Wednesday, July 22, 2009

More Tropical Islands: Borneo, Philippines, Hong Kong

We're headed north, but first have a significant jog south. One night at dinner on the Volendam we mentioned Borneo and one of our fellow guests said "Yes, I sailed there once before courtesy of the Australian government. It was a bit rougher than the landing we'll have with this ship, as we came in on an ANZAC landing craft, and the Japanese were shooting at us." Yes, he was more than a tad older than us, but that's the sort of welcome one doesn't forget no matter how old you get!

Borneo is the world's third-largest island, and has certainly the strangest political division of any. Over 80% is in Indonesia, 26% in Malaysia and less than 1% Brunei, which sits in the middle of the Malaysian part. Our destination was Kota Kinabalu, known locally as KK, the capital of Malaysia's Sabah province and a city of half a million. The prime destination near here is Mount Kinabalu, a jungle behemoth that hits 13,513' in elevation, but it's not exactly on the edge of town, and a trip there deserves more than the few hours we had, so we elected to see the town instead, on our own. It was fascinating.

We started with a greeting from the locals and then the Sunday Market downtown, both most colorful experiences.

We walked along the waterfront where one way we looked back to the Volendam and in the other direction saw tailors at work in front of their shops much as they have done for a century. Only a few blocks away were these very modern apartments overlooking the bay.

Later in the day we went to a shopping mall that could have passed for one in Anytown USA. Along with modernity, however, Malaysia seems to have acquired a drug problem as well, judging by this billboard.
We found a very affordable ($2/hour!) internet cafe and a shop where Jeff bought a luscious batik shirt. Louise also found an interesting shirt, but we weren't about to buy that one even if they threw in a bonus or two (or maybe because we feared they would)!

But before the mall we did some exploring and walked well beyond downtown, past the so-called Kampung Air Stilt Village, then on to the fairly new (1977) State Mosque, which we entered per custom in our sock feet.

Another mile of hiking brought us to the Sabah Museum, the highlight of which was the Heritage Museum with a collection of traditional tribal bamboo houses set along this lily pond. As if on cue, it started to rain when we were down there, giving one of those nice tropical touches to things. Even though it was hot and steamy, air came into these houses from every direction, even from the floor! It was ingenious architecture for the climate.

Our next leg was supposed to be a leisurely troll at 9 knots up to Puerto Princesa, Philippines, but one of the passengers
had a medical emergency and the boat kicked it up over 20 knots and brought us in at 8 pm the night before our scheduled morning arrival. Once the ship cleared customs we were free to disembark, and Jeff took a solo stroll through the dark and underwhelming town, taking only one photo, of the Volendam as he returned.

The next day we passed on the main attraction, four hours in a tour bus in order to spend half an hour floating on the world's longest underground river. Instead, we set off with friends Stuart and Carole and hired two of the local taxis, actually motorcycles with sidecars, and went a dozen miles past roadside shops like this to a nearby town where we boarded a boat like these for a day on the water.

Our water taxi took us to three small islands in the saltwater bay, all with soft sand and warm bathing.
We took turns borrowing Stuart's snorkel mask and saw a better display of tropical fish than in your local Chinese restaurant's aquarium. Hey, this is what being in the tropics is supposed to be about!

Oh, what a relaxing day, at least when we weren't in traffic on our noisy motorcycle taxi. At least we didn't have to take a jitney bus, like this well-laden one we passed going the other way.

Although the town of Puerto Princesa held few charms, the departure was magical, for we got to see the splendid Catholic cathedral and the extensive community of homes built out over the water, and to hear and see a large part of the town crowding on almost every deck with a view to our boat, cheering to us as we sailed away. Click on that second photo below to blow it up and see our fan club saying goodbye (just hit the back button on your browser to come back to our blog).

