Thursday, November 22, 2007

To Tour or Not to Tour

First off, I’ve not used a travel agent; I’ve had bad luck with them.  They have trouble understanding I don’t want  the local Hilton but something a bit lower on the food chain.  They are so used to suggesting the better things of travel.  When I did the first Indian trip, I was told by several agents that Americans couldn't manage the average Indian hotel; we must have a four star hotel. Not true! We, my husband and I,  did local hotels, several where we were  the only Westerners. We used a local Indian agent to help us with our itinerary, which had a small relationship to standard itineraries.  It worked.

I do book tours, particularly since I’m now on my own.  I look for tours that are as untourlike as possible, that use local lodgings, feature unique experiences and give me time to wander on my own.  I want small groups.   Though I have and still do travel some independently, there are areas where I feel more comfortable with the  support of a group, even if it’s only three or four of us, as has occurred.  

Obviously, I consider price, professional affiliations,   and recommendations.   I collect brochures, read travel books , search newspapers and the net.  I have run into tour groups housed at hotels where I’ve been. and, then, subsequently booked with them.   As a single, I look for tours that do not charge extra for accommodation but allow for a room share.

Two American firms I have used were General Tours hosted tour program and Rick Steves’ Bed-and-Breakfast tour (now called Bus-Plus, I believe).  But for the most part, I have traveled with British Budget companies:  Explore, Imaginative Traveler and Exodus.  I also used an Australian firm: Peregrine.   All of these have been  booked through Adventure Company in Emeryville ( whose representatives have been superb.                                                                                                                                                                             

It was the General Tours’ Thailand trip that included an hour’s conversation with a Buddhist monk; it was Rick Steves’ tour that introduced me to Fado; it was Imaginative Traveler that had me biking around the Yangshu China countryside; it was Explore that had me traipsing down an Albanian river to reach a barbeque site; it was Peregrine that had me searching all over Peshawar to find the garage where  trucks were decorated - some of this I could have done on my own perhaps, but it could have been more complicated.

Another approach I’ve taken is contacting a local travel representative.   I did this for travels in   China, Egypt, Nepal, Tibet and India.  Some were recommended through International Travel News, some through the internet and some via Lets Go, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide.  I’ve had no problems, except for a financial misunderstanding with the Indian firm which resulted in duplicate payment for a Nepalese guide.   Apparently, the right hand didn’t talk with the left.  If I use them again - which I would - I have a credit outstanding.

Overall, whether it is tour or independent travel depends on you, the country and the tour.  You have to decide for yourself.  For me, there are times  the idea of some socialization and structure seems great; at other times, I’d rather do it by myself, thank you.  I admit, when there were two of us,I did more independent travel than now, when I am one.   But it was early on and  we were just beginning our overseas travels and going to less challenging places.  Now, I keep pushing the envelope.  But the main thing:  keep traveling!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

October in Southwest Africa

For several years a trip to some of the game reserves of Africa has been high on my list.  So last year I signed on for a trip starting in Capetown, South Africa, but then going into Namibia, and Botswana before ending at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  Chobe and Etosha parks were on the itinerary as was the Okavango Delta which insured I would see many species of birds and beasts.  The dunes at Namib Naukluff and the Waterberg Plateau were icing on the cake.  Victoria Falls was the splendid finale.  

And it was all as cracked up to be, plus.   Most unexpectedly, I ran into two fellow members of a Yahoo travel group who were with a Canadian tour  running one day ahead of me.  I happily celebrated my birthday with a sky dive in Swakopmund - greatest experience  I’ve ever had.  Add a lengthy (and none too sober, on their part, at least) conversation with several local tour guides, originally from South Africa and the Congo gave me a  picture of their Africa.  I finished up with the surprise that a German attorney in our group was also a Clive Cussler fan, a Cusslerman!  

From the top:  During the day in Capetown, I walked most of the way to Table Mountain, overlooking the city, taking the cable to the top.  Then headed back down to the Victoria and Alfred (who was Alfred?) Waterfront.  Between was the business district and government buildings.  Beautiful city but - about every residence was walled, of ten barbed wire atop the wall, one had to be buzzed into stores, restaurants and even, the hotel.  Posted throughout were notices of Aware Armed Response.  I saw them  not only in Capetown but also in   communities throughout.   Security guards were all over southwest Africa.  Crime is a big issue.  Nighttime explorations not recommended.  

Heading up the coast,  we stayed overnight at Lamberts Bay, an working fishing town with the Bird Island Nature Preserve.  Lots and birds; smelly with their leavings.  Moving on, we spent a night at Fish River Canyon, sometimes compared to the Grand Canyon.  While it was enormous, it didn’t have the complexity and color of the Grand Canyon.  But I enjoyed walking  along the edge.  

The following day, enroute to Namib Naukluft, was our Great Adventure with the springbok and the busted radiator.  The springbok came onto the highway, hitting the truck.  It was a0-0 score for the springbok was dead (prompty hauled away by several bystanders) and the cab’s radiator was punctured.  An effort was made to repair it so we could proceed to the nearest stop, the Seekeem Hotel where, after some six hours all told,  arrangements were made for the group to proceed on a mini bus, while the driver waited for  a new radiator to arrive from Capetown.  It was a wild night time ride by a driver who didn’t know the road.  But we got there before midnight and then, started playing catch-up with our planned schedule.  

