I’m on a standard city tour today, with the Carnival Museum added on at the end. We pass the Graf Spee anchor as we leave the harbour for the historic part of the city. As with Buenos Aires, Montevideo’s harbour is on the Plata River estuary, which is the widest river in the world, and is formed from the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraguay Rivers. Montevideo is on the north shore of the Plata River, and Buenos Aires is on the south shore.
Our first stop is the Plaza Independencia, where the impressive Salvo Palace is located. It is a 1930s colonial building designed by Mario Pisner and is now used for offices, residential and a tango museum. The Embassy of Canada is also located on the edge of the plaza, as are both the new and old Presidential buildings, and the impressive Teatre Solis. The centre of the plaza is dedicated to a monument and mausoleum to Uruguayan hero José Artigas. As found in Buenos Aires, Montevideo is full of neoclassical architecture emulating European cities during that era.
Our second stop is to visit the Mercado Agricola de Montevideo, or agricultural market. It is raining, so its nice to have a roof over us as we explore the produce, meat, and seafood being offered for sale. A horse-drawn freight cart goes by on the street outside as I return to the bus.
Our third stop is the Palacio Legislativo – the country’s seat of government. Nearby is a Burj al-Arab hotel lookalike and some nice murals. Our guide Lilianna shares that the price of meat is very low since it is the main industry in the country. Consumption is 100kg/person annually. Maté is a national tea-like drink, which virtually everyone drinks. Sharing maté is a symbol of friendship. There is both private and public health care available, and education is compulsory, with university being free for everyone (even foreigners).
Our final stop is the Plaza de la Armada where we get a good view of Plata river shoreline and city skyline. There is also a nicely-designed bronze monument dedicated to the fallen heroes of the Navy.
The tour wraps up at the Carnival Museum, which is back in the dock area of the city. The focus of this museum is the Candombe dancing, which is one of the most popular Carnival themes followed in the country. We are seated and served wine, baked cheese, and beef (sausage, steak, blood pudding) while we watch the cultural show. Some members of our group get up and dance after being given costumes and props!
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s General Assembly held at the University of Calgary is probably not too interesting for people who are not members of RASC. That said, I’m going to combine the three day conference into one report on this page, just to complete my road trip travelogue.
June 28, 2018 – Arrival at the University of Calgary and the Welcome BBQ
I arrive in Calgary in the late afternoon. The RASC General Assembly (GA) registration desk is setup in the hotel lobby, so after I get settled in my room, I go downstairs to pick up my delegate’s package. I connect with a few people I know in the lobby while we wait for buses to take us to the Members’ Welcome BBQ dinner and First Nations performances at the Rothney Observatory, in the country south of Calgary. We also get to tour the observatories operating from this site.
June 29, 2018 – First day of the General Assembly
The Calgary Stampede puts on a Stampede Breakfast for delegates this morning before the GA starts, serving pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage in the end-field zone of the home stadium of the Calgary Stampeders Canadian football club.
Dr. Robert Thirsk, astronaut and Chancellor of the University of Calgary welcomes delegates to Calgary and the University. Today is his last day as Chancellor, and our event is his last function before leaving. He tells us that being in space showed him the interconnection of the natural world with humans. He illustrates the point with many spectacular photos taken from the International Space Station, and also speculates on the question –Will we be here into the future? (100 years probably, 1,000 years probably not), and also reviews the next steps humans will make in space. He offers the opinion that a Moon base will be part of this new wave of exploration.
In the afternoon, I take the Nocturnal Preserve Tour to the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area south of Calgary. This is a RASC-recognized nocturnal preserve, which supports the notion that pristine night skies are not only good for humans, but all creatures on this Earth. We all depend on darkness to restore our health while we sleep, which helps all lifeforms prosper, not just those that are active at night.
We walk part of their extensive property to appreciate the varied ecosystems found in what is now mainly the farmland of southern Alberta. Grass suitable for grazing cattle displaces the native grasses, which disrupts the ecology in the area, but remediation is possible.
