Sunday, February 19, 2017


India is a land of contracts, to say the least.  They don't appear to have zoning laws.  As a result, you see magnificent luxury buildings standing side by side with shanty towns.  The residents of the shanty towns live in squalor.  Garbage is strewn around wherever you look.  Pigs and goats roam freely through the trash, foraging for food.  Did I mention the cattle which are sacred to the Hindus.  These folks feed the cattle and presumably used them for milk, but they don't eat them. 

There are over a billion people in India, and the cities we visited, Mumbai   (Bombay), Delhi, Agra, Mangalore and Cochin are teeming with people.  India has 29 states and 7 union territories.  In ancient times, the country was named after the Indus River which flows across Pakistan which used to be part of India. 

Fashionwise, India is the only country where Nehru jackets are still in style.  Our tour bus meandered through the fetid streets and crowded markets of Mumbai.  There doesn't appear to be a lot of street crime despite what one would expect in poor areas.   Eventually, we reached a modern expressway built over the bay and then we quickly got to the airport.

Several billboards display the larger than life likeness of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is the most powerful man in the country.  He grew up poor, the son of a street vendor in Gujarat state, not far from Mumbai.  He is considered a Hindu nationalist, right wing politician who greatly upsets Pakistan.  That alone makes him popular in India.   Modi's policies are intended to achieve economic growth for India, and environmental concerns take a back seat.  For example he took action to suppress the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other human rights groups on the grounds that they interfere with economic growth.   These groups, the Muslims and others compare Modi to Donald Trump, and not in a good way.  India also has a president, but that position is largely ceremonial. 

Modi has created some controversy recently when he made a big push to convince the people to use toilets.  In India, that can be an uphill battle.  Even with government subsidies to encourage people to install them, people still have to be persuaded to use them.   Until then Indians must watch where they step.  The Untouchables will clean up the mess.

Speaking of Untouchables, in India, people live by the caste system.  These are not the Eliot Ness Untouchables.  The Indian Untouchables are also known as the Dalits (Sanskrit word for "oppressed").  We're talking millions of people.  Incidentally, today, it is illegal in India to use the term "Dalit" (the D word) to describe a class of people.  Now they are officially called "schedule caste",  The caste system dates back to ancient times, but the British Raj found the system useful in administering the country.   Essentially lower caste people could not own land and were restricted to certain menial jobs.

The way it works is that there are 4 castes.  The Brahmin (priests) are on top; then come the Kahatryla (warriors and rulers); Viasya (merchants, landowners, skilled workers) and Sudra (unskilled workers).  Then, below that are the Untouchables, or out of caste (outcasts) who were restricted to jobs like cleaning latrines, street sweeping and collecting garbage.   They were segregated from polite society.  These folks were not allowed in temples and forced to live outside of town.  It is not necessarily a racial thing because the Brahmins and the Dalits are of the same racial stock.  However, in my observation, many of the poor were dark skinned.

In India, occupations were and are handed down from father to son.  There is not a lot of upward mobility in India although the Indian government has affirmative action policies to help out the lower castes.   The Prevention of Atrocities Act was passed in 1989, but we still read about ugly situations like gang rapes.

Today there are Dalits in the legislature, and some have achieved high office, such as President and Chief Justice.   The first female speaker of the Indian legislature was a Dalit.  By and large though, the poor kids, at least the ones we saw, don't attend school, so there is not much hope they will ever improve themselves.   

The Indian government does have a welfare system, but traditionally it has been corrupt, with middlemen taking a share of the money/food intended for the poor.  The government is trying to do something about that, but obviously, much needs to be done.

Because of the squalid conditions, we were warned not to eat street food, drink only bottled water and not breathe the air.  The latter is hard to do, but many people wear masks.   The dreaded "Delhi belly" is to be avoided at all costs.  The more modern version is "New Delhi belly" which  you might catch from eating at the New Delhi deli.  Safety doesn't appear to overly concern the Indians.  We saw many unsafe conditions like excavations not roped off and no danger signs.   People have to look out for themselves.

