Part II of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

A whip of wind and rain greets us as we leave the ship, docked in Montevideo. Our van driver and guide is waiting at the pier; we rush into the welcome protection of the van, not sure whether we want to brave the elements at all. How different we will be from the usual tourists Montevideo receives from Argentina: they come here in the summer in droves to head for the sandy beaches on Uruguay’s Atlantic coastline. World class resorts on Punta del Este lure the continent’s rich and famous. Across the wide, choppy waters of the Rio de la Plata, Buenos Aires’s shoreline is only a polluted, brackish backwater.

I did not know much about Uruguay before visiting this country. It is one of the smallest in South America, a tiny buffer between Argentina and Brazil, with just over 3 million people. Most of them are of Spanish or Italian origin. In the north, the rolling hills are similar to the Argentine pampas and the gaucho is celebrated like the cowboys in the old American West. But most of the people live in or near Montevideo, the capital. Uruguay is considered the “most European” of the South American countries.

We were scheduled for a wine tour in the hills overlooking the city, but with all the rain, the hill would be impassable and the vineyards would be flooded. We planned a city walking tour, but even that is cut short by the weather.  But we have a creative guide. He offers to treat us to four different kinds of frappe, (a liquor, like schnapps) in a downtown bar. They warm us up in a hurry! Soon, the miserable weather is forgotten.

During a break in the rain, I climb the steps to the parliament building, only to find it pouring again. No visitors are allowed inside. We do manage to stop at a few wonderful metal sculptures of oxcart trains, depicting the way the early immigrants traveled to “tame” their west.

Before ending the tour, we stop at a wine bar and enjoy a wine tasting there. Not bad! We purchase a few bottles of wine from Uruguay for our hotel room—a late harvest chardonnay-viognier for Günter and a Tannet red wine for me. By the time we return to the ms Veendam, we are wet inside and out!

I am left with an impression of Uruguayans as a strong, reliant people who are very proud of their country. During this rainy day, I have heard that they have the best beaches, the best food, the best meat, the best wine, the best health service, the best education (free, including public University), and the least corrupt government in all of South America.

Oh, and I cannot forget their pride in futbol (what Americans call soccer)!  The national team won the first World Cup in 1930 as hosts, defeating Argentina 4–2 in the final. In 1950 they won their second title, upsetting hosts Brazil 2–1 in the final match, with an attendance higher than any futbol match ever.

As sailors, we’d always wanted to go around Cape Horn. But by the time we purchased a catamaran to sail around the world, our decision had been made. We would be warm-weather sailors on our own yacht. Sailing around the Horn would be a reward we would give ourselves after we completed our circumnavigation. And someone else would be Captain and Navigator.  Now that time has come. We are calling our cruise on the Veendam our Big Bucket Cruise. Because not only will we cross many destinations off our “Bucket List,” but Günter had always called the passage to the next port on Pacific Bliss, “moving The Bucket.” And this is one Big Bucket compared to 24×43’ Pacific Bliss!  The ms Veendam is 101×720’ with a 24.6’ draft and weighs over 55,000 tons. Built in 1996, she has a crew of 560 and room for 1258 guests. Her max speed is 21 knots.

The names of all the cargo ships of the Holland America line ended in “dijk,” (pronounced dike). But passenger ships were named after dams on rivers, e.g., Amsterdam for the Amster River dam, Maasdam for the Maas River, and Ryndam for the dam on the great river, Rhine. We will sail on a small-to-medium size cruise ship, the Veendam, named after a smaller dam and river.

Buenos Aires, a Capital City with an Edge

Before we board, however, we have scheduled three full days of sightseeing in Buenos Aires, called the “Paris of South America.” We are impressed during our city tour the first day, in a private van with our sailor friends, Joe and Michele. I conclude that Buenos Aires has less sophistication than Paris, but more vibrant colors, a wild, Latin energy, and an undefined edginess that I want to explore further.

In the microcentro, the political and historic center, rust-and-amber cobblestones contrast with shiny steel high-rises. The president comes to work each day to the Casa Rosada, The Pink House, probably along the same Avenida de Mayo that has seen numerous revolutions and bombings. The Plaza here is still the center of a tumultuous political scene, with graffiti and posters and white marks on the concrete where the “women in white,” the mothers of the desaparecidos, (the disappeared ones) still march every Thursday.

The next neighborhood, Puerto Madero, along the riverfront, has rows of restaurants and nightclubs. Farther south, the neighborhoods of La Boca, Monserrat and San Telmo are where the first immigrants arrived from Europe and where the tango originated. (We learn that the tango was originally a lower, working class dance shunned by the elite.)

I am struck by the city’s most European (and exclusive) neighborhood, Recoleta, with its French architecture, tree-lined avenues, and sidewalk cafés. While Günter and Joe sip on cappuccinos and listen to stories about the area’s history told by our guide, Michele and I take a stroll through a charming artisans’ market set up there on Saturdays.

Afterwards, our group spends a couple of hours walking through the city cemetery in Recoleta. Hours? Yes, the cemetery covers four city blocks and Evita is buried there. It is a national treasure where past presidents, war heroes and the elite can continue to show off their wealth.  (It’s important to live in Recoleta during one’s life but even more important to lie there after death.) The graves and mausoleums are adorned by the works of national and international sculptors. The stories our guide tells of the plots, murder and mayhem that occurred in this country defy even the most-active imagination!

Even after touring the other neighborhoods, though, we are always happy to return to our Hotel Mine in pleasant Palermo Sojo. On Friday night, the cafés are filled with yuppies stopping for tapas and drinks after work. Michele set up a marvelous wine tasting here, with a formal dinner afterwards. On Saturday night, we walk around the area, and finally settle on a sidewalk café that is celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by promoting local beers.

On Sunday, all the stores in our neighborhood are closed—even the convenience stores and supermarket. The four of us take a taxi to the 270-stand Sunday antiques and flea market that begins in Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, Buenos Aire’s oldest neighborhood.

“Watch your money,” warns the driver as he lets us off.

