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The Purple Muse


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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Oman Under Construction


After two days at sea the Nautica arrived at Salalah, Oman yesterday.  It was our first visit to any country on the Arabian Peninsula.  I didn’t know very much about Oman so I had no particular expectations as to what we would see and learn.  Our visit was very worthwhile and I learned quite a bit. 

Salalah is a port city on the Arabian Sea in the area known as Dhofer which is located in the southwestern part of the Sultanate of Oman. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is north of Dhofer.  The Republic of Yemen is west of Dhofer.  I was very surprised to see a very large container port dock extending from the shore into the sea as our ship entered the port.  Four, two massive Maersk and two MSC, container ships were lined up end to end on the dock being unloaded by multiple huge cranes assigned to each ship.  I didn’t expect to see this level of business activity in Oman.

As our bus drove out of the port I was surprised to find out that this part of Salalah is a major industrial area.  Oman exports cement to places like Somalia.  They export limestone to India. There were a number of large industrial plants in the port area.

One of the first things we saw was the Sultan’s Palace in Salalah.  He has several palaces and we were told he spends a couple of months a year in Salalah.  When our guide told us we were looking at the palace I was surprised.  All I saw was a bunch of buildings that looked like villas or apartments.  These buildings went on for many blocks and then I finally saw the main palace building.  It turns out the entire massive complex of buildings is “the palace”.  The Sultan brings a huge number of advisors and government officials with him and the other buildings were housing for the entire group.  It was unbelievable when I realized how many people come with the Sultan on his visits.

Our guide gave us some interesting information about Oman.  There are 2 million citizens of Oman.  There are almost 2 million foreign workers, mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Many of the people from India come from the Kerala area, where the port of Cochin is located.  When we were in Cochin we were told many of its people went to the Middle East to work.  It appears many of them are working in Oman.  There is no income tax in Oman.  Schools and medical care for Omanis are free.  Every adult can get a free piece of land from the government once they become of age, 23 I believe.  Electric power is generated from natural gas.  Drinking water comes from seawater distillation plants collocated with the power plants on the coast.  Oman’s crude oil and natural gas exports pay for almost everything.

Oman has an agriculture industry.  They use well water to irrigate the land for bananas, coconuts and many vegetables.  We drove by some very well maintained banana plantations.  They also raise livestock for meat.  We saw cows and goats in many locations.  The stars of the show for our day in Oman were the dozens of camels we saw all over the undeveloped land outside the city.  The female camels leave their owners property near the coastal mountains in the morning and wander down to the sea during the day.   The aggressive male camels are kept at home.  The camels cross the main highway at their leisure and walk along the shoulder of the road.  They eat the scrub brush and stay cool in the ocean breezes near the beach.  Our bus stopped near one group of eight and everyone took pictures.  It was unreal.  The environment was very similar to the central California coast except it was camels grazing, not cattle.

During our tour we saw a Muslim cemetery and tomb of a major Muslim figure among our stops.  We visited a pre-Arab coastal town that has been discovered by archeologists.  The inscriptions near the gates of the town are in a language that predates Arabic and has not yet been translated.  The town was abandoned due to climate change impacts on its water supply and agriculture millennia ago.  The town was a major trading center for frankincense and the trees grow in Oman today.  We stopped at a fruit stand by the side of he rode and drank coconut water directly from a coconut opened by a machete wielded by an Indian shopkeeper.

The area around Salalah is an area under construction.  We drove on new highways.  Many new buildings are being constructed.  There were many piles of rocks neatly stacked and ready for removal.  There was very little trash anywhere we went.  Oman was a stark contrast to India and Myanmar, where we saw trash everywhere.  Oman was very clean from a trash perspective even though it was dusty during the current summer dry season.  We were told that during the rainy season the land around Salalah turns green.  It must be an interesting contrast to the brown foliage and desert environment we witnessed yesterday.  Salalah has some beach resorts on the other side of the town, but we didn’t visit that area. 

