Saturday, 3 June 2017

LIFE CHANGES

A couple of years ago, while Elva and I rolled through the Florida Panhandle, taking the long way home to our beloved Island, I reflected that our compact Mazda 3 Sport hatchback contained everything we needed to survive: clothes, our bicycles and, most importantly, my beloved Cuisinart coffee maker.  “We could live like this”, I said.  “Just travel from place to place, park the car when we want to fly or cruise somewhere, and go home for the summer.”  She looked at me like I had two heads!

Truth is, since I retired four years ago, we’ve been away from home at least five months out of twelve.  Since we love to travel — and travel well together — it’s likely that pattern will continue for as many years as we enjoy good health and until the money runs out.  And so the question: Why do we need to “own” a place for the seven months we live on this Island?

In my case, the life change has been gradual, and based on existential reflections.  It started in my 50s when experiences began to mean more than material things.  Then, since I retired and caught the travel bug, my definition of “home” has been flipped on its edge.  Whereas only a few years ago, I couldn’t imagine not owning a home, today I no longer need the assurance of ownership.  And I don’t want to be tied down.

Much of my grandparent’s furniture, lovingly cared for by me as a sacred trust, is now considered outdated by the younger generation.  Some will stay in the family, no doubt.  But, fundamentally, it’s still just “stuff”.  I’ve done my duty.

Anyone who has contemplated this kind of life change knows it’s not an easy decision.  Two people are involved, and they don’t travel from Point A to Point B on the decision-making highway at the same speed.  While I started thinking about the transition from ownership to rental a couple of years ago, Elva was not there.  She had good reason to resist the change: we both loved our condo in downtown Charlottetown.  So did our three children.  Two weeks ago, I again asked her if she was ready to sell.  This time, she said: “Oui”.

And so the adventure began.  Share our decision with the children; speak with a realtor; decide on a price; and list the property for sale.  Fate intervened.  Our daughter-in-law Julia’s parents, Barb and Gordon Campbell, expressed interest in the condo and, in very short order, an agreement of purchase and sale was signed by all parties.  Private sale!  The best kind.  As of August 31, we’ll be officially homeless.

Friends and family — those in the know — have a dozen questions: “Why did you sell that beautiful condo?”  “Where will you stay?”  “What will you do with all your lovely furniture and antiques?”  We have no trouble explaining why we sold.  As for the other questions, we don’t have answers.  Some think we’re crazy while others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, may even envy us for making such a brave life decision.

Life changes.  “Home” is wherever Elva and I happen to be on any given day.  It may be a cabin on the cruise ship Rotterdam VI, a rented condo in Fort Myers, FL, a Super 8 in Fishkill, NY (yes, such a place really exists and we did stay there once), or a swag in the Australian Outback.  Technology makes it so much easier to stay in touch with children, grandchildren and good friends.

It’s a big world.  There are so many places and things to see, and so much to learn along the way.  We don’t know how much time we have to do the many things we still want to do together.  Nobody does.  But we relish the freedom of being able to come and go as we please and we work hard to stay healthy and active so that we can. 

We’ll miss 55 Hillsborough when we move out on August 31.  We’ll be homeless before leaving on our European adventure in late September, and homeless again when we come home for three weeks in December.  We hope to have an apartment lined up for April 2018.  There, we look forward to many visits from family and friends.  It might not be the space of our dreams but it’ll be in the one place we love best on this earth: downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

It could always be worse.  One fateful evening last March, we found ourselves in desperate straights — lost in downtown Beijing without a hotel room.  After being turned away by six hotels because we weren’t Chinese, our tuk-tuk driver, who didn’t speak a word of English, was running out of options.  My faithful travelling companion, the best any man could ask for, broke the tension: “On est comme Marie et Joseph à Bethléem la veille de Noël!  Pas de place à coucher.” (“Just like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve!  No place to sleep.”)

Monday, 3 April 2017

FAR EAST – PART 3

I’m finding big cities less intimidating.  Having successfully navigated the Yokohama-Tokyo train and subway system shown on the diagram below, I guess we’re qualified to go anywhere now!  While we’d been cautioned about the crowds, as I’ve written in an earlier blog, the Japanese are unfailingly polite, quiet and calm.  Subway rules even require riders to silence ringers on their cellphones and refrain from talking on them.  Damn civilized!  While we’d never survive in such a congested environment, we learned to cope.  And our theme for this cruise became: “Figure it out!”