We are at an intersection where almost every sign says something about the tango. I step inside the doorway of a store advertising tango shoes. A pretty woman with long, black hair is trying on a red pair of strappy shoes with heels so high that they resemble Jimmy Choo’s.

How can one dance in these?

We pass more shops and then turn onto the blockaded street jammed with souvenirs: hairpieces, scarves, wooden statues, clothing, woolen hats, bags, jewelry, and containers made of gourds for serving make tea. We walk about eight blocks, all the way to the end, then turn around to walk back to the intersection. I fill Günter’s backpack full of souvenirs for friends and relies, along with my little purse, glasses, everything I have so that my hands are free for shopping. This will be my major shopping in Argentina, I rationalize, because during many port stops, we’ll be taking scenic tours.

The midday sun is burning bright and we have forgotten to bring water. We decide to stop at a sidewalk café to order soft drinks. Günter is seated next to a miniature Eiffel Tower. Tourists keep stopping to take photos. The four of us look at his black backpack wedged between his chair and the statue, wondering whether it is in the way, but the tourists don’t seem to mind. Michele leaves to look at some colorful, woven shoes on a table nearby. She motions for me to come. I leave our table for a minute or so and then return. Soon she returns, and we stand to leave. Günter’s backpack is gone! We notify the waitress and the restaurant’s owner, but of course, the thief is long gone. Everyone is carrying a nondescript black backpack, it seems. A few blocks down, we encounter a couple of policemen. They do not speak English, but we manage to convey what happened.

“Documents?” one of them asks.

Günter shakes his head no. “In hotel safe.”

The policeman nods and smiles his approval. It appears that only stealing someone’s identity would be a crime worth reporting.

Later, back at our hotel, we assess the damage. It could have been much worse, even though everything we both had with us, except for the camera I was carrying, was in that pack—including my camera bag, batteries, and memory cards, Günter’s camera and accessories, my prescription reading glasses, my notes, pens, notebook, purse and contents. Of course, we lost all of our carefully selected souvenirs—as well as a special blouse made entirely of ribbons that I had splurged on. The good news: we had taken no passports, billfolds, credit cards, drivers’ licenses, etc.

Lesson learned: Firmly attach all personal items to your person at all times. 

We board the ship on Monday, ready for our next adventure, but more cautious than ever.

On the ship, one passenger tells another story. This couple had been robbed in Buenos Aires in a more brazen manner: Two men came up to them, brushing off a spray of guano (bird droppings) from their shoulders, as if to help. But soon afterwards, our shipmate realized that his billfold had been stolen right from his pocket! Then, in the same day, another spray of guano mysteriously fell on them. Wiser now, they realized what these men intended, and pushed away.  “Evidently one man sprays the stuff, then brushes it off, while the other steals the billfolds,” she says.

Günter and I realize that we have been fortunate. During our entire eight-year circumnavigation, encompassing 62 countries, we had never been robbed. But then, we’ve never been in edgy Argentina!

Gunter and I attended the 10th Puddle Jump anniversary with about 30 cruisers who sailed to the Marquesas Islands in the spring of 2002. (“Puddle” is the name given to the Pacific Crossing, similar to “Pond” for the Atlantic.) Pacific Bliss made the 3200-mile crossing in 21 days, the longest time out of sight of land during our entire eight-year circumnavigation.  The timing was fortunate because many of these sailors are mentioned in my forthcoming book, SAILING THE SOUTH PACIFIC, and I will need to obtain approvals from them.

We returned on Monday from Puerto Vallarta, safe and sound and very happy.

I think the seminar that the “class of 2002” gave in La Cruz was a roaring success. At the close of the seminar, here’s what we said to the new crop of 2012 Puddle Jumpers:  “This voyage will change you.  You will NOT come back the same person you were when you left. You will stare death in the eye…and survive. All of you will face fear and come back a better and stronger person. You will get closer to God and the universe. You’ll become extremely grateful for the opportunity to have taken this voyage. From now on, you will become more appreciative of all you have and for your many blessings. You’ll come back happy, and most likely, remain happy for the rest of your lives.”

We differed somewhat in our favorite destinations, but ranking among the top was: Vanuatu, Tuomotus, Vavau Group (Tonga) and The Heiva Festival in Huahine.

We advised them to take advantage of cruiser camaraderie and to help out fellow cruisers by carrying plenty of spare parts.

Of course, we 2002 Puddle Jumpers had our own events. One was a sundowner, and what a magnificent sundowner that was! It went on and on. Plans were to attend another event at the Yacht Club, but once the stories got going ’round and ’round, no-one wanted to quit telling them!  So we all stayed into the night. I told two stories from my forthcoming book, SAILING THE SOUTH PACIFIC, one about my most embarrassing moment and another about the international incident.  The Puddle Jumpers kept saying over and over, “We returned home to find that no-one ‘gets it’. A gathering of cruisers is the only place we can tell these stories, laughing ‘til our sides ache!”

Other Highlights:

Finally, A Big Thanks to Andy and Latitude 38 magazine for hosting the Pacific Puddle Jump every year!

From the website: “Ever since Latitude 38 editors coined the phrase ‘Pacific Puddle Jump’ nearly 20 years ago, we’ve taken great pleasure in supporting, and reporting on, the annual migration of cruising sailors from the West Coast of the Americas to French Polynesia.

Boats from many nations register with the rally (currently free of charge), and they depart from various points along the West Coast, with the largest concentration of passage-makers jumping off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Balboa, Panama. Latitude 38 holds annual send-off parties at both locations: Vallarta YC, Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico; February 29, 2012, 3:00-6:00 p.m.; and Balboa YC, Balboa, Panama, March 10, noon-4:00 p.m.

Although these sailors set sail independently anytime between the late February and early May, they share information on preparation, weather routing, and inter-island cruising via radio nets and electronic communications before, during and after their crossings. Their arrivals in French Polynesia can be anytime in April, May or June. And due to the broad-based nature of the fleet, many crews will meet for the first time when they arrive in the islands.”

