Crystal Cruising

I know we are returning tomorrow, and I have not written at all….. It has been amazing, wonderful and I’m liking it way, way to much. So here’s what I noted so far. Have not gotten to my reflections yet, but at least you will have an idea of what we are doing.

Hi all,
So Adam and I have settled into cruise life. We arrived in Reykjavik Wednesday morning and boarded a Crystal bus to a hotel for breakfast. We met Grace, my Pilates counterpart, who graciously filled me in on my role in the ship. She has a studio in Studio City and sails with Crystal a few times a year.

At breakfast we sat with Ed Larson, and his daughter Sarah. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Ed will be lecturing on the Arctic later in the week. He is a professor at Pepperdine and lives in Malibu. We had some time, so the 4 of us took a walk through the botanical Gardens. I took pictures and posted them on Facebook, but they probably won’t go through until we get back, or until I turn on my phone. On board the ship, I checked out the fitness center, the space for yoga, then got ready for the evening on shore.

In the AM, I volunteered to plant trees for the Reykjavik Forestry Association. Iceland needs to plant trees to keep the earth from eroding. Most of the plant life is from somewhere else. We planted Lodgepole Pines as well as other species. (Same ones as in Sequoia).

Then we went to Akureyri, the 2nd largest town in Iceland and 60 miles from the Arctic Circle. Beautiful town, built up the the hills from the port. Most of the guests sign up for one of many tours. The weather was gorgeous, bright and sunny. I wwent walking up the residential streets, taking pics of wild flowers.

Days at sea are seriously busy. There are 2 or 3 lectures every day. We have a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, an astronaut/astronomer, an economist, an explorer/documentarian who is producing documentaries about extraordinary middle aged women. Speaking of women, there is not a single female lecturer. Every lecture runs on our televisions for 24 hours before it is replaced with a new one. There are all kinds of classes, gym classes, computer, bridge, and golf classes. One day Adam missed yoga because he was at the needlepoint class!
I just watched a short video created by a guest. Very impressive, another thing to take advantage of next time.
I usually take a ballroom dance class in the afternoon. There are about 6 “ambassadors” on board to dance with the single ladies. If there are too many women in class, I switch and join the guy’s team. It’s probably good for my brain. We go dancing almost every night. Same deal in the evening – the ambassadors dance with the guests first. If the have no female guests, they’ll grab me. My yoga friend, Michael, is a great dance partner and between Michael and the ambassadors, I get to dance a good amount. One of them taught me to tango the other evening.

During our time in Russia, we have had occasional submarine escorts. I think we are sailing between two military bases. Our first stop was to Murmansk, we are above the Arctic Circle, next to Finland. The highlight was our tour guide. She was bold, spoke more freely than the other guides and expressed her resentment with the continuing effects of the Soviet regime. I asked her if there was a Jewish community in Murmansk, and she said there was no synagogue, but she had just attended a Bar Mitzvah.

We drove through the town, stopped at a few monuments (very massive, very Soviet). The housing is dismal, concrete slab modular apartment buildings, no insulation. The buildings are only heated in the winter, despite the fact that is is always cold, just less cold in July and August. It’s about the dreariest place on the planet. We ended up at the Natural History Museum. There were two women on our bus who are of Sami descent (Laplanders). The current special exhibit was on the Sami culture, but was closed the day we were there. The staff kindly let the two woman in for a few minutes. Turns out the deepest drilling into the earth’s core was done in Murmansk. It is twice as deep as any other attempt. The collections of locally mined gems and minerals fills an entire room.

On Solovetsky Island in Onega Bay, we toured the 15th century monastery which is now a fully operating Russian Orthodox Church, attended regularly by the 1000 or so people who live there. We watched the church procession, the women still dress like Russian peasants – long skirts, sweaters, babushka’s on their heads, often pants under their skirts. Massive walls, Russian-style tapered domes, today it’s one of the first UNESCO World Heratige sites in Russia. From the time of Lenin, until the 1960s, it served as a gulag prison – stone cells, no windows, about the worst circumstances imaginable.

The next day, we went on a nature walk on an island next to Solovstsky, and it was very different, almost magical. There are 3 labyrinths, each progressively larger than the one before. No one knows who built them, or why they were put there. The wild flowers everywhere here are spectacular. Maybe, because there are 3 minutes of summer, they all bloom at the same time.

I can sign up to be an escort on the excursions. Crew gets 1st pick, and I did not even know about it so I’ll probably get last choice, but hopefully something. I basically will hold up a sign, count heads and take note of complaints. It’s great way to spend time with guests and experience the excursions.