Our guide told us that the Sultan doesn’t have any children.  He has been married twice and is divorced from his first wife.  Oman will experience a transition of power at some point in the fairly near future to a cousin of the current Sultan.  Oman is a peaceful country, has no enemies, is attempting to diversify is income sources and takes care of its people.  At first glance it looks like the Sultan has done a very good job of leading his nation forward. But Oman is clearly a nation that is still under construction.


3:45 am          Comments

Thursday, April 17, 2014

India A Unique Combination of Cultures


My wife and I spent the past four days making day trips at ports on the west coast of India.  We spent a few hours each day experiencing Cochin (Kochi), Mangalore, Goa (Mormugao) and Mumbai.  A quick four or five hour highlights tour isn’t sufficient to make concrete conclusions but we received enough insight from driving around, visiting sites and listening to our guides to start making substantive impressions.

Cochin is a very interesting mix of old and new cultures.  We spent most of our time in old Cochin and only viewed new Cochin from our ship docked in between the two parts of the town.  We watched the local people fish with a sophisticated antique net system from the shore.  The local fish market was next door.  Cochin was developed by the Portuguese after they began exploring the Indian Ocean in the late 15th century and early 16th century.  We saw a house where Vasco de Gama lived for over 20 years late in his life.  The British took over the area later and their influences were very evident.  Despite the wonderful history of old Cochin the most powerful memory I have is the trash littering the streets, parks and everywhere we walked.  I will never forget the goats and cows walking in the streets.  It is very hard to take any culture seriously that lives like this.

New Cochin looked like any other newly developed city from a distance.  Tall apartment buildings looked very nice from a distance.  Unfortunately, our short visit didn’t give us time to drive down the streets and get a good look at the environment.  So it is not possible to make a broader judgment about living conditions in Cochin.

Mangalore was a completely different experience from Cochin.  Mangalore is a relatively new city that is all about business and industry.  We saw much less trash on the streets in comparison to Cochin.  We went to a cashew processing and packaging factory.  We watched women sitting at machines (only women were doing this task) that peel off the shells and allow the nut to be further processed.  This is tedious work in marginal working conditions for which the women are paid 600 to 800 rupees per week, about $10.00 to $13.50 per week for 8 to 9 hours of work per day.  I think it is a five day work week but I am not positive that is the case.  This translates to about $0.25 to $0.33 per hour.  We were initially advised that the women were paid 600 rupees but our guide later said it was 600, 700, and 800.  We watched the women take a turn bringing their bowl of finished product to the weighing scale in front of the male supervisor in the front of the room.  The women measured the exact amount needed to meet the objective and took the excess back to their work station.  It may be that the women are paid on piece work or must achieve some sort of productivity objective.  Our guide told us lower class women do this work.  On a more positive note the factory provides day care for young children.  We don’t know how much, if any, the women get in maternity leave after they give birth or how long the children are allowed to stay in day care.  This is one example of how business is conducted in India. We all received a package of cashews at the end of the visit.  They were very tasty.

We also visited a major Hindu temple in Mangalore.  The sign at the front was very interesting.  The people that raised the money and managed the process of expanding and modernizing the temple were very senior local business people.  The sign indicated that the people of the temple were all of one caste.  It appears the leaders of the community are making an attempt to minimize the impact of the caste driven social structure in Mangalore.

The overall messages from Mangalore were clear.  Life is all about education, business and working with people of all types.  But despite people’s best efforts the old line thinking is very hard to eliminate.

We were very fortunate to have an outstanding guide in Goa.  He was one of the best guides we have had anywhere we have traveled.  Goa is one of the wealthiest areas in India on a per capita basis.  It is also one of the smallest states.  The Portuguese influence in Goa was very strong and lasted until the 1960s.  I didn’t know that many Indians have Portuguese surnames until this visit to India.  Goa is about 25 percent Christian compared to the national level of less than 3 percent throughout India.  We visited Jesuit and Dominican churches.  There are many other Christian denominations in Goa.  If you see a woman or teen girl in India wearing western clothes, and not some form of local dress or sari, it is likely she is a Christian.

