Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cabaret At The Mall

It was busier than normal when I ducked into the Chareonsri (now Central) Shopping Mall in Udonthani one afternoon to escape what had become an especially merciless afternoon heat. I thought I'd just find a spot to sit and people watch until my core temperature got back within an acceptable range, but there were none to be found.

Glancing upward I could see it didn't appear to be all that busy on the upper floors, but there was a crowd gravitating toward some music coming from around a nearby corner on the ground floor that made it a bit of a challenge to get around so I shuffled slowly along with the herd, thinking I'd veer out of the crowd at some point and find myself something cool to drink. Before I'd reached the turn in the walkway the movement stopped completely as people began piling up in Standing Room Only formation behind a small sea of chairs facing a raised stage.

Less than five minutes later spotlights came on and began sweeping the stage area, some sort of brass fanfare heralding the start of the show. An announcer began speaking in Thai, joined every so often by a wave of applause from the crowd, now primed and ready for whatever it was that was about to happen. They knew, but I couldn't read the signage and, as I've shared before, my Thai is sadly lacking - especially when it comes to rapid-fire native speakers.

What I could make out was that this was a presentation by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and was evidently a promotional tour by a song-and-dance group, perhaps drumming up visitors for another area of the country. It made me think of some of the cabaret (good and bad) that I've seen in Thailand, but this was outside of a nightclub setting. To me it almost seemed a little out of place, but it didn't to the crowd: they cheered and applauded this free afternoon entertainment and seemed to enjoy every minute of it, as did I.

As the show ended the crowd dispersed and the staff and crew began dragging and stacking the plastic chairs off into one spot while a few of us stopped to say hello to the performers as they talked amongst themselves "backstage", apparently pleased with how the show had gone. Three of them were happy to pose for me when I asked, and that photo's up top.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Baiyoke Tower: Now You See It, Now You Don't

Change is inevitable, so don't classify this as a complaint. If it is, it's most certainly a minor one. I'd classify it more as a passing observation, myself.

On my first visit to Thailand I arrived shortly before midnight, so the long ride in from Don Muang International was naturally done in the hit-or-miss illumination of street lights, store lighting and swaths of automobile headlights. As a goggle-eyed newcomer I saw a lot, but really couldn't see much, if you know what I mean.

What woke me on my first morning there was the pinkish glow of dawn as my room began to lighten from the sun just below the skyline to the East. I'd left the drapes open after sitting and looking out at the city lights just a handful of hours before. I'd then fallen into that strange, time-shift slumber caused by traveling across a dozen-plus time zones in as many hours, and awoke disoriented.

Realizing I was not in Kansas any more I clambered out of bed and was greeted by the view above; a portion of the Bangkok skyline with the taller of the two Baiyoke towers pointing up towards the sky. I've stayed at the same hotel a few other times and have usually requested a room facing East, always pleasantly reminding me of that first trip.

Then, later in 2006 I opened the drapes and saw this...

I hadn't been paying attention when the taxi was driving me in past the construction; maybe fumbling with my wallet in preparation of my arrival and payment, maybe just daydreaming, I'm not sure. Anyway, it was a shock. As far as I can tell these are condominiums, but I'm frankly not all that interested in finding out. I knew I was losing that "first time" view, and it was a little sad.

A couple of years later I was at the same hotel with a newbie, sharing that delightful joy of a first trip there. By that time the condos were finished, and the poor old tower was just able to peek through between the two wings.

As I said to begin with today: change is inevitable, but not always welcome. Mai pen rai.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

More Sanuk: Whistling While You Work

Most Thai feel if something isn't sanuk, it isn't worth doing - and they can find the fun in almost any job. That's a generalization I made here a little over a year ago (Sanuk Doesn't Just Mean "Fun") but it's one I'd stand behind today, too. They often maintain the attitude that even if the task in front of us isn't pleasant we might as well do what we can to lighten the load while doing it. I bring this up again for two reasons: one, I admire the quality - and two, I ran across a few images I'd taken one morning while out taking my usual walk.