Today is our first day in Norway. We are docked in Honningsvaag, a small fishing village. Like many towns in Norway, Nazis burned it to the ground when Russian troops were approaching, so nothing is older than 1945. I escorted a group of 39 to a family-run theater in the center of town. A few guests had difficulty walking and gave up about a block from the theater. The owner jumped in his car and picked them up. After the show, he drove them back to the ship. The show consisted of 4 young women who sang and danced their way through the history of the town. Yes, it was hokey, but they were so sweet and we did learn about life there. I think everyone was happy. Adam and I took a hike in the afternoon. We headed up a hill behind a house and climbed to the top where we found a German bunker. This town is near the northernmost point in Norway, and from the bunker, you could see any incoming ships.

This morning, we are at sea and the world looks gray-blue, much like Alaska. I taught my morning class while we were looking out at the Norwegian Fiords. I have a loyal following in the morning, smaller than the 5p class, but dedicated.

Today I practiced yoga in th gym, then walked around the town of Narvik. We are within a 90 minute train ride of the Swedish border and the train ride there is supposed to be one of the most beautiful. We tried to get tickets but it was sold out. Back in town we found the WW ll Museum.
More to come-

Vietnam #18 – going home

Not sure I can label this Vietnam anymore, as we are in Seoul for 6 hours. We had the option of taking a bus tour of Inchon or Seoul, or finding the Korean Spa in the airport. The spa won. We had to go through customs and find the spa somewhere at street level. Then we spent 4 hours soaking, sleeping, cleaning up and sleeping again. Our plan had been to sleep on the flight from Saigon, but Rachelle could not, and I had a sick woman next to me who managed to kick me randomly between coughing bouts. Back through customs and onto the flight home. I watched “Into The Woods,” loved every minute of it, and slept the rest of the way.

I always come home with mixed desires – adventure or routine, the new or the familiar. One is neither easier nor more challenging than the other. I do know that the more I travel, the more I appreciate my need to connect to people who are different from me. I remember an afternoon in Madrid in 1978, sitting at a bull fight. (sounds very Hemmingway, don’t you think?) I did not want to be there, but before I left, I noticed a Middle-Eastern couple behind me. I turned around, found out they were Iraqi and we spent the next hour talking about the things that linked us. If I remember, they shared some of their food. I believe we all look for what connects us. It might seem that I spent a lot of time describing what we ate. And I did – but I believe that food is an expression of our culture, history, and upbringing. When we are in someone else’s home or country, sharing and showing appreciation for their food can be such a gracious and satisfying gesture. Learning to cook someone else’s cuisine means that we are deeply interested in their lives and traditions. Of course, there is also the obvious – it can be a most wonderful culinary experience.

There were moments in Vietnam when I felt unconnected, feeling more the burden of being the enemy. I wanted to tell people I protested the war. I was at UCLA, on Westwood Blvd, when the police came with teargas. But the truth is, I knew a Greek guy who worked at a restaurant on Westwood. He saw me and unlocked the door. I ducked in, and never got a whiff of the gas. There – I’ve put it writing. I was not willing to be gassed, or arrested, or hit. My point (aside from the UCLA story) is that travel allows me to grow and change in a way that I cannot in my comfortable surroundings at home.

My friend Trang suggested I read “The Sacred Willow, Four Generations of a Vietnamese Family.”  I took it on my trip and it profoundly affected my experience in Vietnam. I hope I left there with more compassion for everyone involved, Ho Chi Minh and US vets included. Thank you, Trang.

Anyway, I had a great time traveling with Rachelle. It was lovely to see everyone respond to her open heart and free spirit. One of my favorite moments was just a few days into our trip. We were in Hanoi and she needed some dental adhesive. We actually found a little dental dispensary and she tried to explain what she needed. She kept saying “glue” louder and louder.  I suggested that saying it louder was not going to help him understand. With a bit of pantomime, he finally got it and gestured that he did not have any. We laughed over that for days, and whenever we had trouble expressing ourselves, we just shouted “glue.”

I never expected to connect with so many foreigners in Vietnam. I hope and expect to see some of them in the future, in my country or theirs. Someday, I hope to return to Vietnam. To see places I missed on this trip, and to see the people I met. I leave you with a picture of Linh’s daughter. She is a delightful 18-month-old and I especially hope to see her and her family again.

Reception desk at

Reception desk at Loc Phat Homestay

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Taking calls

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Checking with mom

Vietnam #17 Saigon – museums, motorcycles and food

Double take in Saigon

Double take in Saigon

Today is our last day in Vietnam.  We saw this building and had to blink!

Lunchbreak

Lunchbreak

Ladies in hats

Ladies in hats

Drink break

Drink break

Gelatin desserts

Gelatin desserts

Its all in the presentation

Its all in the presentation

Still life of dragon fruit

Still life of dragon fruit

We took our time this morning then walked over to the covered market. It’s a huge building filled with everything from staples to souvenirs. There are food stalls with runners delivering meals to people working in the market and stalls with clothes and linens.