Goa was trashier that Mangalore but it appeared to be less trashy than Cochin.  One of the unpleasant aspects of traveling in India is seeing black discoloration on the sides of buildings.  We saw a lot of this in Goa.  The black stuff is mold.  It is everywhere.  It gives a very negative impression.  We also experienced our first substantial exposure to India’s beggars in Goa.

Our last stop was Mumbai.  Mumbai is a massive city in the range of 20 million people.  After the early Portuguese period it was developed by the British as a trading center and renamed Bombay.  The British influence is very prominent throughout the architecture of the downtown area.  Mumbai is built on a series of islands combined with reclaimed land.  Mumbai is a combination of the best India has to offer and some of the worst.  As we traveled around the city we saw luxurious penthouse apartments owned by some of India’s great industrialists.  We also saw some of the worst slums we have ever seen.  There was trash in the streets and parks, virtually everywhere.  We didn’t venture into Mumbai’s famous slums featured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Everywhere we ventured in Mumbai we encountered adults and children begging.  We also had vendors all over us attempting to sell us their trinkets.  The in-your-face challenge by beggars and vendors is extremely difficult to handle.  Despite the generosity of many of India’s wealthiest citizens, like the Tata family, the level of poverty by people living a few blocks away from the wealthy is astounding. 

We visited the Mahatma Gandhi museum.  I learned a lot about this legendary figure, too much to discuss in the blog.  I read his Declaration of Independence from the British he wrote around 1930.  It sounds very familiar to the US declaration of independence.  When people are treated unfairly economically and politically they will eventually revolt against their oppressors.

We also visited the Prince of Wales museum, now called a very long unpronounceable name that even the locals don’t use.  Some of the granite, marble, limestone and sandstone carvings from 6th and 7th century and later were astounding.  Unfortunately, we had very little time to explore the museum.  The early Indian culture is extremely interesting.  I was just getting into it when it was time to move on.

As we sailed away from Mumbai during the evening the city looked beautiful.  The sea breeze has cooled off the heat of the day.  We had a full moon which bathed the sea in moonlight.  The city lights highlighted the developed areas.  But we knew that Mumbai is a combination of great beauty and wealth and ugliness and poverty.  Sometimes people see only what they wish to see or can see with a particular perspective.

India is a complex combination of peoples of many cultures, religions, races, languages and economic status.  Will this nation ever become a great power in the world?  It is very hard for me to believe that any leader can effectively lead a nation this large and this diverse to become a truly global power.  There is a lot of admire about India and a lot to feel negatively about.  There is no doubt India is a remarkable part of our planet.

We are now sailing in the Arabian Sea on our way to Oman.


2:58 am          Comments

Friday, April 11, 2014

Myanmar Dirt, Trash and Buddhism

We just spent two days touring the areas around Yangon and Bagu, Myanmar.  Myanmar was known as Burma during the British colonial era.  Yangon was previously named Rangoon by the British.  Myanmar was under economic sanctions by many western countries, including the US, until 2010 due to its military dictatorship and civil rights violations.  Very few Americans have visited Myanmar as a result.

We toured Myanmar during the dry season.  As we drove through and by developed and undeveloped areas going to and from Yangon and Bagu, we were struck by some consistent themes.  Since it was dry season, no rice was currently being grown in the areas we visited.  The farmers were burning the residual vegetation left over from the prior growing season.  In many places the ground was black from the burning.  We could smell the burned ash in the air as we sat on the outside deck of our ship and ate dinner. 

Most of the streets off the main roads that accessed villages were pure dirt.  We could see the dust kicked up as people walked, rode bicycles, and rode motor scooters or any number of different types of small trucks as they went about their business.  Even in the developed areas there was a lot of dust and dirt in the air since it was so dry.  The locals call this time of the year “summer”.  It was 100 degrees each day.  I can’t even imagine what the dirt roads will be like during the rainy season which will start in a few months.