We flew from Mumbai to Delhi on Jet Airways, a local Indian airline.  They serve you a full Indian lunch on the 2 hour flight.  I took my chances and ate the spicy curry dish with no ill effects.   Our friend Cheryl from New York also ate the food.  The rest of our traveling companions pretty much stuck to the naan bread which is like a tasty flatbread.    The naan bread is like non bread and can be compared to a tortilla.

Delhi was the capital of India for many years until they built New Delhi close by.  We stayed two nights at the 5 star Trident Hotel in Delhi.  The buffet was an epicurean delight with many varieties of meats, seafood, breads, desserts, all prepared Indian style.  Indian cooking makes generous use of rice, lentils and curries.  Many dishes are vegetarian, but lamb and chicken are popular.  Most dishes are served with pungent sauces. 


No visit to India is complete without seeing the Taj Mahal.  It is located in Agra in the North Central part of the country in Uttar Pradesh state.  We took a high speed train South from Delhi.  The train station in Delhi is an experience by itself.   Thousands of people pass through the station each day, and keeping it clean is a futile job.  The trains generally run on time.  Most Indians get around by train if at all possible.  As our train waited in the station, another train was pulling out, and I saw several men quickly sneak onto that train while it was moving. 

We had our own railroad car at the back of the train for the 120 people on our tour.  The train car has seen better days but it is functional though not luxurious.  On the back of the car is a bathroom with a hole in the floor and outlines of where to put your feet when you do your business.  I'm not sure what they do for No. 2.  On the other end of the car was an "American" style bathroom with an actual toilet for the women. 

To our surprise, they serve you a full lunch on the train, but we had just eaten on the airplane and after watching the sights, we were in no mood to eat.   The train pulled out of the station and cruised through the outskirts of Delhi where we could observe how the Indians live, and it isn't pretty.   The effluvia is everywhere.  Were talking run down shacks with tin roofs.  Most of the people burn trash out in front of their homes, apparently for cooking..  Plastic bags don't burn efficiently so they accumulate near the tracks.  To me, it seems like the government could hire thousands of idle people to pick up trash, but they don't.  Many of the people tend small garden plots to raise food.  In the countryside, people worked the fields without equipment.  Cattle roamed freely among the people.  We even saw a large sow with her piglets foraging through the garbage. 

In the countryside, the train picked up speed, eventually going over 100 mph, but had to slow down when  entering a town because of people and animals milling about near the tracks.   I was amazed this ancient train could go that fast.

In Agra, a tour bus took us from the train station to a transfer point a few blocks from the Taj Mahal.  Then we had to transfer to a smaller, electric powered bus, probably for security reasons, to get to the Taj.  When we arrived, we were besieged by an army of peddlers and panhandlers, shoving trinkets in our faces.  The panhandlers are pathetic.  Most are missing limbs or handicapped in some other way, some severely.  I'm not sure what kind of safety net is provided by the government for these people, but the idea here is to make you feel so bad you hand them a few Rupees.  From my considerable experience with panhandlers, if you give to one, many others will magically appear out of nowhere.

The Taj Mahal is magnificent, of course.  It looks just like the pictures.  Often it is partially obscured by smog which is everywhere in India.  The Indians burn coal and garbage, and this stuff gets in your lungs and permeates everything.  Fortunately, the day we visited, the smog cleared up somewhat and we got a good view of the structure. 

The 4 minarets framing the main building are not physically connected to it.  The architects recognized that Agra is in an earthquake zone and didn't want a quake to topple them onto the main structure.  The building is remarkably well constructed for a 17th Century building.  The architects noted that the soil is sandy, and they sank caissons down to the bedrock to support the building.  That was revolutionary for the time.

The 231 foot high Taj Mahal is constructed of white marble which is quarried locally.  The structure is a fusion of Indian and Persian architecture.  The marble was decorated by local craftsmen who carved intricate inlay designs decorating them with semi precious stones.  You can't see them except up close.  There are other buildings in the complex including a museum, but we didn't visit them.

Shah Jahan built the Taj as a mausoleum to his queen, Mumtaz Mahal who died in 1631 at age 38 shortly after giving birth to her 14th child.   It was a love story, although the Royal Emperor had other wives also.  Her last wish to her husband was that he construct a beautiful and incomparable monument over her grave as a token of their worldly inseparable love (her words, not mine).  This was a classic jobs program.  It took 20,000 laborers 22 years to finish the Taj Mahal. 