Duplicating the “Island Look” with swimsuits and pareus

2002 Puddle Jumpers, Vallarta Yacht Club

For an album of individual photos, refer to my Facebook Page.

This week, I have been busy editing my second book, “Sailing the South Pacific.” The following is a story from Chapter Two of that book, “Exploring the Magnificent Marquesas:”

The International Incident

“Lois, come up here quick. We have an international incident,” Günter calls.

I scramble topside to see that a new yacht has entered the bay.

“You bloody British!” Jean-Claude is screaming at the boat.

The return salvo is quick: “Typical bloody Frenchman!”

The new yacht had plopped its anchor right in front of Makoko, then pulled back, hooking onto Makoko’s bow anchor.

They had the nerve to ask me to pull back because they were getting too close,” Jean-Claude fumes.  Claudie just happens to be taking her afternoon swim. She heads for their anchor and tries to untangle the mess, but she can’t do it alone.

“Doug, Armin,” Günter commands. “Launch the dinghy. Quick!  They need a U.S. peacekeeping force out there.”

In a flash, our crew reaches the offending anchor, followed by the Canadian contingent, Ed and Julie, of Free Radical.  The four of them struggle to free the lines and, finally, the British boat slinks away to anchor somewhere else.

The conflict is resolved.  The peacekeeping force returns to Pacific Bliss, and the afternoon is spent rehashing the incident and laughing about French-English hostilities that have been going on since the 17th century—all with more than one “cold one” in our hands.

Who says cruising is boring?

I’m busy writing another chapter in the second book in my nautical trilogy In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: SAILING THE SOUTH PACIFIC.  This chapter is about our adventures in Fiji. I laughed about this story of our circumnavigation and decided to share it with you here:

Beaching the Cat

Before we leave Denarau to go cruising again, we will need to replace the zincs—a maintenance that must be performed every one to two years or whenever they are eaten up by electrolysis. These sacrificial electrodes are not-so-conveniently located on the bottom of the propeller shaft which entails pulling the craft out of the water or simply beaching the boat on an incline that allows access.

At 1000 we pull anchor to head for such an incline. Buried in oozy mud, the anchor makes a giant sucking sound, like the hundreds of U.S. jobs that Ross Perot said would go to Mexico with the implementation of NAFTA.

Now Pacific Bliss sits in the still bay, waiting patiently. Her instruments show Force 0 wind.  The sky is baby blue with white fleece clouds, serene as the scene on a toddler’s pajamas.

Yet Günter and I sit here watching the clock, shaking with trepidation. We are waiting for a certain moment: exactly 45 minutes after high tide. Then we will motor on to the mud bar and attempt to beach our catamaran. We ask God to make sure that our Guardian Angel comes along. Then, together, we let loose with a primal scream, “A-a-ah!” waving our hands above our heads. After sailing over 17,000 miles—one-half way around the world—we will beach Pacific Bliss for the first time.

Günter starts the engines. Events unfold as in a film set in slow motion.  We snake through the well-marked Denarau Marina channel, meeting two excursion yachts, Captain Cook Cruises and Whales Tale.  Their passengers cheerfully wave us on. A pair of moon jellyfish glide along our hull: one floats flat like a purple-rimmed plate, the other puffs open its bell, trailing translucent tentacles. We motor slowly to the row of posts where the workhorse vessels tie and straight for the post bearing the huge sign: an anchor symbol with a red slash running diagonally through it and the words NO ANCHOR.

It goes against my grain to continue to inch forward.

“Nice and easy now,” I caution Günter, who is still at the controls.

We kiss the bank, surrounded by water. No scraping. No scratching. Just a gentle settling in. We are beached.

Günter deploys the dinghy, Petit Bliss. He checks the depths at the props, dagger boards, and rudder. I dutifully mark down the measurements. “She must be resting on her belly,” says Günter.

“Two bellies. Like a pair of beached whales.”

“Piece of cake. Beaching a Cat.”

But beaching the Cat is only part of the story…the worst is yet to come.

Günter calls David, the trusty mechanic at Denarau Marine. He arrives in a small powerboat with his assistant. They get out at the same time and promptly sink up to their knees. David reaches back into his boat for a tarp and lays it down lightly over the mud to catch anything that might fall.

He knows what he’s doing.

But to get at the zincs is not easy. Both struggle to wrench the propeller free.

It’s a race against time. I can’t help holding my breath.

They finish the job before the tide rises again and take off.  Now we must stay here overnight and wait for the rising tide to free Pacific Bliss.

Pacific Bliss on Sandbar

Unbeaching the Cat

I awaken at 0600 after a fitful sleep. The most difficult part of our maneuver is yet to come. Today we must unbeach the Cat!  As I sit at the helm seat with my morning coffee, the sun breaks dramatically over the highlands of Viti Levu. The tide is rising nicely. Pacific Bliss shifts in her muddy cradle, adding a little more weight toward the stern. I see that as a good sign, perhaps she will float off all by herself at high tide!

Captain Günter is not persuaded. His dire ruminations kept him awake most of the night. He fears that we have miscalculated.

“How could that have happened,” I ask, “despite our careful planning? We beached Pacific Bliss at exactly one hour after high tide, so that the high tide the next day would float her off.”

“Here’s the problem,” Günter says. “Every night since the highest tide at the recent full moon, the high tide is less. So for May 20th the tide table forecasts 1.7 meters at 0932.  For May 21st, it predicts 1.6 meters at 1029. Remember, the evening tide at 2227, which we stayed up for, was a little lower than the daytime tide: 1.5 meters. We didn’t want to float her off in the dark anyway…but when we walked around the top deck at 10:30 p.m., she was clearly not floating.

“What else could we have done?”

“We should have been more conservative. Maybe we should have waited until two hours after high tide. We left little margin to allow for a falling high tide… in fact, to be really conservative, we should have planned this maneuver during a rising high tide, before the full moon.

Waiting on this mud bank for the next full moon, however, was not a viable option. Why bring it up?  But I know better than to talk out loud right now.