Watching the people go about their business was amazing.  People or cargo filled every vehicle that was moving.  Bicycles were used to move wood paneling and bamboo poles three times as long as the bicycles.  We watched in amazement as small pick-up trucks picked up passengers everywhere we went.  I don’t think US authorities would like to see ten adults squeezed into the back of a small pick-up truck traveling our highways.

The second theme of our visit to Myanmar was trash.  There was litter of all types and trash everywhere.  There are local trash dumps adjacent to main roads.  There was trash everywhere we looked, in the cities, towns, villages, and along roads.  The locals seemed completely oblivious to it.  It is very hard to understand why this is the case. 

There was one place where we saw no trash.  Not only was there no trash, the place was immaculately maintained.  It was the World War II cemetery dedicated to the British military personnel that died fighting the Japanese in Burma.  The cemetery was beautiful.  One cannot imagine a better tribute to those soldiers from England, India, Nigeria and other African nations and perhaps other nations that I didn’t see listed on gravestones or the huge memorial walls.  Our guide told us the Burmese never wanted to be colonized by the British.  They fought several wars in the 1800s to stay independent.  But in the end they fought with the British to defeat the Japanese invaders and the cemetery is a tremendous demonstration of respect for the British military that died in the cause.

The third theme of our visit was Buddhism.  Myanmar is clearly a Buddhist nation.  There were large pagodas, shrines and monasteries everywhere we went.  Monks in traditional dress were visible on the street everywhere we traveled.  Myanmar shares its Buddhist traditions with Thailand.  I have never seen any country display its predominant religion as intensely as Myanmar.  There is a substantial percentage of Myanmar’s national wealth invested in buildings dedicated to Buddhism.

Myanmar is a poor country.  It has been economically isolated for decades.  It has a very wealthy upper class made up of a very small percentage of its people, mostly military.  Fellow cruisers told us that they saw some areas of Yangon that reflected that wealth.  One of our guides advised us that there is a very small middle class, just a few percent of the population.  We saw some evidence of this group.  The vast majority, over 90 percent of the people, live in poverty, albeit different shades of poverty.  We saw ramshackle huts, rundown buildings and other forms of low end housing.  But it appears that Myanmar can feed its people.  We were advised Myanmar is a rice exporter.

While we were in port we watched a massive vehicle transport ship unload hundreds of used cars, trucks and construction equipment of all shapes and descriptions.  We were advised the vehicles came from Japan, China and Korea.  They were a combination of right and left hand drive.  It was an amazing sight.  Some Caterpillar equipment was part of the cargo.  We didn’t recognize any other US branded vehicles.

Myanmar reminded us of Vietnam in many ways, although Vietnam appears much further ahead in its economic development.  There are 60 million people in Myanmar that want to participate in the global economy.  It is likely they will increase their participation in the years ahead.  But Myanmar has concerns.  People from Bangladesh are coming over their border with Myanmar.  There isn’t enough land or resources to support all the people within Bangladesh.  The people of Myanmar have enough issues without illegal immigrants coming from Bangladesh.  This is another example of how fundamental economic circumstances cause migration issues around the world.

We are currently sailing in the Bay of Bengal on our way to India.


3:15 am          Comments

Singapore and Phuket

The first two ports of call on our spring 2014 cruise were Singapore and Phuket, Thailand.  We spent a day exploring each of these two very different places.  

Our time in Singapore was a return visit.  We previously toured Singapore in the fall of 2012 during our cruise on Holland America’s Amsterdam.  This time my wife and I created our own tour.  We rode the subway from the port to the Marina Bay area, which includes the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel, the Marina Bay casino which is owned by Las Vegas Sands, the US gaming company, and a wonderful park with a number of historical monuments.  This area is adjacent to the Singapore financial district and a number of Singapore’s top hotels.  We spent the day walking all over the area, riding the Flyer, taking a boat ride on the Singapore River and visiting the top deck of the hotel complex so we could observe the entire city.  It was hot and humid but a very enjoyable day.  We took the subway back to the port and our ship.

