Holland America Noordam Cruise and how I was converted to cruises

My First Cruise

A few years ago I went on my first cruise on the Noordam operated by Holland America. We did a week long cruise in the West Mediterranean beginning in Citavecchia and going to Livorno, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Malaga, Tunis, Palermo, Naples and back to Citavecchia or the gateway to Rome. We joined the cruise with my in-laws for the first half of their cruise as a surprise. I have to say from the beginning I was very anti-cruise and it did not appeal to me, however I was converted after this voyage.

We stayed at a lovely hotel just out of Citavecchia with fantastic views of the town and sea.

Our cruise in the Med

What amazed me is how comfortable you can be on the ship. Our cabin was not too small and the bed comfortable. On the first day we also found out the spa had a special limited to 20-30 people to have unlimited entry into the spa, pools, sauna and hot rock beds. It cost 10 dollars a day each and was a great investment as people under the age of 18 were forbidden entry. It became an oasis of calm away from the main pool where it was Lord of the Flies on a boat. Kids without parental supervision having a free for all. The crew to fearful of offending the parents by telling kids to keep out of the Jacuzzi or bomb in the pool.

The other thing I enjoyed on the cruise was the food. We did go to a few speciality restaurants but mostly we went to open dining. Holland America also let you bring on board your own wine. I am not sure if this is still the case. Entertainment was ok and the best I thought was their piano player at one of the bars.

Shore excursions

I organised all of our shore excursions with the exception of one in Tunis. We walked around Monte Carlo, Malaga, visited the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, explored Pompeii, took a bus tour of Barcelona and explored by foot Palermo in Sicily. In Tunis we toured the city, visited the American WWII cemetery and some Roman ruins. I enjoyed the cruise and my introduction to life at sea in luxury.

Since this cruise I have done another one and look forward to the next one.

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India reliving the past

I was looking through some diaries and found an old one from 1990 when I went to India. I spent six weeks in India with a lovely girl who took lots of photos and regretfully got very sick and had to be flown back to Australia for treatment. Alas we lost contact and I took no pictures as she had a brilliant camera. However, I did keep a detailed diary so I am going to attempt to retrace the route we took 24 years ago with my wife next year and even try to stay at some of the places I stayed last time if they still exist!

I arrived in May 1990 in Mumbai where we stayed at the Red Shields Salvation Army hostel. My abiding memory was having jelly and ice cream and not getting sick. I want to see how the city has changed and revisit some places such as the Gateway to India. Our next stop will be Ahmedabad as a jump off to Mt Abu where I want to go back and revisit the Dilwara Jain Temples. Then we will go to Udaipur where it took four and a half hours on a bus and to see if the Hotel Lalghat still exists and whether we can get a room overlooking the lake. Hoping also to have dinner at the lake palace in the middle of the lake, last time it cost 250 rupees for a slap up dinner. I expect prices may have gone up a bit.

Our next stop will be Jodhpur by overnight train and hopefully get the connecting train to Jasilmer. Last time it took in total 27 hours by train and I stayed at the Tourist Inn. Had a great time as we did a camel trek for several days. I liked Jasilmeer and the medieval feel it had and remember a dinner at a rooftop terrace watching an amazing lightning storm. From there it is back to Jodhpur and again another connecting train to the Pink City or Jaipur. Then on to Agra where this time I hope to avoid burning the soles of my feet on the marble floor. Finally we will end the trip in Delhi.

Not sure what to expect but I am sure there will be a few surprises and challenges on the journey.

Strange places I have slept on the road

Over the years during my travels I have slept in some strange places. In the 1990’s when the Berlin Wall came down I travelled to Hungary and Budapest. On arrival the information office told me that the citadel which had fantastic views of the city and Danube was a hostel so I got the bus up to it. It was a bit of an odd experience on arrival in the afternoon and the place was empty with the exception of an American backpacker. He told me his dorm was empty so I went up to the desk and asked for a bed for the night. The receptionist said the hostel was full. I then said but that guy over there said his dorm was empty. The receptionist looked me up and down, sighed and said Ok you can stay. I went and dumped my backpack in the dorm and went into town to explore the city. When I returned I sat in the reception area as there was no lounge and had a few beers with another backpacker. We noticed all these elderly suited men arriving with beautiful young women. They also went to the left of reception instead of the right where our room was located. They also returned after about half an hour, the penny dropped. I stayed a week at the hostel and I must say it was entertaining and the rooms were kept very clean and I had the dorm mostly to myself. In essence the hostel was a front for the brothel. Years later when I returned to Budapest and went back up to the citadel it become a museum which was even more surreal.

