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Victoria to Seattle

February 15, 2017 – Victoria, BC, Canada to Seattle, WA, USA via Victoria Clipper catamaran ferry

Clipper Navigation calls me this morning to let me know they are advancing the departure date of the sailing from 5PM to 2PM in order to avoid the predicted strong winds. I quickly finish packing and tidy up what I need to at home before calling a taxi at 12:30PM to take me to the ferry terminal downtown. I’m the first passenger there, but the waiting lounge soon fills up. We pre-clear US Immigration in the terminal shortly after 1PM, and we are all aboard about 15 minutes later. I have six window seats all to myself since there are very few passengers on this sailing.

Serving staff and lots of empty seats in the main cabin

Serving staff and lots of empty seats in the main cabin

They announce that tea and coffee are free on this sailing, and beer is on sale for US$3, so I order a Pike Place IPA and a smoked Provolone sandwich as a mid-afternoon snack/dinner. We hit some bigger waves around 3PM for about a half hour or so.

The captain takes us directly across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Dungeness Point near Port Angeles in order to keep our time in rough seas to a minimum. We pass Whidby Island on our left and the Point Wilson lighthouse at Port Worden Historic State Park on our right near Port Townsend. The rain is really streaming down the windows of the boat as we proceed through Puget Sound towards Seattle. I’m seated beside four women from Louisiana, who’s accents are a hoot to listen to.

Route map - Dungeness Bay

Route map – Dungeness Bay

Once we dock at Pier 69, all the passengers with no checked luggage get off first, then the rest of us claim our bags and go through US Immigration and Customs. None of the agents have computer terminals on this end, unlike in Victoria where my passport was scanned. I catch a taxi outside the terminal, and he takes me the 10-15 blocks through rush hour traffic to the Best Western Plus Pioneer Square hotel. I picked this hotel because it is about six short blocks to the King Street Train station where I will show up tomorrow morning to begin my train journey to Tucson, Arizona.

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Arizona Astronomy in February 2017

Garry's observatory with 20" and 25" telescopes

Garry’s observatory with 20″ and 25″ telescopes

An astronomy buddy of mine who has a home in the rural desert grasslands in southern Arizona invited a few of us from the local astronomy group to come down for a week of observing under dark skies in February 2017. I quickly took him up on his generous offer, since not only does his place have very dark skies, it is also located in a high elevation area in southeastern Arizona. We also get to make use of his very well-equipped observatory at a site that typically has 330 clear days (and nights) per year.

Instead of flying to Phoenix or Tucson, I decided to take the Victoria Clipper catamaran from Victoria to Seattle, overnight in Seattle, and then take the Amtrak train all the way to Tucson. I have never taken an overnight trip on a train before – this trip will take two days with a change of trains in Los Angeles. I’m really looking forward to the experience of slower and gentler travel. I will have a Roomette both ways, so I will be treated like a VIP, having my own bed, small private room, and meals included.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles has a reputation of being one of the more interesting and scenic train routes in the USA, especially when it travels along the coast north of LA during daylight hours. The Sunset Limited takes me from LA to Tucson and back, but this is mainly during the night, so not much scenery will be visible on this route, just sleeping!

Amtrack route from Seattle to Tucson via LA

Amtrack route from Seattle to Tucson via LA

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Flights from Singapore to Victoria

March 17, 2016 – Thu – Singapore to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

I’m up at 3AM this morning and leave the Volendam for the last time to take the prearranged 4AM shuttle to the airport. The bus takes Holland America’s passengers to Terminal 1 at Changi Airport, where I check in with Cathay Pacific for my 8:05AM flight to Hong Kong and onward to Vancouver. I will get to live today almost twice over, since we cross the International Date Line mid-flight as we fly eastward across the Pacific Ocean.

After clearing customs and immigration, I find my gate and hit Starbucks for a cappuccino. I have several hours to kill, but Changi airport has free wifi, so the time goes by. By 6AM the airport comes alive with more people, so people watching keeps me entertained. The 3.5 hour Cathay Pacific flight from Singapore to Hong Kong goes well. They serve us breakfast, which I certainly appreciate!