There is no question that Singapore is a very impressive place.  I am sure the governmental restrictions on certain types of activities are not for everyone.  Singapore is a great example of how people can create wealth and continually improve their standard of living with essentially no natural resources, other than the resourcefulness and intelligence of its people. Singapore also has taken advantage of its physical location to become one of the world’s great trading hubs.  We saw new high rise buildings under construction and other examples of Singapore’s continuing growth.  We saw Singapore’s massive petrochemical complex.  When Singapore needs more land they reclaim it from the sea.  We are looking forward to returning to Singapore at some time in the future to further explore this unique city-state.

Our next port of call was Phuket, Thailand.  Phuket is an island located in the Indian Ocean just west of the mainland in the most southern part of Thailand.  It is a well-known tourist location to Europeans and Asians and many Americans have made the long trip to spend time at its wonderful beaches and resort hotels.  We took a tour that didn’t include the resort area.  We wanted to get an opportunity to the natural beauty of the island and the life style of its people.  We did get a chance to see some of the natural beauty even when it was lightly raining.  We also got the opportunity to drive through the town of Phuket, the general business hub of the island.  In the town the amount of English seen around town was much less than in Bangkok.  It appeared that the standard of living was fairly decent due to the economic benefit the tourist trade brought to the island.  I doubt that I would ever make the long trip from the US to visit the beaches of Phuket.  But the work ethic of the people was obvious just like in Bangkok.

On to Myanmar.


2:56 am          Comments

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Thoughts About Money

It is Monday morning in Bangkok but we are already up and preparing to board the Nautica later today.  I thought it might be interesting to write a few comments about the Thai currency, the Baht, and compare it to the US currency system.

The Thai currency system is very similar to the Japanese Yen system.  In the US 100 cents equals one dollar and the dollar is the basic currency unit.  In Japan one Yen equals approximately 1 US cent and the Yen is the basic currency unit.  Approximately 100 Yen equals one US dollar.  In Thailand the Baht is the basic unit of currency and it equals about 3.3 US cents.  One US dollar equals about 31 Baht.  In the US we can two currency elements, the dollar and cent, a fraction of a dollar.  In Japan and Thailand there is one unit of currency each, the Yen and the Baht.

The Baht currency system is made up of one, two, five and ten Baht coins and 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 Baht paper notes.  We have used all of these in our transactions in Bangkok.  The 1000 Baht note is worth about 31 US dollars.  The two Baht coin is not used very much but we received one as change.  At one time Satang coins were used which were worth 0.25 and 0.50 Baht but apparently they are no longer used.  It also appears that a 10 Baht note was in circulation but it is now rarely used.

The most interesting physical comparison on the Thai currency to US currency is the comparison of the one Baht coin to the US (one cent) penny.  The one Baht coin is silver grey in color and is about the same size of a US penny.  But one Baht is worth more than three US cents.  One has to exchange three US pennies for one Baht coin.  There is not way this makes any economic sense.  It is not possibly that the metal contained in a one Baht coin has the same economic value as the metal in three US pennies.  Since we know it costs the US Treasury more than one US cent to make each US penny this should not be surprising.  It is another illustration of how the US government doesn't make adjustments in line with economic reality.

The 10 Baht coin is bimetallic and slightly larger and heavier than a US quarter.  It has a value of about 33 US cents.  If one combines the weight of a US nickel and a US quarter it appears that the mass of the Thai coin is approximately equal to the US coins.  The combination of a US quarter and US dime is also close.

All paper notes of any nation have no inherent physical value.  They are only backed by the issuing government's capability to make good on its obligations in one form or another.  The Baht currency notes are different colors and sizes just like many other nations.  We have only been here a couple of days but we are getting a feel for the value of the Baht. 

One thing is clear as a bell.  The US penny no longer makes any economic sense in its current form.  It cost too much to produce and is no longer essential to physical currency transactions.  We need to let the penny pass on to its place in history.


8:39 pm          Comments

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