Fortunately we are in mud instead of sand,” Günter continues.  “It should be easy to hire workmen to dig two channels to pull the hulls back.  But that would mean at least another day here…Unfortunately, we are in the mud instead of sand. Pacific Bliss could have settled in with all her weight, nesting comfortably in a cradle of mud. After all, she didn’t budge at high tide last night.”

We decide to tie our extra long “palm-tree line” to one of the poles to which the barges tie up. We winch it tight. The tide rises slowly—much too slowly. Günter takes a measurement at the swim ladder. It is 3.1 feet versus 3.5 feet when we beached. The bottoms of the dagger boards are stuck tight into the mud. Günter has lifted them up as far as they will go.

He starts the engines. “Let’s just give it a little test.” Pacific Bliss does not budge.

“See that barge over there!” I point. Maybe he could help.”

Günter talks to the barge captain on VHF Channel 69. The captain agrees to deploy his powerboat at 1015, 15 minutes before high tide. It has a 30 horsepower outboard motor. If that fails to work, he’ll use the big barge proper. “But I do not think that will be necessary,” he says.

For a five long minutes we agonize over the potential damage to the dagger boards, or worse yet, the rudders. Then we pray again for the safety of Pacific Bliss.

Now it is time for action. Günter deploys a second heavy line to use, if needed, as a towline for the barge. Promptly at 1015 a man motions to me from the barge. I signal for him to come over. Günter offers the captain and crew $50 Fijian to help get us off, money well spent.

Mechanic Changes Zincs on Sandbar

We fashion a bridle to the powerboat and cleat it at each stern hull of Pacific Bliss.  Günter begins to rev both of our 40hp engines in reverse. The men in the boat pull their line taut. We have also winched the long line to the pole taut.

It is 1030, high tide.

“Let her roll!” Günter says.

Engines scream. The reluctant mud makes another giant sucking sound and gives up her prey.  Pacific Bliss leaps back with joy. Her engines purr. She is so happy to be out of the mud!

After all, she is a sailing vessel, not a pig. 

But it’s never over until it’s over. I always find it amazing how fast a positive situation can deteriorate on a boat. The barge crew fails to watch the towline. They let it go slack. Their line begins to drift underneath our prop. Thank God, our engines are back to neutral! Günter quickly dons his mask and fins and dives underneath the hull to free the line.

We have arranged to berth on Denarau Marine’s dock, next to the mega yachts.

But first, we anchor in the bay, wash down the Pacific Bliss decks with our salt-water hose, and share a can of ice cold Fiji Bitter. “To no…more…adventures,” I toast.

“Here’s to no more adventures for a very long time…but I know they’ll come,” Günter adds.

When Gunter and I embarked on our circumnavigation in 2000, I expected that we, of that small group crammed in between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, would merely be forerunners for the great migration to the world’s oceans to be created when the Baby Boomers retired.  Certainly nothing, especially the dangers of the Seven Seas, would hold back that bold generation!

Spinnaker of Pacific BlissThat expectation has not come to pass. Advancements in navigation and technology and have certainly made long distance sailing safer than ever. But piracy throughout the world has made the oceans more dangerous. Our catamaran, Pacific Bliss, sailed the Strait of Malacca, with no problems, in 2006. During January the following year, we crossed the Indian Ocean from Thailand to Sri Lanka to the Maldives and on to the port of Salalah, Oman on the Arabian Sea.

In Oman, we formed a flotilla of 5 yachts to transit the 660-mile stretch called Pirate Alley. Although the entire area seemed on Red Alert, with British and American coalition warships communicating over the airwaves and drones flying overhead to check us out, our biggest scare was being approached by local fishermen.  (See my story, Passage Through Pirate Alley, on SCRIBD). We were relieved to reach Aden, Yemen and during our one week in that port, toured inland to Sanaa, the capital, now off-limits to tourists.

Oman and Yemen had been used to having about 200 yachts pass through their waters each year on their way to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. What a difference now!  Fear of piracy has spread across the entire Arabian Sea, forcing circumnavigators all the way around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, to enter the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. According to the February 2012 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes, there was a 75% reduction in 2010, and the numbers decreased even more in 2011. “Only a handful of cruisers are willing to pass through the area.  There’s no improvement in sight as planned rallies and cruises for 2012 are being cancelled.”

Maiden Voyage, by Lois Joy Hofmann

On the back cover of my book, “Maiden Voyage,” I point out that “Every year, four times more adventurers climb Mt. Everest than complete a circumnavigation of the globe.”  Imagine how this statistic has changed!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.

On the way to Sarnath to see the Buddhist sites in India, we asked our driver to stop outside a village and let us walk through on our own, to interact with the locals. This is who we met.

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Varanasi, October 22-25

 “Varanasi will blow your mind, but you must see it for yourself to form your own impressions.” That’s what Günter told me when he promised to take me around the world.  One cannot sail to Varanasi, so it’s taken him twenty years to make this particular promise come true.  It is good that we did not delete this destination from our bucket list! This city of a little more than a million people is chaotic, colorful, and totally insane. As the Lonely Planet, India says, “Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.” It was certainly my most memorable stop in India.

Dating back to around 1200 B.C., Varanasi is also known as Kashi (City of Life) or Benares. It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. It is also one of the holiest sites in India, the “in” place for washing away one’s sins in the holy waters of the Ganges or cremating one’s loved ones. The city is an auspicious place to die, since dying here gives one moksha (liberation from life and death). The soul goes straight to heaven, thus ensuring that it will not be reborn into the next life as a rat—or as a politician!

New Delhi was benign compared to this place. I cannot imagine flying from any western country straight into in Varanasi! It’s raw, it’s real and it’s here and now. The sights, sounds, and smells assault my senses and really do blow my mind.