36 hours of sailing brought us next to Manila, a city of 1 1/2 million that is part of Metro Manila, population 11 million, which is part of greater Manila when you take in suburbs that have spilled over into adjacent provinces, bringing the total up to 20 million in the sprawling megalopolis. We did not see very many of these folks, for we had two special people to meet, Beth and her husband Lando.
Beth's sister is married to Louise's brother, so they are family! They took off some time from work -- Beth is a Customs Inspector at the airport, in case you're wondering about that magnificent uniform -- and showed us around Intramuros, the oldest part of Manila, starting with a walk on the city walls built by the Spanish starting over 400 years ago, then moving on to San Agustin Church, built between 1587 and 1606. Next to the church in what perhaps once was a monastery, we wandered timeless cloistered halls filled with ancient artwork.

Our final stop in Intramuros was Fort Santiago, with its impressive gate that once led to the heart of Spanish power in the Pacific, but now leads to a moving memorial to Dr. Jose Rizal, a Filipine patriot executed by the Spanish two years before they themselves were tossed out of power by the Americans in the Spanish American War.

Time and the furious battles fought in Manila during WW II make the ruins both poetic and poignant, both for Dr. Rizal and for some 100,000 Filipinos who died in Manila during the war. By some accounts, Warsaw was the only city to suffer more widespread devastation than Manila during the war, and considering what happened to places like Dresden, Tokyo and Hiroshima, that's saying a lot!

We finished our visit with Beth and Lando with a fabulous lunch and a visit to the Mall of Asia, an impressively supersized place where we checked out a few stores and spent a few minutes catching up on the internet. Our hosts brought us back to the Volendam in time to see one of the last performances on the dock,
by a very talented group of teenagers, and then a final send-off by the Philippine Marines Marching Band. It was part of an all-day party put on by the Volendam for its many Filipino crewmembers -- all the kitchen, front office and maintenance staff, plus other jobs around the ship, about 300 in all.
Similar parties had been held on Bali and Java for the equally numerous Indonesian staff (primarily housekeeping). These pleasant and attentive folks we got to know so well as we lived with them on the Volendam for 97 days (to and from NZ combined) spend most of the year half-way around the world from home in an "office" the family never gets to see, until a special opportunity like this arises. There were big smiles on the crews' faces after each of these special stops, warmed by the chance to see family and friends and to show them around their boat for a day. How appropriate the last and biggest of these came the same day we had our own family gathering of sorts. Pulling away from the dock and out of the harbor was not as moving for us as for a few hundred of our crew, but it was special nonetheless.

At last we were at our final stop in the tropics, Hong Kong, and for Louise it was the first familiar territory since New Zealand. Actually more familiar, as she has been here at least half a dozen times, many to see a close friend stationed there. It has been 15 years since her last visit, and she found it looking much the same despite the bumper crop of new buildings that have gone up over those years, for there have been new skyscrapers going up by the dozen as long as she's been going to Hong Kong. Today's visit is no different.

The first order of business was to take the venerable Star Ferry across from Kowloon, where the Volendam docked, to Hong Kong Island. You can almost see the memories reflected off that window Louise is looking through.
Next, of course, was a walk through bustling downtown on overhead walkways leading to chic modern malls and atria, past an Anglican church to remind us of Hong Kong's British heritage,

and up to the Peak Tram Funicular. This mile-long train climbs 1300' at gradients up to 27 degrees, and carries 7 million people a year. It was built in 1888 to bring wealthy folks up to the cooler heights above the city, and there are still mansions dotting the hilltop.

Because the weather was iffy, we decided not to go all the way to the top of the peak that Jennifer Jones and William Holden made famous in Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, but instead took a 3 km trail
all around the peak at the elevation of the tram station. Louise was in hiking heaven, since in all her prior visits she had not been able to persuade her friend to do this wonderful walk. The haze did a good job of setting off the lush greenery nearby from the gray city far below (and our lovely ship to the left in the third photo down), and in fact that haze turned to rain soon after we took the tram back down.

With that rain we cut back the sightseeing and cut out the picture-taking, but then the scenery was all city streets of no particular charm, particularly dripping wet. Louise's general observation was that the city had cleaned itself up a bit, grown taller downtown, and lost its place as a bargain shopping mecca. It was a little disappointing to see it become just another big east asian city, albeit the hilliest you'll ever encounter, and with one of the busiest harbors. Then again, maybe the rain dampened more than just the streets. Let's hope for a sunnier day next time there.

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