a mob, forced out of her car, and stabbed to death.  Her parents have since created a foundation in her honor that helps African children living in the townships.

SAS has a tour with her name.  We started by taking a bus to town and going to the foundation headquarters.  We saw a couple of short movies about her life and work.  The four black men who were convicted of killing her served five years in prison then were released in the Truth and Reconciliation trials headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  The men were forgiven by Amy's parents and two of them now work for the foundation.  We talked with one at headquarters and the other at an elementary school garden, where he is supervisor of the foundation garden projects in 18 township schools.  They didn't ask for money straight out but wanted us to buy things in their gift shop.  I bought a couple of remembrance bracelets but later lost them as they either fell or were "liberated" from my pocket.  I am not carrying a purse today since we are going to the townships.

We drove around the Langa township, the oldest in Capetown.  It looks very well kept up, without the corrugated tin shacks I remember from Khayelitsa.  We then went to Gugulethu township, where Amy Biehl was killed, and visited an elementary school.  They showed us the garden and we talked with the "killer," who explained that he was a high school student at the time of the murder and "we all knew we were going to die by a bullet."   He said they all joined the struggle and there was no choice.  Feelings were high before the coming first national election in 1994.  Blacks were bombing shopping malls and whites were striking back and killing anyone black.  Now we have the "born free" generation, or adults coming of age born after the end of apartheid.

Amy's father, Peter Biehl (now deceased), supported the release of the killers, stating, "The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue...we are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms."

The foundation now supports after school programs, HIV/AIDS education, sports, creative arts, environmental education, music, and computer science.  They are teaching kids to swim who have never been to the ocean or a pool before.  The Youth Reading Role Model program has seventh graders read to first graders, which benefits both.

We had lunch at Mzoli's Meat, a township landmark popular with tourists.  It is outdoors but has a roof and plastic see through walls.  There are picnic tables with plastic red checked tablecloths.  We were given a meat platter with chicken wings,  lamb, and sausage.  Also an onion/tomato salad, beans, and cornmeal mush.  The barbecue sauce was really good.  There were other white tourists there, which seemed strange, since outside of there I only saw blacks.

After lunch we went to Bongolethu Primary School to see one of the after school programs.   They didn't know we were coming, but did a creditable program for us.  First girls danced with tin cans, using them as percussion instruments.  Then they had a beautiful choir.  Then boys performed with trombones and clarinets.  You could tell the instruments were not the greatest but they had a lot of heart.  Lastly younger girls danced with sticks.  Each group seemed to have its own teacher.   We also talked to the instructor and kids in the youth soccer program outside.  They have a weed choked field and no demarcation lines or goalposts, but they are enthusiastic.

On the way back to the ship, we stopped at the gas station where Amy Biehl was murdered.  A memorial cross was set up in 2010.

You can actually ship donations to South Africa for free if you have any old clothes, school supplies, instruments, or whatever.  In the U.S. call 949 500 2110.  The website is

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Arriving in Capetown by sea is much more breathtaking than coming by air.  We rounded Cape Horn then came up the coast and around the peninsula and all of a sudden we were staring at Table Mountain.  It was just after dawn, and the sky was full of light and shadow.

Coming into Capetown
It was daylight by the time we actually docked

We docked between downtown and Victoria and Albert mall, so it's a short walk to both.  We had a talk with embassy staff before we left the ship, and were warned that Capetown has one of the highest crime rates in the world.  The thieves here don't care if they are violent, so best to just hand everything over.  We were told to never walk alone, or girls in pairs.  One of the places they told us to avoid was Muisenberg, my old stomping grounds when I was a volunteer here last year.

My friend Sel from Chicago and I ignored their advice and walked to the mall in search of internet.  The food court had wifi, but we did not want to be at the open tables with our laptops, and noticed that nobody else was either.  We found free internet at McDonald's and the coffee shops, but only 50 minutes a day.  Finally we found a restaurant, Primi Wharf, with a wifi zone.  We each had a beer for $2.50 and stayed a couple of hours.

The ship paid $4500 so we could get a shuttle home from the mall after 4 p.m. daily, since they don't want us walking around the docks at night.  We waited about 15 minutes for a shuttle and finally got on an SAS tour bus that was dropping everyone off at the mall after the tour.  They offered to take us back to the ship and we gladly accepted.  I would hate to get mugged and lose my laptop.