My second experience was arriving around midnight in Cairo airport. Where I joined a Contiki group who were taking the bus into town costing the grand price of 20 pence where the group met there tour guide. We got to Tahir Square and the group disappeared with their guide and I found myself completely alone with not a soul around. I then started to walk looking for a place to stay when a jeep of soldiers armed to the teeth pulled up. They spoke a little English and told me their was a military curfew and I must get off the street. Difficult to do with no taxi’s and not knowing where the hotels were in my price range. They took pity on me and gave me a ride in their jeep to what they said was a nice place called the Hotel Select. On arrival a very reluctant veiled woman after arguing with the soldiers in Arabic finally said come with me. The place was dark, dingy and a smell which was not pleasant enveloped me. My single room was rough to say the least and had seen better days. I was very thankful for my silk liner. This place was the polar opposite of the Budapest brothel in being disgustingly dirty and I had a night fighting off the bed bugs and listening through paper thin walls to some strange groans from neighbouring rooms.

The next day I moved to the Pension Roma which was bed bug free, cleaner and not a house of ill repute!

Has anyone else slept in strange places on the road?

New York to Washington, DC by train

A few years ago I spoke at Columbia University in a lecture and spent a few days in New York. The university let me stay on campus in an apartment for a few days so I took the opportunity and visited a few of my favourite spots in New York. I also had a conference to attend in Washington, DC and decided to take the train.

The train left from Penn Station at 9.06 am. Surprisingly the train was clean with comfortable seats and space for my luggage. We travelled through a tunnel under the city and the first station we went through is Secaucus and then Harrison an industrial wasteland. Eventually we stop at Newark Penn Station. The scenery gets a little less industrial with more tree’s and a forest before we arrive at Trenton around 10 am. After we leave Trenton we pass through Bristol and through a graffiti corridor and a rundown suburb before arriving in Philadelphia with its imposing skyline of buildings around 10.25 am. So far I have counted 40 USA flags. My impression on the train was that Philadelphia was a rundown city although 10 minutes later on the train the environs improved. Then it was mile after mile of industry with refineries as we went through Delaware. The train then goes through forest with some lovely countryside. We arrive at Baltimore around 11.35 am and then we go through lots of forests before arriving at Union Station in Washington DC. We arrive on time at 12.20 pm after 3 hours and 15 minutes.

All in all if you have the time I would highly recommend the trip. The website below has information about costs and time of the train as well as all the stations the train stops. On the day it will cost a minimum of US$84 but if you book it early it can cost a lot less at $49. I took the fast train and there are slower ones.

http://www.amtrak.com/home

Is the Titanic Museum cursed? The story of the broken shoulder on New Years Eve 2013

At the end of last year my in-laws came and stayed with us for a few weeks. We decided to visit Ireland going to Dublin and then on to Belfast. It was a great trip with dancing, lots of Guinness and lovely scenery. On arrival in Belfast our luck changed and the curse of the Titanic struck again with my mother-in-law Inga breaking her shoulder in two places on the back steps of the Titanic Museum. The day started well we were in a lovely hotel and walked in sunshine to the museum. That did not last long as the weather got worse by the time we arrived at the museum. We also had taken a bus tour in the morning which was mediocre as the hotel had booked us with the wrong bus company. I digress, before we toured the museum we decided to have lunch at their restaurant. I must say they were a bit mean on the servings size and the poor girl serving covertly gave me an extra helping. After lunch we dispersed to souvenir shop while I got the tickets. 15 minutes later our visit changed dramatically. Inga had gone to the back of the museum to take some photos we found out later she had broken her shoulder in two places.

breaking her shoulder in two places

The Museum Staff

They were in my view not that well-trained in first aid. First if Debbie had not been there they would have tried to move her into a wheelchair.You do move someone who falls down steps until you ascertain they have injured their spine or for that matter her head. I understand it was raining and cold and Inga was in a lot of pain but basic first aid teaches you this. I also had to suggest they get some umbrellas and the foil blankets to keep the rain off her and to generate some warmth. They also suggested it was my mother-in-laws fault and that we were not technically on the Titanic Museum land. I think there is a time and a place to discuss these things and not when someone is sprawled and injured at the bottom of some steps in obvious agony. Within quarter of an hour a car arrived for a medic to assess the situation and then another 10 minutes an ambulance arrived after I rang 911 again. After the accident the museum did ring me a couple of times but failed to follow-up. I still do not know if they have now installed handrails on both sides of the stairs at the back of the museum. Overall I would not want to have an accident at the Titanic Museum. Their auditorium is an accident waiting to happen with steep steps which young children and elderly people have to be careful.

