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Tokyo Dome baseball

Passion, interest in Japanese baseball thrive

By | Japan, Sports Abroad | No Comments

Fervent fans support a sport rich in history

 The Arizona Republic — May 29, 2012

TOKYO – With an upper-deck ticket tucked away in my back pocket, I arrived 4 1/2 hours early for a late-April Sunday afternoon game between the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers at the Tokyo Dome.

Japan baseball fans at Tokyo Dome

Japanese baseball fans waiting for standing room tickets outside the Tokyo Dome

It was my first Japanese baseball game, and I wanted plenty of time to explore the Dome’s environs and visit the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which adjoins the stadium.

I assumed the complex would be relatively deserted at 9:30 a.m., but after a five-minute walk from the train station, I couldn’t believe what I saw as I approached the Dome. Several hundred people — some of whom had appeared to have camped out the night before — were in an orderly line snaking up to a ticket window that hadn’t even opened yet.

They were hoping to get standing-room tickets for that afternoon’s game. Only about half of them would eventually get inside the stadium, and even then, their view of the action would be blocked by so many people standing in front of them, they would end up watching the game on one of the many TVs located throughout the Dome’s concourse.

True, it was a holiday weekend in Japan and the Giants and Tigers are two of the country’s most popular teams. But I had not expected to see this level of interest for a regular-season game just three weeks into the season between the third- and fifth-place teams in a six-team league.

Tokyo Dome

The Tokyo Dome is the most-recognizable venue for baseball in Japan

Once I went inside the Dome, I was even more surprised at the depth of the fans’ passion for a game the baseball-crazy Japanese call yakyu. From the first pitch through the final out, the intensity of the fans was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at an American baseball game. I wasn’t sure if it felt more like being in the stands at an SEC football game or a zealot-packed political rally.

“It’s much noisier than Major League Baseball games,” said Wayne Graczyk, the dean of American baseball writers in Japan, who I met after the game for pizza and beer at a sports bar near the Dome. Graczyk first began writing about Japanese baseball in 1975 and is now a baseball columnist for the English-language Japan Times. He also is the longtime editor of the Japan Baseball Media Guide.

“Whatever the reason, since the early 1900s when colleges here first started playing baseball, it hooked on, and it’s been a passion of the Japanese people ever since,” he said.

Japan Baseball Hall of Fame

Entrance to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

This day at the Dome proved to be my most memorable experience during a weeklong trip to Tokyo. With its labyrinth of trains and subways and dearth of English street signs, the world’s largest metropolitan area — home to more than 30 million people — can be bewildering and even downright intimidating to foreigners. Going to a ballgame brought a much-needed sense of familiarity, and at the same time, offered a fascinating glimpse into Japanese culture.

Before the game, I spent a couple of hours touring the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. I learned that baseball started here in 1872 when Horace Wilson, an American teacher living in Tokyo, wanted to come up with a way for his students to get more exercise. So he taught them to play baseball. Wilson was posthumously elected to the Japanese Hall of Fame in 2003.

Also enshrined is Sadaharu Oh, the only Japanese player I had ever heard of before pitchers Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu were signed by major-league teams in the 1990s. Known for his distinctive “flamingo” leg kick, Oh holds the world career home run record of 868, 106 more than Barry Bonds. Oh played his entire 22-year career with the Yomiuri Giants, retired in 1980 and later became the Giants’ manager.

Sadaharu Oh plaque in Japan Baseball Hall of Fame

Plaque honoring Sadaharu Oh in the Hall of Fame

Like any good sports museum, there’s an interactive exhibit in which visitors can test their skills against some of the greats of the game. In this case, they’ve set up a virtual batting cage with a video screen displaying some of Japan’s toughest pitchers in their windup. You get three swings at the screen with a small plastic bat. A cardboard-cutout umpire connected to a computer announces if you made contact.

Luck of the draw, I went up against Yu Darvish, perhaps the most intimidating pitcher in Japanese history. Before joining the Texas Rangers this season, Darvish pitched from 2005-11 for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, compiling a nifty 93-38 record with an ERA of 1.99.

I gave Darvish no trouble. “Batter out,” the cardboard umpire barked in barely discernible English after I swung and missed for the third time. The next batter was a Japanese boy who looked to be about 12. He promptly doubled off the wall.

Japan Baseball Hall of Fame virtual batting cage

Facing Japanese pitching greats in the Hall of Fame’s virtual batting cage

The first thing visitors see when entering the museum is a trophy case full of memorabilia from the inaugural two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009, both of which were won by Japan. It made me wonder about the quality of play in Japan. How does it compare to American baseball?

“A lot of people ask me about the level of play here,” said Graczyk. “It’s higher than Triple-A, but lower than the major leagues.”

And what about the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, winners of last year’s Japan Series, Nippon Professional Baseball’s equivalent of the World Series? How would they have fared in the majors?

“I don’t think they would have made the postseason,” he said. Would they have had a winning record? “Probably not.” But Graczyk added that he thought there are enough high-caliber players in the country — as evidenced by the success players such as Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki have enjoyed in the U.S. — that a Japanese all-star team could possibly make the playoffs in MLB.

View of the Tokyo Dome from above

    View of “The Big Egg” from the Tokyo Dome Hotel

It was now two hours before game time — when they were scheduled to open the gates — and a large crowd was already lined up waiting to get inside. Before going in, I walked over to the Tokyo Dome Hotel and rode an elevator up the 40th floor for a better view of the stadium. I could see why the Dome, which opened in 1988 and was the first covered baseball venue in Japan, is commonly referred to as “The Big Egg.” From above, that’s exactly what it looks like.

I was surprised to learn that the Arizona State football team once played a game at the Tokyo Dome. In 1990 ASU faced the University of Houston in a regular-season game called the “Coca Cola Bowl.” Apparently the Sun Devils’ secondary was suffering from a severe case of jetlag. They gave up 716 yards in the air by Houston quarterback David Klingler in a 62-45 loss, a record that still stands as the most passing yards in an NCAA game.

After grabbing a quick lunch of traditional Japanese noodle soup at a stand outside the stadium, I entered the Tokyo Dome. From the inside, it looked comparable to most of the cookie-cutter domed stadiums built in America in the 1980s. Functional, but not exactly bursting with personality.

I took a walk around the concourse to check out the concession stands. They had all the usual ballpark fare found back home, including hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream. But the stand that seemed to be the busiest was selling something you won’t find at Chase Field — a bento box. This is a traditional Japanese meal served in a plastic box. You get some sort of fish or meat, rice, pickled vegetables and other local delicacies that you likely won’t be able to discern, each in their own compartment.

Tokyo Dome Bento Box concession stand

Bento box concession stand inside the Tokyo Dome

I had tried a bento box a couple of days before in Tokyo. Even though I had struggled with the chopsticks, it made for a quick and tasty lunch. I had paid 400 yen (about $5) for mine, about one-third of what they were charging at the Tokyo Dome.

In addition to domed stadiums, artificial turf and the designated hitter, it seems the Japanese have imported something else from American baseball — the art of concession-stand price gouging.

The Dome was filling up and I took my seat. Before coming to Japan, I had looked on a map to find where the cities of Yomiuri and Hanshin are located. Then I found out that many Japanese teams aren’t named for the cities in which they’re located, but rather their corporate owners. Yomiuri is a huge Japanese media conglomerate and Hanshin is a railway company.

The Giants, though, are most closely associated with Tokyo, and the Tigers play their home games near Osaka. Graczyk told me the Giants — historically the most successful franchise in Japanese baseball — are somewhat akin to the New York Yankees. People either love them or hate them.

Tokyo Dome scoreboard

The starting lineups on the Tokyo Dome’s scoreboard

I had gotten a sense of this at my hotel that morning when I told Iida, the front-desk clerk, I was going to the game. Iida barely spoke English but he had no trouble summoning the words when I asked him if he rooted for the Giants. “No,” he said without hesitation. “Why not?” I asked. “Giants are here,” he said, with his hand at eye-level. “I like the teams here,” he added, dropping his hand a couple of feet.

Explained Graczyk: “A lot of people here like to root for the underdog.”

The Yomiuri Giants’ uniforms closely resemble the uniforms worn by their American namesake — the San Francisco Giants. Being a loyal Diamondbacks fan, I decided to root against them, too.

The Giants were the home team, but it seemed as if the stadium was equally split between supporters of the two teams. I happened to be surrounded mostly by Tigers fans, many of whom were wearing yellow, while Giants’ fans were dressed in orange. The stadium looked like a giant citrus orchard.

Once the game started, the noise was incessant. There was the constant clanking together of miniature plastic bats with team logos that many fans had brought with them. There also was chanting and singing in unison, orchestrated from each team’s cheering section in the outfield bleachers. Known as an oendan, these sections were the epicenters of organized cheers that reverberated throughout the stadium.

Tokyo Dome baseball sellout

The Yomiuri Giants face the Hanshin Tigers in a soldout Tokyo Dome

I had no idea what the fans were chanting and singing, just that it was loud and in unison. I asked the people sitting next to me to translate the cheers for me, but no one seemed to speak English.

Finally, in the bottom of the second inning, as Giants pitcher Tetsuya Utsumi walked to the plate (there are two six-team leagues in Nippon Professional Baseball; the Pacific League uses the DH, while the Central League — which includes the Giants and Tigers — does not) the crowd broke out in a song I could understand — “Happy Birthday.”