The next day I went with Becky, the marketing professor from Florida, to the wine country.  We had our own car and guide, Aladdin, who picked us up at the ship and took us  pretty much wherever we wanted to go.  We left it mostly up to him.  We started at  Rust en Vrede winery in Stellenbosch, founded in 1694.  We sat out on a shaded patio overlooking a garden and sampled about five wines.  We were not rushed at all and just took our time and got to know each other a little better.  I bought a bottle of Cabernet, which may or may not make it back to the USA.

Waterford Winery wine and chocolate

Next stop was Waterford winery, which reminded me of a Spanish hacienda with rows of rooms built around a central patio.  They gave us three wines, all paired with gourmet chocolate.

Ostrich, anyone?

Lunch was at Reuben's in Franshoek, an old French Huguenot town.  He is supposedly the most famous black chef in Africa and has won "Top Chef" award.  I had Ostrich filet, which was very tender and good.  After lunch we went to a chocolate factory and had a demonstration and samples, after which I felt very overloaded with sugar.  We just took sips at the next winery, Bosenschal.  We got to pick five wines off a list and had a cheeseboard with it.  I did buy a wine glass in the gift shop.

Bosenschal winery is old Dutch design

Rust en Vrede winery in Stellenbosch

A long but beautiful day in Wineland!

Thursday, March 21, 2013


We arrived at sunny Mauritius, a former Dutch and French colony taken over by the British during the Napoleonic wars.  It seems in the middle of nowhere, and was an important air station and submarine base during WWII.  There is still a lot of sugar cane grown here, but most food must be imported so prices are high.  The major religions are Hindu, Catholicism and Muslim.  They are very multi-ethnic and proud of it.

They get about a million tourists a year, mostly from Europe, but are aiming for 4 million and trying to crack the Asian market.  The American ambassador came to talk with us and said our ship will make up about 1/10 of the Americans for the year.  I don't know if she realizes that 1/3 of the 650 students are not American.

Being so small and isolated, the air quality is about the best in the world.  There are gorgeous beaches and interesting mountains, with lots of tropical green.

Coming into Mauritius
I took a water taxi from the ship into town, about five minutes, for $2.   I didn't have an agenda, just walked around town looking in shops, etc.  There is a postal museum because the stamps are famous for their beauty, and for being the first issued in a British colony.

The other claim to fame here is that they manufacture a lot of designer clothing, like J Crew, so you can get the rejects cheap.

Port Louis

After Mauritius we had the Sea Olympics, all day of fun and games.  I participated in the relay race, which consisted of events all over the ship.  I slapped peanut butter on bread, which was then fed to our team's player.  Our ship is divided into seas based on residence, like Bering Sea, Red Sea, etc.  I am with Lifelong Learners, Faculty and Staff, and we called ourselves Luna Sea.  We were first place in the morning, but gave it up after losing the Stand up Comic and Karaoke events.  We did win at ping pong, helped by my Chinese professor, who is a national ping pong champion.  Second place in pull ups, pretty good for the old folks.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


We have crossed the equator.  The sea was like glass yesterday, and I saw lots of flying fish.

The crew talent show was lots of fun.  The "talent" was questionable, but everyone was very enthusiastic, so a good time was had by all.  They do it as a fundraiser for their recreation fund.

The hotel manager gave us a talk on food services on the ship.  We just had a Soul Food night, and he was surprised that 800 people consumed 600 pounds of fried chicken.  The ship sells as many candy bars as boxes of cereal consumed.

When a ship crosses the equator, there is a ceremony to initiate the "shellbacks," or first timers.  I have crossed the equator many times, but never by sea, so I am a shellback.  I watched part of the ceremony, but declined getting the green paint poured over my head, dunked in the pool, then having my head shaved.  Many of the guys participated.  The girls were happy to do the first two, but balked at the head shaving.  Luckily none of it was mandatory.

The ship's captain painted himself green and was our King Neptune.  Various members of the staff filled other roles.  The crew put on white Viking type costumes and banged pots as they marched along the hallways waking everyone up at 7 a.m.  It was a fun morning.

Later that day the captain and some of his officers participated in a "Q&A" session.  We found that the ship needs 3.5 million dollars worth of fuel for the 110 day voyage.  The food budget is 2.5 million dollars.  Some of the kids were concerned about piracy.   The Somali pirates have been going further afield to avoid navy patrols off the Horn of Africa.  We were told we passed the area of concern about an hour and a half previously.  Our ship is not very vulnerable because it is one of the three fastest ships afloat, so pirates would be unable to catch us.  We did have extra people on night watch when we were in the vulnerable area.