The National Health Service (NHS)

One word, brilliant. All the staff from the ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, radiologists, receptionists were excellent and professional at all times. They saw my mother-in-law quickly and when there was a problem with the morphine with an allergic reaction they kept her in overnight and gave excellent advice on getting her back to Canada. Both my in-laws were confused about not having to pay for anything and even though we explained it several times that no payment was required as it had been an accident. Inga spent overnight at the Royal hospital in Belfast. The next day we spent the day at our hotel who were also brilliant and even lent us a wheelchair.

The Hotel

We stayed at a Holiday Inn in Belfast and the staff were excellent. My review of the hotel is below:

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g186470-d239728-r190417015-Holiday_Inn_Belfast-Belfast_Northern_Ireland.html

The Aftermath

Inga and Joe managed to get back to Canada within a few weeks on the Air Canada flight from hell. The ground staff lied to us about the seats we had ordered and they were given atrocious service throughout the flight. It was only from Calgary to Kelowna that things improved. We did not sue the Titanic Museum although they deserve it in my view. Inga had surgery and now has more metal in her arm than the six million dollar man and she will not be doing the shot put anytime soon.

The Titanic Museum follow-up was weak and they obviously hoped we would just go away which we did but I hope this blog gets shared and people are careful on the back steps of the Titanic Museum on a rainy day. A standard walk up ticket for the museum cost £14.72. If you want to visit the Titanic Museum the link to their website is below:

http://www.titanicbelfast.com/

Athens, Crete and my mad mate Rabbit

When I was working for the Holland House Youth Hostel in London in 1989 a few of us decided to go to Greece. Below is a photo of my boss and another of a few of us in the staff room.

Our friends Julia and Alistair were already in Greece and we met them in Athens. It was still the time of the drachma and the queues to museums and sites were short. My mate Peter Aka Rabbit and myself flew out to meet them. In a previous post I talked about how I had a wee too much to drink the night before the flight and was not a well puppy. In contrast, Rabbit was showered, shaved and as clean as a whistle. I could only be described as hideous and it was not helped when we got on the wrong train and then when we changed to the correct train I dry heaved most of the way to Heathrow. Happily, the flight was not full and the kind stewardess took pity on me and gave me a row of seats where I slept most of the four hours. On arrival at Athens, even with my dishevelled unshaven appearance I was welcomed with open arms into Greece. Rabbit on the other hand was thoroughly searched. We then met Julia and Al at Omonia square in Athens and went to a nearby pension and polished off a bottle of Retsina or pine Dettol to the uninitiated. We then spent a lovely few days exploring Athens, the Acropolis, the National Archaeology Museum and had a particularly lovely meal at the rooftop Eden Restaurant. I found a photo of us eating a fish that was first put on fire in front of us much to the delight of Julia as can be seen in the photo and yes she was swearing.

Eden restaurant in Athens with flaming fish

Eden restaurant in Athens with flaming fish

Crete

Our next stop was Crete by a ferry called bizarrely The Festus. 12 hours later we were in Crete in the capital Heraklion. We visited Kinossos rebuilt by a mad Englishman using concrete. Rabbit picked up a piece of concrete here and as far as I know he still has it in Australia. I am not sure why he wanted a 100 year old piece of concrete. We stayed a few days in the lovely city of Heraklion which has a lovely waterfront to stroll along and you can see the castle. Down the road a bit at the city of Rethymno (thanks Julia my memory is not as good as it was) we had a bit wee much to drink one night and I ended up leaving my passport and wallet at the bar we were drinking. Happily Peter was in the bar till the bitter end saw my jacket as he was leaving and grabbed it. He staggered home and used my jacket to throw and hit the window to awaken us to let him in. I slept through all this but awoke thinking where is my money and passport and there it was on the chair beside me. While I was having a shower Rabbit decided that he needed to use the toilet which was above the shower, to give the ouzo from the night before a new home. Not a pretty sight. I am so glad I was wearing jandals. He then decided he wanted to dye his hair black or he may have done that in London according to his memory but then again we are both getting older and the memory does play tricks.

Rabbit being artistic

Rabbit being artistic

After a few days of enjoying the nightlife and sights of Heraklion we decided to go to Matala.