Turned out, it was Utsumi’s 30th birthday.

Later in the game, I took a walk to get a closer look at the Tigers’ oendan in the left-field bleachers. Huge flags were being waved and I heard drums, tambourines and trumpets making music under the direction of a fan holding signs in the front row — like the captain of a cheerleading squad at a college football game. The colors, songs and cheers were different, but the same thing was going on in the right-field bleachers, the heart of the Giants’ oendan.

Hanshin Tigers baseball fans

The Hanshin Tigers’ oendan in the left-field bleachers

What I saw on the field didn’t look much different than back home. There are only a few major rules differences between Japanese and American baseball. The regular season in Japan is 144 games, compared to 162 in the U.S. Japanese teams are each allowed a maximum of four foreign players. And if an extra-inning game in Japan is still tied after three-and-a-half hours, they won’t start a new inning and the game ends in a tie. Games lasting into the early morning hours just don’t work in Japan.

“Around the Tokyo Dome, there’s no parking,” Graczyk said. “Everybody comes to the game by train. And the trains stop running shortly after midnight.”

Utsumi celebrated his birthday by throwing seven scoreless innings and the Giants won, 2-0. After the victory, the Giants’ players bowed in unison to their fans. The following day the two teams played to an 11-inning scoreless tie. Offensive production is way down in Japan the past two seasons; some believe the decline stems from a change to a less-lively baseball introduced at the start of the 2011 season.

Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. A decent-quality sushi dinner can easily cost $100. A movie theater ticket is $24. Even a cup of tea can set you back $5.

Yomiuri Giants baseball fans

Diehard fans root for the Yomiuri Giants

But baseball is a relative bargain, with prices comparable to what you’d pay to see a Major League game. I purchased my seat — behind home plate 10 rows from the top of the stadium — several weeks earlier online for 2,300 yen (about $29). When I bought the ticket in early April, there were only a handful of seats available in the entire 42,000-seat Dome. More than 3,000 fans were admitted with standing-room tickets, pushing the paid attendance to 45,164.

The Hall of Fame also is reasonably priced. Admission is just 500 yen ($6.25) and they’ll give you a 20 percent discount if you present a ticket for that day’s game.

I’ve attended a hockey game in Latvia, kickboxing in Thailand, and a soccer match in Brazil. Going to a sports event abroad — like a Japanese baseball game — can often give insight into a culture that you just can’t get in a museum, castle or religious shrine.

In addition to writing about baseball, Graczyk works for a company — JapanBall.com — that offers baseball tours in which visitors can attend games in all 12 Japanese big-league ballparks.

“It’s one of the things you should see when you come to Japan,” said Graczyk. “It’s just an awesome experience.”

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Saint Lucia Pitons

St. Lucia’s twin Pitons are a Caribbean marvel

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Island boasts stunning scenery, “drive-in volcano”

The Arizona Republic — February 5, 2012

SOUFRIERE, St. Lucia — “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the majestic Pitons.”

St Lucia's Pitons

St. Lucia’s twin volcanic cones, Gros Piton and Petit Piton

Our group of 18 applauds as our tour bus stops at a viewing point just outside the fishing port of Soufriere on St. Lucia’s west coast. Anthony, our guide, gives us a few minutes to get out and snap pictures of perhaps the most iconic natural splendor in all the Caribbean.

It is a moment I had eagerly awaited since our cruise ship, the Holland America Maasdam, set sail a week earlier from Fort Lauderdale on an 11-day southern Caribbean cruise.

The view of these stunning twin volcanic cones — Gros Piton and Petit Piton — jutting 2,600 feet straight out of the cobalt-blue Caribbean, doesn’t disappoint.

Our six-hour tour is called the World Heritage Route, so named because the Pitons were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

But before we get to the base of the Pitons and their famous “drive-in volcano,” our drive takes us along a bumpy mountain road with hairpin turns that Anthony refers to as “the local roller-coaster.”

Marigot Bay

James Michener once called Marigot Bay “the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean”

We pass orchards of banana, coconut, mango and papaya trees, and incredibly lush rain forests that seem more evocative of an island in the South Pacific. The soil on this volcanic island is so fertile that there are more than 1,400 species of plants.

“If you put your feet into the ground, you also will grow a few inches taller yourself,” jokes Anthony, who in addition to one-liners, serenades us with Bob Marley songs as we head toward the Pitons.

We began the day when the Maasdam docked in Castries, the capital city of this island country located 21 miles from the French island of Martinique in the southeastern Caribbean. It’s a relatively small, mango-shaped island — only 238 square miles — about the same size as Chicago.

St. Lucia (pronounced loo-sha) has a history as bumpy as its roads. Coveting its strategic location and breathtaking beauty, the French and British went to battle 14 times over the island in a period spanning nearly two centuries, before Great Britain finally won the colonial tug-of-war in 1814. St. Lucia declared its independence from the British in 1979.

After a relatively slow start in building its tourism industry compared with other Caribbean islands, the country has emerged in the past 20 years as a popular honeymoon destination and cruise-ship port of call. It’s also carving a niche in the growing field of ecotourism.

While the French have been gone for nearly 200 years, their influence remains strong, most notably in the names of many towns, the cuisine and the French-based Creole dialect spoken by the locals.

St. Lucia drive-in volcano

Sulphur Springs, billed as the “world’s only drive-in volcano”

Just 8 miles south of Castries, we reach our first stop — Marigot Bay. Writer James Michener once described it as “the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean.”

With dramatic tree-covered cliffs overlooking high-end resorts, restaurants, deserted white-sand beaches and a harbor full of luxurious yachts, it’s hard to argue with Michener’s assessment. A number of movies have been filmed here, including “Dr. Dolittle” (the original version starring Rex Harrison that was released in 1967, not the 1998 Eddie Murphy remake).

Marigot Bay’s stunning beauty aside, the main reason we came to St. Lucia was to see the Pitons. One hour later, we arrive near the base of the volcanic peaks in Soufriere, the former French capital of St. Lucia and the oldest town on the island, dating to 1746. Soufriere got its name — which means sulfur in French — because of the strong scent of the gas still emitted by the volcano today.

The scent intensifies as we enter Sulphur Springs, billed as the world’s only drive-in volcano. I’m tempted to hold my nose as we drive into the collapsed volcano’s lunarlike landscape, past plumes of heavy smoke and barren hills that have no vegetation because of the heavy concentration of sulfur in the air.

But Anthony tells us not to worry, as the gas carries healing properties. “The sulfur will make you look 10 years younger,” he reassures us.

Petit Piton

St. Lucia’s dramatic Petit Piton overlooks the Caribbean Sea

Our bus stops and we walk to a viewing point overlooking the bubbling tar pits. The volcano hasn’t fully erupted since 1766, so the odds are in our favor that we’ll survive this day, although scientists believe an eruption is likely in about 100 years.

Tourists used to be able to walk up to the tar pits. But that ended in the mid-1990s when a St. Lucian tour guide named Gabriel fell through the crust into one of the pits and suffered serious burns from the 200-degree water. He survived, and today the pool into which he fell bears his name. I walk about 200 yards down a hill and come to a spot where the water is a much milder 115 degrees. For $5, visitors can take a mud bath there.

After leaving the volcano, we stop at a nearby plantation called Morne Coubaril Estate to learn about the local vegetation and see an 18th-century donkey-powered sugar mill.

St. Lucia's Nobel Laureates

Statues in Castries honor the island’s two Nobel laureates

Following lunch of fish cakes and fruit, I take a five-minute walk from the plantation to a viewing point near the base of Petit Piton.

Had I been on St. Lucia for a longer stay, I would have hiked to the summit of Gros Piton, which takes about two hours each way. Hikers are required to hire a local guide to accompany them. It’s also possible to hike to the summit of Petit, although that is a much more difficult climb.

After the tour ended, I took a walk around downtown Castries, where about one-third of the island’s 173,000 residents live. Castries is not the prettiest capital city in the Caribbean; many of its historical buildings were destroyed by fire in 1948.

The heart of the city is Derek Walcott Square, named after a native son who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. Just a few feet from a statue honoring Walcott is a bust of St. Lucia’s other Nobel laureate, Arthur Lewis, who won the award in economics in 1977.

Holland America Maasdam

The Holland America Maasdam anchored in the Caribbean

The two men give St. Lucia the noteworthy distinction of being the sovereign country with the most Nobel laureates per capita in the world.

Back on the Maasdam after a very full day, we sailed north for our final stop, St. Maarten.  After we exited the Castries harbor, I caught one last glimpse of the Pitons.

The peaks were now more than 20 miles away, but still as magnificent and awe-inspiring as when I first laid eyes on them.

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Sisimiut Greenland

Greenland: Full of Stunning Scenery, Surprises

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Hurtigruten Fram explores west coast of world’s largest island

The Arizona Republic — August 14, 2011

UUMMANNAQ, Greenland — At the foot of a stunning heart-shaped mountain in a remote village on the west coast of Greenland, 375 miles north of the Arctic Circle, our small group of visitors from the Hurtigruten Fram cruise ship sits riveted to the words of a local hunter and fisherman.