Two more days to Mauritius.

Monday, March 11, 2013


After breakfast we drove two hours to the Taj Mahal in Agra.  I have seen it twice before, but that didn't stop my heart rate increasing and my breath catching as I approached through the gate.  It is truly stupendous.  Last time I was here there were people all over but they seem to be limiting attendance now so you can actually enjoy the surrounding gardens and get a sense of peace, if not privacy.  This is actually a tomb built by Emperor Shahjehan between 1631 and 1653 for his wife, who died in childbirth.  It is built of marble and originally was studded with precious stones, but you don't see those now.

The Taj Mahal

Red Fort

Across the way is the Red Fort, also built by Emperor Shahjehan, between 1638 and 1648.  Sadly, he was later imprisoned there by his son until his death, and he could see the Taj Mahal from his room.

We visited a marble factory in Agra.  The workers are supposedly descendants of the original builders of the Taj Mahal.

Inlaid marble for sal

After a four hour drive, we arrived at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi.  We could have anything we wanted from the dinner menu, so I opted for filet mignon and my friend got rack of lamb.  This is a five star hotel, but, again, we got there late and leave at 5 a.m. for the airport, so can't appreciate it much.

We flew directly to Kochin and left India that evening, on our way to Mauritius.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


In the wildlife refuge

We got up early in the morning before breakfast to go to Keladeo National Park in Bharatpur,  a huge bird sanctuary.  We all got on rickshaws and rode through the park to see egrets, ducks, storks, kingfishers, cranes, spoonbills and falcons, as well as deer and wild boars.

After breakfast, some of the group went on a village and farm tour, but I opted to stay at the hotel and get an Ayurvedic massage, which was heavenly.

Wildlife refuge
My room in the palace

In the afternoon we went to Fatepur Sikri, an Islamic fort built by Emperor Akbar.  There is an outdoor area made like a Parcheesi board, where slave girls in colorful outfits were used as game pieces while the emperor and guests would look on from a raised viewing platform.

Fatepur Sikri

We returned to our hotel, where they had a fabulous puppet show for us before dinner.

Friday, March 8, 2013


I had an up close and personal relationship with India over 40 years ago, when I backpacked around it for two months (during a war, no less!), staying mostly in hostels and living on a dollar a day.  I was interested to see the changes, yet fearful of the in your face impact I remember.  For this reason I chose a "Maharajah" tour, staying in hotels which are former maharajah's palaces.

Indian motorcycle taxis
We left at 6 a.m. and saw dawn breaking as we drove an hour to the airport.   After a two hour flight to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), we had lunch at a Marriott Courtyard Hotel.   We could tell it was on the outskirts of town because there were a lot of motorcycle taxis around and they are not allowed in city center.  We had a beautiful Indian buffet lunch before going back to the airport for the 1 12 hour flight to Jaipur.  Our flight was delayed an hour but we finally got there and met our guide.  He took us on a bus through Jaipur, stopping at a wood stamp store and a carpet store for demonstrations.  There were about ten guys rolling out carpets for us to look at and they gave us tea and drinks.  Nobody bought a carpet, which were priced at $250 to $2000.  We later chided our guy for taking us to stores that would probably not appeal to college students, who generally have little money and no home of their own.  He insisted he was not getting a kickback.  I didn't really believe him, but I think he got the message.

Rolling out the carpet 

We got to our hotel, Raj Villas, about 7 p.m.  I don't know if it was originally a palace since it seemed so new and well kept, but it was a fairy tale version of one.  There was a main building with reception, dining, and shops.  The guest rooms were scattered around the extensive grounds.  There was a beautiful swimming pool and lots of sculpture and fountains.  My room had a sunken tub looking out on a private garden.  Dinner was an Indian menu, with a sitar player accompanying the meal.  They had a lot of programs in the daytime, like yoga, chanting, spa treatments, etc., but we left at 7 a.m.

My bathroom

The next day we rode elephants up to the Amber Fort and enjoyed it's stunning views.  We rode elephants up to the top.  We then went back to Jaipur to see the City Palace and Royal Observatory.