There was a fair amount of intrigue inside the palace.  Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son Aurangreb who placed him under house arrest in Agra Fort.  He was held in the Burj Muasamman tower with a marble balcony and a view of the Taj Mahal.  After he died, the government rehabilitated him and placed his body in the mausoleum next to his queen.

Agra was the capital of the Moghul Empire in Medieval times.  Moghul as in Genghis Khan.  The imposing 94 acre Agra Fort was the residence of the Moghul emperors until 1638 when they moved the capital to Delhi.   The fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.    In effect, the fort is a walled city.  It occupies the high ground and from the back one has a commanding view of the countryside and the Taj Mahal, about a mile and a half away.   On the way from the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort, I stopped at McDonalds for a snack. 


Our bus drove us back from Agra to Delhi on the Interstate, at least the Indian version, and traffic was light until we got to Delhi.   The distance is about 140 miles.   The traffic in Delhi as well as in Mumbai, is horrendous.  Delhi is incredibly congested, and the last 20 miles through the city can take 2 hours.  A three lane highway becomes 5 lanes with drivers cutting in and out.  Many people drive motor scooters which can squeeze between lanes, obviously very dangerous.  As I said earlier, safety is not a big concern in this part of the world.       To get us back to the hotel more quickly, our bus detoured off the main highway to see the capital complex in New Delhi.  We passed the prime minister's house and the legislature. 

The people got used to Delhi, and then they came out with a new version, Delhi 2.0, or New Delhi.  In contrast to Old Delhi, New Delhi was built by the British in the early 20th Century and became the capital of India in 1947.  The two cities together, comprising the National Capital Territory, are enormous with over 16 million people. 

To return to our cruise ship, we flew Jet Airways from Delhi, back to Mumbai and change planes to Mangalore in the Southern part of India.   We later learned there is a direct flight from Delhi to Mangalore, but apparently Celebrity determined it cheaper to fly the long, indirect way.   In Mumbai, the airline made a decision to keep us on the same plane.  However,  we had to change seats to correspond with our boarding passes for the second flight.   Most of us had bags stored in the overhead compartment   The other passengers got off the plane, and they started loading the plane with the new passengers before we got a chance to find our new seats and move our overhead bags.  The result was bedlam. 

The new passengers were about 80 Muslim pilgrims, mostly old women dressed like nuns and missing teeth.  These Indians were hostile.  They had sharp elbows and didn't hesitate to use them while pushing their way through the narrow aisle.  The women were illiterate and could not read their boarding passes.  Our friend Cheryl from New York took charge.   She stood in the aisle, and these women assumed she worked for the airline.   They would show her the boarding passes, and she would point out the correct seat. Order was restored.

Indians, at least the civil servants are very bureaucratic.  You must sit in the seat corresponding to your boarding pass--or else.  Security is tight.  They check your tickets and boarding passes at every turn.


Cochin is located in Kerala state in the South of India.  Culture is different in Cochin than in the Northern part of the country.  The weather is hot and steamy, even in January.  Cochin is tolerant to many religions.  Cochin has a Jewish presence thousands of years old.  Many of the Hindu buildings have 6 pointed stars engraved in them.  Although the star is similar to the Star of David, it is also a Hindu symbol.  Some of the Cochin Christians were thought to be Jews who were converted by the disciple St Thomas who traveled there in ancient times.  Many of their customs are similar to those of the Jews. 

We drove through Kerala state on the way to the coast, taking in the sights.  To our surprise we saw numerous Christian churches and schools.   Near the coast are waterways and canals on which thousands of people live on houseboats, many of which are elaborately decorated.   Others rent out their houseboats to tourists like us, sometimes for days at a time.  We took a pleasant cruise for an hour or so through the backwaters of Kochi observing how people in this area live. 

One restaurant promoted its "homely" food on a billboard.  We didn't stop in but we guessed the presentation would be less than attractive. 

