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                                     IN THE WAKE OF ZHENG HE

                                       © By Janet and Stuart Wilson

     Pirates? As we entered the Arabian Sea we held our first piracy drill, moving out of our staterooms and away from windows to shelter in the ship’s interior. Crew members manned the high pressure hoses on the main deck. Our Captain, Igor Bencina, takes piracy seriously — and perhaps personally. He was Nautica’s first officer back in November 2008 when the vessel was attacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
    Piracy is a threat in some areas today, as it was in the 15th century. Nearly a century before Columbus sailed to the New World, Chinese Admiral Zheng He commanded a huge fleet that completed seven round-trip voyages from China to the Indian Ocean. It is said he captured he notorious pirate, Chen Zuyi, whom he sent back to China for execution.
    We signed-up for the 25-day Asian repositioning cruise aboard Oceania Cruise Lines’ Nautica because the ports-of-call beckoned: Bangkok, Singapore, Colombo, Malé, Cochin, Mumbai, Muscat, Dubai and more. Many of the same ports were visited by Zheng He’s fleet; all were new territory for us.


          Temple, Phuket, Thailand                Detail on Bangkok Temple

    We boarded Nautica in Bangkok, a sprawling, modern Asian city sprouting high-rise buildings and choked with traffic. Happily, vestiges of an earlier, presumably less frenetic and undoubtedly more beautiful city survive. A blend of European and Asian styles are reflected in impressive throne rooms, residences, temples and plazas occupying the Royal Palace grounds. Canals not yet filled to make streets provide another glimpse of the earlier Bangkok, when transportation and commerce were waterborne.
    The history of modern Singapore begins with the arrival of the British who stayed 144 years, building a cosmopolitan city and major port. Independence in 1965 accelerated those trends and today Singapore is one of the world’s wealthiest countries; a center of world finance and trade.
    Upscales malls, modern architecture, safe, clean, efficient public transportation define Singapore. It’s also expensive and comes with some regimentation: no gum chewing, smoking–or hugging–in public! Our favorite spots included the beautifully tended Botanic Gardens, the colorful “Little India” neighborhood, and the Museum of Asian Civilizations.
    In addition to piracy drills, educational lectures on upcoming ports and other matters, our sea days were filled with food and wine, and visits to the small, well-equipped gym. To counteract that exercise, free cooking demonstrations, overseen by Executive Chef Alban Gjoka, yielded delectable tastes and take-home recipes. He also developed fresh, original and delicious dishes we enjoyed in the Grand Dining Room, the Terrace Grill buffet, and the two specialty restaurants.


    Cooking Class in Ko Samui, Thailand  and Dessert Sampler on the Nautica

    The wine tasting proved worth the extra fee. Conducted by Cellar Master Preslava Ilieva and Sommelier Anna, they proved educational and hugely entertaining. Preslava, a tall, string bean of a woman from Bulgaria who doesn‘t look to have reached age 30, had her audience spellbound within five minutes, instructing us on various elements of wine-grape growing. But it was her personal anecdotes that captivated us.
    Called Ceylon in our schoolbooks and Serendib by ancient Arab traders, today it’s known as Sri Lanka.  We’re not sure what Zheng He called the island east of India’s southern tip, but he visited it on each of his seven voyages.
    A too brief port-call and uncooperative weather didn’t detract from our excellent private tour of Colombo, Galle and the coast in between. Galle Fort, a fortified town built by the Dutch, is a remarkably well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site and a still-vibrant community.
    The Maldive Islands, and Cochin in southern India’s Kerala State, have attracted traders for many centuries, and Zheng He visited both. Today’s Maldive economy is driven by tourism–it’s considered one of the world’s premier diving spots. We enjoyed snorkeling a reef just-off a white-sand crescent beach, and walking around the motorbike-choked capital, Malé.


Fishing Nets at Sunset, Cochin, India    Shiva Monk in Bombay/Mumbai, India

    In Cochin we opted for a boat excursion called “tranquil backwaters.” We navigated tidal estuaries along levees protecting reclaimed farmland. Transportation here is primarily by boat, or by foot and bicycle atop the levees. Locals live in homes beside the levees using the waterways to bathe, swim and wash clothes.
    The Fort district, the oldest part of Cochin, was built during the Portuguese era (1503-1663), and was a major spice trading center when Zheng He’s fleet visited a century earlier. Here we helped raise the “Chinese fishing nets,” counterbalanced contraptions said to be based on a Chinese design.
    One of the secrets of Oceania’s success must be Nautica’s crew. A true pleasure of this cruise was getting to know Romhelyn, our stateroom attendant. An engaging young Filipina with an infectious smile and easy laugh, she tidied our cabin to perfection each day. Romhelyn is a star in the constellation of dedicated, professional, solicitous and engaging staff we met aboard Nautica.
    Mumbai (still Bombay to many residents) was also a Portuguese outpost from 1534 until the British took over in 1661, becoming a major trading port in the 19th century. We found remarkable, if decrepit, colonial architecture, impressive museums, delicious food.
    This city of 20 million assaulted our senses. Being there–mingling with worshipers at a Temple of Shiva and getting blessed by a Hindu Holy Man, strolling through Hanging Gardens park with local families, observing vultures circling above a Farsi Tower of Silence–will stick with us. Our favorite stop might be the Portuguese Bungalows, a small neighborhood of 19th century houses built by east Indian Catholics with Portuguese surnames. Here we visited with James Ferrer who founded the Katachi Wadi Trust to try and preserve the 27 charming, comfortable wood houses that remain.


            View of Oman at Sunset                           At the Mosque, Muscat, Oman

    After sailing across the Arabian Sea on our journey’s final leg, without a pirate in sight, we visited several ports on the Arabian Peninsula, beginning with our favorite, Muscat.  From Nautica’s deck in Mutrah harbor, a low-rise, white city spread out against a back-drop of stony, chocolate brown mountains. Though an oil-built, modern metropolis, Muscat retains some of its traditional character, including the Mutrah Souk, a large, lively market. We found the modern Sultan Qaboos Mosque exquisite in design and detail.
    Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Mosque is even grander in scale, but our memories of this place inevitably involve Janet wearing an abaya. We ended in Dubai, a rapidly-growing cosmopolitan city of modern high-rises (including the world’s tallest), upscale shopping and Ferrari police cars. A glass display case in the huge Ibn Battuta Mall here encloses a model of one of Zheng He’s ships, said to be over 400 feet long. A bit shorter than our 600-foot Nautica, these were the largest ships ever launched until the 19th century’s iron hulls.


             Nautica Cruise Ship, Phuket, Thailand       Galle, Sri Lanka

    Our voyage’s other ports-of-call included Koh Samui and Phuket, Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Fujairah in the U.A.E. At each we took a memorable shore excursion offered by our ship, including our favorite, a Thai cooking class at Nora Beach Resort on Koh Samui. Our guide, Mrs. Ning was the best thing about Kuala Lumpur, though we admired the Petronas Towers. In Phuket we remember a beautiful Buddhist Temple and a charming dance performance. We drove along the shore in Fujairah to reach rugged mountains for a Mountain Safari in a detached bit of Oman. In traditional Sharjah we toured the Heritage Area and a fresh food market.
    We may not have experienced as much adventure as Zheng He–no tangles with pirates–but we got our fill. And we enjoyed a level of comfort and luxury that even the admiral, a member of China’s Imperial Court, could not have imagined.
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