Our Delhi driver takes us to the airport, where we end up at the gate, waiting for our plane. There is scant seating along the wall. We stand in line for 1 ½ hours. All the while, the news travels from one passenger to another, like a game of “gossip:” The flight is delayed but is “scheduled” for the next hour! I sit in place, leaning against my daypack. “Only five minutes,” says an Indian guide for a tour group of Brits and Aussies. The next pronouncement is “only ten minutes,” and the one after that, “only 20 minutes.” Then the word comes back to the guide that it will be another hour. The entire tour group leaves to go to the upstairs restaurant. I grab a vacant seat while Günter roams the airport. After ten minutes, our plane is called—no warning, no explanation. I motion to Günter; we are loaded into a bus to board the plane. (This airport does have passenger loading bridges, but they are not used.) The 25-person tour group is still at the restaurant, so we wait until they are herded on. Welcome to travel in India!

An Enchanting-India representative takes us to the Gateway Hotel, clearly a grand opulent hotel of time gone by, ‘50s grandeur trying to regain its previous five-star status. Many of the pools have been drained and the fountains are still, but the flower gardens have been tilled and rosebushes have been planted in one of them. “I never promised you a rose garden,” hums Günter as we walk past. We have arrival teas in the reception, decorated in shades of pale green and chartreuse, with contrasting maroon pillows. Gold trim has been inlaid into the marble floors; leaf patterns have been etched into the tall, arched windows and the crystal chandelier. All this would be quite expensive to duplicate at today’s costs!

My most memorable impression of Varanasi is the Ganga Aarti, the evening prayer ceremony on the bank of the Ganges River. Our driver takes us as far as he can, then we walk with Beni, our guide, through the throngs of pilgrims, tourists, and touts to the ghats, long stretches of steps leading down to the water on the western bank. About 80 ghats border the river, but this ceremony always takes place at the Dasaswamedh, the liveliest and most colorful. The name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. Beni walks ahead of us and hires a boat and two boatmen; Günter and I follow her down the steps crowded with pilgrims, touts and begging children. One girl with black, pleading eyes wants to sell us lamps to put into the river. Beni tries to shake her off, telling her, “No, we’ll buy them down at the boat.” The girl follows us down to the boat.

The girl who sold us river offerings

“I want to buy them from her,” I tell Beni. We climb into the small rowboat. The two expert boatmen maneuver past the dozens of boats lined there, about six rows deep, while the girl runs along the dock.  When we reach the end of the dock, we purchase 5 lamps from her, each made with a floating base, a small tea candle, and six orange marigolds. After being underway for awhile, we light them, make a wish, and then float them on the fast-moving Ganges. We continue to watch and wish as the lights become smaller and smaller and finally disappear.

Lois makes a wish and drops the tea light into the Ganges

We are rowed past Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremations are done. No photos are allowed. We stop and drift while we watch silently. About eight fires are burning. That means that eight bodies are being cremated. The corpse is dunked in the Ganges prior to burning. Beni points out the huge piles of firewood stacked along the top of the ghat. “Every log is weighed on giant scales up there,” Beni points.  “Sandalwood is the most expensive, bought only by the rich. The wood is expensive because it has to be brought there through narrow streets. I’ll show you those tomorrow. The price of the cremation is calculated in advance. The family buys just enough wood to incinerate the body, but no more. Then it is slid back into the river. Sometimes the wood isn’t enough, and the body floats while before it sinks.”

The boat turns and we head back for the Ganga Aarti. The ghat steps have filled to capacity. A group of musicians file toward a platform high over the river bank. I am transfixed. I feel as if I am watching the opening act of a life-and-death play from the buffer of the river, yet I am surrounded by boats painted in hues of the Caribbean. Surreal! The smoke from the burning ghats forms a smoky mist that rises from the Ganges. Although there is no dramatic sunset, the haze gradually turns to dark. Yellow street lamps beam onto steps filled with brilliant saris and light a stage with seated, white-robed figures. As the haunting sounds of the sitar begin, a hush falls over the crowd. After that, a choir performs a ritual chant that sounds medieval to me. A warm chill—is that even possible?—runs up my spine as life and death ramp to maximum intensity against a backdrop of molding mansions and decaying temples. The pageantry continues with bells, drums, incense, candles and song. Günter and I cannot understand the words, so we meditate and pray to our God. A spirit of prayer envelops the entire setting, interrupted occasionally by a light splash of oars.

We didn’t record this night service, but you can view videos by others at

The night is short because we have a 0500 pick-up to be back at the ghat before dawn. Sunrise on the Ganges is not to be missed, warn the guide books. The rising sun promises to bathe the temples and ghats lining the western bank in a heavenly golden light. I rouse myself, still wearing last night’s make-up, and strap on my cameras to photograph the scene. Beni hires two boatmen and we board the boat in the dark. The sky gradually lightens, but there is no golden globe this day. I’m not surprised, because so far, I have not seen a bright sunrise in India. “There it is—the sun!” Beni calls. We look toward the eastern bank to see a pale white ball that looks more like a moon surrounded by misty haze.  As we near the western bank, I notice more cremation fires burning. No wonder a “mist” hangs over this river!

Hazy sunrise over the river Ganges

By now, I know that we cannot photograph the burning ghats, so I ask if we can go closer at the bathing ghats. These provide world-class people watching. I find that people come to the ghats not only for bathing, but also to wash clothes, perform yoga, offer blessings, get massages, wash their buffalos, beg or give to beggars to improve their karma. As the sun rises, it burns off some of the smoke, and the buildings do take on a mellow glow.

Our boatsmen on the sunrise cruise along the ghats

Beni has the boat drop us off at a burning ghat so that we can walk the narrow back streets and watch a cremation from the shore—not that we asked her for this. I surmise that it comes with the tour. Huge stacks of firewood are stacked along the top ridge of the ghat. We climb the steps to visit The Scales, where the wood is weighed and a price is negotiated. The dead bodies are carried through the alleyways of the old city on bamboo stretchers swathed in cloth. The bodies used to be carried only by the “Untouchables” caste. Here, I must divert from my story to explain how the caste system works:

In Delhi, we watched a segment of a LaMonde TV special series on India about a man who is a cremator. An uneducated man, he makes four times that of an educated office worker. The TV crew follows him home after his work. He stops stops at a small neighborhood restaurant.