These guys were hard at work unloading cement and terra cotta flooring blocks by hand when I came by, and what caught my ear was the laughter that accompanied the sort of xylophone-like clinking tones made by the stones as they were set down onto the growing stacks on the sidewalk.

I have no idea what it was they were laughing about as they went about their work; maybe something they'd seen on TV the night before, maybe an off-color joke, who knows? They kept the patter going as they worked steadily and with a level of energy I'd be surprised if they carried through the afternoon, but again, who knows?

When I came back five minutes later with a bag containing eight bottles of orange juice from a nearby cart vendor and set it down on a stack of stones for them they returned my smile and thanked me, and I went on my way.

An hour later when I was heading back the truck was gone and I suspect they'd gone back for another load. I'd intended to come back later that day to see if they were still at it (this was at a sizable construction site that would undoubtedly need many truckloads of stones) but I didn't make it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bangkok Snake Farm, Part 3 - Up Close And Personal

Friends smiling while sharing a reptilian moment at the Snake Farm

As the lecturer neared the end of the "Show and Tell" lecture and demonstration at the Red Cross Snake Farm in Bangkok one of the handlers went off for a moment, returning with a boa constrictor draped over his shoulders.

Based on holding it myself as he is in the photo to the left I estimated the length of it to be a little over nine feet (2.74M), but less than 10.

Having the snake moving while it was draped around me it was difficult to estimate the weight of it, but my uneducated guess is that it was in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 pounds - between 11 and 13Kg.

In what was more than likely another chance to allay people's fears about snakes in general it was announced that any and all attending the show could touch or hold the specimen and take a picture with it, if they wished. Many did, and the handlers patiently waited while people took turns doing just that.

The boys up top sent a nice thank you via email after I'd sent them their picture, as did the woman below. We all agreed that [safely] having a reptile that big around you is an experience we never expected to happen in our lives, but one we definitely got a kick out of.

Naturally, the handlers were careful to keep a watch so foolish people wouldn't wrap the creature around their neck (although one teen-aged kid tried), and despite the probability that they'd done this hundreds of times they seemed genuinely entertained by the laughter and joking around that accompanied almost everyone's contact with the enormous specimen.

The young man in the photo above had some distinctive markings on him, too, it appears

One can only hope that the wife above is preoccupied and assigns her husband the task of selecting an appropriate picture and having their photo Christmas cards prepared for them to send out. Can't you just hear the conversation between the two of them if they get 200 of these back from the shop? "What on earth were you thinking?" "Oh, come on, dear - it's a great picture! Your hair might've been a bit off, but I thought it was lovely!"

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Snake Farm In Bangkok, Part 2 - The Show

A handler holds up a Gold-ringed Cat Snake (aka Mangrove snake - boiga dendrophila)

Since we did the overview of the Red Cross Snake Farm and anti-venom lab at the Queen Savabha Institute yesterday, let's move on to what for me have been the most interesting part of my visits there: the show-and-tell talks; done twice on weekdays (11:00 and 14:30) and once on Saturday and Sunday (11:00). Again, if you want to be up close for whatever reason get there at least a half hour early. You can see by the photo yesterday that seating with the better view is limited.

This youngster had a front row seat, and loved every minute of the show

The talk lasts for about a half hours and is slanted towards a basic awareness and understanding of the snakes in Thailand, and while there are vicarious thrills involved - such as the handler taking measured and practiced chances in the two photos below - the overall tone is one intending to educate and help people gain some understanding of creatures most of us are unreasonably fearful of.

The handler knew right where to grip the snake to keep him safely out of striking range - and it struck at his face several times, to the surprised gasps and shouts of the audience. I can't identify this particular snake for you to say if it was venomous enough to be dangerous or not (I'd suspect not) but it certainly was interested in trying to bite the guy's face. He allowed it to strike at him a half-dozen times or so.