Another thing struck us about the Japanese, and it hit home in Shimizu, a small industrial city.  They’re glad to see us!  As soon as the gangway was lowered, we were treated to a concert by a local drum band.  In the cruise terminal, we found everything we needed: wifi, money exchange, and ample tourism information for independent travellers like us.  We took a municipal bus to a seaside area for views of 13,000-foot Mt. Fuji and, back in the terminal, were coaxed into authentic Japanese costumes for a photo shoot.  All courtesy of volunteer local women.  The old samurai looks half decent next to his much younger and prettier geisha, n’est-ce pas?

Next stop was Osaka, a city of 1.5 million, medium-sized by Japanese standards.  We’d read up on the area and decided our time would be better spent in the nearby city of Kyoto, capital city during the Shogun period from about 400 years ago until 1867 when power was ceded to the Emperor.

Four subway lines and a bullet train ride later, we arrived at Nojo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site notable for its large wooden palace complex and impressive fortifications.  While the blossoming cherry trees signaled the coming of spring, my infected sinuses reminded me that it was a cold, damp day.
We hopped on the subway again and made our way to the next stop on our Kyoto agenda, the magnificent Kiyomizudera, a revered seventh-century Buddhist temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We walked up a steep shop-lined street, meeting many young Japanese men and women, like the ones shown below, dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, obviously very proud of their heritage.


Not every port of call is worth the stop.  And so it was with Hasoshima, kind of like expecting to find something in Portage on your way from Charlottetown to Tignish.  Disappointing to say the least!  But we gave it a shot, taking the shuttle to downtown Hyuga.  It didn’t take us long to figure out that a U-turn was our best option.

After a day at sea, we awoke dockside in the Huangpu River, surrounded by the wonders of Shanghai.  We’d decided to split the cost of a local guide with Josie and John, an American couple, experienced independent travellers.  Caroline proved to be friendly, knowledgeable and competent, although her English was halting.  She led us through the subway maze and took us to the places we wanted to see, Tianzifang and Yuyuan and, clearly her favourite, the site of the 1921 China People’s Congress meeting.  While my knowledge of Chinese history is very limited, this historic gathering marked the birth of the Communist Party and the genesis of the economic superpower that is today’s China.  Caroline chose lunch for us at an amazing buffet-style eatery featuring every kind of dumpling you can imagine.  It was the highlight of our day.



Unfortunately, the weather worsened as the day wore on - cold and rainy.  On our second day in Shanghai, we braved the rain just long enough to do the wifi thing as freeloading squatters in the luxurious lobby of the Fairmont Hotel before heading back to the welcoming confines of the ship.

We’d been in China long enough.  We found the impatience of the mainland Chinese quite tiresome.  Some of their habits go beyond anything I’ve seen in the snake pit at the Wellington Legion!  And if queue-jumping were an Olympic sport, the Chinese would be hard to beat.  I can even imagine a medal ceremony where the Chinese competitor in the queue-jumping event, having failed to win the gold, jumps ahead of the poor Canadian who did and pushes his way onto the top step of the Olympic podium!