I did some hiking though it was a hot day and then signed onto a evening four wheel drive through bushman grass and dunes with a magnificent sunset as reward.  Up the next morning for a Hot Air Balloon ride and breakfast, another extra,  over the unique red dunes which extended one and on and on.  Then onto Swakopmund, where I did my walkabout the town - very Dutch appearing - and my Birthday Sky Dive.  Up 10000 feet, free fall for 5000 and use the chute the rest of the way.  I must admit it was a tandem ride with a knowledgeable Brit who had been jumping for fourteen years but still a landmark experience for me.    Another jumper who went up with me was a 67 year old Brit, a technical writer, who had film and photos  taken of his jump so his wife would believe he’d done it.  

Then on for two days at Etosha, one of the premier reserves.  Seeing all sorts of animals at the watering holes was awesome.  Along one side of the road, there were several lions, resting after a good lunch, the remains of which we had seen a bit earlier on. Fantastic array of Elephants, warthogs, jackals, zebras, springboks and  giraffes.  You name it and it was hanging out at the Park.  Only problem, was we stayed about an hour from the Park which meant a long commute.  

Next was Waterburg Plateau, which reminded me of Sedona, Arizona.  Red rimed and rocky.  Climbed to the top with the plan of a longer, but easier path down.  We couldn’t find it so clambering down the same rocky trail.  Some of us went on down to the German Cemetery with the graves of soldiers killed in the l904 native uprising.  One of these days, I’m going to have to take rock climbing classes, considering how often I get stuck on these treacherous climbs.

Somewhere along the way, we had a flat tire, but that was nothing compared to the Springbok-radiator incident.  While the driver worked on the tire, we piled out of the vehicle and fixed  lunch. 

In a small Cessna, we flew into the Okavango Delta where we camped for two days at a safari lodge.  It was there I ran into the Canadians who were staying in proper Safari tents, not the camp tents we were in, albeit attached to a platform.  We both boated into the Delta as well as walked  some.  Sitting on the deck of the lodge and watching the animals parade by at sunset/sunrise , even though it was at a distance,  was  memorable. I did get to a local village where some of the lodge workers stayed: very basic with running water and  no electricity.  And it was here I met and talked to the local guides, who were passing through from a fishing trip.

Yeah, we had wild life: three lady warthogs happily occupied one of the bathrooms at night, happily curled about the toilet while the gentlemen warthogs slept under the tent platforms.  The local baboons ransacked  safari tents.   An elephant checked out  the dump site.    And a thunder and lightning storm - the tents held firm with minimal seepage -  completed the stay. Had a rock ‘n roll flight back - I suspect the pilot was no more than a foot from the ground part of the time - and then onto Chobe Park.

Chobe was  tops on my list.  I did both a boat tour  and the early morning Park drive.  The place was resplendent with wildlife.  Alligators, lions, elephants, water buffalo, vultures - you name it and it was there.  Parts are wet and green; parts are dry with shrub grass and small bushes.     Animals living free as they should. At one point we were midst  of a thirty elephant  herd.  Magnificent!  

We finished up at Victoria Falls.  I did the helicopter ride above the Falls before walking in the Park, where you were just across from them.  .  Either way you appreciated their majesty and vigor even as a hot dry summer had diminished them.  Never ridden in a Helicopter and the ride itself was great!  A Dutch woman in our group had lived near the Falls some forty years before so the pilot flew over her former home. And it was on the last night there, I discovered my fellow Cusselman.  

Things are tough in Zimbabwe:  there is a shortage of about everything.  It take several hours to several days to cross the Zimbabwe-Zambia border.  The gas station hasn’t had gas in five years.  Stores are deserted as vendors have moved to Livingston, Zambia, to ply their trade.   But still we ate well, buses and cars took us into town and at the airport.  I had no personal inconvenience.  

The actual traveling was in a safari truck.  The cab had an attached trailer built high up with wide windows so all could see wherever they sat.  The guide and drive communicated via intercom.  And both were outstanding and worked well  together.  Most lunches were picnic style, prepared by all with foodstuffs and equipment provided in the trailer below the seating area.  It was a participatory tour.  

There were sixteen to eighteen of us - several joined in Botswana.  Six Dutch, three Scots, two Brits, two Germans, two Aussies, two Slovakians and me, the lone American.  We had a doctor, two nurses, a pharmacist and three attorneys.  It was a surpassingly compatible bunch.  I roomed with the same woman for the entire trip and would travel with her again;  Scots, now living  and working in England, and quite knowledgeable about Africa.    

The accommodation was fine.   Other than the tents, the most basic was in Zimbabwe.  Food ranged from  picnic-style to excellent.  Game meats were the usual fare at the lodges though I found chicken.   I did spend  on optionals:  sunset land rover drive, hot air balloon trip, the Sky Dive, Chobe game ride, and the helicopter.  But then, I shall pass this way but once!