The heavy rubber boots the handlers wear gives them some measure of protection in this case, since the snakes seemed to be much more interested in things down on their (ground) level, but it made you squirm just a bit when they were squatted down with their hands and arms vulnerable. My guess is that the cobras used for these demonstrations have just been "milked" so as to not have full sacks of venom to inject if they did connect, but I didn't think to ask that question. If someone knows the answer, chime in with a comment below, would you?

-- Sorry, there's no sound to the clips today --

The lecturer himself got fairly close to the snakes and was demonstrating the snake's range of vision in the photo below. He included enough facts, figures, background and anecdotal stories to hold the attention of the adults and children alike, his English was clear and fluent and his joking around provided the levity to lighten his more serious warnings.

Although it looks that way he wasn't playing "Does this bug you? I'm not touching you! I'm not touching you!"

-- Sorry, there's no sound to the clips today --

Throughout the talk, when safe specimens were brought out to show the audience the folks in the front rows were given the chance to get a closer look and sometimes touch the snakes themselves. Each time the handler would smile in their direction and begin to extend his hand with the snake in it, there'd be a minor rush to the front.

It was nice to see kids learning not to fear snakes while also learning to keep a respectful distance away from specimens they'll probably encounter outside of the institute. As I've mentioned, there ARE chances you may encounter snakes in Thailand, and some can put you out of the game within 30 minutes of being bitten.

I don't remember the name of this specimen, but it was kept a ways away from the audience

Aside from the zoological work at the institute tracking the 180 or so species of snakes in Thailand - 56 of which are considered venomous - the Red Cross portion of it, partnered with the World Health Organization, are a leading producer of anti-venoms for victims of local/regional snake bites. As you read yesterday the death by rabies of a Prince's daughter in the early 1900s was the impetus to start the organization. Sometimes the bites of snakes in one area don't respond to anti-venoms from another country, so a regional facility is important.

The snakes they farm are regularly "milked" to get the venom from them. They did this with a cobra as part of the demonstration (below). Once the venom from these (or any of a few dozen other poisonous snakes) is collected it's taken to the Red Cross horse farm in Hua Hin where horses are used to host it, producing the crucial blood serum after being immunized with the venom. Horses have about eight productive years in their life span for this work, and then they're put out to pasture to live out the rest of their days.

A cobra's venom is milked onto a mirror for the benefit of the audience

The snakes used for venom collection need to eat well, and they're fed prepared raw chicken by hand. That sounds like a slightly gentler of a process than I saw them demonstrate after the venom was milked from a cobra. Maybe they were Snakey Treats, I don't know.

While one handler held the snake, another took the chicken with long tweezers that they then used to push the chicken down the creature's throat. My guess is that it wasn't an abusive act or they wouldn't have dared do it in front of visitors, as some of them are undoubtedly sensitive to the mishandling of any creature and it wouldn't be very good public relations.

Try the chicken, it's fresh. No, I mean it... TRY THE CHICKEN.

Monday I'll post some pictures from after the show, when an eight foot boa constrictor was brought in for anyone interested to "pose" with for pictures.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Red Cross Snake Farm In Bangkok, Part 1

Snake houses on the grounds of the Red Cross Snake Farm in Bangkok

A tourist spot that's both entertaining and educational is the Red Cross Snake Farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute in Bangkok, located at the corner of Henri Dunant and Rama IV Road - about a block from Soi Dungthawee (Twilight) where an entirely different type of snake handling happens after the sun goes down.

Since snakes are a natural part of the Thai wildlife (like it or not) you're bound to see snake farms throughout the kingdom, but if you want your vicarious thrills served with a helping of worthwhile information and skillful demonstrations by trained handlers then this is the place to go.

The snakes, lecturer and handlers hold the attention of the audience, and the audience hold the attention of the cobras. It's a fair trade.

Operated in conjunction with the World Health Organization it's said to be second only to the institute in Sao Paolo, Brazil in the areas of research and the development of antidotes for victims of snake bites. I've read it was opened on 1912, initially to manufacture rabies vaccine after King Rama IV's granddaughter died from that; then put under the auspices of the Thai Red Cross in 1917 when it also began producing smallpox vaccine. Under Queen Savang Hadhana at the end of 1923 it became the important anti-venom producer it's known best as today.