Because of forecast bad weather, the Volendam had to skip its planned visit to Okinawa.  Instead, we sailed directly to Keelung, the port city that serves Taiwan’s capital, Taipei.  We spent the morning of our first full day riding the train and subway to the city’s attractions, starting with the impressive National Palace Museum.  Its collections are equal to those of the Shanghai Museum, if not better.
Since it was a clear day, we rode the elevator to the top of Tiapei 101, the country’s tallest building, and got great views of the city.  Then we walked across the massive square below Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, flanked on both sides by the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre.  I’ve not seen a nicer square anywhere in our travels and, as for the founding father’s memorial, it’s every bit as impressive as the Washington Mall’s Lincoln Memorial.
Our next two stops in Taiwan were at Hualien and Kaohsiung.  At the first, we took a Holland America excursion, our first land tour with the company on this cruise, and enjoyed magnificent views of Taroko Gorge in the national park of the same name.  In Kaohsiung, we pick up a city map from the tourist office and planned our itinerary.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d been given the world’s worst city guide, or at least the worst I’ve ever had to decipher.  Taiwan’s second-largest city is not that impressive compared to other cities we’ve visited on this trip.  But the in-progress Pier 2 development will transform Kaohsiung’s waterfront, making it a far more interesting place to visit in five years’ time.
My lasting impression of Taiwan is of a country seeking to establish itself as a regional economic player.  Admittedly, its relationship with mainland China is complicated.  Since 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek led his defeated troops to the island, Taiwan has steadfastly maintained its claim to sovereignty, calling itself the Republic of China.  However, it’s recognized as a country by only 21 other sovereign states, all of them small.  Bigger countries are too afraid to offend the Peoples Republic of China by challenging its “One China” policy.  Not even Donald Trump would be that stupid!  But Taiwan is a democratic society, unlike mainland China, and I can’t see its people surrendering their freedoms without a fight.  So, while Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, I choose to add it to the list of countries we’ve visited, just as I’ve counted Palestine.

Our evening arrival in Hong Kong gave us a chance to spend time with friends Donna and Dave Crocker of Alberton before they boarded the Volendam for a cruise that would eventually take them to Vancouver.  We flew to Singapore the next evening and settled into our hotel after a very long day. 

Of the many cities we visited during our seven-week Far East Adventure, four qualify as world class: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Singapore.  But Singapore is our hands-down favourite.  It has all the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, the amazing modern infrastructure of Dubai, and the beauty of Barcelona.  All it’s missing is the history one finds in cities like Rome, London and Paris.  Imagine a place where the world’s best engineers, architects and planners came together and were allowed to do their very best work, with public support and without corruption and political interference, and you’ve got Singapore.

Seven days there proved an excellent way to cap off our winter sojourn.  We even ran into Jean-Paul Poirier, our École Évangéline classmate, and his wife, Galena Shelestova.  Her Facebook post alerted me to the fact we were in the same city at the same time, and we spent a lovely day together at Bay Gardens and Marina Bay.  The Gardens are world-class, as is the Singapore Zoo.  My personal favourite was the night safari, a unique experience, an opportunity to get up close and personal with nocturnal animals I’d never seen before.  And watching my first panda, Jia Jia, devour bamboo shoots was unforgettable.

Singapore the country is barely fifty years old, yet it ranks fourth in the world in terms of per capita GDP, behind only Qatar, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein.  The US stands at number 17 and Canada at number 31.  If Prince Edward Island were a country, we’d be number 60, behind Trinidad and Tobago, with Slovakia gaining fast.  But much of our wealth is in the form of transfer payments we receive from Ottawa.  Without this, we’d be a poor country indeed.  That Singaporeans are wealthy is quite obvious.  You just have to walk through a mall and look at the cars they drive.

And that leads to another subject that interests me: sovereignty.  How is it achieved, what does it mean, and what are the keys to success?  Were Prince Edward Island, by far Canada’s smallest province at only 5,560 square kilometres, to become a sovereign country, it would rank 166th in the list of United Nations member countries, just behind Brunei and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago.  Thirty countries are smaller than our tiny province.  Not all are successful economically, but some are very wealthy, including Singapore.  With but few exceptions, their wealth comes exclusively from brainpower, not natural resources.  On my Island, we have many things to learn.

As we say a reluctant goodbye to Singapore, these pictures are better than words.  And after seeing the National Orchid Garden, we just ran out of superlatives.  






Tuesday, 14 March 2017

FAR EAST – PART 2

I find big cities intimidating.  Our ship sails into an unfamiliar harbour like Hong Kong’s and I wonder how the hell I’m going to find my way around.  Many cruise passengers opt for the easy way out: a guided Holland America excursion.  But Elva and I have gotten braver in our dotage and prefer to set out on our own.  This means gathering as much information as you can in advance and, when the time comes, taking the plunge into the unknown.

Hong Kong is like Halifax on steroids, a fine natural harbour straddled on two sides by the city proper: Hong Kong Island to the south and mainland Kowloon to the north.  We came off the ship early in the morning, did the wifi thing, and made our way to the money exchange.  Hong Kong dollars in hand and hoping for a friendly face, we approached the tourist information desk.  Thankfully, the guide’s English was excellent, and she explained how to get to all the places we wanted to see using public transit.  She couldn’t have been more helpful.  Such a contrast from what we’d experienced in Thailand and Vietnam.