After dinner, the Plaskett Medal Award Lecture is “Dicke’s Superrradiance in Astrophysics” by Dr. Fereshteh Rajabi, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Rajabi gets into quantum mechanics and masers, and how they cause celestial objects to emit previously-unexplained bursts of intense radiation. I’m always happy to see such smart people working to understand our universe better, despite me not always fully appreciating what they are describing!
June 30, 2018 – Second day of the General Assembly
The Annual General Meeting is held in the morning, and our President highlights the robotic telescope located in the mountains of California which RASC recently acquired, and is in the process of making available online to all members. Other presentations of note today include: RASC Calgary Centre’s 60th anniversary and history; Early Women Astronomers in RASC; Aurora image processing using Hugin software; Eclipsing Binaries; NOVA Junior Program (astronomy basics); Space for all Learners (bringing astronomy to undergraduates); Telescope in “Rainy” Victoria Celebrating 100 years of looking up (the historic Plaskett telescope located near Victoria); Public Outreach at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (the observatory was/is a tourism draw); Minor Planets (asteroids that might hit Earth, and landing missions on small rocks in space); Once Upon an Eclipse (upcoming eclipses); First Race for the moon 1609-51 (first observations of the Moon);
After a buffet dinner with my fellow astronomers as part of the conference, I attend the public lecture: “The Golden Age of Solar System Exploration” given by Emily Lakdawalla, The Planetary Society. Emily reviews many of the more exciting recent missions to explore our solar system: Hayabusa2, New Horizons, and Cassini, to name a few. She also highlights how amateur astronomers are using data from these missions, and how they are contributing to the resulting scientific discoveries. Emily takes lots of questions from the audience.
July 1, 2018 – Final day of the General Assembly
There are more presentations this morning, concentrated on the history of RASC and astronomy: RASC in Travelling Mode (historic solar eclipse expeditions); Styles of Observing in the RASC Since 1868 (taken from the RASC archives, including telescope-making); RASC and the Space age (amateurs as both participants and spectators); The Cultural/Social Anthropology within RASC (who makes up the ranks of RASC members?); Female Participation in the RASC (RASC leads as an inclusive society in Canada).
The speaker at our banquet is Dr. Tanya Harrison “The Past and Present of Water on Mars”. She brings the missions on Mars to life, including the Curiosity Rover, which she was involved with. She also describes what “water on Mars” really means. There were lots of questions…a fascinating talk!
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 from 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.
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.
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.
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 possibly also 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 on the coast hit us again as we board our tenders and return to the ship.
As we pull into Semarang harbour around 10AM, I take video of a series of marching bands on the pier to greet us…shades of the Fiji Police Band in Suva – Oct 11, 2010 aboard Volendam! 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.
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!
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.
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.
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, making me much happier! On the way back to Semarang, all the buses stop at a Javanese handicrafts centre, 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 is crazy out there, with vendors chasing after tourists. Their wares all look the same as we encountered earlier at the temple and on the pier in Semarang.
The Volendam is docked about an hour’s drive south of Yangon in the port city of Thilawa, which is as far up the shallow Rangoon River as ships dare go.
My shore excursion into Yangon takes most of the day. Our bus is a bit dodgy, but our driver and guide are great, and the driver has a helper, so we are well-served, and we are offered lots of bottled water in order to stay hydrated in the heat. The drive from the port to the city takes almost two hours each way through very heavy traffic. As we leave the port through Thilawa, we encounter early preparations for a pagoda festival. There are circus rides, lots of food stands, and people everywhere despite the festival not starting for several hours. We cross the Rangoon/Bago River over the bridge into the city of Yangon, where we pick up a police escort. So for the rest of the day, we arrive at each location like rock stars!
Our guide explains that the change in spelling for the city of Yangon (from Rangoon) and the country of Myanmar (from Burma) was done by the past military government to correct historical misspelling of the two place names into English. She tells us land is very expensive in Yangon, development is sporadic, and is dependant on foreign investment and (in the past) sponsorship by the military regime. There are lots of homeless dogs, who obviously have to scrounge for food, however some are fed and adopted by the Buddhist temples, so they are referred to as “wat dogs”, after the Burmese word for temple.