When departing the aircraft in Hong Kong airport, I remember it is important to stay in the “Transfer” stream when you already have a boarding pass issued for the next flight segment. You still have to go through security, but then you can go directly to the Departures level and roam around. Otherwise you will find yourself on the Arrivals level, and have to take a lot more time to find your way back to the Departure level.

Cathay Pacific doesn’t load the flight to Vancouver by row. Everyone simply lines up at the gate and we are let on the aircraft after our boarding pass is scanned and our passport is verified.

Pre-dawn light over the wing south of the Aleutian Islands

Pre-dawn light over the wing south of the Aleutian Islands

This flight is excruciatingly long, however service by the cabin crew is very good. The first time I check my watch is an hour or so after they serve us dinner at the beginning of the flight. At that point we are five hours into the flight. Not even being half way is pretty depressing! The next time I check the time, we are about five hours out of Vancouver…still a very long time to sit. By then I’ve listened to all the music I can handle; I’ve read all the magazines on my iPad I can stand; so I haul down my MacBook Air from the overhead bin and write my journal and process photos for awhile. It would be great if I could sleep aboard aircraft, but that doesn’t happen no matter how tired I am. The sunrise is beautiful as we fly south of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Looking North across the city of Vancouver to the North Shore mountains on final approach to Vancouver airport

Looking North across the city of Vancouver to the North Shore mountains on final approach to Vancouver airport

Our approach to Vancouver is over Northern Vancouver Island and the coast range of mountains of British Columbia. The pilot refers to it as “the Whistler approach” to Vancouver airport, taking us over the famed ski resort. We fly east of the city and then turn west on final approach over Surrey, Richmond, and New Westminster, giving us great views of the city against the North Shore mountains. I think we land on Vancouver runway 26R. I take some nice photos of the scenery out the window.

This time I’m prepared for the long stretches of walking required in Vancouver airport to get from the arrival gate to the Immigration kiosks, and then onward to the baggage carousels, and finally a long way to the end of the departure concourse to check in at the Westjet kiosks. I don’t have a through ticket, so can’t use Westjet’s transfer check-in (much closer to the carousels). After clearing security again, I find the domestic departure area and the gates for the local Westjet flights. It is only a 20 minute flight to Victoria, and I am soon home…greeted at the door by Rolly and Tanner, our Jack Russell Terriers, and the rest of the family. It’s time to go to bed for a well-deserved sleep after enduring some 27 hours elapsed time from when I left my cabin aboard the Volendam in Singapore earlier today.

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Bali, Indonesia

March 13, 2016 – Benoa, Bali, Indonesia

Monkeys perched on a temple column in the Sangeh monkey forest, Bali, Indonesia

Monkeys perched on a temple column in the Sangeh monkey forest, Bali, Indonesia

I leave early this morning on the all-day Munduk Highlands tour of Bali. I deliberately chose this excursion awhile ago since it gets me away from the hot and humid coastal area. We drive out of the port of Benoa upcountry to the Sangeh monkey forest, with its towering nutmeg trees and temples. We watch dozens of resident Long-tailed Macaque monkeys frolic along the pathways. Some jump on tour group members, however they are much more friendly, gentle and well-behaved than monkeys in other areas. The cool of the shade in this place is wonderful. A couple of Balinese actors show up in full costume for us to take photos of. What a great touch!

Funerary procession inside the Pura Ulun Danu temple, Bedugul, Bali, Indonesia

Funerary procession inside the Pura Ulun Danu temple, Bedugul, Bali, Indonesia

We continue climbing up into the mountainous area of Bedugul to see the Lake Bratan area at 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) above sea level in the crater of Mt Catur. The Pura Ulun Danu temple is located along the lake shore, dedicated to the lake’s water goddess. While visiting the temple, we see local Balinese people in a funerary parade, and others are praying in the nearby temple. Decorative statues on the lakeshore are amazingly picturesque, as is the scenery in this old volcano. The climate is a bit cooler than the seaside areas of Bali, and yet the Sun is out.

