Sunday, January 14, 2018

review of the Caribbean cruise we returned from yesterday

Today (Saturday Jan. 13)  we disembarked from the MSC Seaside cruise to Western Caribbean, originally planned to be Eastern Caribbean. Overall it was the most frustrating and unpleasant of the 9 sea cruises we have taken so far, but I will try to be specific about good parts, bad parts, and things to watch for.

The best part for me, by far, was the ship excursion to Kohunlich. We have already visited many other Mayan sites, in the company of world-class archeologists, but our tour guide, Edna, whose home town is along the bus route we took, told us many interesting things we did not know yet. This experience, and a new look at the ocean from the 19th floor, were the two spiritually meaningful parts of the cruise, without which R&R would be the only justification. (Well, now that I think of it, getting a waiter one day became an esoteric experience too.)

The ship itself was the next best part. It is shiny, new, big and beautiful, more than any of the others we have traveled on.

The Jamaica port day was lots of fun.  My wife wisely booked a local driver, through Juta tours, who took us very early first to the main falls (Dunn? Another D name?), and then to botanical park tour. We really enjoyed clambering up from the bottom (labelled only as "exit") over rushing water and smooth rocks to the top, stopping to copy the three locals who stood in a natural shower and take pictures. But if any of us did not have perfect attention  to our immediate surroundings, it would have been easy to die. As we left, we shivered to see the huge crowd entering, to think what THAT implied for safety and fun where we just were. My wife says that the ship excursion requires the whole line of people to hold hands, a terrible mess, but understandable given the safety issues. We did learn a little at the botanical garden as well.

That was the great and good stuff OFF the ship. But on the ship, there were so many snafus it is hard to know where to begin.

There were only 4 free restaurants, a large cafeteria (like Norwegian garden cafe but not the same scale), a tiny cafeteria up near the main pool, and two normal restaurants, Seaside and Ipanema. Perhaps because of overpopulation, even the main cafeteria was controlled-access much of the time, open only to certain people at certain times. So for example, when we returned to the ship at about 3Pm from GrandCayman island, the only food I could get was an overcooked dry hamburger and an old style fatty hot dog with a little plastic package of relish and mayonnaise (no ketchup) from the pool area. People were willing to promise hot tea with lemon in the restaurants, but 1/3 of the time they delivered and 2/3 it became another case of no food.
For dinner, it was assigned seating and time, in group tables, for the lucky ones. As black card folks, we had a wonderful window view and waiters much better than any others we saw aboard the ship, but the random selection of table mates was a bit jarring.  We knew to race home from Mexico, and not change clothes, to meet the assigned time. (It was that or no food that day; we are glad they did not enforce the strict dress code on us that day, but rules in general were somewhat random.) Our table mates had no food that day after breakfast because they did try to meet the dress code, and it was closed. Even yesterday, it said "closed" to us, but we physically opened the doors and mentioned Captain's event, so they let us in. On Norwegian, we never had to worry about no-food days.
We signed up for lots of bennies -- spa, drinks in mealtime, coffee package, medium wifi. Wifi worked well, in the end,BUT we lost a lot of time because no one told us we had to type "login.com" in the address bar even after successfully navigating the tricky web site which comes up. It woukd be so easy for them to just tell us that,on the web site itself, instead of creating huge unnecessary lines in the reception area for people asking the same question.
The drink and coffee packages work great if you like to start your day with wine over breakfast and end with a couple of cappuchinos as you go to bed.  But we ended up using less than half the coffee coupons, because restaurants would not take them, and none of the venchi places would accept them for anything but coffee. If your caffeine intake is limited, maybe you should forget the coffee package, and just give in to the regular restaurant coffee -- unless you prefer eggs with water.
The eighth floor buffet was reasonable for lunch. Meat in sauce was OK. Bar offered just heineken inside for beer on the mealtime drinks package, but around the corner outside newcastle ale was also available on draft; helpful and friendly folks. Seaside restaurant had great salmon for breakfast, but seating and waiters were a nightmare.
(First day: "sorry for the delay; we are looking for a cook." Later: "sorry, we do not know where the waiter for your area is.")
On assigned dinners, Italian dishes were generally much better than others, though the prime rib on the last day was great. I am surprised the French Embassy has yet to complain about the so-called French onion soup, a tasteless red glob.
On the very first day, they were clear we should go to the emergency station indicated on our cards and on the map in our room. But the two did not match.  Folks were tested on going to what their cards say, but we had no map of where to find it. But crew had signs, so we survived that.
There are also gates connecting balconies. On the first day,  I was disconcerted to see unfamiliar kids on our balcony, laughing and peering in to us. We called steward who needed a special tool to lock the gate, but a few days later in the night the gates got loose again on both sides, banging noisily all night.