Uummannaq, Greenland

A Hurtigruten tender shuttles passengers back to the Fram in Uummannaq, Greenland

Speaking in his native Greenlandic language, translated into English with the help of a fellow townsman, 61-year-old Ole Qvist leans on his dogsled and discusses the centuries-old techniques he uses to hunt seals, whales and the numerous types of fish in Uummannaq’s waters.

Suddenly, Qvist’s description of using seal-oil lamps to keep warm during the frigid Arctic nights is interrupted. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a ringing cellphone. While he chats for a couple of minutes, his fellow Greenlander takes out his phone and begins texting. Our group finds the incident hilarious and no one minds the brief high-tech hiatus.

Greenland is full of surprises. Only 56,000 people live on the world’s largest island, more than 80 percent of which is covered by ice, yet there are 55,000 cellphones. There are only about 100 miles of paved roads in the entire country, yet Greenland has one of the highest Internet-penetration rates in the world, even higher than the United States.

When it’s dark 24/7 and bitterly cold for several months of the year, cyberspace is a much easier way to stay connected than a dogsled.

Sisimiut Greenland

    Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest city

For travelers, there are other surprises. I was expecting the jaw-dropping beauty of fjords, icebergs, glaciers and scenic villages with brightly painted houses.

But I didn’t expect such a rich and welcoming culture. For the first time ever on a cruise, I felt as if the locals living in the small ports invaded by the Fram’s 226 mostly European passengers were as genuinely happy to see us as we were to see them.

And perhaps most surprisingly of all, I came home with more of a suntan than when I left. The June Arctic sun was strong, never set, and the gloves, scarf and hat I packed went unused until the final day, when a cold front blew in and dropped temperatures from the 50s to below freezing.

Sisimiut Greenland children

Children in Sisimiut take advantage of the mild summer weather

Greenland brings new meaning to “You can’t get there from here.” Technically, it is part of the North American continent and, at its closest point, is only 12 miles from Canada.

But there are no commercial flights to Greenland from North America. The only way to get there by plane is via Iceland or Denmark  (In 2012 Air Greenland added twice a week service from Nunavut in northern Canada during the summer months). 

To reach the Fram, a polar-expedition ship owned by the Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten, I flew to Copenhagen and caught a charter flight on Air Greenland to Kangerlussuaq, the country’s main international airport that was built by the American military during World War II.

The Fram was waiting for us anchored at the head of Kangerlussuaq Fjord, a 15-minute bus ride from the airport.

Hurtigruten Fram in Greenland

    The Hurtigruten Fram anchored amidst the icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland

Greenland had long been high on my wish list of places to visit, even more so than Antarctica. Both offer spectacular scenery and wildlife, but only Greenland has an indigenous culture, with both Inuit and Scandinavian influences.

I guess I’m more interested in learning about people than penguins.

Various Inuit cultures have lived here on and off for the past 4,000 years, surviving on hunting and fishing. Scandinavians started arriving at the end of the 10th century; Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814 and still belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark, although it now enjoys almost complete autonomy. The currency is Denmark’s krone, and most people are bilingual, speaking both Danish and Greenlandic.

Greenland children

Greenlanders are an interesting blend of Inuit and Danish cultures

Cruising is the most economical and practical way to see Greenland, as there are no roads linking the towns and flights within the country are sporadic and expensive. Hurtigruten is the leading player in the Greenland cruise market, with weeklong itineraries offered in summer that go up and down Disko Bay on the west coast. Some of the bigger cruise lines, including Princess and Holland America, make brief stops in Greenland on transatlantic sailings.

The first stop on the Fram’s itinerary was Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest “city.” Population: 5,200. The hub of the town is a fish-processing plant, Sisimiut’s leading employer. Hurtigruten organized a two-hour “Hike Back in Time,” which took us to ancient Inuit graves and hunting grounds. At the end of the day we were treated to a kayak demonstration in the harbor.

Sisimiut was the only stop on our itinerary that had a pier large enough to handle the Fram. For the rest of our stops, we dropped anchor and the ship’s tender boats — “Polar Cirkels” — shuttled us back and forth to the villages, or “settlements” as they are called here.

Greenland school children

Elementary school students on a nature walk in Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland

In the town of Qeqertarsuaq, on the volcanic Disko Island, we were on a guided hike through a valley watching humpback whales feeding in the harbor when we encountered children from a local elementary school on a field trip. Their teacher, Pilunnguaq Broberg, said nature walks are an essential part of the Greenlandic curriculum because so many of the students will end up making a living from hunting and fishing.

“Nature is very important to the Greenlandic people,” she said. “We get our food from nature.” She said the staples of their diet are fish, seal, whale and reindeer.

Our Hurtigruten expert lecturers repeatedly reminded us that we were on an “expedition,” not a cruise. They also taught us the Greenlandic word for “maybe” — immaqa. That meant nothing is certain in Greenland and that we should expect possible changes in the itinerary due to unpredictable weather and ice conditions.

Ilulissat iceberg

 A large iceberg near Ilulissat, Greenland

Indeed, too many icebergs in the harbor forced us to cancel a stop in Illulissat, home to the most productive glacier in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scientists believe an iceberg that calved from the Illulissat glacier likely sank the Titanic. Although we weren’t able to see the glacier, we spent a marvelous morning viewing the icebergs up close on rides in the Polar Cirkels.

In addition to whales, we saw wild muskox, which look like hairy goats on steroids, and Greenlandic dogs. These are working sled dogs, not pets, that closely resemble huskies. In some of the towns we visited, sled dogs outnumber people.

Greenlandic sled dogs

 Greenlandic sled dogs in Itilleq, Greenland

Polar bears typically aren’t found in this part of Greenland. But as we stopped at an island overlooking the Eqip Sermia glacier, Janus Kleist, a native Greenlander and a member of Hurtigruten’s expedition team, stood guard at the top of a bluff with binoculars and a shotgun, just in case a polar bear emerged from the water.

“Better safe than sorry,” he said.

Our final stop was perhaps my favorite. Itilleq is a town of about 100 people just a few hundred yards north of the Arctic Circle. The villagers welcomed us into their homes for a Greenlandic custom called kaffeemik, a social gathering in which visitors are served coffee and homemade cakes.

Eqip Sermia Glacier

Hurtigruten passengers gaze at the Eqip Sermia glacier

Afterward, a team of the ship’s passengers played soccer against the locals on a grassless field overlooking the harbor. The team from Itilleq prevailed, 6-4. I was the only American on the Fram side and no doubt reinforced the stereotype that soccer isn’t our best sport.

No one on our team seemed to mind losing, though. We had just spent a week cruising around one of the most remote — and ruggedly beautiful — places on Earth.

© 2011 Dan Fellner

Cruising Briare Canal in France

Barging Through France on French Country Waterways

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Eight-passenger Princess offers a luxurious and slow-paced way to experience provincial France

The Arizona Republic — September 16, 2012

LOIRE VALLEY, France — Never before has traveling so slowly brought such a huge rush.

French Country Waterways' Princess on the Briare Canal

The Princess slowly traverses the Briare Canal

We’re cruising the Briare Canal in the Loire Valley south of Paris on a small barge and are being passed by pedestrians taking a leisurely stroll on a gravel path next to the canal. Our top-speed on this six-day cruise never exceeds 3 mph, and during the entire trip we traverse a grand total of 30 miles.

Our dawdling pace is fine with us. As the barge drifts by small villages, vineyards and medieval chateaux in the French countryside, a tout de suite mentality seems as out of place here as a sprawling shopping mall.

Barge cruising is a little-known offshoot of the growing European river cruise market. Barges tend to be smaller than their riverboat cousins, carry fewer passengers, and are able to navigate narrow canals that give cruisers a more intimate and rural traveling experience. Some also offer food and wine worthy of Louis XIV.

I was on an elegant barge called the Princess, one of four vessels cruising this year in the fleet of French Country Waterways, the only American-owned barge cruise company operating in France.

French Country Waterways's Princess

The Princess was built in 1973 for a billionaire shipping magnate

In addition to the Loire Valley, FCW barges – none of which carries more than a dozen passengers — cruise through canals in the French regions of Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine.

The Princess, originally built in 1973 as a private barge for billionaire shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig, can hold up to eight passengers and an additional six crew members. It feels less like a cruise ship and more like a floating bed-and-breakfast — with lunch, dinner and top-shelf French wines and cheese thrown in as well.

It’s the only time I’ve been on a cruise in which I memorized everyone else’s name – including the crews’ – by the second day. Half of the six crew members were from England; the rest were French, but everyone spoke English.

At the beginning of the week, our captain and tour guide, Joanne Padbury, picked up our group of four couples at a Paris hotel and drove us in a van about 60 miles south to the ancient walled-town of Montargis.  There, the Princess was waiting for us moored in the Briare Canal.

Montargis, France

Montargis is known as the “Venice of Gatinais”

One of the oldest canals in France, the Briare opened for traffic in 1642.  In those days, barges were pulled by horses on towpaths.   Before trains came along, river and canal barges were one of the safest and most efficient ways to transport both people and goods in Europe.

But their importance waned over the centuries, and now French barges are used primarily by vacationers and the canals maintained by the government for their historic importance and scenic beauty.

The towpaths still remain and we used them to take walks and ride bicycles stored on the back deck of the Princess. While we were cruising, Padbury would drive the van each day through the nearby villages to pick up fresh croissants at boulangeries for breakfast and ingredients at other shops that our French chef, Jean-Yann Attica, would whip into wonderful meals. Padbury would also use the van to take our small group on sightseeing excursions.