Woman selling corn beside a local fruit, vegetable and clothing market in Bali, Indonesia

Woman selling corn beside a local fruit, vegetable and clothing market in Bali, Indonesia

We climb to the ridge line of the mountains and see the twin lakes of Buyan and Tamblingan, which are two of the largest lakes on the island. After taking a few photos, we descend a bit to have a nice buffet lunch at the Bali Handara Country Club, a local golf course with a view of one of the lakes.

En route back to the port, we stop at a so-called local fruit and vegetable market, but it appears to be mainly a shopping stop for tourists to buy t-shirts and other souvenirs. I stay on the bus, as do several others. There are peanuts, corn, and other food being sold to the local people as they drive by on the road.

After my return to Canada, I make a point of funding some Indonesian villagers who need to buy pigs to raise and later sell. I make micro-loans through Kiva. Hopefully some of you reading this will consider doing the same. When the loans are repaid, you get to choose a new group or individual to support who needs a bit of financial help.

While I’m away on my excursion, the ship leaves port around Noon, and anchors out in the bay due to tides being unfavourable for our proposed departure time of about 6PM. When my excursion returns to the pier, there are several hundred passengers waiting for tenders. Apparently the currents are too strong for the ship’s tenders, so the ship has contracted with two larger and more powerful tenders to move passengers back to the ship. The operation is slow and excruciating for us as we wait in the heat and humidity. At least these tenders are large, moving at least twice as many passengers at once as the ship’s tenders. They also have nine engines on the back, so there are no problems with powering through the tidal flow!

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Lombok, Indonesia

March 12, 2016 – Lombok, Indonesia

I had originally planned to stay aboard the ship in Lombok, however I booked the Fascinating Culture of Lombok shore excursion yesterday, in order to get off the ship and see some of this Indonesian island. The ship is anchored, and we use private tenders to get ashore today. These tenders are big and powerful, in order to cope with the currents and tides in the area.

When we arrive at the Nusa Tenggara Barat Province Museum, there is a local musical group using traditional instruments to greet us with music. The museum itself is modest, but there are interesting displays of artifacts from the area, including traditional Kris knives, drums, marriage costumes, and gold jewelry.

We make a shopping stop at a pearl shop in the central city of Mataram. I stay outside and take photos and video of the traffic on the street.

Terraces and the artifical lake, Narmada Water Palace, Lombok, Indonesia

Terraces and the artifical lake, Narmada Water Palace, Lombok, Indonesia

Narmada Water Palace consists of a large artificial lake whose shape resembles Segara Anak in the caldera of the Rinjani Volcano. It was built in 1805 by the Raja of Mataram after he became too old to climb Rinjani to deposit offerings in the sacred lake there. Narmada’s temple, Pura Kalasa, is still used; the Balinese Pujawali celebration is held here annually.

There is holy water available to anyone, so several of our group partake. Personally, I would never trust such water, but our local guide insists it is pure spring water. There is also a public swimming pool on the same site.

Decorative temple gate, Lingsar temple, Lombok, Indonesia

Decorative temple gate, Lingsar temple, Lombok, Indonesia

Our second temple stop this morning is at the twin temples for both Hindus, Muslims and all others at Pura Lingsar. This is a large temple complex built in 1714, and is the place of worship for Wetu Telu Islam, and is open to all others. The second temple in the northern section is exclusively for Hindu worship, and features a fountain.

As we head north, the road rises over two small hills offering panoramic views of the sea. We have an Indonesian buffet lunch at the Sheraton Senggigi Resort.

Woman making a tall pot with a younger woman holding a baby, Banyu Mulek, Lombok, Indonesia

Woman making a tall pot with a younger woman holding a baby, Banyu Mulek, Lombok, Indonesia

In contrast, our final stop is in Banyu Mulek village, which is famous for handmade pottery. We are taken into the village on a traditional horse cart called a cidomo, to see the skilled villagers make clay into beautiful pottery. They seem to use rice straw to fire the clay instead of kilns.

On the way back to the ship, we get caught in a wedding parade (photo at top). The bride and groom walk down the main street, and all the villagers come out to see them. On Lombok, tradition dictates that the couple elope to get married, and then parade in their local community to let everyone know they are married.