“What does he do?” the narrator asks a customer seated nearby.

“I think he works in an office near here.”

No one will admit that he has such a job. The man procures the wood for the cremation, the lighter fluid and butter to make the body burn, and the platform that slides the body into the Ganges. Then he lights the corpse, which burns for many hours.

The Indian constitution does not recognize the caste systems, but caste still wields considerable influence, especially in rural India. The caste one is born into determines the social standing within the community and influences one’s vocational and marriage prospects. Castes are further divided into thousands of jati, groups of “families” or social communities, sometimes—but not always—linked to occupation. Conservative Hindus not only marry someone of the same caste, but of the same jati.

Hindus are born into one of four castes: Brahmin (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (soldiers), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (laborers). They believe that the Brahmins emerged from the mouth of Lord Brahma at the moment of creation; Kshatriyas came from his arms, Vaishyas from his thighs, and Shudras from his feet.

Beneath these four main castes are the Dalits (formerly known as the Untouchables) who hold menial jobs such as sweepers and latrine cleaners. The word “pariah” comes from the name of a Tamil Dalit group, the Paraiyars. But there is another layer: beneath the social heap are the Denotified Tribes (known as the Criminal Tribes until 1952 when a reform law recognized 198 tribes and castes). Many of these nomadic tribes are forced to eke out a living on the fringes of society. To improve the Dalit’s position, the Indian government sets aside public sector jobs, parliamentary seats, university spots. Today, these quotas encompass 25% of student positions and government jobs.

When Beni, who is a Brahmin educated as a chemist, tells us that these cremators are Untouchables, we know better, but don’t challenge her. Next, she takes us to a building at the top of the burning ghat to watch a cremation. Before I look down, the stench overwhelms me. I wish we had masks. I try not to open my mouth. My eyes smart. I can’t wait to leave.

We are asked for a donation and then we follow Beni through dark, narrow alleys that are actually the main streets of the old city. Cows wander through; we have to be careful not to step on cow pies and other filth. Babies play in the street. Günter stops to take a photo of a man plastered with white dust sitting in a doorway in a lotus position. He must be a “tourist guru” because he asks for a donation.

Guru in the doorway of a back street

Beni points us to the Vishwanath Temple, the most popular temple in Varanasi, dedicated to Shiva as lord of the universe. The current temple was built in 1776, with the 800 kg of gold plating on the tower and dome supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later. The security is extreme, with soldiers all over the place. Bags, cameras, cell phones, have to be deposited. After we get through all of this, we find that we can only see the temple through a rope gate because we are not Hindu.

Why bother, then, with all the security rigmarole?

When we come out of the hubbub and return to our driver and car, I am quite ready to leave the old city.  Beni directs the driver to the Benares Hindu University where she obtained her degree. What a difference! The wide tree-lined streets and parks of the five-square-kilometer campus seem a world away.

Varanasi is famous for silk brocades and the gorgeous Banarasi saris worn by Indian women on important occasions such as attending a wedding. Beni takes us to The Mehta International, a silk weaving center where we admire tapestries, table runners, and saris woven with bright colors interlaced with gold thread. We watch the weavers at work at old silk handlooms. It can take two months for a weaver to make one sari. We learned that the complex device above some of the weavers uses punched cards to store the intricate instructions—forerunners of the punched card used in computer rooms until the 1960s.

So it follows that the artisans who were adapt at creating these decorative patterns were  equivalent to our modern day computer programmers. Amazing!

Beni also takes us to Vibgyor, a manufacturer and exporter of all types of glass beads, jewelry, wall hangings, and other handicrafts where we buy gifts to take back with us.

On our final full day in Varanasi, we take a day trip to Sarnath. Underway, we ask our driver to stop on the outskirts of a small town while we “walk a village.” We leave our bags in the car, parked alongside fields of grain and produce, carrying only the small Nikon digital and some change.  This is the best way, we’ve found, to interact with locals. We walk down the dusty main street, talking to locals using simple English words and hand signs. Soon I have a troupe of children following me, pointing and giggling with their hands over their mouths. I take photos of thatched huts, the convenient water wells and  hand pumps put alongside the road by the government, the family water buffalo or goat, and the family themselves when they permit me to do so. When I crouch down to take a photo of the stacks of cow pies heaped alongside a home (they use them as fuel for cooking) or slapped on a wall to dry, the children burst into laughter.

Sarnath, rediscovered by British archeologists in 1835, is known as one of the four important sites on the Buddhist circuit (the other three are located in Nepal). It’s a peaceful, laid-back town. In 640 A.D., Sarnath had a 100-meter high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries but soon after, Buddhism went into decline and when Muslim invaders destroyed the city’s buildings, Sarnath disappeared. We visit the Chaukhandi Stupa, a large ruined stupa that dates back to the 5th century, the spot where Buddha met his first disciples. At the modern temple of Mulgandha Kuti, we walk around a bodhi tree supposedly transplanted from the holy tree in Sri Lanka, which in turn is said to be the offspring of the original tree in Bodhgaya under which Buddha attained enlightenment.

The site where Buddha preached to his first disciples, Sarnath

Next stop: Khajuraho, a world heritage site famous for its erotic carvings.

October 19-22: New and Old Delhi 

Time Warp

The bad news about touring a country half-way around the world is, of course, the long flight: 5 hours across part of the U.S., a 4-hour layover in Chicago, followed by 14 hours to Delhi, the capital of India.  A rambunctious two-year-old in the seat behind me keeps kicking the back of my seat, so even with a sleeping pill, I cannot sleep until he tires out.  The good news is that the 12-hour time difference between San Diego and Delhi allows Günter and me to arrive early in the evening, stay up for a few hours, and then fall into the deep sleep of exhaustion for the entire night.

We are clearly in a time warp; it seems strange to have “breakfast” on the plane prior to landing, and then to be driven through the city streets in twilight that appears to us as dawn’s first light! We are not hungry for dinner, so we head down from our room at The Claridges Hotel to its Aura Vodka Bar for a drink. The ultra-modern, humongous bar has 47 stools, 50 varieties of vodka, and dimmed-and-dancing, diffused green lights that slowly shift from green to blue and purple. The bar’s space-age ambience adds to my sense of disorientation. Who knows? I could have been beamed up to this surreal starship!