The museum and outside pens and displays are open from 08:30 to 4:00pm/16:30 on weekdays, and 08:30 to Noon on the weekends, but I think most would consider the snake show to be the featured reason for going there, and those are at 11:00am and 2:30pm/14:30 during the week and at 11:00 on Saturday and Sunday. During the busy months of High Season you're well advised to be there a half hour before showtime to get your choice of seating - be that closer or farther back, depending on your own personal comfort level. I prefer to be close up, but just out of striking range.

Members of the Sawatdee forum may recognize this photo as one that I'd cropped down and loaned to them as one of their header image

The indoor museum is a good place to cool off, especially if it was hot outside during the show and demonstration. It houses many specimens of snakes (such as the green red tailed racer above), several large framed snake skins, a display on dealing with types of snake bites and a nicely preserved and displayed skeleton (below) along with a lot of other interesting things.

Tomorrow you'll see photos from the lecture and demonstration I attended where they brought out cobras, boas and a variety of other snakes for supervised viewing up close, if people wished to do so. They also demonstrated how the venom is milked from cobras such as the one below to make the antidote that has saved so many lives.

A cobra on point and ready to strike intently watches the audience 10 feet away at the Thai Red Cross Snake Farm lecture

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cigarette Warnings

Thai cigarettes as stocked for sale at a convenience store - Bangkok and elsewhere

Those of you who've visited Thailand have undoubtedly already seen the warnings printed on every pack and carton of cigarettes sold there, unless you don't know anyone who smokes, haven't seen anyone with a pack while out somewhere or have managed to avoid all convenience stores [I'm repeating an image above for today's post, by the way]. Granted, cigarettes aren't displayed openly there as often as they are here in the US, but they're visible.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been rightly tooting their horns in celebration recently about the images that will be on packs here as they are there. Naturally they're watered down versions of what they'd like on packs - they're nowhere near as jolting or dramatic as the Thai examples - but hopefully they'll help.

It's a very safe bet that the tobacco industry has invested millions and millions of dollars to lobby against this, as they've done with any attempt to diminish their profits - or admit any responsibility for their part in the millions of deaths and related health complications from tobacco use. They've probably had the more graphic images taken out of the running and the photos won't begin to appear on packs here until the fall of 2012 - more than a year away.

Nevertheless, it's something... and I'm pleased.

A proposed image for a USA cigarette warning

Another proposed image for a USA cigarette warning

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hot Town, Summer In The City (And Everywhere Else)

When there's frost on the shrubbery and a thin layer of ice on the lily pond it's easy for my mind to wander to Thailand and walks I've enjoyed in the Isaan countryside on a warm evening, the cicadas and crickets joined in a droning chorus to accompany the lowing of cattle in the distance.

However, the digital thermometer's ticking its way up to 100F/38C again on the Summer Solstice today - the longest day of the year - and there's neither a cloud in the sky nor a whisper of breeze to offer any relief from the heat whatsoever. My only consolation during our Summer 90s is that at this same time of year it's likely to be in the 90s/30sC with a decent chance of rain and thunderstorms in many parts of Thailand, too. When the heat gets up over 104F/40C even the locals slow down. The heat takes its toll on everyone, such as the young man in Nong Khai in the picture here to the left who couldn't even muster a smile for me.

On days like today I find myself fighting the siren song of a nap like the man in the top photo is enjoying. He'd sought shade and slumber at the Saphan Taksin riverboat station one hot and muggy afternoon.

The combination of heat and humidity can make it unpleasant to be out and around and that, dear readers, is why this is called "Low Season" in Thailand (roughly from May to October). It's hot. And humid. That, coupled with the regular torrential rain that often briefly graces the afternoon or evening encourages more people to visit during High Season (November into April). Naturally, tropical depressions and storms passing over Southeast Asia in general can bring more and longer-lasting rain during low season, but we're primarily dealing with the heat today.