Matala is a small coastal town on the south of the island and it was deserted as we were there in November. I enjoyed the peacefulness of it after being on reception at Holland House for several months. Back then Matala was a small quaint town now it is still quite small and not as over developed as the bigger resorts. We were literally the only tourists there apart from a few other people and there was only one restaurant open. It became our regular along with a bakery in the mornings where I developed a life time love for spanakopita. There were some amusing incidents in Matala. One stood out. Myself and Al one night were feeling particular energetic and decided to climb the hill to get a better look of the town and surrounding scenery. I do recall an amazing blood red sunset and then we heard a swearing Australian accent and the silence broken by bells and sounds of goats bleating. Suddenly over a hill came a herd of running goats with Rabbit behind them like a shepherd from the past.

After a week or so we said adieu to Al and Julia as they continued on their return to New Zealand via Egypt and we returned to Holland House in London.

Talking to the great white telephone: Food poisoning while travelling and how to avoid it

Have you ever been travelling and a few hours after eating you get that nauseous feeling. Depending on the virulence of the poisoning it can develop over a few hours or up to 3 days later after eating contaminated food and the symptoms can include stomach cramps, fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The result of food poisoning is you spend the next few days either speaking to the great white telephone or emptying bits of food that may have been trapped in your bowels for years. I have had food poisoning in Egypt, India, China, Pakistan, South Africa, Botswana and Peru. My wife has had it in South Africa, Thailand and Australia.

This food was fine in Dubai

This food was fine in Dubai

I would be curious to hear about your worse food poisoning experience while travelling and how you dealt with it? Below are some of ours plus a few tips to avoid it and if you cannot how to recover.

Egypt

My first memorable food poisoning was in Egypt at Dahab in the late 1980s. I had spent several weeks travelling around Egypt with no problems including four days on a Felucca up the Nile where everything was cooked by our Captain. My luck was about to change. I took the ferry from Hurgada to Sharm El Sheik and then a bus to Dahab up the road. Dahab was a beautiful spot back then with just a line of restaurants along the beach, a small village and United Nation soldiers drinking too much beer. Dahab also had no electricity except through mobile generators. Within a few days I was sick as a dog for a week in a hut with a dirt floor. I discovered later that all the generators were turned off at night to save fuel. As a result food in the fridge could and did frequently go off. On the bright side the locals were very helpful and gave me several homemade remedies which eventually worked. I then spent another week swimming, eating banana pancakes and taking the day trip to the top of Mt Sinai. There also are a lot worse places to be sick then on the beach at Dahab. On the bright side I have now heard that Dahab is connected to the grid.

India and Delhi Belly

The next time I was sick was in Delhi. I had travelled for weeks in India with no problems. We visited Mumbai, Jasialmeer, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra and then Delhi. We decided to splurge and go to an air conditioned pizza restaurant near Connaught Circle. A few hours later I was sick as a dog with the dreaded Delhi belly. Happily I was travelling with a nurse and doctor. We stayed put and after a few days or rest and rehydration I was right as rain. We went on to Northern India, Varanasi, Calcultta and Darjeeling where I avoided any modern air conditioned restaurants and stuck with vegetarian food. There were no repeat incidents.

China

I have been to China several times and only once had food poisoning. This was in 1988 when it was first opened to mass tourism. We were in Guilin and I had eaten a dodgy noodle soup which my friend had avoided. She was a wise woman. A few hours later I was sick as a dog and we had a train to catch which we got but then I got worse and worse. I have to say in the 1980s the trains were packed as back then there was no allocated seating. Hence the train toilets were very memorable and not in a good way. I got so bad that the train conductor began to panic and said we had to get off the train. Again the locals as in Egypt came to the rescue and gave me some homemade medicine which seemed to settle everything down. In the end we got off the train in the middle of nowhere and to this day I still do not know where we were. In the end I survived and on other visits to China I have never had a problem.

Pakistan and why I hate KLM

On another trip to China we went over the Karakorum Highway to Pakistan. We spent a couple of weeks in the Hunza region which is a beautiful spot with amazing scenery and friendly people. I had no problems there but did meet a mad scientist that decided to drink the same water as the locals and got horribly sick. He was studying the glaciers in the area and had a theory about building up immunity to germs. I took away the lesson do not drink the local water especially if the locals tell you not too.

We travelled to Lahore, Islamabad and eventually Karachi to get our flight to Europe and our end destination Malta. We were meeting my partners sister there. We decided to splurge and go to a five star hotel on the day before we left for a slap up meal. They had a buffet with fish soup that smelt and looked good. My girlfriend decided not to have any which was a brilliant decision. Looks can be deceiving. A few hours later I was not a well puppy with a fever and many visits to the toilet. Then the next day I had my worse flight ever and the reason why I never fly KLM anymore. The KLM flights only went once a week to Amsterdam with a connection to Malta 10 hours later. My partner refused to spend another week in Karachi. I had to pretend to be well to get on the plane or she was leaving me there to catch her up later. Happily there was nothing left in my system so I blagged my way on to the plane. This was in the days where smokers were at the back of the plane. Guess where our seats were. One of the stewardesses could see that I was very unwell, high fever, shivering the works. She suggested they put me in business class which was empty but the head steward said no. That stuck in my mind and also lost KLM a lot of business and goodwill over the last 17 years. Eventually we made it to Malta, a doctor came and saw me and several antibiotics later I was swimming in the sea for the month we were there.