Cochin got its name from the fact that it was like China.  For centuries, Cochin has been a cosmopolitan city, a key trading center with the Arabs and the Chinese.  The Jews' presence in Cochin goes back to the days of King Solomon.  They were called the Malabar Jews and their merchants were very prosperous.  They controlled the pepper trade.   The ancient Jews were dark skinned but those who came from Europe in the Middle Ages were light skinned and called the Paradisi ("foreign Jews) or "White Jews". 



Monday, February 6, 2017


An old popular song by the late Debbie Reynolds was called Aba Daba Honeymoon.  It sounds like it could have been recorded in Abu Dhabi, but it wasn't.  The lyrics go something like "Aba daba daba daba daba daba...etc."  The song was written in 1914, long before Abu Dhabi became a city.

In fact, Abu Dhabi didn't even exist until 1970. Until then, it was a collection of tents used by the fishermen and pearl divers who populated the area.   The British ran the place.  The pearl business went South with the invention of cultured pearls which could be created inexpensively.  Those simple people are long gone, but if they can prove they or their parents lived here then, they get a free ride from the government.  Only about 20% of the people in Abu Dhabi are citizens, meaning that their parents or grandparents were living there at the time.   The rest are Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos who make up the labor force.   The Arab citizens are steered into management positions. 

The labor force consists of contract workers.  Companies import the workers and must provide health insurance and benefits.  Most of the workers send money back home.  Because of oil wealth, there is no poverty in the United Arab Emirates. 

The oil industry, or course, transformed everything here.  The ruling families are sitting on billions of dollars of wealth, and they spend money freely on mega projects, as well as foreign policy and politics.  Abu Dhabi today is an ultra modern city of over 2.5 million with modern high rises, superhighways and shopping malls dwarfing those in the West.    Traffic is heavy, and most of the cars are high end sedans--Lexuses (Lexi?), Mercedes and BMW's.

Its not easy to get to Abu Dhabi.  There are no direct flights, at least from Chicago.  There is a direct flight from New York to Dubai which is about 100 miles North.  The cities are connected by an expressway.  We flew first class on Royal Jordanian Airlines from Chicago to Amman, Jordan, and then from Amman to Abu Dhabi.   In ancient times, Amman was settled by Greeks who called it "Philadelphia".  

Our flight was comfortable on first class, and the food was good.  We left frigid Chicago on January 6th at 9:30 PM.  By 10:30 they serve you a full dinner and then expect you to go to sleep.  In first class, the seats fold out so you're lying prone.  It's not the same as sleeping on a real bed, but you can get some rest.   The flight to Amman takes 12 hours, and they wake you up before landing to serve you breakfast, another full meal.  The layover in Amman was about 3 hours.  The airport was crawling with security.  In that part of the world, they take no chances.  The plane landed in Abu Dhabi shortly after 1 AM.  We had a lot of luggage, but it all arrived at the proper destination in one piece.  Abu Dhabi issues you a visa upon arrival at no charge.   

By this time, everything about the trip was too good to be true.  Until the driver we hired to take us to our hotel didn't show up.  You know how those guys greet you at the exit, holding up signs with  names on them.  Well ours wasn't there.  We went to the taxi booth, and they were happy to pick up a fare.  Actually, the cost turned out to be about half of what the hotel would have charged us. 

We had to exchange dollars to Abu Dhabi money.  $100 U.S. buys us about 360 Dirhams.  I expected everything to be pricey, but actually the prices in Abu Dhabi are significantly lower than in New York or Chicago.  The taxi driver drove us down the mostly empty expressways and got us to the Ritz Carlton around 3 AM.  The Ritz is a magnificent hotel.  The whole country is like that.  We couldn't see much at 3 AM, but the staff was friendly and helpful.  I didn't want to get charged for the hotel limo, and they straightened it out for us. 

The Ritz is across the street from the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, described to us as the world's largest mosque.  At least it's the largest in Abu Dhabi.  It covers 30 acres, not counting the parking lot.  In Abu Dhabi, across the street is relative.  There is an expressway to cross, and driving there is actually a couple of miles.  The hotel and mosque are on the outskirts of town several miles from downtown. 

Everything is named after Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004.  The expressway is the Sheikh Zayed the First Expressway.  I don't think there is a Second Sheikh Zayed.       As I previously noted, this was a city of mud huts until about 1970.  Now it's an architect's dream.  It looks like Las Vegas without the gambling.  We're talking high rises, expressways, a Corniche, wide canals. 