Other than what I've mentioned above there's no reason not to visit Thailand now. There are less crowds, hotel rates are lower, shows are easier to get in to see and air fares can be lower from some countries. I've been there during low season a number of times, myself. You have to plan your days differently and pay attention to the effects weather can have on both them and you.

Heat and humidity can join forces to make things more than unpleasant for folks - especially those of us who are used to a more temperate climate - and can actually have a debilitating (and sometimes deadly) effect. Long time readers may remember an early story here about the importance of staying hydrated, and it's just as important on a cloudy, very warm humid day as it is on the sunny scorchers - as running low on fluids can creep up on you; maybe even more so, since it's easier to lose track when the sun's not beating directly down on you.

The table below will give you a pretty good idea of how to gauge whats known as the heat index, and while you're not likely to carry it with you on vacation you can make mental note and try to think of it when you're hurrying off someplace on a hot and muggy day. It could save you losing a day or so in bed, sick.

I found a source that better explains it than I can, so I'm going to borrow their description:

"The heat index is the 'feels like', or apparent, temperature. As relative humidity increases, the air seems warmer than it actually is because the body is less able to cool itself via evaporation of perspiration. As the heat index rises, so do health risks. When the heat index is 90°-105°F, heat exhaustion is possible. When it is above 105°F, it is probable. Heatstroke is possible when the heat index is above 105°F, and very likely when it is 130°F and above. Physical activity and prolonged exposure to the heat increase the risks."

The symptoms of heat exhaustion are headaches, dizziness, nausea, cool or clammy skin, weakness, paleness, muscle cramping and a lot of perspiring. Get thee to a cooler spot and drink something with a pinch of salt in it to help you retain it, or try a sports drink like Gatorade. With care and rest you'll probably pull out of this on your own. If you keep pushing yourself, you're liable to end up collapsing with heatstroke.

The symptoms of heatstroke are similar, except that the skin is hot and dry, not clammy; you may have the chills, your pulse will be quicker (even at rest), your temperature is likely to be 101F or higher and you've stopped sweating. THAT'S a dangerous spot to be in. Seek medical attention if you find yourself in this condition. If this progresses it can lead to confusion, falling into a coma, or death. Not something you want to entertain while on holiday, I'd wager.

One last thing: remember, you don't need the sun or daylight to dehydrate yourself. As I write this it's 03:00 in Bangkok and at 84F/28.8C my guess is it does "feel like" its heat index number of 90F/32.2C.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More On Shopping At Taoyuan Airport, Taipei

The post that served as part one about duty free shopping at Taipei's Taoyuan International airport had a photo that for some reason gets viewed a lot. I don't understand why, but it's usually wise to give the people what they want (within reason) so here are a few more shots I took on a recent stopover at Taoyuan Airport in Taipei, Taiwan.

As at many airports there's almost no escaping the shops, and it's no different there; as you can see above you come through the check-through directly into the shopping area. You have to go a ways to get away from them.

Wash your mochi snacks down with some Johnny Walker Black while shopping for a watch in the Swatch shop

Normally I use the time on a layover there to put my feet up, re-charge batteries (both mine and of the gizmos I have along with me) and read email while snacking in the airline lounge, but I've also found it helpful to stand up and walk a while after a five or 12 hour flight, depending on which direction I'm headed.

A couple of times I've played "Who's Gonna Be Too Drunk To Fly" in the airline lounge - from a safe distance, of course - while watching a few of the folks pounding down the free liquor. I like to wonder who might be denied their seat when boarding drunk, but truthfully I've only been right twice, and that poor old geezer had wheeled his 22" carry-on into the video game room and couldn't find his way out when the voice over the public address system announced it was boarding time at our gate, so that was kind of an easy one. He raised unholy hell at the gate but didn't get on board. He would probably have been wise to pad his Johnny Walker with some steamed pork buns, although if you're a real alcoholic you know what precious space bread can take in your stomach - but I digress.