Cost:    The basic tour was $2021.75 (shared accommodation) plus $495 local costs.  Airfare SFO to Capetown and Victoria Falls to SFO was $1894 via United and South African Air.  It was an Imaginative Traveler listing though the actual tour was from Wildlife Adventures out of Capetown.  I booked through  Adventure  Center in Emeryville (800-227-8747). 

Because of the optionals ($800), I suspect this was one of the more expensive trips I’ve undertaken. Meals ran no more than a couple of hundred as breakfasts, most lunches and a dinner or two were included.  And for once,  I spent  little on souvenirs and curios; no rugs!     

Likely, I will return to Southern Africa; it’s on the list,  but next time will be Tanzania and Kenya. 

Monday, October 8, 2007

Down South to the Lawrence Symposium

I hadn’t been to any conferences since I left my day job some twenty years ago.  It was one of the benefits of retirement.  However, a symposium devoted  to T E Lawrence, held at the Huntington Library in Southern California tempted me, despite the fact it was only two days before I was to take off for three weeks in Africa.  I am really a Lawrence “nut” - have read several  dozen books by/about him and, for years, lugged a paperback edition of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom  when traveling.  (Recently, I gave it to a Kyrgyzstani guide who wanted to improve her English - figured she could do no better. )  

The symposium was fine:  two speakers were exceptional while with several others, the topics were much more interesting than the speakers.  I had just finished Frank Sterling’s autobiography, Safety Last - he had served with  Lawrence - and found it fascinating.  So it was rewarding to talk with people who appreciated my enthusiasm.

It was an Interesting bunch of people:  academics, Huntington Museum members, collectors, retirees and  travelers.  Most were local though one man, a retired actuary,  was from Colorado (he travels to all sorts of conferences be it   Churchill  or , Sherlock Holmes both in the States and in the UK.  Another was a retired curator from Texas.  The woman sitting in front of me had just returned from six years in Abu Dabai.  I did introduce myself to Jeremy Wilson, The Official Biographer of TE Lawrence (he and my favorite biographer, Michael Asher, have an online feud.  Probably, Wilson is more correct but Asher is a better writer  - and   actually retraced Lawrence’s desert journeys.)

Topics ranged from a discussion of the Lawrence of Arabia screen play to contrasting  TE and  DH Lawrence to the comics treatment of Lawrence to a comparison of Lawrence and Churchill. with several bits and pieces inbtween.  Best talk was a presentation of Lawrence’s precepts as they applied to present/future conflicts, e.g.: Iraq and China.  Seems General Praetorius is a Lawrence fan and has a copy of SPW nearby,  which gives me some hope.  

The included lunches were excellent with a wine and cheese selection at the end of the first day.  I stayed at a rather inexpensive but comfortable motel some two miles away.  Wasn’t too sure at first for as I was registering, a street person came in to book a room.  Dark with a rather squashed face that looked like he had been someone’s sparring partner - and lost!  His belonging were in half a dozen small plastic bags, his clothing was well worn and he obviously needed a bath.  I was curious how the young Asian girl at the motel desk would handle it.  She didn’t for a bit: told him the price, hoping he couldn't’ afford it.   He nodded and began  digging  various bills out of his pocket .  She retreated from the desk, calling out for backup but  no one came.  Finally, she plead no vacancies, which he accepted, put his money back in his pocket,picked up his various sacks and trundled off.  As it turned out, the motel  was in the auto row section of Pasadena where there were several other street people .  In my walk to and from the Museum, I became familiar with them.  

At the other end of the spectrum was  the setting for the sessions:  the Huntington Library, Museum and Gardens are most spectacular.  Over a hundred acres.  II walked around the Gardens - a Zen garden, a bonsai garden, a desert garden, a rose garden  and much, much more.  Magnificent.  I didn’t get into either the library or museum but that will be on the list when/if I return.   

The conference and Garden:  a worthwhile two days in Southern California.  

Now off to Africa.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

Where Next?

Ah, what next?  Where do I want to go, what do I want to do, in the next few years.  During the past twenty, I’ve manage to take a look at over sixty countries, some of them more than once:  the UK, France, China, India, Nepal, Turkey, Croatia  - then there’s Canada -   Is that a Foreign Country?  I guess so,  for many Americans.  For me, it  seems more  an extension of the US (excepting a few  idiosyncratic pronunciations).  But I’ll count it.  

But back to the future:  Just before I’m to spend three weeks in Africa, I’ll take off for several days in Los Angeles area for a two day symposium on TE Lawrence, that most interesting and  enigmatic man.

Then,  I’m off to   Capetown, on through Botswana and Namibia to Victoria Falls.  Reserves and preserves - a chance to see forests and animals native to the area.  I don’t go to zoos for penned and tied up animals, human and otherwise, shrivels my soul.    I worked in a prison  and was in and out of jails in a past life; no more!   To share in  the freedom of  two and four legged creatures will be a delight.  My roommate on this trip has spent time with baboons in the wild so  I’m looking forward to learning from her experience.  Anyway, that is October, the month of my birthday, no longer  a particularly  festive event.  Just the march of time imprinting itself on my being!

Moving on, I will be in Yemen for Christmas and maybe   Oman.  Not enough signed on for a tour with  dhow cruise so I am considering doing it independently.  Hate to waste the  reading on Oman, which had the SAS charging around in the fifities and seventies and James/Jan Morris accompaning the Sultan on an inland  tour in the fifties.    