Amber Fort

Elephant traffic jam

Snake charmer

It was a 4 hour drive to Laxmi Niwas Hotel, which really is an old Maharajah's Palace.  The rooms are large but more lacking in "luxury items" like air conditioning.  I had a hot shower and ceiling fans, though.  Everything is whitewashed.  We had a buffet dinner in the old throne room.  Afterwards they treated us to an Indian dance show.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


We have finally arrived in India, probably the most diverse, enchanting, terrifying, dirty, beautiful, colorful country on earth.  Adjectives don't do it justice, because they can't really describe it.  It is really a land of contrasts.  It has amazing architecture, and amazingly awful slums.  Beautiful sunsets, enhanced by air so dirty it hurts to breathe.  Wonderfully open and friendly people, and some of the worst crooks you could imagine.

I started by seeing the city of Kochi (formerly Cochin) in the state of Kerala, an area I had not been in before.  This is where Vasco de Gama landed when he made the first sea voyage from Europe in 1498, thus finding the elusive sea route to the Indies previously sought by Christopher Columbus and others.  The Portuguese were able to establish a colony here but were subsequently kicked out by the Dutch and the British.

Weaving in the Spice Market
My first stop was Matancherry Palace, built by the Portuguese for the Maharajah in 1555.  Jews had established a trading post north of there in Goa 2000 years ago but were being slaughtered by the Portuguese, who brought the Inquisition with them.  The Maharajah protected them by giving them permission to build a synagogue next door to the palace, which still stands and is the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth.  Most of the Jews emigrated to Israel in 1949.  There are only eight left, known as "white Jews," and they own the synagogue, which still functions.  There are about 70 "black Jews," or mixed race descendants, who also attend services there.

Nearby is the Police Museum, which is mostly a display of historical weapons and uniforms used by the local police force.

I went to the nearby spice market and purchased some saffron.  I haven't had my own kitchen in two years and am looking forward to some experimenting.

Next I went to St Francis Church, the oldest European church in India.  My guide said Vasco de Gama died in Goa and his son brought the remains to the church to be buried..  There is a tomb with his name on it. According to Wikipedia, Vasco de Gama did die in India, but his son came and took his remains back to Portugual, where he was buried in style.  An interesting thing about the church is the punkah fans above the rows of seats, with holes in the walls for servants to operate the levers from outside.  The church was changed from Catholic to Anglican in 1800 after the British took control of the area.  In 1997 Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony there to honor 50 years of Indian independence.

Vasco de Gama's grave

St Francis Church with punkahs

The other interesting things I saw were the fishing nets at Fort Cochin.  Apparently Kublai Khan (think Marco Polo) sent fishermen there in the 13th century and the locals still use their system of large nets on a wooden platform.  They call them Chinese fishing nets but I only saw Indians around.

Friday, March 1, 2013


Our last day in Yangon we took a train from the main station to a village in the suburbs.  The trains are very old and beat up looking, with holes in the floors.  I thought they were a relic from the British rule in the 1940's or earlier, but our guide said they got them a couple of years ago from the Chinese.  He is very down on the Chinese, saying they only give them junk, like third hand buses and cars.  In contrast, my Chinese professor says China can't understand why Burma is so anxious to be friends with America when China has been one of their only friends for the past twenty years and the Americans were boycotting them.

Yangon train station
The trains had wooden bench seats and open windows with no glass.  They had about ten sets of railway tracks but only a couple in use, and those were full of weeds.  Our group started out as the only people in the car, but Burmese villagers got in at subsequent stops.  Nobody spoke English but they seemed very happy that we were visiting their country.  The language of smiles and gestures goes a long way.

Monks beg for food daily

My rickshaw driver

 tea break

When we reached our destination, we got on rickshaws and took about a 15 minute ride around the few blocks of the town area.  We passed a long line of  monks out for their daily food begging routine.  Villagers smiled and waved all along the way.

They have not seen a lot of tourists here yet, but I predict that in ten years the country will be a totally different experience.  Along with the planned tourist infrastructure will come the hawkers and beggars you see in other Asian countries.  You would not think that people who have lived under an oppressive totalitarian regime could be termed innocent, but that is what I see in their smiles.  I hate to see that change as they see tourists more as people they can take advantage of than as friendly visitors.

We met the bus in town and got back to the ship in time to sail on to our next destination, India.

Burma SAS stats:  over 50 cases of GI problems, one monkey bite, 15 jellyfish stings, one fall through the floor (see my monastery visit).