Far away

Far away

Up close

Up close

Waiting for customers

Waiting for customers

We bought a few little items, (I paid too much), then went in search of the Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts. It was where we figured it was, a few blocks from the market.

Crossing streets here is the biggest challenge. The streets are very wide and main intersections are huge, loosely organized roundabouts. As in other cities in Vietnam, you walk with conviction and it works! We found that if we attached ourselves to someone else crossing, it was a bit easier… Maybe there is safety in numbers. We followed one man across a street and he seemed eager to talk to us. We thought he was a local, and he turned out to be – a local Southern Californian! He lives in Santa Ana.

Art and Architecture

Art and Architecture

Mother and Child

Mother and Child

Loved this -

Loved this –

The museum is in a beautiful french Colonial building in the center of town. We stopped for a Vietnamese coffee (I will surely miss it. It does not even come close in LA) then spent a few hours in the museum.

One of 6 panels - all war related

One of 6 panels – all war related

One of 6 panels - all war related

One of 6 panels – all war related

"Phu Loi people feel hatred for the enemy"

“Phu Loi people feel hatred for the enemy”

Propaganda Poster

Propaganda Poster

Propaganda Poster

Propaganda Poster

Much of the contemporary collection is heavily influenced by conflict. Seeing so much war-related art makes a powerful statement, as artists very clearly expressed anti-American sentiments during and immediately after the war.

Buddha

Buddha

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Turtle Vase

Powerful and distrubing

Powerful and distrubing

Yoga pose?

Yoga pose?

I also loved the ceramic collection, ancient and 20th Century, religious, utilitarian and decorative. Took lots of pics there today.

 We walked back to the hotel just in time to meet our two guides for our motorbike city food tour. Their names were Julia and Coffee Bean!!

Rachelle went on the Honda motorcycle with Coffee Bean and I went with Julia on a Honda motor scooter. We left district one and went to district two, for grilled BBQ. We got there early, so hung out for a half hour or so until they opened. Then we had grilled okra, two dishes of meat  wrapped in leaves and grilled, and a vegetable we never heard of, also grilled. Everything was served with mild pickled vegetables and fresh herbs.  Then back on the bikes to stop for a view of the skyline as we stood overlooking the Saigon River.

And as this was an eating tour, we were taken to the best banh mi place in town back in district one. FYI, we split a small one – we were already full. Out of the 4 we had during our stay, this was the cleanest tasting, but my favorite was the one on our corner in Hoi An. Next we had little rice cups filled with shrimp, and eaten in lettuce packages, then one last pancake and a fresh coconut juice. Stuffed, we stopped for fresh juices, I gave mine away, then we were off across town to Chinatown where we managed to get down 1 of 2 typical desserts, both with water chestnuts, one hot and one cold.

We raced back across the city on the backs of the motorbikes in time to shower and check out. Our flight leaves tonight around midnight. The motorbike tour was a wonderful way to end out trip. Even though we were on a time constraint, our guides made sure we did not miss one single stop, one single food. They were great drivers and we were very comfortable with them. It was just the 4 of us, so we had a chance to ask them about health care, their other jobs, and their living situations. Coffee Bean lives with 4 other guys,  he does the cooking. Julia lives with her parents and is also a travel agent. Her favorite TV show is How I Met Your Mother. She also loves the first 3 seasons of Glee.

Over the course of the trip, we got different answers about health care. It seems to depend on where you live, what insurance and deductible you have, and with what hospital you register. One thing everyone we spoke with agrees on, it is not an effective or affordable system.

Vietnam #15 New Religion and Cu Chi Tunnels

We were treated to a huge buffet breakfast this morning. (Elios Hotel in Saigon.) They serve sliced mixed fish cake which is a Vietnamese version of gefilte fish. Think I’ll wait forPesach, and our own version. There is always fresh fruit, Vietnamese noodle soup and eggs made to order. By8am we were out on the street meeting up with other tourists to visit the Cao Dai Temple just outside of Tay Nihn. On the way, we were again treated to a mega-tourist shop, again with Vietnamese artists and craftsmen injured in the war. This time, we just stood outside and waited for the group. It is hot and humid here. We are close to the Cambodian border.

Cao Dai Prayers

Cao Dai Prayers

Cao Dai Prayers

Cao Dai Prayers

View from the balcony

View from the balcony

A half hour later, we were on our way and we were scheduled to arrive at the temple in time to hear the noon prayers.

We watched as a few hundred followers in white robes formally entered an ornate temple and sat cross-legged on the floor in even rows. We were directed to an upstairs area, where we listened to them singing and chanting. They were accompanied by a Vietnamese traditional ensemble of 10 musicians.