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Komodo Island, Indonesia

March 11, 2016 – Slawi Bay, Komodo Island, Indonesia

Stepping onto Komodo Island is like stepping back in time. The Komodo Dragons are fascinating, and ruthless killers. These large monitor lizards and the Komodo islanders coexist on an inhospitable island in the Indonesian archipelago.

We anchor in Slawi Bay, and I go ashore in the tenders at 9:15AM to join my excursion ashore to see the Komodo Dragons. When we arrive at the ranger station, we go for a hike along the trails in small groups escorted by guides and park rangers. Some people pass out in the heat and have to be packed back to the tenders and the ship, since it is exceedingly hot. Of course, it’s not as if we weren’t warned about the conditions ahead of time. Fresh water is scarce on Komodo Island. The islanders collect rainwater during the rainy season, but otherwise they survive on very little water. Of course, we are supplied with lots of cold, bottled water before we leave on our hike.

There is a young female Komodo Dragon near the ranger station where we assemble, so everyone takes photos. As we walk through the bush, we see large green Imperial pigeons, hear the noisy Friarbirds, and spot a couple of deer. There are some striped snails, and a wide variety of plants and trees on the island. As we approach the water hole (which is dry), we see three medium-sized Komodo Dragons. We also spot a larger Komodo Dragon resting in the bush as we leave the water hole area. So in total, we see five Komodo Dragons.

Komodo Dragon monitor lizard at the water hole with tongue extended, Komodo Island, Indonesia

Komodo Dragon monitor lizard at the water hole with tongue extended, Komodo Island, Indonesia

Komodo Dragons are just really big Monitor lizards. They are carnivores, preying on the deer and wild pigs that inhabit the island. They are at the top of the food chain, and they also sometimes eat their own young. Komodo Dragons are good swimmers and, for short distances, quite swift on land. One Komodo Dragon will bite its prey, inflicting injuries and causing massive infections in the wounds with the bacteria found in their saliva. Once the prey is dying, all the Komodo Dragons in the area will come to feed.

There are about 1,100 Komodo Dragons on this island, and they inhabit other islands in the area as well. They are originally from Australia, where they grew even bigger, but they are no longer found there.

I’m glad our little hour and a half trek is over by noon, and we can return to the comfort of the air-conditioned ship. Slawi Bay is very pretty, with glassy water, surrounded by green hills, and a white, sandy beach with nobody on it. I think Komodo Island and some of the other Indonesian Islands are on par with French Polynesia when it comes to spectacular shoreline scenery. The captain is seriously annoyed with people throwing money at some boys in dugouts beside the ship as he tries to manoeuvre the ship out of our anchorage. Dolphins escort us out of the bay as we make an early departure at 3PM.

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Total Solar Eclipse 2016 from Indonesia

March 9, 2016 – Wed – Total Solar Eclipse in Makasar Strait, Indonesia aboard the Volendam cruise ship

I get up at 6:30AM to prepare for the solar eclipse this morning. Of course when I get up on deck, there are lots of people already setup, but the ship is big and has lots of open deck space. I find a nice spot near the stern on the Sport Deck 9 and drag a lounge chair to sit on and to park my gear on as I setup next to the rail. Totality doesn’t happen until 8:35AM, so I have over an hour to wait until things start to happen. The ship is slowly cruising at 3-5 knots perpendicular to the eclipse centreline off the coast of Sulawesi in the Makasar Strait. Conditions are excellent, with calm seas, light winds, and although a bit cloudy, there are huge gaps between the clouds.

Joe on deck for the solar eclipse

Joe on deck for the solar eclipse

Due to the track of the ship, everyone is setup on the starboard side facing east. I setup my tripod, tape my Kestrel portable weather station to a nearby bollard, and decide to just aim my video camera out to sea in the direction of the Sun. I mount my camera on the tripod with the solar filter in place, and adjust it so I can remain seated while operating the camera. I’m soon taking photos of the partial phases of the eclipse as the Moon slides in front of the Sun after First Contact.