First stop is the Sule Pagoda, which is right in the center of the city. We don’t actually go into the pagoda, but we get to hang around Mahabandoola Garden for a few minutes, where there are lots of street food vendors. Next is the Bogyoke Aung San (Scott) Market, where we have some time to shop or just look around this massive market right in the centre of the city. There are clothes, shoes, precious and semi-precious gems and jewelry, inlaid wood, fabric, cosmetics and all sorts of handicrafts.
I’m glad to get out of the market, and go for lunch at the very elegant downtown hotel, the Sule Shangri-La. We are served (family style) a lovely Chinese meal with our choice of beverages, including beer or wine. I have a very nice lager-style local beer, and dine with several of my fellow passengers at big round tables. After lunch, our police escort takes us to the National Museum for a quick look at several interesting exhibits, including the 8-metre-tall golden Lion Throne used by the last Burmese King. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the museum.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the highlight of a very full day. One of the wonders of the religious world, this Buddhist spectacle was built more than 2,500 years ago. The pagoda is located on the top of Singuttara Hill, so it is visible from all over the city, since the golden stupa is 100 metres tall. It is topped with more than 6,500 diamonds, rubies and other precious stones; the largest diamond is 76 carats at the apex! The top three components (the Diamond Orb, The Vane and the Umbrella) consist of some 86,000 jewellery items weighing over 5 tonnes. The decorations on the main stupa were recently redone, with the precious stones coming completely from donations. The pagoda is covered in gold plate (not gold leaf).
Everyone, including tourists have to take shoes and socks off and be modestly dressed before taking the elevator from the entrance to the main plaza that surrounds this huge pagoda. Since it is the middle of the day, the tiles are hot in the midday Sun, however since they are marble, it is tolerable providing you don’t step on the black ones! I work my way around the plaza, which has huge numbers of temples and shrines on both sides of the plaza.
The faithful walk around the pagoda in a clockwise direction (as do we), stopping at shrines and temples along the way. In particular, there are Planetary Posts, or shrines for each day of the week (two for Wednesday), just like there are buddhas for each day of the week. Speaking of Buddhas, there are worship halls and temples for the many different images of Buddhas surrounding the main stupa. Free wifi is available in the southeast area of the plaza, near the south stairway entrance.
Our last stop of the day is to see the Chauk Htat Gyi Reclining Buddha. Again, we doff our shoes and socks before entering the compound. This statue is 68 metres (223 feet) long. Buddha’s feet are decorated with astrology and other symbols. There are lots of wat dogs and their pups lounging around the compound.
Our trip back to the ship uses back roads after we cross the river, since our guide and driver want to avoid the local pagoda festival being held on the main road in Thilawa. I hear later from other passengers that they were caught for almost an hour in the festival congestion. Although the back road we took was a bit rough, we were back onboard the ship by 5PM.
Feb 22, 2016 – Monday – Yangon, Myanmar
I spend most of the day aboard the ship at the dock, and leave at 4:30PM to see the Shwedagon Pagoda at night. The traffic is very congested south of the main bridge across the river, but we arrive at the pagoda in time for sunset when the lights illuminate all the gold on the structures. One benefit of visiting at night: the marble tiles on the plaza around the pagoda are cool. Yesterday, I was burning my bare feet as I walked around the pagoda in the midday Sun. The Moon is full, making this evening even more picturesque.
While walking around the pagoda, a young Burmese man strikes up a conversation with me, asking about my country, how long I am staying in the country, how I got here and where I’m going after leaving. He speaks very good English, so we have quite a conversation. Two monks also approach me later on, although they speak poor English. They have similar questions as the young man posed, but they also want me to go with them for some reason. Of course I decline, since I have no idea what they want, and I have no intention of finding out!
This evening, the Thilawa Music & Dance troupe perform traditional Burmese music, dance and acrobatics onboard the ship. Their music is kind of screechy, but the performances are very interesting and the costumes are ornate and colourful. The last number involves two guys inside a giant elephant costume! I take video of portions of the performance.