Monk walking outside the Cao Dai Temple

Monk walking outside the Cao Dai Temple

Maybe my favorite photo of the trip, I caught this monk walking just outside the temple.

Sorry about the long factual entry below, but I could not believe what I read about this relatively new religion that also has followers in France and the US. (See Religion Facts below) Then again, we had a burning bush, who’s to say a séance is any better or worse.

Tunnel Entrance

Tunnel Entrance

We left after a half hour and went to lunch, then on to the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels were occupied by the Viet Cong for 20 years during both the French and American occupations. We saw the booby traps, methods of confusing American troops, learned about life in the tunnels, and crawled through a portion of one. It was clear why, even with napalm, defoliants, tanks and dogs, US troops were not able to find the soldiers operating out of the tunnels.

While there, we finally ran into someone else from LA, a lovely woman who teaches Korean history at UCLA. She told a bit about the intricacies of modern, South Korean politics in reference to North Korea. She mentioned a book about a South Korean woman’s visit to North Korea, and the subsequent reaction to the book by the South Korean government.

We drove back to the Ho Chi Minh City through cultivated rubber tree forests and rice fields. Arriving in Saigon at rush hour is a crazy experience – thousands and thousands of motorcycles and scooters, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians, all moving at the same time, weaving seamlessly in every direction. We put our stuff down, then returned to the tour agency to discuss the possibility of changing our plans for tomorrow. We decided to forgo the trip to the Mekong Delta and stay in the city. We switched to a city food tour by motorbike.

Then we set out for the night market for dinner. Rachelle found the perfect white shirt and bargained like a pro. We had a seafood hot pot for dinner, something new for us, and very good. Back in the hotel room, we watched the final episode of Glee and a rerun of Sex And The City. Stayed up late as we had no early plans.

Religion Facts:

Cao Dai (a.k.a. Dao Cao Dai or Caodaism) is a syncretist Vietnamese religious movement with a strongly nationalist political character. Cao Dai draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, and a hierarchical organization (including a pope) from Roman Catholicism. Its pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen.

The Divine Eye.

Date founded: 1926

  • Place founded: Vietnam
  • Founder: Ngo Van Chieu
  • Adherents: 2-6 million

History -In 1919 Ngo Van Chieu, an administrator for the French in Indochina, received a communication from the supreme deity during a table-moving séance. Chieu became the prophet of the new religion, which was formally established in 1926. Caodaists believe this ushered in  Tam Ky Pho Do or the Third Period of Salvation, a period marked by direct

Cao Dai’s saints include such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. These are honored at Cao Dai temples, along with ancestors.

In Cao Dai, the purpose of life is peace within each individual and harmony in the world. Cao Dai followers also seek to gain religious merit and avoid bad karma.

Cao Dai beliefs about the afterlife are derived from Buddhism. Those who have gathered too much bad karma during their lifetime will be reincarnated in negative circumstances, which may include rebirth on a darker, colder planet than this one. Good karma leads to rebirth to a better life on earth.

Salvation is freedom from rebirth and the attainment of nirvana or heaven. “The ultimate goal of CaoDaists is to be reunified with The All That Is, to return home.”

Practices

Cao Dai draws upon occult practices from Taoism and includes communication with the dead in séances. This has been outlawed by the Vietnamese government, but Cao Dai leaders also say that it is no longer necessary.

“We don’t see the necessity to have séance any more because we have direct communication from the Supreme Being to people by returning inside to our heart to see the Supreme Being in there.”

Cao Dai encourages obedience to the three duties (between king and citizen, father and child, husband and wife), and five virtues (humanity, obligation, civility, knowledge, reliability) of Confucianism.

Cao Dai’s organization is patterned after that of Roman Catholicism, with nine levels of hierarchy including a pope, cardinals, and archbishops.

Worship involves group prayer in the temple, elaborate rituals and festivals.

Similar to the division in Theravada Buddhism between lay Buddhists and monks, Cao Dai offers two ways of practice its adherents. Esoterism focuses on meditation, with the goal “to progressively eradicate the inferior self and develop the divine element within the self, reaching toward oneness with the Supreme Being.” These are priests of Cao Dai, which can be men and women. Exoterism is the form available to laypersons living a normal family life. These are expected to:

  • cultivate the Confucian duties and virtues (see above)
  • practice good and avoid evil
  • observe five Precepts: do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not get drunk, do not sin by word.
  • practice vegetarianism at least ten days per month, to purify one’s body and spirit and to avoiding killing living beings
  • participate in worship to the Supreme Being through four daily ceremonies, at 6:00 a.m., noon, 6:00 p.m., and midnight, with at least one ceremony per day