March 2008  is planned, if all goes well, for Afghanistan.  I will be part of a Global Express people-to-people group, focusing on Women Making Change.  I plan to stay over an additional few days and   work something out with a local travel firm; find out how much of the countryside I can safely see.    Having finally finished Hopkirk’s The Great Game, I’m ready to take a look around this country that has been  the center of  political activity for all so many years.  I even   bought my BA tickets to Dubai - they were having a sale - so all I need do is purchase fare onto Kabul, which I will do when I return from Africa.  

Then onto the UK for a couple of weeks  in May-June 2008 with Elderhostel, a group I usually avoid.  It’s expensive and the participants are pretty  much a While Bread bunch, at least at the few things I’ve attended.  But the topic drew me in::  The Man Behind James Bond; celebrating Ian Fleming’s 100th to be followed by an extension: The Cambridge Spies.  The first gathering in London and the second in Cambridge.  I’m fascinated by this bunch of upper crust guys who signed on to the Soviet Union’s cause.  I’ve read the books of  Rebecca West, Nigel West  and Philip Knightley on the topic.  I’ve also read a bio of St John Philby, Kim Philby’s father, which may explain something of Kim Philby’s personality.  What sold me, despite the expense, were that the speakers include not only  Nigel West but Andrew Lownie, who wrote a bio of John Buchan, another of my heroes. And interestingly, I’ve been reading books by and about Fitzroy Maclean, said to be one of the models for James Bond.   And I plan to get away to  see some performances.  

No other commitments but plans:    tentative  for October is to volunteer for a archeological dig around the Hejaz RR in Jordan, the area covered by TE Lawrence during WW1.  Brits are sponsoring this and there was an article about last year’s results in   History Today.  Since It’s a twenty year project, I’m hoping to sign on in 2008 as the Africa trip interferedwith  this year’s trip..

And nothing definite for December, my  other travel month.  Never  home for the holidays is my mantra.   

I have a list, god knows I have a list:  Mali, Libya (whenever visas are available), Sudan (also no visas -  unless you’re Madonna or Jolene  adopting), Algeria, Eastern Europe (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Poland, Romania), the Baltic countries. Laos, Kurdish part of Iraq, Dubouti, Eritrea and then back into Ethiopia.  And somewhere along the way, either an Arctic or Antarctic cruise.

At the moment, I’m not interested in Central or South America, at least not until I work through the rest of the list.  There is a desert trek in Egypt close to the Sudan-Libya border that could tempt me; I think it’s by truck rather than camel.  Camel may be the cool way to go but I don’t appreciate the camel’s  spit - and I can’t project a good response! 

Monday, September 24, 2007

To Visa or not to Visa


Until three years ago, I did my own visas.  Got the forms, filled them out,  and FedExed them with the passport to the appropriate consultant or embassy.  I always had my fingers crossed as I sent the packet off, but the system worked.  Until Bangladesh!

I had already obtained the necessary Indian visa and, per usual, I downloaded the  Bangladesh forms, completed them and sent them with passport and payment to the address I found on the internet.  Time passed.  I finally telephoned and E-mailed the Bangladesh people.  No one, nada,  had any knowledge of my application and passport  despite FedEx showing delivery.   Which lead to my  having to frantically  hassle and get a new passport and visa forms which I FedExed, but not back  to the Bangladesh embassy in Washington DC but, for a Sixty Dollar service fee, to an agency handling visas.  Who. also for a price,  processed my new request for  Indian visas.   

While the agency was handling all the visa requests,  I received a E-mail from the Bangladesh people - they had found my now invalid passport with application forms and what did I want them to do with it. My   unspoken response was pretty vile. My spoken response was for them to simply return everything.

Since, I have debated about going back to handling visas myself.   It’s certainly easier to mange what with everything being computerized.   And it is cheaper!  But I have memories of Bangladesh.  So I have surrendered to paying a goodly sum for a private   agency to handle it for me.  Which probably paid off on this trip.  For without them, I would have gotten two visas I don’t need.  

For recently,  not only did I need a visa for Zimbabwe, but I needed pages added to my passport.  I was  afraid of sending the passport in to SF for pages what with all the overflow and delays at  the US  Passport Agency.  So I sent  everything in for the private agents  to handle.  In the meantime, I got a notice from the tour people:  they required  I have three other visas, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana,  in advance of my trip. When I  talked with  both the  passport agency and my travel advisor, I got a mixed message until the passport person E-mailed me info from US government posting on the countries concerned.

US citizens did not need visas for South Africa and Botswana and one could pick up the visa for Namibia at entry.   Which saved me close to Two Hundred Bucks, as using the Passport agency isn’t cheap.  However they really earned their money in researching  requirements for me.   