Gunter and Lois with doorman at The Claridges, Delhi

Günter and I slump into a cozy corner settee that faces a flat-panel TV set to the Fashion Channel.  I am more intrigued by the group of businessmen at the table in the opposite corner. While I pretend to watch a Milan fashion show, I eavesdrop on their conversation. The group includes a short-sleeved American who brags about Great Lakes steamers, another casually-dressed businessman with an Australian accent, a European who is probably a Swiss banker, and two Indians with white, long-sleeved shirts and conservative ties, obviously the hosts. Potash is hot, I learn. Over their first vodka, the men hurl the familiar business lingo: strategy, phasing, roll-out, and partnering, playing up what a “good marriage” it can be. By the end of their second round of drinks, names of commodity companies, such as Rio Tinto, come out of those loosened lips, but not enough for me to put it all together.  While Günter drinks his beer, I sip on my raspberry-infused vodka cocktail that also contains cranberry, lime juice and sugar—an innocent drink that I’m certain will take its toll later.

Culture Shock

The breakfast buffet here at The Claridges is average—not like the blow-out buffets we enjoyed a few years ago in Southeast Asia and China. The spread is an easy introduction to Indian food, along with European alternatives. Little do we realize that we should appreciate the blandness, because the spreads will not stay this way throughout our three-week adventure!

We pick up the Hindustan Daily, the Times of India, and read those along with the Wall St. Journal we brought with us on the flight. WSJ contains an editorial summarizing the first polls of the Occupy Wall St. movement. Back in our room, we flip through the TV channels, settling on RT (Russia Today). The “talking heads” are criticizing the Americans as if we are still in the Cold War. They say that the “Arab Spring” movements will not turn out well: a new Western colonialism is brewing; Gaddafi has been taken out and Look! Obama already has boots on the ground in Uganda! They laud the Occupy protests and say this is what a capitalist society deserves. (Never mind Russia’s own crony capitalism.)

Ah! What I love about travel is that is pushes you out of your comfort zone. Travel forces you to listen to new ideas, to look at other ways of living on this planet. Even before we go out to sight-see, strange and different TV programs and newspapers pry open our pores so that we can absorb new insights and understand a culture vastly different from ours. The daily drone of schedules and TO DO lists are far away—out of sight and out of mind.

At 1100, our Enchanting-India trip coordinator, Bhawna Sharma, promptly appears in the lobby as scheduled. The Enchanting-Travel group of companies specializes in tailor-made travel experiences using local guides—just what we want. “By perfecting your arrangements from our first interaction until your flight home, you’ll see India through your own lens and digest all the sights and sounds that make India, India,” says the brochure. Bhawna assures us that she will be the master coordinator of our guides and drivers at each of our six destinations. She hands us each a small 4×5” personalized booklet that contains a summary of our itinerary along with a two-page overview of our hotel and proposed activities at each stop. Then she introduces our driver and guide for the two days we will tour Delhi.

Our first task is to get a new SIM card for Günter’s old cell phone, so that he can eliminate roaming charges on his Smart Phone.  We drive through New Delhi traffic for hours, or so it seems. To get a SIM card here requires a copy of his passport (which fortunately he has), and a passport photo (which he doesn’t have). We stop in a small off–the-highway shop with concrete floors and slapped-together, unpainted wooden shelves.

Here?  All of this technology will magically happen here? Apparently so.

The proprietress wears a purple print sari and her shiny black hair pulled back into a bun. She digs behind the counter to locate a small point-and-shoot camera. She snaps the photo, prints it out, and attaches it to a form that she asks Günter to fill out. Mission accomplished!

Our skilled driver winds through snarled traffic and impossible roundabouts that put Boston to shame. Finally, we reach our first sightseeing destination: the Qutab Minar, a structure that dominates Delhi. The largest free-standing tower in the world, it surpasses the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This UNESCO World Heritage Site also has the distinction of being the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 238 feet (72m). Made from bricks of red sandstone, the entire Qutab Minar is covered in various inscriptions from the Qur’an. Although the minaret was previously open to the public, it is now closed off.  In the 1980s, a number of people were killed when an electrical failure within the minaret sparked a stampede. There are 378 steps leading to the top of the Qutab Minar, and before its closing it was a very popular site, and not only for tourists, but for those wanted to commit suicide by jumping.

Qutab Minar,The tallest tower in the world

Our next stop was to be the Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. We discover that the site is basically a black marble platform that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation, left open to the sky while a flame burns at one end; we decide that getting there is not worth fighting traffic and jet-lag in the heat of the day.

This is the advantage of independent travel! The plan is ours to make or break.

We return to our room. Günter turns up the air conditioner. We slide under the cool, white sheets, soon dead to the world. Later, we head for the pool, and after an invigorating swim, we fall asleep again in our poolside chairs.

The next morning, we are seated at the Pickwick Restaurant as soon as they open at 0630. The sun rises like a faded yellow ball through the haze outside our window table. This haze does not lift until noon.

“It’s not pollution,” says our guide. “That has been cleaned up significantly in Delhi. It is a condition that is typical during the change from the rainy season that ends in September to the dry season that runs from October through April.”

Whatever. It does not make for clear photos!

Our first stop this day is the Jama Masjid, also called The Friday mosque. Towering over Old Delhi, the structure can hold a mind-blowing 25,000 worshipers.  We are there well before the 1100 Friday prayers, in time to watch the men laying out hundreds of carpets, each one in the same neutrals of brick red and gold that blend with the colors used in the mosque. We walk the entire length of the huge plaza. This is India’s largest mosque, Shah Jahan’s final architectural opus, built from 1644-1658. It has three gates, four towers, and two minarets, each 40 meters high—all in red sandstone and white marble. Inside, the mosque is mostly bare. The speaker’s seat is simple, covered with smaller rugsnot artistically arranged.