Africa and keep away from the cheese

A few days before a major meeting I was organising in Cape Town I decided to go to a mall for lunch. They were selling sushi creamed cheese which I had never heard of and was curious. Well that was a mistake. A few hours later everything in my bodies digestive systems want to leave by any way it could. Luckily my wife was with me and took me to a nearby doctor. He wanted to give me a couple of days bed rest and let it go through my system. However, that was not an option so he gave me an injection to stop the vomiting. I was ok a few days later and we left for a trip to several countries in the region to do a couple safari trips. A week later in Botswana at a safari camp they had some cheese in a buffet which I ate. Once again I got sick as well as my wife, happily she was not as bad as me nor was the meerkat.

Pet meerkat at the safari camp

Pet meercat at the safari camp

I think my system was weakened by the last bout. Once again another doctor gave me more pills and then on to our next safari camp which involved a canoe and me lying in the bottom of it very unwell. My advice for trips to Africa completely avoid cheese.

At least the view from my room was nice in Capetown

At least the view from my room was nice in Capetown

Peru and the Inca’s revenge

My next experience was in Peru in Lima. I ate a fish soup and along with several other people at the meeting became violently sick. My colleague bought a nurse to me who spoke no English but did make sure I was not allergic to penicillin. She told me to take several large looking mysterious pills and I took them. Several of my other colleagues refused to take the pills and they ended up in hospital for several weeks and one had to be medevac’d home! I am glad I took the pills as I was well again in a few days.

Thailand

My wife also had food poisoning. In Bangkok a few years ago combined with heat stroke she became very unwell for a couple of weeks. We are not sure what caused it. It could have been the chocolate high tea she had at a flash hotel or some peanuts from a bowl at a hotel bar. However, the next day we had an interesting ride to Hua Hin from Bangkok. The outcome was a visit to a hospital in Hua Hin for medication and laying by the pool for a week or two.

Recovering at Hua Hin by the pool

Recovering at Hua Hin by the pool

On our flight back from Bangkok we had the opposite service experience with Emirates than what I had with KLM in Pakistan. The ground staff were awful but the head steward on the plane was as star. He arranged for her to have a seat in business class all the way home which made the trip much better.

Australia

It is not only developing countries you can get food poisoning. Last year in Australia Debbie and I ate at the same restaurant in Kuranda just before we took the tourist steam train to Cairns. She had the chicken salad, I had deep fried fish and no salad. We had walked around Kuranda trying to find a restaurant and none appealed to me so we decided to go on the tour guides advice. Bad advice. I can safely say it was the worse food poisoning I had ever seen her have. I will spare you the details but after a day she still managed to do the Great Barrier Reef and a day or so later the bug was gone unlike Thailand.

At least the railway station was nice

At least the railway station was nice

How do you avoid food poisoning and recovery?

I think there is no real way you can avoid food poisoning. You can take a few simple precautions. Wash your hands before eating. If there are no locals in the restaurant then avoid it. Avoid creamed cheese sushi. Avoid fish soup. In the end it is a lottery. In India go vegetarian. Take some tiger balm with you and if you are sick on a train or need to use toilets from the dark ages put some of the tiger balm under your nose.

The key is to rehydrate and if you can get hold of Oral rehydration salts (ORSs) then use them unless you have kidney problems then see a doctor. ORSs can be picked up in sachets from chemists and you just dissolve them in water and drink. They help replace salt, glucose and other minerals you body would have lost from the dehydration through diarrhoea and vomiting. Try to drink between 8 and 14 glasses of liquid during the day. You will know when you are getting better as the colour of your urine will be clear instead of dark.

To help recover you need to rest, eat when you feel up to it and stay with food that are easily digested such as bananas, rice, toast or crackers until you feel better. Avoid, booze, caffeine, spicy or fatty foods that will only make you feel worse.

If your not getting on a plane, train or bus and can stay in one place I would try to avoid anti diarrheal medication such as Imodium, Lonox or Lomotil as it may just slow things down. There are also some home based remedies such apple cider vinegar or activated charcoal in the form of charcoal pills.