We took a shuttle to the nearest subway station, bought tickets and made our way across the harbour to Hong Kong Island.  A bus took us to the top of Victoria Peak where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city below.  We even FaceTimed with our son and daughter-in-law, Clément and Julia, while enjoying the view from the Skydeck.  The century-old tram took us back down the mountain, and we walked to the Star Ferry terminal to cross the harbour to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.  After taking in the sights along the seawall, we made our way to popular Nathan Rd.  We walked past the high-end stores in the rich part of town and made a stop at Starbucks.  From there, we took the subway and shuttle back to the ship, satisfied with our day.  For $45 US - including lunch, attractions and transportaion - we had ourselves a really good overview of Hong Kong.  Best of all, we didn’t get lost.  And we did it ourselves!

Shanghai is a city of superlatives.  Home to some 23 million, it is the world’s third-largest city by population.  We’d seen images of the city skyline, but it’s hard to imagine the scale of things until you’re up close. 

Hong Kong, a British colony until 1999, was sheltered for 50 years from the strong Communist influence that marked life in the rest of China.  Vehicles there drive on the left; many people speak English; the currency is the Hong Kong Dollar, etc.  In Shanghai, things are quite different: security is much tighter; traffic runs on the right; very few residents speak English; and social media websites like FaceBook are blocked.  (On the bright side, this means the Chinese are spared from Trump’s twisted tweets!)

Shanghai is one of the cleanest, most orderly cities we’ve ever visited.  There’s a sense of space on sidewalks and public spaces.  The subway system, while somewhat intimidating with its fourteen lines, is clean, cheap, efficient, and easy to use.  In the two days we spent there, we took in as much as we could.  We rode the Maglev (magnetic levitation) Train to the airport and back, hitting a top speed of 301 kph. 

We took the world’s fastest elevator (top speed 75 kph) on a 55-second ride to the 118th floor of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building, where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city from a height of 546 metres.  One of the photos shows the skyscraper known as the “bottle opener” (for obvious reasons) far below.
 

We strolled the Nanjing Rd. pedestrian mall, visited People’s Park, and took in the magnificent Shanghai Museum, home of impressive collections of jade, coinage, porcelain, furniture, and paintings.  We learned that the Chinese civilization is one of the world’s oldest.  Judging by what we saw in Shanghai it’s going to be around for a while yet.

We had to make do with one too-short day in South Korea, barely enough time to make our way on the train from the port city of Incheon to the capital city of Seoul.  Over 90 million South Koreans occupy a country smaller than the combined area of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  The area between the port city of Incheon and Seoul is one continuous urban zone.  In fact, half the country’s population lives in greater Seoul.

We got off the train at the Geongbok Palace stop and wandered around the huge complex before strolling along a broad boulevard, taking a detour along a stream that runs through the centre of the city.  It was a bone-chilling -2 degrees C.  We spent most of our three hours exploring the very modern city centre before making our way to Seoul Station and the trip back to the ship.


South Korea is home to some of the world’s largest conglomerates, Hyundai, LG, and Samsung being the best known.  But the country is going through a difficult period.  The day we were there, North Korea fired off four ballistic missiles; the unpredictable and trigger-happy neighbour, Kim Jong-un, flexing his muscles again.  The country’s president is on the verge of being impeached, the CEO of Samsung has been charged with corruption, and relations are not good with China, South Korea’s principle trading partner.  People are understandably anxious and concerned about the future,  such a shame considering how far they’ve come since World War II and the Korean conflict.

We crossed the Yellow Sea again, headed for the gateway port to China’s capital city, Beijing.  There’s no easy way to experience the major attractions found in and around Beijing.  Two one-day Holland America tours would have cost $940 US; an overnight tour to Beijing would have set us back $1,700 US!

Elva and I decided to get to the Great Wall on our own.  From dockside, we set out by taxi bound for Yujiapu Station and the bullet train that would take us into the city.  At Beijing South Station, we entered the maze that is the Beijing Metro.  The plan was to go from Beijing North Station to Badaling Station, within walking distance of the Great Wall.  Guess what?  Beijing North Station was closed!  With no Plan B, we had to ask people who didn’t speak English how to get to the Great Wall.