So, I will continue to use them.  At least, I’m assured of getting the passport returned  with a visa, even  at a cost.  Or not getting a visa as conditions require!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Trip to the Past

I tend not to focus on the past - it’s over and done with.  It’s not my style to return to the scene of the crime, e.g.: reunions.  I’ve managed to stay hidden from both Universities that I attended, but somehow, have been found out by my midwestern high school who had a sixth reunion scheduled for September.  And you must realize, I left  for the West Coast upon graduation. never returned and didn’t keep in contact with anyone.  I did not have particularly fond memories of my adolescence.  I felt I didn’t quite fit in,  which is difficult for a young person.  (It turns out I still don’t fit in the conventional mold,  but I have come to terms with it.)  

So I probably would have ignored the reunion notice if it wasn’t that my seventy-two year old nephew, living in Minnesota, was scheduled for a kidney transplant in August.  We had not been in close contact. I hadn’t seen him or his younger brother in fifteen years and before that,  maybe half a dozen times at most, dating from diaper days. There was some E-mail contact and Christmas cards. I decided  we should get together before one or the other of us bit the dust.  

So, combine nephew in Minnesota and reunion in South Dakota.  Why not?    Seeing Jack was high on my agenda; attending the reunion was low on the totem pole.  

So courtesy of Northwest Airlines, I flew back, in more ways than one.   The Minnesota visit   was beyond any  expectation:  the younger nephew showed up from Wisconsin with his wife so we had a leisurely four days to get (re)acquainted.  The older brother, a retired computer type,   lives on a lake, a resort area though many people work in the nearby town, amidst trees, wildlife and 42” circumference mushrooms.  It’s an area where his mother and father had had a cabin; he and his wife  built a place nearby and then purchased some sixty acres across the way, so effectively, he has his own park.  

He is a keeper; doesn’t throw stuff away:  has snowmobiles, boats and a Triumph Spitfire among other keepsakes.  But then, he has places to store stuff:  attics, barns and sheds.  (I could have snuck off with the Spitfire!)  

Though poles apart politically, it turned out my younger nephew, an attorney and former judge,  and I were familiar with the same books and music. All of us  had the same weird sense of humor.   We  shared much of our lives,  contributing family information one or the other was unfamiliar with.  Both wives were  a wonderful  asset and    We may not have had much of a “past” but we certainly now  have a “present”.  

And the great thing was that  the transplant was successful.  

When I left, I really didn’t care how the rest of the trip turned out:  this had been a great experience.  And as I had no real expectations for the reunion, it  couldn’t be a  disappointment.

There were three gatherings, one at a classmates home atop a ridge on the edge of town.  About twenty of the eighty in our class of l947, appeared.  .  Another twenty or so had died, leaving twenty left floating about in space.  Name tags saved me, an   unknown at these affairs.  A number had remained in the area and another bunch seemed to be regular attendees.  Several I recognized by sight but the rest - nada!  There were a few  who went out of their way to greet me,  but generally I felt there was little change in the pecking order;  I was still identified as the “Superintedent’s Daughter”!  Which was one of the reasons I escaped with no intent to return.  I was (and am)  determined to be my own person!  
The other reason I left,  was the lack of privacy in a small town..  Still true.  I walked the several miles to the  classmate’s home for a  lunch.  That night and the next day, I was now identified as the unique individual  who did the walkabout. (Since I didn’t have a car and didn’t see a bus, I don’t know how else I was to get there; I did hitch a ride back.)

That  afternoon, I went to the home of a woman, who had been my close friend in High School and who didn’t attend the reunion.  We talked for an hour or so; life hadn’t treated her well or vice versa, but I was glad to see her.  The next morning I was asked what I was doing on that particular street!  

I did enjoy wandering about, seeing the changes but  also  amazed at the remaining homes and buildings I remembered.  The businesses had changed; I could find almost none from the high school days.  The old library had been torn down and a well designed new one built, named for my father; I did get there and talked with the head librarian.  The football field was the same but both my home and the neighboring Episcopal Church had been torn down.   

It was a trip to the past.  I don’t regret going, but been there, done that!  

(interestingly, the day after I returned,  I had dinner with a former coworker from at least forty years ago; he and his wife were visiting the Bay area from Pennsylvania where he retired from college teaching.  Again, we were dredging up memories from the past.  Loved seeing him, but enough already!)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

In Central Asia or I Finally Got There!

I’ve called this the trip of a lifetime:  nearly a month, traveling from Delhi to Amristar to Lahore and Islamabad to Peshawar, to the Hunza Valley to Kashgar to Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara. and finishing at  Khiva!  Five countries, all involved with The Great Game of Kipling’s time.  For several years, I had been trying to book  a tour, anyone’s tour, to Pakistan:  the Karakoram Highway (one of the most scenic in the world!) and  the Hunza Valley, a claimant to being the original for James Hilton’s Shangri-La.  I would sign up and then it would crash shortly before takeoff:  security problems and/or not enough participants.   

So, to find an itinerary that also included the Sikhs’ Golden Temple and main part of the Silk Road (which I had considered as a separate tour) and was too good to be true, though it was touch and go for  there was the minimum number in our group.  Four women of a Certain Age, e.g., over 60:  two Aussies, one Canadian and myself.  The Tour Leader was an experienced, affable, knowledgeable  and enthusiastic guy who did well in meeting the needs of our disparate group.  He also spoke passable Russian which helped in  Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, both former Soviet Republics where Russian continues as a second language.