Not only are there the multiple cosmetic and perfume shops - the Lancomes, the Diors, the Chanels - there are also places to purchase all and sundry liquor and tobacco items, in addition to luggage, more traditional tourist-type souvenirs and, God help us all, a Hello Kitty outlet. Personally I detest that Japanese monstrosity, but there's no good reason for my dislike. It's cute and kids love it. In college I tried to start a rumor that it was run by the religious sect known by most in the US as The Moonies, but that failed, sadly enough. Ah, well.

The display for Kiehl's (from NY!) herbal elixir to the left featured a motor scooter accompanied by a rider who appeared for all intents and purposes to be Death himself. I wasn't sure if you were supposed to avoid riding the scooter or take the elixir after coming out of the Intensive Care Unit, but I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition either way.

There are a few "Taste of Taiwan" shops throughout the place, and they have a wide selection of snacks and treats, many of which will probably seem foreign to you, but the staff speaks English (if that helps you) and they're happy to explain and sometimes provide samples. I usually bring a few boxes of mochi home for friends, if nothing else. Not cheap, but nice.

There are quite a few other places there, too. We'll look at the airport and its environs again another time, but I hope this helps a little today.

[The follow up to this post appears on this post from May 8 2012]

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Social" Security: It's A Dime-A-Dance World

Eugene O'Neill said "When you're 50 you start thinking about things you haven't thought about before. I used to think getting old was about vanity - but actually it's about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial."

Financial insecurity is a major bugaboo for many folks heading towards retirement, but even worse are emotional desires and the fear of growing old alone. Thanks to our assorted media far too many of us subscribe to the fallacy that your look defines your desirability and social worth, and any mirror will remind us that time, indeed, marches on. Some confuse that very social worth with desirability, and there are countless examples of that as older folks - primarily men - chase the company of the youthful as though proximity will help stay their own inevitable slide. I was going to say "decay," but that's closer on the horizon than wise to joke about.

Clubs in Thailand are full of (primarily) male customers willing to pay to fuel the illusion of affection and/or desire from the employees, both female and male. Without going into detail today I feel it's acceptable for the sake of argument to say that less than 10% of the "pay-for-play" industry in Thailand is gay; most of it is men seeking the attention of women somewhere near half their age. Not being familiar with that side of the fence I can't vouch for it personally, but I've spent enough time passing through Soi Cowboy (and Soi Yipun) to have a pretty good idea that we're safe to make the estimate.

Being past the glow of youth myself I honestly don't feel I'm being overly judgmental here. There's a great deal of wisdom to the childhood comeback "it takes one to know one", and the lure of escaping the feeling I'm not the age I truly am is a shiny bauble indeed. However, being realistic and honest with myself (and reality) usually keeps me in check, thank goodness.

That said, I find it's endlessly interesting to watch the mating rituals of assorted specimens of Preening Farang on their migratory voyages to attract a temporary - or more permanent - younger mate in Thailand, and there are great flocks of them flying in on a regular basis. More in the colder Western months, but some with the means have landed longer term in Thailand and adorn their nests with attractive accoutrement.

Some drape themselves with gold chains that lay among the white hair on their chests, unbuttoning their shirts a couple of extra buttons to show what they believe others want to see, while in reality if I want to see a set of less-than-youthful male breasts (I tend to call them man boobs, or "moobs") I only have to look while drying myself off after a shower. Nevertheless, there "the boys" are, drooping out of shirts as their owners sit in the open-air clubs and wave their beers around, regaling all and sundry nearby with their tales; their Thai companions smiling while graciously trying to understand a language they weren't raised speaking; glancing at their watches or cell phone screens in an attempt to stay awake.

It's entertainment for these guys, and while it's cheaper to go to a movie than spend an evening like I've described above, what's even more unfortunate is that far too many of these migrating folks fool themselves into believing that the arrangement is more than what servicemen and others during the World War era would know as the "dime a dance" club arrangement; you pay the fee and the person you select from the line-up accompanies you onto the dance floor for a while. In the case of most in the Thailand clubs that usually involves dancing in a horizontal position someplace private, followed by a tip before parting company.