Long story short, we ended up in a small van with five Chinese people, hoping the driver wasn’t going to rip us off or rob us blind.  Then, our luck took a turn for the better.  Sitting next to us in the van was a couple from Hong Kong, Frank and Sarah, fellow Holland Americans.  Their Mandarin was a hell of a lot better than ours, so we tagged along.  The Great Wall is truly a wonder to behold; everything I’d imagined, and more.  What an incredible experience!  It took us seven hours to get there, but it was worth it.  The weather was perfect and the crowds were light.  We walked for a full two hours, all of it on steep grades.


We’d decided to spend the night in Beijing rather than return to the ship.  Up bright and early the next morning, we arrived at the gate just as the site was opening and managed to beat the worst of the crowds.  Words cannot do justice to the Forbidden City (or to the hordes of people who visit the place).  It’s huge, and is easily the most impressive walled city we’ve seen in all our travels.  Successive Chinese emperors called this fortified place home for more than four centuries, and it’s lovingly cared for and preserved.  We’d hoped to visit Mao’s Mausoleum, just across Tiananmen Square, but security was just too tight.  The People’s Congress was in session while we were in Beijing, there were soldiers everywhere, and everyone was on high alert.


Beijing is an impressive city.  Clear skies and crisp spring air held the smog at bay for the two days we spent there; not even a hint of haze.  At 22 million souls, it’s about as big as Shanghai.  The two-hour train trip from the cruise port to the city and back was an eye-opener.  The pace of development and urbanization is staggering.  China’s approach to planning is the exact opposite of ours.  In our country, infrastructure follows population growth.  In China, it’s the reverse.  Whole cities are built before people occupy them: highways, arrow-straight boulevards, high-speed railway lines, schools, shopping malls, office towers, and forests of 20-30-story apartment complexes.  Completed communities lie empty, just waiting.

Then, it was back across the Yellow Sea again, bound for Japan and the port city of Nagasaki, known in recent history as the target of the second atomic bomb, the one that finally brought an end to World War II.  On August 9, 1945, a B29 bomber named Bockscar dropped a plutonium warhead that exploded just above the port city, killing 75,000 people instantly and injuring 72,000, many of whom died soon after from burns and the horrible effects of radiation sickness.  An area of 6.7 square kilometres was completely levelled.  The International Peace Park features many impressive sculptures and statues commemorating the event, and is a lovely place to visit.  We’d decided to spend time there instead of visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum that contains images and relics of the event.

Nagasaki is a small city by Japanese standards, only 500,000.  It’s clean and orderly, the people are polite, and you get a sense that they enjoy having visitors, quite a contrast from Beijing.  We visited a shrine commemorating the martyrdom of 26 Catholics, all put to death in 1597 because of their religious beliefs, and strolled through beautiful Glover Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Next stop in Japan was Kagoshima.  Never heard of it?  Neither had we.  But, we enjoyed our day there and there was lots to see.  We started by taking the ferry to the island of Sakurajima, one of the largest active volcanoes on earth, and rode the island-view tour bus.  Back in the city, we took the tram to Sengan-en, the former estate of a rich Japanese merchant family, featuring beautiful gardens and views of the Sakurajima volcano across Kinko Bay.
 

Yokohama is the port city closest to Japan’s capital.  In fact, it’s now considered part of greater Tokyo, the world’s most populous city at 32 million or so!  Imagine almost the whole population of Canada stuffed into one metropolitan area.  And speaking of stuffed, we sometimes felt like taking the subway and train into the city centre.  But, unlike the Chinese who have no problem pushing one another to make room, the Japanese are by nature too polite.