The tour was called Mogul Caravan (“Follow in the footsteps of Babur, great grandson of Tamerlane, last of the Timurid Dynasty of Central Asia and founder of the Mogul Empire”) and was put together by Sundowners, an Australian bunch that specializes in  journeys  to Central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia and Russia.  I booked, as usual, through Adventure Center in Emeryville, California (1-800-227-8747;  I opted to omit the first seven days, the so-called Golden Triangle (Delhi-Jaipur-Agra-Delhi), for I had been there before..  So I met my group  May 7,  at Delhi, India, and returned home June 4, 2007 from  Tashkent,  Uzbekistan.  

India continues to be a fascinating, dusty and unkempt country.  I love it.   This was my third experience and I still believe they haven’t cleaned up since the Partition.  (Pakistan, on the other hand, was quite tidy.  Maybe it’s the difference between a democratic and a more authoritarian approach to government.  After all, Mussolini did make the trains run on time!)  Amristar’s Golden Temple is in the center of a reflecting pond and is absolutely spectacular.  There was a continuing flow of Sikh pilgrims into and out of the temple with ongoing chanting.  The other moving sight was Jallianwala Ragh, the park  honoring the 2000 unarmed  Indians killed or wounded by the British in 1919 during an antigovernment  demonstration; bullet holes are still visible.

Just over the border was the Pakistan city of Lahore.  Throughout the stay in Pakistan, I was impressed by the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people.  Though there were several  outbursts while we were there, we were totally unaffected.  We spent one evening at the Pakistan-India border crossing closing ceremony in which the border guards tried to outdo each other in their execution of military steps - all seemed very choreographed.  I asked one of the  Pakistani guards   if they rehearsed; he admitted the Indians and Pakis  would work on it during the day.  There were grandstands on either side of the border, filled with partisan supporters.  On the Pakistan side, we had a middle aged cheerleader who voluntarily came out each day to whip up the support for his troops.  And chastised those women who were uncovered, women being seated in a sparate grandstand.  I talked with   a couple of Americans, schoolteachers, who were at the International School in Lahore, but thinking of moving on to Africa once their present  contract was completed.  

In  Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, we visited forts, mosques and bazaars, We ate Italian after I convinced my fellow tour member  they should purchase The Kite Runner  at the nearby mall bookstore; it had just been filmed near Peshawar.     Large posters of General Musharraf, Pakistan’s de facto ruler     ,  were up along clean expressways  for he was scheduled to speak  the following day, part of his ongoing dispute with the Chief Justice, who was to participate in  a rally on the same day  in Karachi - that developed into a riot! but did not affect us as we had moved on to Peshawar, near the Khyber Pass one of the historic entrances to Afghanistan.   I had hoped to get to the Pass but was not to be;  I needed a special permit plus an armed guard, none of which could be arranged in the two days we were at Peshawar.  Another time!  

Peshawar is a frontier town; while I didn’t see armed Pathans, soldiers and police were evident.  We did spent time in in the Old City, at the Fort and the Cantonment when we weren’t looking for truck body  shops:  all of us had been fascinated by the multi colored trucks in both India and Pakistan.  They were works of art, all so individual.   We searched out shops where the painting  was being done, along with the intricate carving on the cab’s doors.  Several days after we’d left, a True Believer blew himself up at an Afghan hotel/restaurant in the Old City, killing and maiming locals!

From Peshawar, we headed off  to the Swat Valley.  Enroute we spent time at the old Buddhist ruins at Takht-i-Bahi and the Lotus City ruins  at Charsadda.  Swat Valley is one of the loveliest areas in northern Pakistan.  From there, we headed off  to the KKH via a road-not-yet-in-progress.  But the scenery was spectacular and since we were  driving at a very slow pace, we had time to enjoy it.  It was a long drive but worth it.    Eventually we ended  at Gilgit,  with the British Cemetery with its graves of trekkers and explorers and the Uprising Memorial, in honor of those who rose against the Maharaja in l947.  

KKH is an engineering marvel for it snakes its way along the sides of mountains, into areas that had been isolated  from the mainstream for centuries and through high narrow passes.   On the Pakistan side, the road can be a bit rough but the Chinese portion is beautifully asphalted.  We spent two nights in the Hunza Valley at Karinabad.   Enroute, we picked up a couple of British backpackers:  one on his way to Kashgar where he taught English and the other, a photographer traveling about until his money runs out.   I did a two hour hike up to the Eagle’s Nest, a promontory,  with  a magnificent view of the entire Valley -  overwhelming.  As our tour leader had spent time in the area with a NGO, we had entry at the small  local health clinic, arriving soon after a baby had been delivered, and had tea with several of the staff.    We also  were able to meet and talk with local students.  

From Pakistan then, to China, with chances to photograph  the Ibex and marmots along side the KKH as we drove through the Khunjerab Pass to Tashkurgan.  It was a basic border town, which  boasted an old Fort,  an internet cafe, a hotel  and a restaurant which I remember little about.  I do remember that loudspeakers were on continually, full of good advice for the locals who could understand what was being said.  I couldn’t - and didn’t regret it.  