Captain was proud spa is "the biggest." One of the NCL ships had a spa which SEEMED a lot bigger, with views outside the ship and more powerful jets, but still the spa WAS good. Great background music. Steam baths, finnish sauna, access to a jacuzzi on private outdoor deck. Snow room.

The shows were mostly not up to NCL standards. Time-travel show was the best for me, "powerful but disconnected." But if you don't build time machines, it might be less powerful for you.
Specialty restaurants -- Yamaguchi is a real artist and we enjoyed quality things we haven't seen anywhere else. At chef's table, huge volume of food, including giant shrimp, but desert cake was the only bit of real flair. I am reminded of a table mate who ordered chicken, asked for some sauce, and was told that Tabasco and ketchup were the only choices.

One table mate commented about the effect of too many people on elevators.  I just shrugged my shoulders; I have never seen fast elevators on any cruise ship, and don't mind walking. But when 2 of the 4 next to us stopped working, and many folks became surly due to missing food and such, it really did become an issue.

At Grand Cayman, the tour we booked was cancelled due to earthquake, tsunami alert and such. We were not the only ones a bit frustrated. But local people had nice $20/person 7 stop tours. Near the port exit, to the right, was a small but amazing marine park; if we had brought our own snorkeling gear.. but it was amazing anyway. I wonder what those huge fish were right by the ladder and the steps down into the water.

Consider bringing a bar of soap and a simple workable salt shaker before you come on board. The elegant bath foam was so astringent that I had hours of on-again off-again intense pain after my first shower. After that I avoided washing all parts which medicine most demands we wash. The tables have many beautiful glass salt grinders,  and they can be made to deliver a little salt for a little while. Yes I understand the philosophy, but I also understand voodoo and do not want to be forced to practice it.

MSC practiced language diversity more than other cruise lines, but not other kinds of diversity, freedom and choice.

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Addendum:

Our very first cruise, long long ago on Carnival, was previously the worst and we never sailed on it again. Like MSC, they had assigned seating. They assigned us to eat with a Biblical family from Waco. When they lectured us on how sinful our  thinking was... well.. not fun. I was somewhat worried as we approached the MSC at Miami, right next to Carnival ships, knowing that for the second time we would face assigned seating again. Great worry, but not to fear. Our seat assignments were with a family very similar to old neighbors of mine with high mafia connections. Much easier conversations, but it seems once again we scared people somehow, though it didn't seem that way. Later debate: is the mafia irrelevant now, because the FBI downed it? Or did they take over the reins to the FBI itself? Or is that an issue of semantics?

Time to end this post.

Well... when I get two pictures of Hell from Luda, I will do a facebook post linking here:

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Grand cayman: anyone who tracks financial networks should not be surprised that there is a convenient express lane to hell there. Still, we were surprised when we got off the boat (URL) and were told: "Your tour is cancelled, because a 7.6 earthquake hit right where you were sailing, with a tsunami alert." Well, not exactly there, but I had been thinking how Trump's new tax law does not do justice to the game theory aspects of where the money goes around the world,  or to the Panama papers scandals well-known in Europe. With or without the new tax law, the US could bring back more money by cooperating more with EU and others who actually care about the strength of the people, enough to plug the most horrible leaks.
But this earthquake was small compared to what hit Mexico and NAFTA this past year...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

To Vedanta folks about events and deep spirit in Iran

Just a few months ago, one of the sponsors of this list organized a major conference in Mumbai (which we discussed at the time) on interfaith dialogue with Iran. I regretted not being able to just pay my own way and come, because I am living off of a retirement pension now -- comfortable enough if I do not spend unnecessarily.

What I regretted most was missing a chance to connect with Mohsen Qomi,  one of the key speakers. Given his role on the program, I did a web search, and learned that he is a really key adviser of Khamanei, and a really powerful thought leader in Iran. But I was baffled by a huge dichotomy in his thinking:

(1) On the one side, he has stressed the importance of developing spirit and not just formalisms, and been emphatic that the formalistic faithful and total materialists are equally abhorrent. This is really central to our human spiritual reality as I see it, and it is exciting to see someone in a position of power who claims the same foundations.

(2) But in many writings, he urges something which looks like a mindless racist crusade to kill all Americans and Israelis. People from those nations have made many mistakes, but so have people from all nations on earth, and uncompromising hatred as a primary value can contaminate everything else, including even (1) itself. 

The events of the past week suggest that we are not called to put these difficulties on a back burner. Donald Trump's comments about Iran remind me of his comments about the FBI; it is good that he cares, but it would be helpful if he said less when he doesn't quite understand what is going on. (My wife says the same about some of my recent efforts to make sense of hairy quantum physics experiments; we all are fallible, and therefore human society needs to become less fragile with respect to that universal fallibility.) Obviously I would not take his comments as a proper starting point for the dialogue which is needed here. 