Loire Valley wildflowers

Wildflowers in the Loire Valley

Montargis, with a population of about 60,000 including its suburbs, was easily the largest town on our itinerary. We took a walking tour through its historic downtown and saw how the “Venice of Gatinais” earned its nickname.

Like Venice, Montargis has a large network of waterways cutting through the heart of town and there are 131 bridges — many adorned with beautiful flowers – that cross them. At the end of the tour we were treated to a praline-tasting at a candy store, at which Padbury bought our supply of chocolate goodies for the week.

The next two days the Princess was moored in the village of Rogny-les-Sept-Ecluses, named for its seven locks that were built in the 17th century. These locks, which resemble a large staircase, are no longer in use but remain an intriguing site for visitors.

Numerous other lock stations in the canal – every few hundred yards or so — still function. The aquatic elevators are needed to compensate for changes in elevation in the Loire Valley.

Loic, our pilot, would steer the Princess into a lock station with the precision of a surgeon, as there were just a few inches to spare on both sides of the barge. A lock keeper, who typically lives in a home adjacent to the station, would then close a large door behind the vessel. If we were going up, water would pour into the lock, enabling the Princess to rise several feet, just as a rubber duck rises when a bathtub is filled.

Chateau de Chambord

The Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Watching the process unfold over and over again never got boring. The lock stations also were a convenient place for us to get off the barge for walks and bike rides.

While moored in Rogny, our crew taught us to play the popular French game of petanque (pronounced pay-tonk). Contested on a gravel field with hollow steel balls, petanque is somewhat similar to the Italian game of bocce. The slow-paced and cerebral game seemed a perfect fit with the laidback tone of the cruise.

In terms of sightseeing, the highlight of the week was a trip to the largest and most famous chateau in the Loire Valley, the Chateau de Chambord. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chambord was built in the early 1500s as a hunting lodge for King François I.

It has 426 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 77 staircases, including a unique double-spiral staircase that links the chateau’s three floors. Some historians believe Chambord was designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

Pont de Canal

Entrance to the Pont de Canal

We also visited an even older chateau in St. Fargeau, which dates back to the 15th century. And there were excursions to a winery in Chavignol, a pottery factory in Gien, and a cruise through an engineering marvel called the Pont de Canal.

This watery bridge takes the Briare Canal high across the Loire River. Designed by Gustave Eiffel – yes, the same Eiffel best known for the Paris tower – the Pont de Canal was the longest navigable aqueduct in the world from 1896 until the Magdeburg Water Bridge opened in Germany in 2003.

Our forays into French life were punctuated each evening with delightful four-course, three-hour dinners, which included presentations from the crew about the French cheeses and wines we were served – many of which had attained prestigious Grand Cru or Premier Cru status. At the captain’s dinner our final night aboard the Princess, we were presented with copies of the menus, wine labels, and a cheese list for the connoisseurs among us who wanted to enjoy the same wines and cheeses back home.

Princess chef Jean-Yann Attica

Chef Jean-Yann Attica prepares a meal

We had been concerned about cruising with such a small group of people. What if we weren’t compatible? With only eight passengers aboard, lunches and dinners are eaten together at one table. There’s no place to hide.

But our fears proved to be unfounded. The three other couples – two of whom were American, the other Australian – were delightful travel companions and our mealtime conversations were as interesting and enjoyable as the passing scenery.

“Some people come onboard with a bit of trepidation, realizing that you’re only going to meet three other couples,” said Padbury, who has worked for French Country Waterways for 10 years, the past four as a captain and guide.

“But I personally like the intimacy. I like the fact that I get to know my clients by the end of the week, about their families, their jobs, even how they take their coffee. There’s a connection.”

Princess captain Joanne Padbury

Joanne Padbury, captain of the Princess, leads a sightseeing tour in the Loire Valley

At the end of the cruise, we climbed into the van once more and Padbury drove us north back to Paris via a four-lane highway. It took us less than a half-hour to reach Montargis, where the Princess had started its journey on the canal six days earlier.

The trip going south on the barge had been much slower, but a lot more enriching. We had taken the same mode of transportation along the same route the locals had used nearly 400 years ago – and gotten a wonderful taste of French culture in the process.

© 2012 Dan Fellner

Swaziland children

Swaziland or bust!

By | Cruising, Swaziland | No Comments

It’s not easy to get to this small African kingdom

 The Arizona Republic – March 4, 2009

LOMAHASHA, Swaziland — I had just returned to the Silversea Silver Wind after a day of sightseeing in Maputo, Mozambique, when the voice of Capt. Gennaro Arma came over the ship’s public address system.

Mozambique women

Mozambican women carrying produce on their heads

Along with about 200 other passengers, I was midway through a 16-day cruise on the luxurious Silver Wind, which started in Cape Town, South Africa, and ended in Mombasa, Kenya. Thus far, it had been an amazing cruise.  I had seen lions, rhinos and zebras on mini-safaris during prior port stops in South Africa and learned more about the native Zulu culture.

In a thick Italian accent, Capt. Arma announced that there was a bad storm in the Mozambique Channel to the north, in the direction where we were scheduled to sail that evening. Therefore, the Silver Wind would be forced to stay docked in Maputo for another 24 hours.

One thought immediately popped into my head: Swaziland or bust.

I had wanted to visit the small Kingdom of Swaziland that day, only about 50 miles from Maputo, but was unable to find a reliable and reasonably priced car and driver to make the trip.  Now with an unexpected extra day, I hoped I could make the necessary arrangements.

Why the fascination with Swaziland?  Well, for one thing, there was something exotic about the name that had always intrigued me. And I knew it was one of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, meaning the King has complete power.  Also, one day was more than enough to spend in Maputo, a congested city with few tourist attractions and pesky hawkers constantly in my face trying to sell tacky souvenirs.

Finally, it would be a chance to check another country off the list. I have long wanted to join a fairly exclusive group called the Travelers’ Century Club.  To be eligible, you have to visit at least 100 countries.  I’ve now been to more than 90 and a visit to Swaziland would get me one step closer to membership.

Flat tire in Mozambique

Dudley changes a tire, attracting a small crowd in the Mozambican countryside

I approached Mr. Rudy, the local port agent on board.  Did he know someone who could take me to Swaziland the following day? I told him it was essential that the car be reliable and comfortable and that the driver speaks good English.  He nodded and said he would have the details for me the following morning.

I spent the evening trying to recruit fellow passengers to join me. There’s always safety in numbers and sharing the cost would be nice, too.  After a bit of cajoling, I was able to get commitments from Linda, a retired accountant from Georgia (and a fellow country-counter), and Bob, an attorney from Illinois.

The next morning Mr. Rudy said he had lined up a reliable car and driver. “Of course,” he said, when I asked him if the driver spoke English.  We agreed on the fare — $400 — which Linda, Bob and I would split.

As we left the ship at 10 a.m., we were reminded by a Silver Wind staff member that the ship would be sailing that afternoon for Madagascar at 5 p.m., with or without us.  We only planned on a four or five-hour trip, so that gave us plenty of time to spare.

Mr. Rudy drove the three of us to the port entrance about a mile from the ship where Dudley, our driver, was waiting in a white Toyota four-door Land Cruiser.  We were off on our adventure to Swaziland.

Or so we thought.

Dudley drove a few blocks through Maputo’s chaotic traffic and abruptly pulled into some sort of service station.  The next thing I knew someone was adding oil to the engine and replacing a bald front left tire.

Mozambique traffic jam

Traffic jam in Mozambique: Waiting for cows to cross the road

I looked around the vehicle.  There were no seatbelts in the backseat (more a problem for Linda and Bob as I had grabbed the front seat next to Dudley), no air conditioning (temperatures that day were in the high 80s with humidity to match), and a cracked windshield with a wiper dangling from its holder like a broken twig.  I think my window was the only one in the car that actually moved up or down.

This definitely did not appear to be a reliable and comfortable vehicle as Mr. Rudy had promised.  From the backseat, Bob suggested that perhaps Mr. Rudy hadn’t deliberately misled us.  By Mozambican standards, maybe this was a reliable and comfortable vehicle.  Bob also suggested that we consider aborting the trip and scrap our sojourn to Swaziland.

But it was too soon to give up.  I did voice my discontent to Dudley, who simply smiled and said, “It’s okay.” By now, the tire had been replaced and Dudley tried to start the engine but nothing happened.  He yelled something out the window, two guys came over to give us a push, the Land Cruiser sprung to life, and once again, we were on our way.

Not an auspicious beginning to our trip.

After another stop for gas, we were finally headed out of Maputo into the Mozambican countryside.  But I checked my watch and it was already 11 a.m.  Our unexpected stops had cost us an hour’s worth of precious time and we were only just underway.

As for Dudley’s English, that also left something to be desired — a lot, in fact.  The longest sentence he was able to string together during the course of the day was, “I like Obama,” which he said with a huge smile when I asked him about the new American president.

But Dudley did understand the word “stop,” which we would utter from time to time so we could stop and take pictures along the way.  I was especially fascinated by the site of Mozambican women carrying huge loads of produce in baskets on their heads as they walked along the side of the road.  No wonder they all seemed to have such excellent posture.