Fully eclipsed Sun with Venus and Mercury above observed from in the Java Sea aboard the Volendam in Indonesia

Fully eclipsed Sun with Venus and Mercury above observed from in the Java Sea aboard the Volendam in Indonesia

Totality soon arrives at 8:34:39AM at Second Contact. Bailey’s Beads are visible all red and sparkly on the left side of the solar disk at the start. By midpoint in Totality, they are also visible on the other side of the solar disk…a beautiful display! Of course, plasma streamers are flowing away from the Sun, with a bit of a gap in the flow at the 4 o’clock position. Both Venus and Mercury are clearly visible above the Sun during Totality, and as it ends, a huge, bright Diamond Ring pops out – a real treat, and the brightest I’ve observed!

My weather station measures the temperature drop during the eclipse at only 1.5°C. I’m a bit surprised at how little the air cooled off, but I expect the air mixing at sea reduced this effect similarly as it did with the 2012 Eclipse when I was aboard the Paul Gauguin in the Coral Sea in 2012. I don’t stick around to watch the last partial phase of the eclipse, packing up my gear and leaving by 9AM. Once 4th Contact is over, the ship turns around and heads south back down the Makassar Strait to the Java Sea and Komodo Island, our next port-of-call the day after tomorrow. This is a 500 mile run for them to get us on position this morning.

The diamond ring and lots of plasma streamers as Totality ends

The diamond ring and lots of plasma streamers as Totality ends

The captain and the rest of the bridge crew did an outstanding job getting us to the centreline of the eclipse this morning. The captain made his decision last night on our final position based on meteorological reports, and it worked out beautifully. We had some clouds, but there were huge gaps, and Totality was observed with perfectly clear conditions.

My detailed eclipse observation log

After getting cleaned up, I go up to the Explorations Cafe to have a celebratory cappuccino, since I missed breakfast this morning. That keeps me going, so I can quickly extract three photos and post a brief message on Facebook to tell my friends I had success with the eclipse. They almost immediately respond, saying that they virtually observed the eclipse from a feed coming from somewhere in Micronesia. It is a connected world!

Shortly after Noon, I go to the main dining room for some much-needed lunch, and compare notes about the eclipse with everyone around the table. We are all thrilled to have had the chance to observe the eclipse…both dedicated eclipse chasers and regular travellers alike.

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Mt. Bromo, Java, Indonesia

March 6, 2016 – Sun – Probolinggo & Mt. Bromo, Java, Indonesia

Jeeps descending through a village near Mt. Bromo, Java, Indonesia

Jeeps descending through a village near Mt. Bromo, Java, Indonesia

The ship is anchored, so we have a long tender ride to the pier in Probolinggo. The heat and humidity in the tender and on shore is oppressive, so everyone is happy to get into our convoy of big buses with air conditioning. There are several hundred people on this excursion to the Mt. Bromo volcano this morning, but thank goodness no police escorts are being used for today’s excursion, and our driver is very good!

It is a very scenic ride under overcast skies as we climb in elevation to the cooler, wetter, and mountainous centre of the island of Java. There are lots of towns and villages, Sunday markets, people working in fields. Half way up the mountain, we stop for a refreshment break in the mountain village of Cemoro Lawang and switch to Jeep 4x4s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Jeeps in one place at one time before!

I pick a Jeep and get in the passenger seat beside the young driver, a couple climb into the back seats, and we’re off. About half way to the viewpoint for the volcano, the jeep’s engine stops, and the driver can’t get it going again. He makes a call, and the tour organizers are there in a few minutes. Ten minutes later we are picked up in a replacement Jeep, and miss nothing at the volcano observatory near the viewpoint. Although our particular group left awhile ago, we simply join another group as we make the short hike to the nearby viewpoint, which is about 2 km away from the Mount Bromo volcano. Due to a recent eruption, this is as close as we can safely get to the caldera. The original tour described climbing up onto the rim of the volcano, but that’s not happening today.

Cloud-shrouded Mount Bromo and the Sea of Sand, Cemoro Lawing, Java, Indonesia

Cloud-shrouded Mount Bromo (left) and the Sea of Sand, Cemoro Lawing, Java, Indonesia

Mount Bromo is an active volcano and is part of the Tengger Massif, in East Java, Indonesia. At 2,329 metres (7,641 feet), Bromo is not the highest peak in the range, but it is the best known of them all. The volcano belongs to Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. The name derives from Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.