IN PRINCIPLE, Khomenei's idea of an Islamic Republic (not Khamanei, but Khomenei) does not logically depend on any effort at mass murder of Jews or Americans. Also, the current protests directly address that core idea, not the issue of relations with the US or Israel, and naturally create enormous concern in the leadership of Iran.  Dialogue about that idea itself will be important, both on the mundane level of our existence and on the spiritual levels.

Like the bhakti movement and St Paul in Christianity (and Bernard Shaw in Back to Methusaleh), Qomi emphasized the need to develop and manifest spirit in human life, that law alone is not enough. It seems reasonable to guess that the most important decision makers in Iran have concluded that Western nations like the US have not just separated church and state, but have impoverished the energy, attention, focus and funding used to support the growth and mobilization of the nonmundane aspects of human minds. The concept of Islamic Republic was to modify the notion of Republic to fill that hole. Protesters in the streets of Iran are now complaining about the huge flow of funds to madressas, caused by the power of the clerics, even in devout parts of Iran which most supported Khomenei's revolution in the first place.

One odd thing is that Donald Trump himself and Bannon are supporting the same kind of greater flow of funds to (Christian) madressas, and reduced separation of church and state, in the US itself (as the Ray Moore event illustrates). But he supports Christian formalists... well, like what Qomi rightly complains about. 

If the vast funding of madressas in Iran had funded folks like Sufis or yogins developing real spiritual energy, and positive impacts, I doubt we would see what we now see in the streets of Iran. In principle, the discussions we had with Ramanuja Foundation and Quakers about how to develop real spiritual strength and not just narrow indoctrination, are relevant to the core hope of Komenei, which  the present structure of Iran (providing excess recruitment to power of folks aimed at goals like hatred and suppression of others) is not doing justice to. Spirit alone would be enough to create more harmony, if it were truly stronger. 

Of course, there are karmic effects as well. Iran rightly says we should think about the Palestinian refugees, but Syrian refugees are now a much larger locus of pain on this planet. 
Khamanei would say that support of Assad was necessary to prevent narrow soul-suppressing sectarianism in Syria, which is rational, but which leaves his hands no less pure than those of the US here. It is very sad what tradeoffs have been faced by both nations, and only by less narrow approaches (less narrow than either Quds or Trumps) can we come to have better choices. 

So: time to rethink education of the spirit, and what it really requires? In my view, any really authentic growth of the spirit makes us closer to the noosphere, and thus to each other. 

But of course, narrow and temporary things like the economics of the oil industry have also caused regressive phenomena in all nations. That too will pass.

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Added later:
These are important issues, and I tried to be careful yesterday to do justice to higher intelligence.

But I also agreed yesterday.. if anyone is at all interested, there are more mundane, human and humorous aspects we could discuss here.

For example, when Khamanei said.. "I detect the sign of outside influence here. It is clear that someone with high levels of intelligence is involved..",
was he trying to make it clear to everyone that he was NOT blaming Trump? (Or did he actually believe it was Trump and trying to flatter him the way Putin does so successfully in that case? Putin does have experience in dealing directly with billionnaire oligarchs.) 
If Khamanei were to believe (as Quds folks undoubtedly try to persuade him) that Trump is behind this, it would be as unrealistic as Trump's similar beliefs that an unemployed and depressed old woman in New York (Hilary Clinton)  is the secret Fu Manchu behind the Deep State. (The Deep State or The Swamp is basically a real and serious concern, but it is more like Bannon himself than Hilary Clinton. I have seen quite directly what it is and how it works in many situations, and how it gets to be outside the law by centering itself outside the legal state proper. Using Mercer money to fund theocracy is a beautiful illustration of contradictions fostered deliberately.) The sheer location of the protests should make that clear. Yes, there are a few fingerprints of higher intelligence in these protests, but a different kind of intelligence, not one that we are called to ignore. More like mandate of heaven issues. 

But in the end, sheer demographics are a pervasive source of instability for all nations of the Middle East, likely to grow and affect ALL organized states, as the mobilized mass unemployment rises. In the end, the restrictions on women, forcing them to dedicate more of their lives to having children and reducing their options in other spheres, are a key cause of that, and it is grossly ironic that so many clerics both in Islam and in Christianity demand such an assertion of male biological urges over and against spirit when they claim to be representing spirit. The misunderstanding and misquote of Aristotle by power seeking hypocrites in the West is one of the many deep cultural problems of this world; Iran is certainly not alone in being in a "GOD" (Grow Or Die) situation.

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A few more rough add-on thoughts on interfaith dialogue.

A few weeks ago, Turki Faisal gave a major talk in DC, where he summarized HIS view of spirit and religion in one word: "obedience."

