Sunday, December 24, 2017

Oman, Dubai, Back To Abu Dhabi, Chanukah, and Home

The ship docked in Oman for a short day so we booked a three hour dolphin watch, half an hour each way and two hours on the boat. Our bus guide lived in a small town about 90 miles away and commuted into Oman five days a week. Twenty-five, single and he claimed he never had a girlfriend. One day he hopes to have one, who of course will be the woman he is about to marry. Other than that, he pointed out a few sights along the way and gave some brief commentary about Oman.

We were on a 20-passenger boat. It took us about 15 – 20 minutes to get to the dolphin area. The viewing was incredible. There were hundreds of dolphins in groups of three – five, swimming, jumping, playing and hunting all around us. We thought that our last whale watching trip off of Maui was incredible as we saw a half dozen or so active whales. If that whale watch was a ten, this dolphin watch was a 30.

We arrived in Dubai for an overnight stay. We purchased a “Big Bus” hop on, hop off 24-hour pass but got a late start because there were torrential rains that morning. Roads were flooded and traffic a nightmare. The shuttle took us from the ship to the Dubai Mall to pick up the bus. But first, we had to see the mall with its indoor skating rink. The skaters looked like they were having a great time. As I was trying to guess who was local and who was a tourist, it was clear that the locals were the best skaters.

It seemed there were 100+ jewelry stores in this mall. Each window had a display containing hundreds of karats of diamonds. To say it was dazzling would certainly be an understatement. (Of course, being the shopper/window shopper that I am, I was done after the first two stores. Someone else saw way more than I did.)

We found our way to the food court for a quick lunch and happily found a Tim Horton’s! No turkey sandwiches to be found. Instead it was falafel and shawarma. If you click here and go to my Facebook page you can see the pictures. Yes, a taste of Buffalo and Canada in the United Arab Emirates. Put the skating rink together with the Tim Horton’s and I think the Buffalo Sabres have found their new development league.

Finally, we hopped on the bus and began our tour. That day we did the whole city route. In addition to the regular recorded tour we had a live tour guide. I finally switched to the recording when I got tired of hearing how everything in Dubai was the biggest, largest… or was when it was first built. They do seem to have a size fetish.

Back on the ship that evening, someone asked me to describe Dubai. It was easy. Dubai is the Epcot or Las Vegas of the middle east. Except for the world’s tallest building and perhaps one or two others, most all the architecture was describe by both the live guide and the recording as replicas of buildings in other countries. There was Big Ben (without the clock), a hotel from Singapore, skyscrapers from Europe, the Far East and of course, a boathouse which was a replica of the Sydney Opera House.

The second day we were back on the bus (this time no live guide) and took the beachside route which began at the Mall of the Emirates. No skating rink here. Just an indoor ski slope and luge run.

In both malls, we were struck by the way people were dressed. The majority were dressed in western garb. Some men wore the traditional white or brown robes. Some women wore head to toe traditional robes but most in non-western dress just wore a hijab. However, in both malls were high end fashion stores that sold fancy women’s robes with elaborate embroidery, gold filigree and other decoration. I didn’t see anyone actually dressed in one but the stores were filled with shoppers.

We decided to go for high tea at a nice hotel on Palm Island. While there, I realized that most of the workers we had met in Dubai, including at the hotel were not native to the UAE. After tea, we met the front desk manager, an American, and asked her if there were any workers native to the UAE in the hotel. She pointed to the security guard. “Just him?” I asked. She replied: “No, the night security man as well.”

Before I write about that day in Abu Dhabi and the flight home, I need to talk about leading Chanukah and Shabbat on the ship. I have been the chaplain on several cruises and gone to Shabbat services on many others. However, this was a totally different experience for me. The ship was incredible. They provided 4 dozen latkes and 4 dozen donuts for every service, not to mention for challot for Shabbat. The staff of Celebrity bent over backwards to make sure everything was perfect. That’s not the unusual part.

This was clearly a cruise that did not have a lot of Jews on it. I only met 8 Jews on the ship. Even assuming that those 8 Jews were 5% of the Jews on the ship, there would only be 160 Jews out of 2000+ passengers. That is not the norm. Actually, the 8 of us were probably 10% of the Jews on the ship. At most nights of Chanukah there were as many non-Jews as Jews in attendance. On Shabbat, we had more non-Jews than Jews. I assume this is not a cruise itinerary that is popular with Jewish passengers. Given my hesitations, I certainly understand. Given my experiences, Jews should feel comfortable traveling this itinerary.

The next day we were back in Abu Dhabi. Before we left on the trip we had pre-bought tickets to the Louvre - Abu Dhabi. Yes, they have a Louvre which is a partnership with the Louvre in Paris. Again, you can see some of the pictures on my Facebook page. The architecture is marvelous and totally different than the original. The artwork was well chosen and presented and the exhibits contained works from pre-historic times to the present. There were only three mentions of Jews that I noticed, all in the world religions gallery. One was on the introductory sign. Second was in the exhibit of tombstones. A Jewish tombstone stood with a Muslim stone and a Christian one. The third was a book bound, illuminated manuscript of the Torah. While there was no mention of Israel, I felt that from a religious standpoint there was no animus in the exhibit toward Jews or Christians.