It is raining lightly as we check in at the volcano observatory, so the view of the volcano is obscured, however the view of the Sea of Sand, which surrounds Mount Bromo is nothing short of spectacular. There are many colours in the sand, and it is quite beautiful. The colours remind me a great deal of the Haleakala caldera on Maui in Hawaii. We see some motorcyclists riding across the Sea of Sand towards the volcano. The wet conditions continue for the rest of the day, however after having an Indonesian buffet lunch at a local restaurant in Cemoro Lawing village, the skies clear enough to see most of the Mount Bromo volcano from a viewpoint across the street.

The performers of The scary Bromo dance troupe in Sukapura, Java, Indonesia

The performers of The scary Bromo dance troupe in Sukapura, Java, Indonesia

We drive part way down the mountain to the village of Sukapura, where the locals put on a cultural dance and musical performance the likes of which I have never encountered before. It is scary at times, as the dancers seem to be either possessed or high on something – I can’t decide which, and of course, they might also just be good actors/performers.

I record quite a bit of video, since I’m unlikely to ever experience something like this again. In addition to the cruise ship passengers, the local villagers are also intensely interested in seeing the performance. We have to leave before the performance is finished, but I think most of the cruise ship passengers have seen enough of this rather bizarre performance.

The Jeep 4x4s return us to the midway point, where we transfer back to the tour buses and return to the tender pier in Probolinggo. We arrive almost an hour later than the stated last tender for the ship, but obviously since this is a Holland America excursion and there are hundreds of passengers involved, they keep running tenders to get everyone back to the ship as efficiently as possible. Once we step off the tour buses, the oppressive heat and humidity hit us again.

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Borobudur temple, Indonesia

March 4, 2016 – Friday – Semarang & Borobudur, Indonesia

As we pull into Semarang harbour around 10AM there is a series of marching bands on the pier to greet us…shades of the Fiji Police Band in Suva – Oct 11, 2010 aboard Volendam! I take some video Half an hour later, I’m off the ship and onto the bus for my all-day excursion to Borobudur Buddhist temple. As the passengers walk by the bands as they get ready to leave, everyone makes a point of thanking them. The band members all seem genuinely thrilled to be there.

Map of the route from Semarang to Borobudur

Map of the route from Semarang to Borobudur

We are a huge convoy of buses all going to the same place. We have a police escort as we travel along the freeways out of the city. The police escorts become more valuable once we start traveling on secondary roads and through small towns on our way to the centre of the island of Java and the Borobudur temple.

Our driver is a maniac who thinks he is driving a racing car as he follows the second police escort. He has to stop when a cargo door opens and a woman’s walker falls out while we are underway. For his next stunt, he crashes the bus door into a truck when it is stopped in front of us. The police escort, the drivers involved and the tour guide all get out and quickly decide to carry on, since the bus is drivable and there are no injuries!

Young women performing traditional Javanese dance for us at the Borobudur temple, Java, Indonesia

Young women performing traditional Javanese dance for us at the Borobudur temple, Java, Indonesia

We stop for a coffee break at Eva Café House at noon, and arrive at the temple grounds around 1:30PM. Since it is so late, we immediately go for lunch under a huge catering tent setup for us right on the grounds. It is a very tasty hot buffet, complete with a choice of non-alcoholic beverages and fruit for dessert (which I skip).

Some young women perform traditional Javanese dance for us as we regroup to start our walking tour of the temple. A few members of the group want to go on their own, but most of us are lead by our guide through the various levels of the temple. He has been leading tours here for 27 years, so he has a lot of knowledge to share, which I found very informative.

Hundreds of Buddha statues looking back to the Borobudur temple Java, Indonesia

Hundreds of Buddha statues looking back to the Borobudur temple Java, Indonesia

Borobudur is the largest single monument in the Southern Hemisphere, and is unique among Buddhist temples, since it was built without the use of modern engineering and technology. The Buddhist kings of the Sailendra Dynasty built it, possibly to enhance the image of Buddhism when Hinduism was growing in strength across the Indonesian archipelago. According to historical accounts, it would appear that Borobudur may have been deserted soon after its creation, when the Sailenra Dynasty was overthrown by the Hindu Majapahit Empire in AD 850.