In truth, just as hatred is a kind of central problem in Iran, I have long felt that there is one most central problem in the basic beliefs of Catholicism and Salafism. I gave up Catholicism when I was 8 to 12, because I felt it would be dishonest to accept the axiom that the Pope is infallible. That is central to that organization, because the axiom is basically the foundation for an epistemology of unquestioning obedience to a chain of other people. In Salafism, the belief that "Mohammed is the last prophet" AND that direct spiritual revelation is no longer admissible to anyone (let alone nonclerics) is equally fatal as an axiom. I was excited to see that Qomi appears to reject that viewpoint, but what about "obedience"? I could ask "What does Turki Faisal MEAN by obedience if he rejects any direct personal connection to God?" Just a question.

But it reminds me of a curious situation with Quakers.

In the one time I visited India (2015), I was surprised that the visa on arrival required that we identify religion, by checking about six options or "other". 
It is curious to be asked to define exactly what one believes about spirit and life in just one or two words. But when we have to, we have to, and those who demand this should of course respect the fact that most of us must have reservations about any two-word summary.

In my case, I picked "Quaker Universalist." About half the Quakers in this area are Christocentric Quakers, people of "the book," which in this case means the Bible or the New Testament. About half are Quaker Universalists, people of many books, who generally do look deeply into the Bible but also look just as deeply and respectfully to all the great books conveying the greater mass of human experience and thought. (Certainly Buddhism gets deep attention here.) I usually feel comfortable with that and many other definitions of Quaker Universalism (including the weekly group meditation practiced by all Quakers), but when I think about Islam I suddenly realize the ways in which I seem to be a minority of one.

The vast majority of Quakers, either Christocentric or Universalist, would be JUST as comfortable with THEIR version of obedience to God as Turki Faisal, maybe even more. The vast majority believe that the most important part of the weekly meeting for worship (and meditation practiced elsewhere of course) is to try to listen for the voice of God, and try to obey it. This is not an easy practice, but what is easy and what is right are not always the same. It demands a lot of mental discipline, and people do try to help each other respectfully in learning that discipline, as well as some of the basic disciplines discussed in the New Testament like removing the beam form one's own eye first, and so on). 

But no, I do not rest my mind in the normal fuzzy image of what the word "God" means. I suppose I am closer in a way to those people I met in the high Andes, who think of something like earth mother (more precisely noosphere) and sky father (our deep connections to galaxy and beyond, even a phrase pater galacticus which I have used at times in meditation, with proper respect to Yeshua). And I think more of alchemical marriage than of simple obedience. (My wife at times enjoys how I see analogies between relation with her and relation with God.) I suppose, in the end, this says that OTHER Quaker Universalists are closer to islam than I am.. but the uncompromising quest for real truth might have a few supporters  as well, and I do hope the new dialogues will make room for them.

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Later, one of the Vedanta folks commented:
There are two worst thing which mankind has done to it in past 5000 years. First it divided itself into  different nationalities -
mostly based on artificial  social, economic, religious, cast  and political  considerations. Up to the  
administrative point of view, one could understand the division of mankind into different  nationalities. But when the different
nationalities, created based on artificial social/religious/caste,/economic/political considerations start looking antagonist to each
other, things become worse to worst

The second worst thing which mankind has done to it is  its division in different religions which started looking antagonist 
to each other, None of the so called founder  of any  religion had actually set up any religion during their time. The so called
founders of all religions were actually very secular , truly spiritual, all loving people and  their message and teachings  aimed
equallyat the entire humanity and not a particular section of people. Centuries after the departure of the so called founder of the
 religions that  some of their misled followers, who themselves had gone  astray from the original teachings, created such a
  hardcore instituitionalized  setup around the original teachings that original message became obscure  to the extent that only
outer institution started becoming visible and that is how   separate religions took birth.

================ my reply:
Thanks,...!

Your post reminds me of a beautiful theory, less realistic than your version of the story, but still useful in a poetic or metaphoric sense.

Many of the old cabbalists believed that the whole cosmos was once just one great mind, God, but that it somehow fractured into trillions of tiny sparks. Our true duty, they argued, is to bring the sparks back together. The novel Voyage to Arcturus by John Lindsay echoes that beautiful but incomplete view.

It is very scary, in a way, to think that we were once whole, and fell into schizophrenia. As we look at the religions and politics and cultures of earth, it does have a depressing similarity to hopeless total insanity. Why not just give up on the whole planet? 

As that thought hit me again this morning, I replied with a sentence I wrote a year ago for some folks in the high Andes: "pachamma es una nina." The mental characteristics of insanity (schizophrenia in particular) are sometimes easy to confuse with the characteristics of simple immaturity. We simply have a lot to learn. It is still possible we will not learn enough of the right mix of things, soon enough, to survive at all as a species, but it would be irrational and unnatural not to keep trying, especially as we do seem to be learning and coping bit-by-bit with complex challenges.