One time, though, Dudley pulled the Toyota over without our prompting.  He got out of the car and I heard him utter something that must have been a curse word in his indigenous language (Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique, reflecting the country’s history as a colony of Portugal, but a number of indigenous languages are also spoken, including Swahili).

Swazi children

     Swazi children

I got out and took a look for myself.  That same front left tire that had been replaced back in Maputo had gone flat.

Dudley got to work changing the tire. We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but within minutes, several children appeared to watch Dudley put on the spare.  When you can’t afford an Xbox and video games, I guess this sort of thing makes interesting entertainment.

By now, the three of us were quite concerned.  What if another tire would go flat? Dudley had already put on the spare.

I had visions of being stranded in the middle of nowhere at 5 p.m. while the Silver Wind sailed away.  I had planned to eat in La Terrazza, the ship’s specialty Italian restaurant that night.  Would the grilled veal I craved end up on someone else’s plate?

Also, it would most likely cost a fortune to fly to Nosy Be, a small island off the coast of Madagascar that was the Silver Wind’s next stop on our itinerary.  In fact, did planes even fly there?

Undeterred, Dudley put the spare tire on and we were ready to resume our journey.  Soon, the countryside changed from flat to mountainous, with lush green hills as we headed southwest to Swaziland.  At one point we had to stop for a herd of cows to cross the road.

Sensing our apprehension about the time, Dudley picked up speed and as it was starting to drizzle, I got a bit nervous as the Land Cruiser negotiated the road’s twists and turns.

It was now past noon and Swaziland was still nowhere in sight.  Finally, we drove into the Mozambican border town of Nemaacha, where vendors selling fruits and vegetable lined the roadside.

Mozambique-Swaziland border

   The sign I thought I would never see

We pulled into the immigration office for what we hoped would be a perfunctory process.  I had done some research and knew that Swaziland did not require a visa.  But the problem was with the Mozambican side of the border.  With our passports laid out in front of him, a border official was lecturing Dudley about something.  Sternly shaking his head, he kept saying the same thing over and over again in a language we couldn’t understand.

“This couldn’t be good,” I said to Bob and Linda, wondering if it was time to consider deploying the universally used tool known to work at border crossings all over the world — the bribe.

Turned out that anything under the table was unnecessary, Dudley told us.  We just needed to pay $25 each for the privilege of leaving Mozambique.  We would also have to pay $25 to reenter the country.

This trip was starting to get expensive.

But we had cleared our last obstacle, and when the bar was raised at the border crossing to let the Land Cruiser drive onto Swaziland soil, I felt like Sir Edmund Hillary at the summit of Mount Everest, with Dudley as my Sherpa.

Portrait of Swaziland's King Mswati

Portrait of Swaziland’s King Mswati on the wall of a Lomahasha shop

Swaziland, at last!

By now, though, with delays due to car problems, picture stops, cow herds and bureaucracy at the border, it was already time to head back to Maputo to catch our ship.  We had time only to take a quick peek at Lomahasha, the Swazi border town.

We popped into a shop and saw a portrait of the ruler of Swaziland, His Majesty King Mswati III.  He was born in 1968, four months before Swaziland became independent from Great Britain, and succeeded his father as absolute monarch in 1986.

From what I heard, the King, who has 14 wives and 23 children, has some pretty tough challenges to deal with in the country, including an HIV infection rate near 40 percent, highest in the world.

All told, we spent about 45 minutes in Swaziland.  The only souvenirs we could find were some coins in the Swazi currency, known as the lilangeni.  But Swazi t-shirts or fridge magnets were nowhere to be found.

On Swazi soil

          Our intrepid group standing firmly on Swazi soil

All we needed was a quick bathroom break (and to pay another $25 at the border crossing) and we were ready to head back to Maputo.  Bob and I had to pay $1 to use a bathroom that was two-inches deep in water — at least we hoped it was water. Unfortunately for Linda, the women’s bathroom was out of order.

The Land Cruiser needed another push to leave the border area and when Dudley asked Linda if she wanted to stop at a hotel on the way back to use the facilities, she politely declined.  We knew that each time we stopped, we might not be able to start.

With about one hour to spare, we arrived back at the ship.  It had been a true African adventure and after a bit more turmoil and stress than we would have cared for, we had reached our destination and safely returned.

My Swaziland dream had come true. And I had set foot on the soil of another country, if only for a few minutes.

Now back on the ship, it was time for some grilled veal and a stiff drink.

© 2009 Dan Fellner
moldova salsa

Mexican food, Moldovan style!

By | Moldova | No Comments

Good salsa, spicy food hard to find in Eastern Europe

The Arizona Republic – February 21, 2006

CHISINAU, Moldova – It was my first Saturday night in Moldova and already I was starting to feel a bit homesick. I needed something to remind me of home.

The U.S. Embassy had given me a welcome packet when I arrived, which included a list of recommended restaurants. A place on the list called “Cactus Saloon” caught my eye. “Mexican food, Moldovan style,” the description read.

It was in the low 20s outside and the icy sidewalks and dimly lit streets made the 20-minute walk to 41 Armeneasca St. a bit dicey. But I wanted a taste of home – preferably in the form of chips and salsa followed by a bean burrito or chicken fajitas.

I arrived at the Cactus Saloon and immediately was impressed by two things. The place was packed, always a good sign. I grabbed the last empty table. And the decor truly looked like a Mexican restaurant, with pictures of the Old West and Mexico and even one of those swinging saloon-doors. A mariachi band wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

Eastern European cuisine is notoriously bland but I had high hopes. Did the Serrano family have a distant cousin living in Chisinau?

My waiter, Nicolai, brought me a menu. Every dish was listed in three languages – Romanian (the dominant language in Moldova), Russian and English. But it might as well have been in Greek, because nothing looked remotely familiar to me, with the exception of Corona beer (priced three times higher than the local beer).

No tacos, tostados or tortillas. They had all sorts of chicken, meat and fish dishes, even soy meat, but all prepared in ways that seemed to be anything but Mexican.

Salsa in Eastern Europe

Ask for salsa in Eastern Europe and you’re likely to get ketchup with pepper poured on top

I called Nicolai over to the table. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you have anything spicy?” He mentioned some sort of “balsamic” sauce they had prepared and a dish involving chicken and almonds. I knew that wouldn’t satisfy my craving.

“Don’t you even have any salsa?” I asked.

Nicolai gave me a blank look. It was clear he didn’t understand. “Salsa,” I repeated more loudly, thinking he hadn’t heard me over the music blaring from the restaurant’s sound system.

“Oh yes, salsa,” he said. “I will check in the back.”

While I waited for him to return, I remembered the time I had asked for salsa at a “Mexican” restaurant in Latvia, another country in Eastern Europe. They ended up bringing me a bowl of ketchup with pepper poured on top of it. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut.

“I am sorry,” Nicolai said after returning from the back. “No salsa. We only play rock ‘n roll and maybe a little jazz.” There would be no salsa for me this night.

Moldovan soup

Traditional Moldovan soup — with a glob of cream on top

As it turned out, though, the meal was quite good. I had chicken in some sort of mystery sauce with potatoes and a roll on the side. It just wasn’t what I had expected.

That’s the key to enjoying a Moldovan dining experience. Leave your pre-conceived expectations at the door, because you never quite know what you’re going to get. You do know it’s going to be different than back home, and that’s part of the fun.

My very first day in Moldova, still jetlagged from the 24-hour journey, I ordered something that I thought would be harmless comfort food – a vegetarian pizza. Then they brought it out. It was drenched in mayonnaise.

Indeed, Moldovans, like most other Eastern Europeans, love cream sauces, cheese, mayonnaise and other dairy products. Order a bowl of soup, and chances are it will come with a big glob of cream floating at the top. Cardiologists here never have to worry about running out of patients.

But I’ve had some meals that were wonderful. And you can’t beat the prices. Most meals out cost between $5 and $10, and that includes a glass of Moldovan wine, which is quite good.

When I truly long for the taste of home, there’s always McDonald’s. Chisinau has three of them. A Big Mac is a Big Mac, wherever you go.

As for my quest for salsa, I finally found it. Believe it or not, Chisinau actually has two Mexican restaurants. The second one I visited – called “El Paso” – was much more authentic. They even brought chips and salsa to my table as I was seated.

I’ve also learned to be more careful when I order. From now on, I specify “no cream” when ordering soup. At a pizza place, I ask for pepperoni and black olives.

And please, hold the mayo.

© 2008 Dan Fellner

Hong Kong skyline

The Jewish Traveler: Hong Kong

By | Hong Kong, Jewish Travel | No Comments

World-renowned for its dense maze of skyscrapers, Jews have added a unique twist to the island’s architecture, making for themselves a ‘vertical shtetl.’

Hadassah Magazine – October/November, 2011

Despite concerns when the British handed its colony back to the Chinese in 1997, Hong Kong remains very much open for business. The world’s “freest economy” for the last 16 years — according to the Heritage Foundation — also continues to be a hospitable home to one of the most prosperous and diverse Jewish communities in the diaspora.

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

  View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

Hong Kong’s economic vitality — its seemingly endless crop of skyscrapers, incessant construction and its busy port — is easily apparent from the top of Victoria Peak, a 15-minute tram ride from the city center. On a clear day, it offers stunning views.