With only one day to visit, we focused on the top two attractions in Tokyo: the Imperial Palace Gardens and the Senso-ji Temple.  Both were well worth a visit.  We also went to Shibuya Crossing and climbed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office for a nice view of the skyline.  We found the people of Tokyo to be very polite and helpful; they don’t rush and they don’t push.  On the subways, no talking on the phone is allowed!  Except for Shibuya Crossing where five streets meet, we didn’t find the place as crowded as we’d expected.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017


FAR EAST – PART 1

Twenty-four hours is a long time to spend in the air!  That’s how long it took us to get half-way around the world, from Orlando to Singapore.  The longer of two legs, a seventeen-hour marathon from San Francisco, was our longest flight ever.  Jet-lagged, we rode the train from Changi Airport to downtown, crammed sardine-can style into a throng of commuters.  Since our room wasn’t ready, we killed a few hours lounging in a nearby park before having lunch in Chinatown.  Our hotel turned out to be a bit of a disappointment but the bed was most welcome when we finally got horizontal again.
Next morning saw us up bright and early, ready to explore the nearby area on foot.  Raffles Hotel, the Singapore Flyer, the Excelsior Theatre, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Parliament Building: all of them brought back memories of the two short days we’d spent in this incredible city-state in 2015.  After a short metro ride, we were once again in the gentle arms of Holland America aboard the good ship MS Volendam.  A sister ship of the Rotterdam, familiar to us from two previous cruises, the Volendam is rather dated but has a certain charm nonetheless.
After spending a day at sea, we arrived at our first port of call, Nathon on the island of Koh Samui, on February 16.  After running a gauntlet of very aggressive taxi drivers, we negotiated a fare for a three-hour visit to a waterfall and safari park: $45 US, about half what we would have paid in the Caribbean countries we’d visited in the fall.  The hike to the waterfall and the visit to the safari park turned out to be worthwhile.  The elephant show was the best we’ve seen and we’d never seen a monkey trained to pick coconuts!  What will they think of next?

Our next stop was Laem Chabang, the gateway port to Bangkok.  There being no other choice, we took the Holland America shuttle into the city.  It turned out to be a boring two and one-half hour drive on an elevated highway past endless, non-descript commercial and industrial areas.  We could have been in any developed country, anywhere in the world.  Finally off the friggin’ bus, we marched through a busy mall, along a busier walkway, and into a frantic crowd of passengers crowding onto the Skytrain, ever conscious of the short time we had to see the attractions we’d been told not to miss: the Royal Palace and the Buddhist temple complex of Wat Arun.  Our guide on the bus had given only the barest of directions on how to get where we wanted to go.  “And be back at 5:30 or we’ll leave without you”.  No tip for her!
Bangkok is a city of 15 million people.  I’m from a village of about 400.  The Skytrain took us to the edge of the Chao Phraya River where we boarded a boat for the ride to the Royal Palace.  Pushing, shoving, heat, traffic, horns.  Christ!  What am I doing here.  To enter the Palace, I had to put on jeans to cover up my legs!  It’s a beautiful Palace - of that there’s no doubt - but the crush of people took away from what could have been a far more enjoyable experience.
From there we took a short ferry ride across the river to visit Wat Arum, a far quieter place as it turned out.  A fine temple complex, but tiny compared to the massive Shwedagon Pagoda we’d seen in Yangon, Myanmar, two years before.  Back in the centre of the city, we found a Starbucks.  And a welcome refuge it was!  Long story short, we didn’t have enough time to see the city properly.  The highlight for us was the fast, cheap and efficient river boat service.  Would I go back?  Not likely; too many people!
And then it happened again!  Elva came into the room with a look on her face I’d seen before…  “You met someone from the Island, didn’t you?”, I said.  And so she had.  Ian Carter lives in downtown Charlottetown, about a ten-minute walk from us.  A couple of days later, Ian met a woman from Souris.  Incredible!  On our first cruise in 2013, we met Cheryl Stead and John Cox from Charlottetown and, two years ago, Donna and Dave Crocker from Alberton.