Taxi rides are relatively inexpensive, compared to New York or Chicago.  After getting some much needed rest, we hired a taxi to take us downtown.  Our concierge gave us the names of three malls to visit.   Instead of shopping, we asked the driver to give us a grand tour of the city. 

We found all the familiar sights of home--McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and even Popeyes.  Chicken is popular in the Middle East where people don't eat pork.  The driver was Pakistani, spoke English,  and liked to talk.  He drove us downtown and back, past the Emir's palace, the World Trade Center, the Marina Mall. 

At the Emir's Palace, which is now an upscale hotel, security peers into every car, not to look for terrorists,  but to make sure women aren't wearing shorts.  Most of the guests in the hotel are Arabs, wearing traditional garb, the men in white robes and head coverings, and the women clad head to toe in black.

The following day, when we were settled in, we signed up for a Gray Line tour.  The driver took us to Heritage Village which relives the good ol' days before 1970.  We saw goatskin tents and mud huts from the time when Abu Dhabi was an obscure fishing village.  Merchants in small market stalls sell cheap clothing made in China.  Sheikh Zayed transformed all of that when the oil companies came.  To the locals, Sheikh Zayed is like George Washington is to the Americans.  He served as president of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004.

With all that wealth around, it was logical to build Ferrari World.  They built this massive project on Yas Island, an artificial island.  Turns out, Ferrari World is not a car dealer, although there is a Ferrari dealer in town.  This is an amusement park with the largest and fastest roller coaster in the world, The Flying Aces.  It is 206 feet high and travels 75 mph.  You can experience 5 g's.  You can also practice driving a Ferrari 200 mph in simulators.    We chose not to pay the couple hundred bucks to see another Disneyland in the Middle East. 

The Grand Mosque is worth seeing.  Since it is a place of worship, tourists must comply with the dress code.  Those who are not dressed appropriately, and there are many, must rent overclothes to wear.  Men and women must wear long sleeves rolled down.  Although the instructions told us not to wear sandals and we didn't, many people did wear them and were not turned away.  Security people, all Indians and Pakistanis, are prominently stationed to make sure everyone is dressed properly.  The singer Selena Gomez visited here last year and was criticized for posing for pictures at the mosque with her ankle shown. 

Did I mention that the mosque is very large?  In the center is the 180,000 square foot outdoor parade ground (my term), or courtyard, which can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers at one time.  The carpet, made by Iran's Carpet Company is over 60,000 square feet and weighs 35 tons. 

Going to the bathroom at the mosque is a new experience.  The men's and women's rest rooms are on opposite sides of the building, about a quarter mile apart.  To locate them, you follow the signs to "Ablution" which means ritual cleansing.  The escalator took me down to the men's room.  To my surprise, a security guard directed me to remove my shoes and store them.  They provide slippers at the entrance to that facility.

The mosque even has a library.  It was significantly smaller than I would have expected, a large room, perhaps 2000 square feet.   The books and publications cover a range of Islamic subjects like science, civilization and calligraphy.  Most were in Arabic, although some books were in English, French, Spanish, German and even Korean. 

The United Arab Emirates is run by several prominent ruling families.  The UAE was formed in 1971 when the British departed.  Sheikh Zayed was appointed president and was re-appointed 4 more times until his death.  There is no legislature.  When a ruler passes on, the ruling families vote to name a successor. 

The Sheikh runs the show, and in a 1997 interview with the New York Times, he declared essentially that an elected legislature would just create a lot of dissent and confrontation.  The people wouldn't want that because they have everything they need.    He told the Times that the country is based on the Islamic religion and that is what the people want.  The current president is Sheikh Zayed's son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, age 69, who has served since 2004.   In the UAE, the President is always from Abu Dhabi, and the Vice President is always from Dubai. 