The hub of Jewish life lies halfway down the peak in a part of Hong Kong known as the Mid-Levels, a popular residential area for the island’s general expatriate community. One of Asia’s grandest synagogues anchors a complex that includes two congregations, a Jewish Community Center, a kosher supermarket and a Jewish day school. So many Jews live in the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings that one local rabbi has dubbed the area a “vertical shtetl.”

Ohel Leah Synagogue in Hong Kong

Ohel Leah dwarfed by Hong Kong skyscrapers

 

History
Drawn by trading opportunities with ports in China, Jews began arriving in Hong Kong soon after it became a British colony in 1842. Many came from Iraq and India. In 1858, the small community was formally recognized by the colonial British government, which granted land for the establishment of the first Jewish cemetery, which is still in use today.

Hong Kong census figures indicated only 40 Jews lived on the island in 1872. But by the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population had more than quadrupled, boosted by an influx of refugees from Eastern Europe.

At the turn of the century, it became clear there was a need for a permanent synagogue to accommodate the growing and prospering community. The Sassoon family, prominent Iraqi Jewish merchants, donated land above the city center on Robinson Road and the money to build the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Opened in 1902, it was named after Leah Gubbay, the mother of the three Sassoon brothers.

Hong Kong Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish Cemetery was established more than 150 years ago

Three years later, the Kadoories, another prominent Sefardic family from Iraq and later India, funded the construction of a Jewish Recreation Club next to the synagogue. The Kadoories and other families also established the Ohel Leah Trust, which owns the valuable land surrounding the synagogue, some of which has since been developed into high-rise residential buildings. To this day, the trust remains a vital source of funding for Jewish life in Hong Kong.

The Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War II and many Jews were held in prisoner-of-war camps. A plaque inside Ohel Leah honors 13 members of the Jewish community who died in defense of Hong Kong between 1941 and 1945. The synagogue was requisitioned by the Japanese but survived relatively intact. Immediately following the war, Hong Kong was a transit point for Jewish refugees leaving Shanghai, which had provided a safe haven for 20,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Ohel Leah war plaque

Plaque inside Ohel Leah Synagogue

In the last half of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s emergence as a global economic power and the opening of trade with China led to a dramatic jump in its Jewish population. Jewish businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, teachers, computer experts and other professionals arrived from America, Western Europe and Israel.

Community
It is believed that Hong Kong is now home to about 5,000 Jews, though estimates vary due to the transient nature of the community. Many are expatriates, living on the island while on short-term work assignments.

The community’s leading venue for cultural and social activities, the Jewish Community Center (70 Robinson Road; www.jcc.org.hk; 852-2801-5440), occupies several floors in a high-rise building next to the Ohel Leah Synagogue. Opened in 1995, it contains a swimming pool, banquet and meeting rooms, meat and dairy kosher restaurants and a kosher supermarket. The JCC complex also hosts one of the campuses of Carmel (www.carmel.edu.hk), the only Jewish day school in East Asia.

Ohel Leah Rabbi Asher Oser

 Ohel Leah Rabbi Asher Oser

 

With a membership of 190 families, Ohel Leah (70 Robinson Road; www.ohelleah.org; 852-2589-2621) is Hong Kong’s largest congregation. Rabbi Asher Oser, who joined the Modern Orthodox synagogue in 2010, reflects the global diversity of his congregation. He was born in Australia; educated in Canada, Israel and the United States; and most recently was a congregational rabbi in Providence, Rhode Island. “It’s a laboratory for how Jews from different places can get along,” he says of Ohel Leah, which has members from more than 20 countries.

The United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong (www.ujc.org.hk; 852-2523-2985), with 170 families, is Reform. It was founded in 1988 and meets in an auditorium adjacent to the JCC. It is headed by Rabbi Stanton Zamek, who previously led a congregation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He describes UJC membership as about 60 percent American, relatively young, career-oriented and successful. “They are in the top 5 percent of whatever they do,” he says.

Under the leadership of Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon and his wife, Goldie, Chabad-Lubavitch (7-9 Macdonnell Road, Hoover Court, 1st Floor; www.chabadhongkong.org; 852-2523-9770) has had a presence in Hong Kong since 1987. In recent years, Chabad also has opened branches in Kowloon — a peninsula across Victoria Harbor — and on Lantau Island, where the Hong Kong International airport is located.

Two Sefardic Orthodox congregations that cater primarily to Israeli expatriates were established in the 1990s. Shuva Israel (61 Connaught Road Central; www.shuva-israel.com; 852-2851-6300), and Kehilat Zion (62 Mody Road in Kowloon; www.kehilat-zion.org; 852-2368-0061) both have glatt kosher restaurants on their premises and are open to the public.

Since the handover in 1997, relations between Israel and Hong Kong have remained solid. In fact, Hong Kong is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and Israel is Hong Kong’s second-largest export market in the Middle East.

Israeli artists and musicians perform regularly in Hong Kong venues and the two governments collaborated to stage an Israeli film festival in January 2011.

Sights
Billing itself as “the crown jewel of Asian Jewry,” the Ohel Leah Synagogue is indeed a magnificent example of British colonial-Sefardic architecture. The building underwent a $6-million restoration in 1998 to upgrade it to modern standards, while still maintaining its original look. In 2000, the restoration was recognized by UNESCO, which presented the synagogue with an award for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

Phel Leah's antique Torah scrolls

  Ohel Leah’s antique Torah scrolls

The two-story, multiturreted synagogue’s main entrance is framed by colonial-style archways and columns. Inside, a large bima and rabbi’s lectern sit below elegant chandeliers hanging from light-blue ceilings. At the front, the Ten Commandments are beautifully engraved in Hebrew on a yellow wall above the Ark.

Visitors to Ohel Leah can see several antique Torah scrolls with Sefardic-style encasings housed in the Ark. Some date back to the 18th century.

The synagogue and JCC, in a complex perched on the slope of Victoria Peak, are easily accessible from the hotels and attractions in central Hong Kong. The most conventional way to reach the complex is by taxi, which takes about 10 minutes and normally costs less than $5.

Hong Kong escalator

  The world’s longest outdoor escalator

But for those wanting to save some money and experience up-close the sights, sounds and smells of Hong Kong street life, the world’s longest outdoor escalator offers a fun alternative. Riders can get on and off the half-mile-long covered people mover to shop, eat or explore in 29 different places. To get to the synagogue, take the Mid-Levels Escalator to Robinson Road, turn right and walk about five minutes up the road.

The well-maintained Jewish Cemetery (13 Shan Kwong Road) has been in continuous use since it was established more than 150 years ago. It sits next to a Buddhist monastery on a part of Hong Kong Island called Happy Valley, a 15-minute taxi-ride east of the JCC. About 360 Jews are buried there, including members of the Kadoorie family. All the gravestones have been catalogued by the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong JCC Library

  The Jewish Community Center’s Judaic Library

The JCC houses the largest library in the Far East dedicated to Jewish topics. It has more than 4,000 volumes, including a special collection of Sino-Judaic books and 300 audiovisual materials.

Owned by the Kadoorie family, the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon (Salisbury Road; 852-2920-2888; www.peninsula.com) has been Hong Kong’s poshest and most famous hotel since it opened in 1928. The Peninsula is known for its fleet of Rolls-Royce limousines and afternoon high tea, one of the few remaining traditions from British colonial days.

The Peninsula also played an important role in Hong Kong’s Jewish history. In 1946, about 300 Jewish refugees from Shanghai were stranded in Hong Kong with no place to stay. The Peninsula’s management converted its ballroom into a makeshift dormitory until they were able to leave Hong Kong six months later.

Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel

Hong Kong’s posh Jewish-owned Peninsula Hotel

The subway may be quicker, but the most enjoyable way to get to Kowloon from Hong Kong Island is on one of the white-and-green Star Ferries, which have been transporting passengers across Victoria Harbor since 1898. The trip takes less than 10 minutes and costs about 50 cents roundtrip. The views of Hong’s Kong’s skyline are magnificent.

Other Sights
The life of the Chinese revolutionary who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty is nicely chronicled in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum (7 Castle Road; 852-2367-6373). Sun was educated in Hong Kong, and the museum offers an interesting glimpse into the island’s history in the late 19th century. It is located just a couple of escalator stops below the JCC.

With a population of seven million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. A pleasant respite from the crowds and concrete is the Zoological and Botanical Gardens (Upper Albert Road; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks; 852-2530-0154). From the JCC, it is a 15-minute walk down Robinson Road. Admission is free.

Side Trip
Just a 75-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong across the Pearl River Estuary, the former Portuguese colony of Macao is a popular and easy day trip. Macao was returned to the Chinese two years after Hong Kong. Both are classified by China’s government as “Special Administrative Regions,” meaning that outside of defense and foreign affairs, they have a high level of autonomy. To go from one to the other, visitors must pass through immigration in both places.

Macao St. Paul's Church

  The ruins of St. Paul’s Church in Macao

Macao is best known for its growing number of huge and opulent casinos and has surpassed Las Vegas in gambling revenues. More than 90 percent of its visitors come from mainland China, where gambling is illegal. American casino and resort billionaire Sheldon Adelson recently expanded his Venetian-themed hotel and casino empire to Macao.

It is definitely worth straying from the casinos for at least a few hours to explore Macao’s unique blend of Portuguese-Sino culture. The historic town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features a mosaic pathway that leads past narrow, winding streets to the ruins of St. Paul’s Church at the top of a hill. Built in 1602, most of St. Paul’s was destroyed in a fire in 1835, leaving only its ornate façade.