Two days later, we anchored in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, gateway port to the capital city of Phnom Penh.  A shuttle took us the short distance into the city and parked across the street from the central market.  I’ve learned that there are two main indicators of the state of development of a country: the amount of garbage strewn around and the quality of the public transportation system.  Things weren’t looking good on either account.  And there were beggars everywhere, mothers with babes in arms, orphans and amputees  - genuinely destitute people - all looking for a handout.
Cambodia is a poor and poorly-governed country; third-world really.  Its recent history includes the terrible genocide of the 1970s when as many as 2 million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge under brutal dictator Pol Pot.  If you haven’t seen the movie The Killing Fields, it’s a revelation.  And Angelina Jolie recently released First They Killed My Father, also set in the same period.
Elva and I wandered through the market for a half-hour or so, shadowed by a determined tuk-tuk driver we just couldn’t shake.  Then we made our way back to where our guide was and asked him to help us find a driver to take us to the places we wanted to visit.  “How much you want to spend?”, he asked me.  “About $30 for three hours”, I answered.  “And it has to be a driver who speaks English”, said Elva.  Though most in the crowd around us refused, a hand shot up eventually and we were escorted to Saron’s “car-tuk-tuk”, an ancient converted Daewoo.
Saron turned out to be an excellent guide, very fluent in English and very willing to talk about the country’s many struggles.  Through his example and based on what we saw as we drove through the city, we learned that entrepreneurship may be the only way for Cambodians to survive.  The country’s economy is growing rapidly, but crime and corruption are rampant.  One can only hope that Sihanoukville’s beaches will one day bring prosperity to the beautiful people we met there.
 
Our next port of call was Phu My, gateway to Ho Chi Min City, the former Saigon.  Once again, we took the Holland America shuttle into the city centre, a ninety-minute drive through verdant countryside, including this scene which illustrates the vivid contrast between old and new.
We’d been told to be careful of the traffic, pickpockets, dishonest taxi drivers, and various other scammers who prey on tourists.  We found nothing of the sort.  The city, home to 11 million and the country’s biggest, is frenetic but friendly, and we had no trouble getting around on foot.  Motorcycles are everywhere and crossing the street can be an adventure, but we saw everything we’d hoped to see: the Reunification Palace, the Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the vast Ben Thanh Market.  The French influence is evident in the way the city centre is laid out: classic architecture, wide boulevards, and a sense of space that reminded us of Paris.

Yes, there are reminders of the War, but the young people prefer to look ahead rather than dwell in the past.  Yet, as I looked out at the old Huey parked on the roof of the Reunification Palace, I couldn’t help but think of the images of the American pullout in 1975 and of the movies that followed: Robin Williams’ Good Morning Vietnam!, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and so many others that chronicled that terrible conflict.
Vietnam is a densely-populated country of over 90 million, barely half the size of Alberta.  It’s one of only five one-party socialist countries in the world, the others being North Korea, China, Laos and Cuba.  Given the scale of development in Ho Chi Min City, and especially the seaside resort cities of Nha Trang, Da Nang and Halong Bay, you’d never guess it was a Communist country.  Capitalism is alive and well here and the Vietnamese are doing quite well, thank you; much better than their neighbours in Cambodia and Laos.

Our day in Nha Trang was spent walking along the seaside boulevard, visiting the Po Nagar Cham towers, a complex of temples dating back to the eighth century, and walking the streets where the real people live and work, a few blocks back from the hotel strip.  Money is pouring in from South Korea, Japan, and China to build high end hotels, resorts, and condos.

Next stop was Da Nang, the last stopover for American soldiers heading stateside following a tour of duty during the Vietnam War.  They knew it as ‘China Beach’.  We spent our day there in the nearby city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  A small section of the city has been preserved and features a variety of craftspeople and artisans.  We watched marble carvers, silk weavers, lantern-makers, tailors, shoe and boot makers, artists, carvers, and many others.  The market was a treat for the senses.  And how can one not be impressed by a place with public wifi everywhere and women that hawk and spit every bit as good as the men!



Our last stop in Vietnam was Halong Bay, another UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring nearly 2,000 limestone islands jutting out of the emerald waters.  We took a cruise on a converted fishing junk.  Since words cannot describe the beauty of the place, even on a cloudy day, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.


Along the way, we stopped to visit Thien Cung Cave.  While the stalactite and stalagmite formations were amazing, being pushed and jostled by hundreds of selfie-stick-wielding Chinese spoiled the experience.  It brought back unpleasant memories of being herded through the Sistine Chapel.
The first leg of our Far East cruise ended in Hong Kong, a city of over 7 million people jammed into an area of just 1,000 square kilometres, less than one-fifth the size of Prince Edward Island and one of the most densely-populated places on earth.  We’ll stop here again at the end of the cruise and will post photos in a later blog.