The bottom line here today is this: it's the rare occasion where a visitor walks into a genuine relationship based on their encounters while on holiday, as my UK friends would call it. I know a number of stable long-term Farang/Thai couples of various stripes, so it most certainly is possible, but it's a challenge for a variety of reasons: age, culture, religion, etc., and only a true fool would think otherwise.

Make friends, but be realistic - especially when speaking of your intentions regarding those friends (or potential long-term interests) when you go back home. As the song goes, "too many moonlight kisses seem to melt in the warmth of the sun."

Not to say all of the Thai are honest and sincere, but believe me, I've heard enough stories of "bad farang lie me" to last me a lifetime. If you've retired to Thailand, listen well and learn from others who have been there a year or three before you make emotional or financial investments.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Margerie - Ice King Of Glacier Bay

The glacier named after Emmanuel de Margerie is one of the most often photographed features in the state of Alaska; certainly the most photographed spot in Glacier Bay National Park. If you've seen brochures or web sites about the area you've undoubtedly seen the mile-wide (1.6Km) face of this 21 mile lng (34Km) "river" of ice, towering a good 250 feet (76M) above the blue waters of Glacier Bay. Click on the panorama above and scan across this spot. It's pretty impressive.

In an effort to stem the pollutions of the area - water, air and noise - only two cruise ships per day are allowed into Glacier Bay. In all honestly that's still probably two too many, but I was happy to have ours sidle up to the edge of the "safe" distance limit (a quarter of a mile, just under a half kilometer) from the aqua wall of ice for an hour or so while everyone crowded onto one side of the ship to "ooh!" and "ahh!" as portions of ice large and small would calve away from the face with a sharp, thunderous crack and fall into the water.

As you watch the wall you'll hear the sound of small cracks, sort of like the distant crack of a rifle, and often see smaller pieces falling. Many times this is the foreshadowing of a larger calving with the smaller noises followed by the larger boom and cascade of ice.

As light travels far faster than sound it's often a matter of luck to catch a dramatic chunk the size of a bus breaking away and falling, but I was glad I could catch some reasonably good pictures during the time I stood there and watched.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Smiles: Not Thai, But In The Neighborhood...

Being the sometimes shamelessly intrusive picture taker I can be I didn't show people on my vacation cruise any mercy, so here are some examples of the folks I met while at sea - many from a wide variety of places. The young man above is from Jakarta and was shivering at 09:00 the morning I found him on duty on an outdoor area of the top deck, despite his heavy fleece top. There wasn't a passenger in sight, but he said he was going to be there for another four hours, until he was relieved at lunchtime. He said that the "wai" gesture is also used where he lives; something I didn't know.

The Filipino cabin steward below was part of a "towel art" demonstration; sort of terrycloth origami, if you will. He's holding up his version of a komodo dragon, festooned with ribbons.

As you've already read, due to the norovirus scare the dining room stewards were taking extra precautions, wearing and changing latex gloves regularly (wouldn't you love to have that concession contract with a cruise line or three?), and you can see a couple more of them wearing them below. The two on the right had duties that didn't involve actual food handling.

There was more of a divers group on this cruise than I've seen in the past; more European and Eastern European and not as many Filipino and Indonesian, so there was an interesting mix of entertaining accents.

My cabin steward spoke fluent English and shared many stories of his life growing up in Bulgaria. He was due to go back when we docked back home, and was more than ready to see his wife and daughter after being on duty seven days a week on the current six month contract, with precious few days off ashore. It's far from an easy life for those working hard to see to it the passengers rarely lift a finger. At a monthly salary that's little more of an insult they are happy to see tips at the end of the cruise. They also share in a pool automatically charged to each passenger's tab of $11USD per day, as do the other less-visible personnel, such as the dishwashers, laundry workers and the likes.

The last picture today shows two of the reception staff. Normally there were four or five on duty at any given time, but during embarkation and disembarkation they had a dozen or so at their terminals, typing away and trying to resolve the inevitable issues and the likes.

They're a hard-working bunch - all of them that I encountered, anyway. They're a large part of what makes a cruise such a care-free experience, and they do it with a smile.