Only a handful of Jews live in Macao, but Glenn Timmermans (gtimmer@umac.mo), an English professor at the University of Macao, is working to raise awareness of Jewish history and culture among the local population. Timmermans, who in 2010 took a group of 23 Chinese from Macao, Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland to Yad Vashem, has created an organization called the Association of Jewish Culture in Macao. It has staged modest Jewish film festivals for the past two years, and Timmermans hopes to organize symposia on the Holocaust and other Jewish-related topics.

Personalities
Sir Matthew Nathan served as Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor, from 1904-07. During that time, he also was Ohel Leah’s honorary president. Nathan was governor when Kowloon’s main thoroughfare was completed. Today, the bustling Nathan Road — named after Sir Matthew — is known as the “golden mile of shopping.”

Hong Kong Nathan Road

Nathan Road, named after Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor

Sir Michael Kadoorie, whose family wealth reportedly exceeds $5 billion, comes from a long line of Kadoories who helped play a key role in the development of Hong Kong Jewry. He is the son of Sir Lawrence Kadoorie, a visionary industrialist, hotelier and philanthropist who died in 1993. Sir Michael, a philanthropist in his own right, presides over the family’s holdings, including a sizeable stake in Hong Kong’s leading electricity provider as well as ownership of the Peninsula Hotel.

Reading

Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries: Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire (Weatherhill) by Michael Pollak, while not specific to Hong Kong, provides a good overview of Jewish history in the region, including traders along the famed Silk Road and the ancient Jews of Kaifeng.

John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbor (Penguin) is a historical novel about Hong Kong set from the 1930s to the early 21st century. Lanchester was raised in Hong Kong and paints a vivid picture of the island’s history during the British colonial era, Japanese occupation and postwar boom.

Asian Jewish Life (www.asianjewishlife.org), a quarterly not-for-profit magazine based in Hong Kong, was launched in 2010 by Erica Lyons, an American lawyer who has been living on the island since 2002. Hong Kong also has a monthly Jewish newspaper, Jewish Times Asia (http://jewishtimesasia.org).

Recommendations
For an authentic Cantonese dining experience, try one of the ubiquitous dim sum restaurants. Normally eaten for breakfast or lunch, dim sum – meaning light snack — comes in numerous varieties of dumplings, spring rolls and other concoctions. Diners typically choose several dishes and share with their tablemates. A good dim sum choice for vegetarians is Pure Veggie House (51 Garden Road; 852-2525-0552), located on the third floor of the Coda Plaza shopping center around the corner from Chabad.

Hong Kong Victoria Harbor

Star Ferries in Victoria Harbor

The Bishop Lei International House (4 Robinson Road; www.bishopleihtl.com.hk; 852-2868 0828) is one of the few hotels located in the Mid-Levels and is within easy walking distance of Ohel Leah and the JCC. It has 227 rooms, some with terrific views of the harbor below.

Unlike mainland China, most Western visitors do not need a visa to enter Hong Kong. Those who do come may feel overwhelmed at times by the sheer magnitude of a place referred to by some as Hong Kongcrete.

But in reality, more than 70 percent of Hong Kong is countryside. It’s never hard to find pockets of relative solitude — a Chinese temple or quiet park. And there are few destinations that offer such a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western cultures as well as a chance to witness firsthand one of the world’s most potent economies continuing to steamroll ahead.

© 2011 Dan Fellner

Moldova horse-cart in village

From sunshine to Moldova

By | Moldova | No Comments

Prof teaches journalism in icy clime

The Arizona Republic — January 31, 2006

CHISINAU, Moldova – It’s 7,000 miles and nine time zones between Phoenix and Chisinau, Moldova. It actually feels like it’s much farther than that.

Through the blowing snow outside the living room window of my second-floor apartment on Nicolae Iorga Street, I can see a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the courtyard of Moldova’s Communist Party headquarters.

Moldova's communist President Vladimir Voronin

Moldova’s communist President Vladimir Voronin and his wife

It isn’t a monument to a bygone era. Moldova, which endured a half-century of totalitarian rule as part of the Soviet Union until it emerged as the independent Republic of Moldova in 1991, has returned to its communist past. Its people elected a slate of communist leaders in 2001 and re-elected them last year.

But Moldova’s version of communism would make the real Lenin spin in his grave.

Communism here is much less ideological than the past and much more user-friendly. There are no forced labor camps, no KGB, and no bread lines. There are, however, free elections, a free-market economy, and the country is moving toward European integration.

Moldova also enjoys solid relations with the United States. Heather Hodges, the U.S. ambassador to Moldova, calls the relationship “positive and productive.” Moldova is even part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, having sent 65 troops there since 2003.

Chisinau statues of Lenin and Marx

   Statues of Lenin and Marx in Chisinau

Landlocked between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has a population of about 4 million people. Like many countries in this part of the world, it’s been batted back-and-forth between invading powers over the centuries and has struggled to maintain its cultural identity.

Moldovan is the country’s official language, but is as similar to Romanian as American English is to British English. Most Moldovans also speak Russian and it’s not uncommon for young people to speak at least a little English, which is widely taught in the schools.

Moldova’s economy, which was highly dependent on the rest of the Soviet Union for energy and raw materials, took a huge hit when the USSR disintegrated 15 years ago and has yet to fully recover. Today, it’s the poorest country in Europe, with an average salary of less than $100 a month. Many people need to hold down two or more jobs just to make ends meet.

Because wages are so low, an estimated one million Moldovans – mostly young people — have left the country in recent years to find work in other European countries. A Moldovan engineer or college professor can increase his or her salary tenfold by working as a construction worker in Portugal or housekeeper in Italy.

This exodus is part of the reason the communists have returned to power. Ghenadie Slobodeniuc, my landlord’s a 28-year-old son who is a lecturer in international relations at Moldova State University, tells me that the communists garner much of their support from older Moldovans who’ve remained in the country, turn out at the polls, and fondly recall the days when bread was cheap – even though you had to stand in line to get it — and everyone was guaranteed a job.

Chisinau outdoor market

  Fish for sale at an outdoor market in Chisinau

“They are living in the past,” says Slobodeniuc, of the older voting bloc. “They are afraid of change.”

He adds that more centrist parties, which held power in the years after independence, failed to keep their promises and were rife with corruption. So the communists seemed like a palatable alternative to a majority of the Moldovan electorate.

But as Ambassador Hodges notes, corruption remains “endemic and affects all aspects of Moldovan life.” And Slobodeniuc and other Moldovans with whom I’ve spoken are skeptical that government — in any shape or form — can significantly improve things.

I am living in Chisinau (pronounced kish-i-now), the capital and largest city, with a population of about 700,000. For such a poor country, I’m amazed at how many Mercedes and BMWs I’ve seen and some of the high-end boutiques here wouldn’t look out-of-place in Scottsdale. Like a lot of other developing countries, there’s a huge gap between the rich and poor.

During my second week here, a record cold spell hit Eastern Europe and temperatures in Moldova plunged to 10 degrees below zero, the coldest weather in more than a decade. Fortunately, the apartment the U.S. Embassy arranged for me has dependable heating and hot water. It’s something we take for granted back home, but here in Moldova, it’s considered a luxury that a good segment of the population can’t afford, particularly those in rural areas.

Downtown Chisinau

  Icy sidewalks in downtown Chisinau

I’m just a five-minute walk from the university at which I’m teaching and plenty of stores and nice restaurants are close by. Street crime is lower than in many American cities.

The biggest danger for me has been navigating the sidewalks. Most of them haven’t been cleared of snow and are treacherously slippery.

And I’ve been warned not to walk down side streets after dark because of the prevalence of open manholes. It seems the covers sometimes get stolen and sold for scrap metal.

While Moldova isn’t known as a tourist destination, there are some interesting things to see here – ancient monasteries and some of the best wineries in Eastern Europe. I look forward to exploring the country.

But for this Arizonan, it’s a bit too cold now to do much sightseeing and venture far from my apartment. For now, at least, I’ll have to be content with my reliable radiator and view of Lenin.

© 2009 Dan Fellner

Holland America Digital Workshop

Teaching High-Tech on the High Seas

By | Bermuda, Cruising | No Comments

Digital Workshop a huge hit with Holland America’s older clientele

The Arizona Republic — June 13, 2010

NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN — It’s my first day at sea aboard the Holland America Veendam on a week-long cruise sailing from Manhattan to Bermuda.

Holland America Digital Workshop

“Techspert” Lauren Murphy conducts a class in the Digital Workshop aboard the Veendam

While many of the other 1,300 passengers are lounging by the pool, playing slot machines in the casino, enjoying a spa treatment or jostling for position at the Lido buffet, I have more enlightening pursuits in mind.

I’m attending computer boot camp for the digitally challenged.

It’s a series of courses — several offered onboard each day — that the Holland America Line calls the Digital Workshop Powered by Windows. The cruise line now offers the program on 13 of its 14 vessels.

Indeed, computer courses at sea are now becoming almost as ubiquitous as the towel animals cruisers find on their cabin beds at night.  Several cruise lines, including Celebrity and Princess, two of Holland America’s leading competitors in the high-end mass-market segment, also offer computer classes.