Driving  onto fabled Kashgar, heart of China’s Moslem Uyghur population., we shared KKH with camels as well as trucks  and stopped to talk with nomad peoples camped  along the Kara Kul lake.  The Chinese have tried to modernize Kashgar but the old time spirit seems to live on.  Sunday livestock market found all sorts of tribal people there with mules, cows, horses,camels. chickens - you name it and it was for sale.  A side enterprise was going on with half a dozen street barbers plying their trade.  The Chinese had razed the old downtown bazaar but there were small bazaars who had  found homes elsewhere on old city streets.  We stayed in the old Russian consulate now a hotel; I stopped by to see the former  British Consulate, also a hotel.                                                                                                                                            

Leaving China to enter Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass was either the high point or the low point of the trip:  First, you need to know there is 7 km of no-man’s land between the Chinese and the Kyrgyzstan border stations, an area where  buses, either from China or Kyrgyzstan were not allowed.  You cleared customs at the Chinese station and then hoped to hitch a ride with a truck traveling through. We were lucky:  for $5 a head, we latched onto a Kashgar to Osh shuttle.  We packed in with a full load of locals,  our luggage tied on  with the  Sunday market Kashgar purchases atop the bus.  It seemed the bus was as tall as it was long.  And  at a check point part way through, the driver picked up another passenger who semi-stood/squatted as there was no absolutely no room.  Our Kyrgyzstan bus with driver and guide, bless them, was waiting for us once we cleared the Kyrgyzstan border.

By now, we had moved from hot to cold weather.  Snow and a high wind chill factor.  I had layered up with socks, pants, tops and jackets.  The roads were abysmal, similar to the Swat Valley-KKH road. So slowly, we headed off to the village of Sary Tash, barely mentioned in Lonely Planet., where we had a “home stay”!  We ate at the “home” and then bedded down, all four of us, on mats and quilts on the floor of a rather cold room with our Tour Leader in the adjoining room - the one with  a wood stove.  Facilities were an outhouse (squat toilet) and a gerry-rigged sink. People were nice and the  livestock was friendly.  From there we moved via a truck-gutted road to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, where we stayed at a “guesthouse” aka bed-and-breakfast. Osh is still  Russian influenced  and boasts a large Lenin status in  front of its administration building. However, per Lonely, Planet ”Osh is older than Rome”,  with King Solomon to Alexander The Great credited with its  founding.   We lost our cold weather; it was comfortably warm for the rest of the trip.  

Next into Uzbekistan and the Ferghana Valley, where the Daewoo automobile factory was located and where there had been some Moslem unrest.  Daewoo was certainly the auto of choice throughout Uzbekistan.  The Yadgorlik Silk factory and the ceramic artist Rustam Usmanov were in the area.  We visited these two - where lovely creative work was being done -  in additional to a palace, mosque, museum  and the ever present  Bazaar.  Then onto Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.     

In Uzbekistan, probably half the population are ethnic Russians along with the Uzbeks, Koreans, Caucasians and Tartars.  It’s a mix though seems a very Russian city. The  City tour which took us all about including  handicraft shops operating from former medressas as well as active medressas (Moslem religious schools).  We rode the metro and hitched a ride from a local (put your hand out and anyone interested  in giving you a lift stops; you then negotiate price and destination) and attended both Ballet (Fountain of Bakchisaray) and Opera (Madame Butterfly).  The orchestra was good and  both ballet and opera company had several excellent performers, but - there was no audience! There was ten to twenty percent attendance, more for opera than ballet.  And this was on a weekend! The government pays  the costs so so no one worries. Several of us enjoyed evenings at the Cafe Caravan, near our hotel; good jazz and great ice cream!  

Then off to the three cities whose names ring in any mention of The Silk Road:  Samarkland, Bukhara and Khiva.  The Registran was Samarkland’s medieval commercial center.  There are magnificant mosques, medressas and mausoleums.  In another area is the avenue of tombs (Shahr-I-Zindah and the Guri Amir Mausoleum.  These building, as the ones in Bukhara and Khiva, are elaborately tiled, with blue domes.  So elegant it’s  impossible to describe.  We did go to Shakhrisabz (Tamerlane’s home town) for a day trip, with its palace and mausoleum complex.

In addition to the mosques, medressas and mausoleums, Bukhara has  domed bazaars, a Jewish quarter (I went into a synagogue where there was a sparse group of men, women and children studying.  Lonely Planet estimates the Jewish population has dwindled to 7%.), the Kalon Minaret (which two of us climbed the 105 steps to the top),and  UNESCO carpet weaving shop (I bought a rug, still in process).  Then there was the Bug Pit: :a dungeon cell  where inhabitants were both human and creepy-crawlies.  It  in the 1800s, it held two Britsish officers, eventually executed.  Kipling’s Man Who Would be King and the Huston film  with Sean Connery and Michael Caine likely are related to the true event.    One evening, several of us attended a dance-fashion show which included a full dinner for $10.  There is simply a lot of stuff to explore and see in this absolutely fascinating historical place.