With regard to human rights, as we know them, forgetaboutit.   Adultery is punishable by 100 lashes if you're not married; death by stoning if you are.  Abortion will get you 100 lashes and up to 5 years in prison.  Apostasy is punishable by death.   If a woman gets raped, in the UAE, it's probably her fault, and she may be prosecuted for crimes like alcohol consumption.  A Muslim woman marrying outside the faith can be charged with "fornication".  If a woman wants to marry, she needs approval from a male "guardian".   Most of the prosecutions in this regard are against expatriates like Indian and European women.  They are probably not going to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees.  As tourists, we just observe and say little.

In our hotel room, we settled down to watch TV.  There are channels in Arabic, English, German and Chinese, and probably other languages I wasn't familiar with.  After flipping the channels, we decided to watch the camel races.  Camels may look awkward, but they can run as fast as horses.  The jockeys are robots.

We spent 4 nights in Abu Dhabi.  When our friends came in after the second night, we signed up for a late afternoon and evening desert safari.  We rode out to the desert in a caravan of 4 wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers.  The desert is called the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter.  There is not much except sand which the wind whips up into 100 foot dunes.  At the golf course, the sand traps can be brutal. 

We got our first experience with dune bashing, or off road driving.   The drivers let the air out of the tires for better traction on the loose sand.  Then they drive recklessly through the drifting sand dunes, making hairpin turns and zooming over the crests of the dunes down 60 degree grades.  Golf carts would tip over under these conditions.  The Toyota Land Cruisers have heavy carriages and can hold their own riding at seemingly impossible angles.   It was like riding a roller coaster without tracks.
We drove up and down at high speed for almost an hour, and my stomach was starting to protest.  Eventually we got to the camp where we would enjoy a barbecue dinner and entertainment. 

The entertainment featured camel riding and ATM's, or were they ATV's, to do your own driving over the dunes.    They provided a belly dancer, an attractive Russian girl, dressed in traditional Arab dress.  The camp spread out Oriental rugs over the loose sand with pillows to sit on.  The food was good and plentiful--BBQ chicken, lamb and even pork skewers. 


Dubai is another modern city on steroids.  Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the two largest cities in the United Arab Emirates.  The population of Dubai is over 2 million, only 10% of which are citizens--Emiratis.  About half of the people are Indian or Pakistani.  Although the oil industry financed most of the early  development, Dubai has relatively little oil.  Most of the wealth in Dubai is based on trade.

The literal high point for us was the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, about 2700 feet high.  Burj means "tower" in Arabic.   On the ground level is the super sized Dubai Mall with about 1400 stores including Bloomingdales and the British stores, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.  For an admission fee, they take you up to the observatory on the 125th floor.  For an additional 100 bucks per person, they take you up higher in another elevator to the 148th floor, the New Deck Observatory, over 1800 feet high, and give you a nice lounge with fewer people, a cold drink and a photo with a better view.  We don't figure to be coming back anytime soon, so we paid the extra money for the extra comfort.   The building has 163 floors total, but the ones above the 148th are mostly used for mechanical and communications.  It was a nice day, and the view was spectacular.  The building was originally called the Burj Dubai, but ran into financial trouble until Sheikh Khalifa stepped up with a loan.

The nearby Burj al Arab is another iconic building, shaped like a sail.  It is located on the Umm Suqein Beach, which we visited.  It overlooks the Persian Gulf.  An over zealous critic described it as the world's only 7 star hotel.  In reality, there is no such designation--it's a 5 star hotel like many others in the area.  We didn't stay there; the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi worked for us.

Money will buy you almost anything.  They build a series of artificial islands, many with luxury resorts build on them.  Dubai just built a 50 story picture frame, I'm not making this up, intended as a tourist attraction.  Most of us have heard about the indoor ski resort at the giant Mall of the Emirates where you can snow ski in 120 degree weather.  For 68 bucks, you can buy a Ski Dubai Polar Pass which gets you in the park and use the chair lift.  However, if you want to ski, it costs extra. 

In the West, we heard that alcohol was banned in the Persian Gulf countries.  Not so.  A quick perusal of Time Out Magazine for Dubai revealed 18 nightspots where women can get free drinks on Wednesday nights.  On Tuesday, they have their choice of 35 establishments offering up to 4 free mixed drinks.As far as ethnic food, you can get African, Asian, British, Caribbean, French, German, Italian, Peruvian, Russian, Thai and a few others.  Notably missing are Jewish delicatessens.