Arabic verses on the minaret

Our second stop is the Red Fort, a massive empty shell of a place. The numerous moats and fountains are not filled. The greens are kept mowed and the many sidewalks are clean, but this attraction could be made into a great park rather than merely collecting fees as a museum.

Our rickshaw approaches the Red Fort on a hazy day in Delhi

Imagine the former splendor of this Mughal city—it was a time of unparalled pomp, proud eunuchs, ceremonial elephants, and grandiose buildings lined with precious stones! Imagine how the drawbridges creaked as they were lowered over the moats!

This fort was to be part of the new capital of Shahjahanabad. Shah Johan never moved here from Agra because he was imprisoned by his own son, who was the last emperor to rule here. Following the 1857 War of Independence (Indian uprising) the Brits cleared all but the best buildings to make way for barracks and army offices. So the moat has been dry since 1857 and the drawbridges have been replaced with bridges of stone. Every Independence Day, the prime minister addresses all of India from here.

We find the site filled with Indian soldiers, especially at Lahore Gate, a structure that faces the city of Lahore, now part of Pakistan.

Günter turns to our guide. “Why all the soldiers?”

“Terrorist threat.”

Next, our guide puts us on a rickshaw at the east end of the Chandini Chowk, the spine of Old Delhi, near the Red Fort. It is a wide street crazy with pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, vendors and touts. Tiny lanes crammed with bazaars fan off the main artery like ribs. In the time of the Shah Jahan, a canal, reflecting the moon, ran down the street’s center, hence the name Chandini Chowk, “moonlit place.” I’m in photographer-heaven! I snap dozens of photos through telephoto lens; most are blurred by the bumpy ride and throngs of shoulder-to-shoulder humanity. One favorite (shown here) is a vendor selling sticks cut from piles of dead branches. Locals chew on them to clean their teeth.

Vendor in Chandini Chowk sells wood sticks used for brushing teeth

High above, a maze of electrical wires provides an evening lifeline to the shops; monkeys jump from one set of poles and girders to another.

Monkeys climb on electrical rigging in the Chowk

Old Deli is a crazy hubbub that bombards the senses, quite a different world from the rest of the city. The vast contrast between rich and poor becomes apparent as our driver takes us through Connaught Place, New Delhi’s core, past gated and lushly landscaped embassies from every country, to the government areas around Raj path (Kingsway) to the south. I am amazed at the size and opulence of this approach to New Delhi. Raj-appointed English architect Edwin Lutyens planned and constructed this area between 1914 and 1931, when the British moved their capital here from Calcutta. This site was to spell out the might of the British Empire, but a mere 16 years later, the Brits were out and the Indians took over.

The streets of Old Delhi from our rickshaw

After being checked through the gate, we drive by the President’s House, built in 1929. The equivalent to the U.S. White House in function, it surpasses it in scale, with 340 rooms. At the time of Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, the Rashtrapati Bhavan employed a staggering number of servants, including 418 gardeners! The Mughal gardens nearby occupy 130 hectares. The matching north and south Secretariat buildings that house the government ministries have 1000 rooms between them. As we leave, we drive through the massive India Gate, a 42-meter stone arch, inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, that pays tribute to the 90,000 Indians that died during WW1.

As we leave Delhi the next day for our flight to Varanasi, I realize that nothing could have prepared me for India. Already, this subcontinent has inspired, thrilled, and frustrated me. I look forward to the mind-bending experiences to come.

At the airport, I review the statistics listed in the Lonely Planet:

  • India is only 1/3 the size of mainland U.S.
  • India has over three times the population of the U.S.

No wonder this subcontinent, although it appears to be so vast on the globe, seems so crowded!

Population of India in 2008 1,147,995,904 (1.14 billion)
Population of China in 2008 1,330,044,605 (1.3 billion)

With more than 50% its population below the age of 25 and about 65% below 35, the average age of an Indian after 10 years is likely to be 29 years, whereas the average age of a Chinese will be 37. According to estimated figures, the population of India will be largest in the world in the year 2030. What does this all mean?  I hope to find out.

Indian tourists want their photos taken with us.

pressure cooker at seaDuring this time of year, my food fantasies often turn to those warm one-dish meals that are easy to prepare and oh, so comforting!  On page 56 of  my book “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: MAIDEN VOYAGE,” I describe what it was like to cook a Thanksgiving meal in a pressure cooker while rocking and rolling toward Cape Verde.

During the eight years we spent at sea, I learned to depend on my trusty Kuhn Duromatic pressure cooker, purchased especially for our circumnavigation pressure cooker.  This was one item I made sure to ship back before we sold Pacific Bliss after we crossed our path in the south of France.  Now that I’m a landlubber, I still like to use my cooker—especially when the weather chills.

Many cruisers have pressure cookers on board their yachts because they cook faster and therefore use less propane fuel.  The principle of pressure cooking is simple: Because a pressure cooker is airtight, pressure builds up inside as the liquid comes to a boil. The resulting trapped steam causes the internal temperature to rise beyond what it can do under normal room pressure. Food cooking under pressure and at a higher temperature cooks faster.  Another benefit of the increased pressure is that it softens the fibers in foods, tenderizing even the toughest meats and beans.

One of my favorite recipes on board Pacific Bliss was a combination of lentils, yams, and ribs.  One can make it in a variety of ways: as a curry, as a soup, or as a barbeque as shown in the recipe below. Just add extra water with the lentils and yams. (Lentils do not require soaking.)


3 lb. spareribs

Salt & pepper
1 tbsp. shortening
1 lg. onion, sliced
1/4 c. catsup
2 tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/8 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. celery seed
1/4 c. water

Cut ribs into serving pieces. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Heat in cooker and add shortening. Brown ribs on both sides. Add onion. Combine vinegar, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, celery seed and water. Pour over meat in pressure cooker. Cook 15 minutes at 15 pounds pressure. Let pressure drop of its own accord. Serves 5-6. Recipe can also be used for pork chops.

Recipe from