On the Veendam, I arrive a few minutes early in a classroom right next to the Rotterdam Dining room equipped with 16 laptops and claim one in the back row. By the time the class starts, it’s standing-room-only and some participants need to double-up on computers.

“Techspert” Lauren Murphy, 26, teaches our eager group of mostly beginners, some of whom are close to three times her age, how to download pictures onto the computer. Other hour-long sessions that day cover how to edit photos and then turn them into a movie.

“Click fix on the top menu,” Murphy said, explaining how to auto-adjust color and light in a photo using Windows Live Photo Gallery.

“Click what on what now?” a gray-haired gentleman asked from the second row.

At first, I think the courses are a bit too basic for me, and I’m not particularly computer-savvy. But before long we’re learning how to “stitch” images together to make a panoramic photo, remove that annoying red-eye that often mars indoor portraits, and other techniques I had no idea how to do. I find myself eschewing movies, bingo and other shipboard activities to repeatedly return to the Digital Workshop.

Cruise lines, especially those like Holland America that attract an older clientele, have found these courses to be hugely popular with their passengers, some of whom come onboard without even rudimentary computer skills but want to learn basic tasks like how to email their vacations photos to their relatives.

Holland America Veendam

  The Veendam anchored off the coast of Bermuda

“I’ve had lots of people come in who never used a mouse before and didn’t even know how to turn on a computer,” said Murphy, who quit her job as an accountant in Texas two years ago and is now teaching classes on her eighth Holland America ship. “They have kids and grandkids that know how to do this stuff, but they don’t know how to do it themselves and nobody has time to teach them.”

Carol Clippard, a 76-year-old passenger from Tucson, attended a session on the Veendam with her husband Buck called “Put Your Best Face Forward,” a primer on digital editing tools.

“I didn’t even know I could do photo editing on my computer,” she said. “I have 7,000 pictures on my computer and I have to learn how to do something with them.”

Holland America offers its Digital Workshop in partnership with another Seattle-based company — Microsoft. The computer-software company provides the laptops, course materials and trains the instructors.

In return, Holland America agreed to showcase Microsoft products to an important market — affluent seniors. The cruise line also offers all the classes for free, making it the only entirely complimentary technology program of its kind at sea.

Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman, said the partnership has worked out well for both companies. “It’s a plus for Microsoft, which is engaging an audience that might not otherwise engage in computer technology,” he said. “These are folks that will probably use more and more computers and applications as time goes on.

“For us, it gives us an activity that we know people are interested in. The average age of our guests is around 55 and these are people who are looking to learn this technology. It keeps them involved and active. It’s complimentary, which is fantastic, and it has been a huge hit.”

While Microsoft promotes its Windows products to Holland America cruisers, its rival, Apple, isn’t sitting by idly ashore. The producer of Macintosh computers has a partnership with Celebrity Cruises in which passengers can take classes at sea using Macs and other Apple products. Some of the Celebrity courses are free; most have a $20 fee.

Murphy, the Holland America “techspert,” said that on some sailings, as many as 50 people have crowded into the classroom at one time. “It sometimes gets really packed in here,” she said.

Hamilton, Bermuda

View of downtown Hamilton, Bermuda

Not surprisingly, the Digital Workshop on the Veendam had much larger turnouts on sea days than when we were docked in Bermuda, when most of the ship’s passengers were off exploring the island.

In addition to teaching three or four classes a day, Murphy offers an hour each day of “techspert time,” in which passengers can come in and look at their photos and ask questions about anything related to computers. On some cruises, more advanced courses are offered, including how to blog and even set up your own personal Webpage.

Murphy said that on the Veendam’s sailing the week before, one of her students was a 90-year-old woman. “She didn’t know anything about a computer,” she said. “She came to about every class and by the end of the week was able to stitch together her photos. She just loved it.”

Not everyone, though, who attends the Digital Workshop is a novice. On my sailing, Mike Meffert, 72, of Bridgewater, Va., came to a session called “A New Window Into Your World,” an overview of Windows 7. He was trying to decide whether it was worth upgrading to the new operating system.

Meffert, who considers himself more computer literate than most people his age, bought his first computer — an IBM — way back in 1982.

“I paid $4,200,” he recalled. “I had a friend who was working at IBM at the time. He told me, ‘Buy this computer and you’ll never need another one.'”

That was 15 computers ago.

© 2010 Dan Fellner
silversea silver wind

Cruise industry well-equipped to deal with potential pirate attacks

By | Cruising | No Comments

New task force making Indian Ocean waters even safer

The Arizona Republic – February 22, 2009

INDIAN OCEAN OFF THE COAST OF EAST AFRICA — “If they come, we will deal with it.”

It is 6:30 a.m., just after sunrise, and a security guard is on Deck 9 peering out over the railing on the Silversea Silver Wind, a luxury cruise ship carrying 400 passengers and crew.  Two of his colleagues are patrolling other decks.  Armed only with two-way radios, they have been walking in circles around the ship’s decks the entire night.

We’re sailing the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, only 200 miles from Somalia, and the Silver Wind is on the lookout for pirates.

A Silver Wind security guard watches for pirates in the Indian Ocean

The security guard stops for a minute to answer my questions. He tells me nothing unusual happened during the course of the night, but if an unidentified vessel were to come too close to the Silver Wind, the ship had procedures in place to fend off would-be intruders. He wouldn’t specify what they were, but cruise ships have been known to use everything from high-pressure hoses to sonar weapons to repel attacks.

No such measures are needed on this particular voyage and the Silver Wind docked uneventfully later that morning in Mombasa, Kenya, completing a 16-day journey that began in Cape Town, South Africa, with stops in Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania.

Somali pirates have attacked hundreds of cargo ships off the coast of Africa, raking in an estimated $30 million in ransom last year alone. Earlier this month, pirates made off with $3.2 million in ransom after releasing an arms-laden Ukrainian freighter, one of their biggest hauls ever.

As for cruise ships, pirates have tried, but have yet to successfully land a floating five-star hotel, which could potentially reap an even bigger payday.

    The Silver Wind anchored off the coast of Madagascar

Our ship of 200 affluent mostly European and North American passengers was carrying enough bling and cash to make any band of pirates drool, not to mention the enormous ransom a luxury cruise ship could fetch.

In late November, the Oceania Nautica was attacked in the Gulf of Aden by two small boats carrying armed Somali pirates.  Shots were fired but the Nautica was able to outrun the bandits and no one was hurt.

And three years ago, two boatloads of pirates on inflatable speedboats armed with grenade-launchers and machine guns were thwarted in an attack on the Seaborn Spirit on its way to Mombasa 100 miles off the coast of Somalia. According to passenger accounts of the attack, one grenade actually landed in a stateroom without inflicting injuries.

The cruise industry is taking the threat seriously but continues to sail in the region. “We haven’t altered any of our itineraries,” said Silversea spokesman Brad Ball, who was aboard the Silver Wind’s Cape Town-Mombasa sailing. “These waters are pretty well protected.  In addition, we have our own well-trained crews and security personnel on board our vessels, and we’re continuously developing, increasing and enhancing our response capabilities to potential piracy attacks.”

Some German cruise lines have gone so far as to fly passengers in the region from one port to the next so they won’t be onboard when the ship transits the Gulf of Aden, a pirate haven that links the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung in December accused cruise lines that sail in that area of risking the lives of their passengers.

But the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the Florida-based trade group representing the cruise industry, defended the continued sailing through the Gulf of Aden, saying that cruise ships that traverse the area do so within a prescribed “Maritime Safety Protection Area,” which is patrolled by military forces from several countries.

“All CLIA members have thorough security protocols in place including anti-piracy measures that help to ensure the safety of their passengers and crew while they enjoy a cruise vacation,” CLIA said in a statement. ”

Additionally, CLIA members maintain an extensive network of intelligence gathering among government and private sources.  Based upon this monitoring, our industry is constantly assessing this information and any potential risks for member lines.”

All factors considered, cruise ships make much more difficult targets for pirates than cargo ships. Taking over a slow-moving container ship with a handful of crew members is one thing, but capturing a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers would be a logistical nightmare.

Pirates normally like a one-to-one ratio of captives to captors so that they can maintain control of the vessel while ransom talks take place. Cruise ships are also faster and carry a wider range of non-lethal weaponry than most cargo ships. Plus, their tall hulls make it harder for pirates to throw hooks over the side and board.

Ball said that the piracy threat hasn’t hurt bookings. “Guests who book Silversea are pretty seasoned,” he said. “They know that, unfortunately, something can happen five minutes from your house or five thousand miles from your house.”

Indeed, the passengers I spoke with seemed more worried about what time to make dinner reservations in La Terrazza, the elegant Italian restaurant onboard, or whether to forego a lecture on African politics for a dip in the pool. Even crew members who will be aboard in April when the Silver Wind is scheduled to transit the Gulf of Aden said they weren’t overly concerned.

And the only pirates I encountered during the trip were vendors at London’s Heathrow Airport on the flight home who were asking $10 for a stale sandwich or $4 for a bottle of water.

Making the region even safer is a new task force, led by the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which just started counter-piracy operations in January. U.S. warships are now working with naval vessels from 14 different countries, including Great Britain, Russia and China.

“We want to see our industry continue to grow, so if it gives people peace of mind knowing that there’s a task force out there that is watching the seas in a known trouble spot, we support it 100 percent,” said Ball.

                                                                                                   © 2009 Dan Fellner

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