3-D relief stone carvings telling stories about Buddha, Borobudur temple Java, Indonesia

3-D relief stone carvings telling stories about Buddha, Borobudur temple Java, Indonesia

Borobudur was covered by jungle for more than 1,000 years until its rediscovery in 1814 by Sir Stamford Raffles. Over the next century, Borobudur was cleared and the process of restoring the two million pieces of andesite stone began. Borobudur has arguably the finest examples of Buddhist reliefs in the world, with each of the ten terraces symbolizing the path to Nirvana. At the top is the Great Stupa, which towers above the other 72 bell-shaped stupas and hundreds of statues of Buddha.

Considering our bad driver, I am not looking forward to the return trip in our bus. Our guide assures all of us that he has talked to the driver, and indeed, our return trip is at a slower pace, so I’m happy. On the way back to Semarang, all the buses stop at a Javanese handicrafts center, where local people supposedly produce various handicrafts such as silver jewelry, wood crafts and Wayang shadow puppets. I don’t get off the bus, since it looks like a zoo, with vendors chasing after tourists, and their wares all look the same as what we encountered earlier at the temple and on the pier in Semarang.

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Singapore

Feb 29, 2016 – Singapore

We arrive early this morning in Singapore’s cruise ship terminal. We have a day in port and then overnight aboard the ship this evening. Most of the passengers are disembarking tomorrow morning, but I’m one of the 175 who are staying on board for the next cruise segment.

I take the Best of Singapore excursion today. It is an exhausting 8 hour tour, but we cover a great deal of ground, and I take some good photos and video. Our guide takes us to the City Gallery, where there are some wonderful scale models of the city and the whole country of Singapore. It shows just how much of Singapore is dedicated to gardens and other non-developed land, including the reservoir system for their water supply.

We take an electric-powered riverboat ride down the Kallang River and into Marina Bay, past Merlion Park. The Merlion fountain statue was erected as a symbol of welcome to visitors; the lion statue is emblematic of Singapore itself. We also see the historic Fullerton Hotel, on our way to the three towers that make up the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the observation deck, 200 metres (650 feet) above sea level, perched on Tower 3 of the hotel. I manage to photograph the amazing infinity pool (reserved for hotel guests) by leaning out from the observing deck to grab a shot. The view of Gardens by the Bay below the towers, as well as the city and harbour are fantastic from this vantage point. The Marina Bay Sands hotel has one of only two casinos, and a huge number of high end shops in a vast mall under the main hotel.

Our bus takes us to the entrance to Gardens by the Bay – a 100 hectare (250 acre) spectacularly designed park, home to an amazing variety of rare plants housed in giant, innovative domed conservatories. There are several different regions and ecosystems to discover, but we only have time to explore two: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean regions, and showcases flora that thrive in these conditions. Oddly enough, cactus and succulents, as well as Baobab trees are included in this ecosystem. True to its name, the Flower Dome showcases massive numbers of flowers from all over the world. As we move into the mist-veiled Cloud Forest, we feel the climate change to warmer and moister conditions. The 35 metre (115 foot) tall mountain showcases the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and presents plant life from tropical ecosystems, and is nothing short of spectacular.

We stop for a family-style Chinese lunch in a restaurant in Chinatown, which offers us a welcome air-conditioned respite from the heat and humidity on Singapore’s streets after seeing the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The gold-domed Masjid Sultan Mosque is the centre of Muslim culture in the city, and nearby Arab Street offers lots of carpet dealers. Shopping in Little India is interesting, and there are bargains to be had here when compared with Singapore’s more upscale (and expensive) shopping areas.

We finish our day at the legendary Raffles Hotel. I have a Singapore Sling cocktail where it was originally invented in Raffles’ Long Bar. Named after the British designer of modern-day Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, this property is one of the world’s finest and most famous hotels. The high ceilings and colonial architecture reflect the era of British rule (1819-1963). There is no public access to the lobby and other guest areas, however the Long Bar and shops are accessible to the public.