We had a wonderful last dinner of the trip and were up at 4 am to go to the airport to catch our flight. The flight home was long, uneventful, long, and boring. Did I mention long? This coming spring I am co-leading a trip to Israel although because of B’nei Mtizvah, I am flying separately from the rest of the group. Again, I’ll be on Royal Jordanian, through Amman to Tel Aviv. As we were boarding in Amman to come back to the states, there were a few dozen people who had flown into Amman from Israel on their way back home. They were speaking openly of their time in Israel and no one gave them a second look.

So, even though I had no initial desire and several reservations about going on the trip, I am glad I did. It shattered many of my negative expectations. Helped me expand my horizons, and added three more countries to the list of places I’ve been.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Abu Dhabi to Mumbai and the Bene Israel

From the initial decision to take this trip it has certainly been one of the most emotionally interesting of our travels. The motivation for signing up was to get back on the list for cruise chaplains so I took what was available. Abu Dhabi to Goa, India, to Mumbai, to Oman, to Dubai, back to Abu Dhabi. Not a single place I ever wanted to visit and several where I was sure we wouldn’t be welcome. In fact, my first thought was, “If I have to bring a חנוכיה, a Chanukah menorah, how would I get it into Abu Dhabi?”

Then there was deciding how to get to Abu Dhabi. Royal Jordanian Air was the best choice. I was much more comfortable thinking about flying Royal Jordanian through Amman than some of the other choices I had.

I never wanted to visit India but have had and interest in the Bene Israel since I went to their synagogue in Lod for Tisha B’Av in 1971. Of course there is the history of Ghandi. Even so, it was never on my list of places to visit.

But, after booking the airfare, fighting the website for a visa for India and making all the other arrangements, we were on our way. Albuquerque to Chicago, 4 hour layover, Chicago to Amman, 4 hour layover, Amman to Abu Dhabi, to the hotel and finally at 3:00 AM local time, bed.

We planned an extra day in Abu Dhabi on both ends to help with the stress of travel. We arrived in Abu Dhabi in the middle of the night and had picked a hotel near the airport. From landing in the airport, the sight of traditional dress and modern dress all blended together. During lunch at the hotel we watched 2 women in full burkas “bubbling” (smoking from a water pipe) while people lounged around the pool in barely there swim wear. I was surprised that there were Christmas decorations everywhere. On the way home we will do some touring including the new Louvre. I’ll be interested in seeing if being in the heart of the city is the same as being by the beach.

After boarding and sailing 3 days we arrived in Goa, India. Of course we had the wrong kind of visa and our ship, using the Mr. Scott method of timing (Scotty we need power now. Captain it’ll take 10 hours. Captain we got it done now!) getting the correct Visa was pretty easy.

We had booked a non-ship tour of Goa. Only 10 of us on the bus made the day very nice. Lots of good conversation and sharing about what we saw. My impression of Goa: it was nice. Lots of vacationers from around India, narrow roads, a huge contrast between middle class housing and shanties, and the richness of nature left a wonderful, colorful, and complex image.

The next day we landed in Mumbai. Again, we had booked a non-ship tour. This time a tour of Jewish Mumbai with city highlights. It was just the two of us and nothing like I expected. Our tour guide Hannah Shapurkar was incredible (contact me directly if you need a tour guide in Mumbai or around the country for her contact information.) A member of the Bene Israel community, married to another member of the community, provided us with a depth of understanding of the inner workings of the community and its history.

The Bene Israel arrived in India in 132 B.C.E.. They were fleeing from the oppression of the Seleucid Empire. Their boat was wrecked and only 7 families survived. Those seven families created a community that has lasted for over 2100 years. In the 19th Century the Baghdadi Jews arrived from Persia, Iraq, and what are now the Gulf States. Led by the Sassoon family, they built their own community and helped the Bene Israel with theirs. Many of the Baghdadi Jews left with the British but their legacy remains through their buildings and foundations they left behind.

We visited the 2 Bene Israel synagogues in Mumbai. In the first, the oldest dating from the 1700’s, I found myself infused with the soul of a 2100 year old community. Now, Sephardic in worship, their commitment to maintain their community is palpable. Here is a Shabbat message video I took in the synagogue. I apologize for the sound. I had to speak quietly.

We also visited the Sassoon synagogue and day school. A more elaborate building it too had its uniqueness. The school was built as what we would call a Jewish Day School. Now, there are only 12 Jewish students. The majority of the rest are Muslim and the balance are Hindu. The sight of Muslim mothers in full burkas waiting to pick up their children from a Jewish school instilled me with a hope for the future. I have felt that hope missing in recent months.

While I did not care if I ever visited Mumbai, I am glad beyond words that I did.

Returning to the ship I led the lighting of the first Chanukah candle, a symbol of hope and blessing. The perfect end to a perfect day.

We are sailing for Oman. Two days at sea before we arrive.