Closing out the tour was a day at Khiva, a walled city, also packed with exquisite mosques, medressas, mausoleums, and  palaces, many  used for making/selling of handicrafts or as  museums. Easy to get lost.  The old caravansari is now a bazaar, Wal Mart style!    Part of the Old City is still provides housing for local residents, so the ancient mixes with the present, though not much of anything is new.    We leisurely lunched  on the roof of a bed & breakfast, recommended by an American  I met in Bukhara.  A leisurely  sunny  afternoon simply observing the activity below.

From Khiva, it was a short flight back to Tashkent and then flew home the next night.

We traveled mostly in  mini buses, though took the  Shatabdi express train from Delhi to Amristar,  a two car drive across the mountains from the Ferghama Valley to Tashkent (no buses allowed:  fear of a invasion! By mini bus?) and the concluding flight from Khiva to Tashkent.  All of the drivers were outstanding at navigating some rather  impossible roads with a mix of transportation choices including donkey carts and camels.     The local guides were patient and knowledgeable.  

We ran into several other tour groups in China and Uzbekistan:  Australian, French, Japanese.  Also some independent travelers:  a couple from the Bay area, a guy enroute to Italy,  mother-daughter backpackers, and another guy who  wandering around after completing an Explore tour.   Western tourists were not  evident in Pakistan.

Food was fine.  Breakfast was usually flat bread, cucumbers, hard cooked egg, cheese and coffee/tea.  Occasionally  there were apricots and cherries. Most meals were $5 at the local restaurants; salads, soups, vegetables, stews and skewered cooked meats were usual.  Meals were also served in private homes; we took advantage of that several times.  

Generally, accommodations were excellent.  In two instances, I was sharing a suite of rooms in a  rather upscale hotel, which made up for the night on the floor and the outdoor squat.  Usually, we wereπ were in mid-range hotels, as listed in Lonely Planet. The Carleton Tower Hotel ( in Lahore,  Hotel Margala ( in Islamabad  and Hotel Serena (LP lists it as “the best hotel in town”  in Gilgit  were exceptional; we were booked at two of the three   Hotel Malikas (, one in Samarkland and the other in Khiva - both  excellent.  I also should mention the  Asia Hotel ( in Ferghana.

Did more shopping on this trip than ever before;  bazaars abound!  I often buy rugs when I travel but this was a  two rug trip (as I write this, one is  still being woven at the UNESCO center in Bukhara).

Cost of tour was $3772 including breakfasts, fees. local guides and a flight from Khiva to Tashkent; additionally there was a $400 local payment and a $100 tipping kitty.  Airfare from San Francisco to Delhi and then Tashkent back to San Francisco, courtesy Turkish Air and British Air, totaled $1737.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Keeping up

Keeping up with the Herd!

I once swore I’d never be  last . I  don’t need to be first  but I’d be damned if I’d be the last one: I would never  hold up the group.  Well I don’t think I’ve held up any group, but I have sure slowed it down on occasion.  Twice I can drum up valid excuses  but there have  times I simply ran out of steam.

First, the excuses:  Altitude in Tibet. Several years ago I, along with two Tibetan guides, were climbing up to visit various monasteries and temples - often, I was out of breath despite my use of altitude meds.  While the guides  went up like a couple of mountain goats; I was  taking as long a stride as I could, monitoring my breath and was still way behind.  All the climbs were well worth the effort, but one was exceptional:  on a path  far above one of the monasteries I was taken to meet  a nun,  living  alone  in a cave   with a kitten and a photo of the Dalai Lama placed on a make shift altar.    While I was chatting with her, via my guides-interpreters, several people  came by, to bow and make “namaste” before the photo.  It was one of those truly memorable occasions.

The other excuse:  Helping another.  A year or so ago I was in Bhutan.   Several in our group volunteered not to climb up to Taktsang or  Tiger’s  Nest, the  mountainside monastery that is often featured on travel brochures.  I was game to go but another woman, who wanted to go, was sure she couldn’t manage to the hike.  I offered to stay with her the entire way and make sure  she succeeded in the climb.  We were more than last; we were compound low.  She did have trouble with the climb and I did have to guide and encourage her on up to a tea shop,  just below the monastery.  Several others had given up at that point., including our leader.    The rest had scampered on up but  I was leery of going the rest of the way without someone to spot me.  My friend and I were also among the last down (which I never am!).  At the end both guide and leader helped her navigate.  

But there is no excuse on the others:  At Kasbegi  In the Georgia High Caucasus, half of the group chose to take a jeep to the Church of the Holy Trinity, which was on a hill’s crest, overlooking snowy peaks; the rest,including me, elected to do the three hour “walk” through the village and then on up the  muddy dirt and rock road (I would call it a two track  trail) to the top.  I was behind during the steep incline through the village but did manage to keep up  on the zigzagging road up.  It was advertised as a three hour walk; we did it in two hours up and  a hour going down.  Really, I did respectably  well.  

There was another time, maybe in Georgia, when three of us decided to climb up some old trail to reach a church we had noticed  via field glasses from the roadside.  What I didn’t know, the two other women were experienced trekkers.  But off I went.  I was soon in the rear even with regular pit stops so I could catch up.  We all got made it  to the church, which was deserted - I guess the locals didn’t want to climb that path regularly for services.  But the view was splendid.  

I did have trouble last Christmas time in Turkey, going  up Mt. Nemrut to see the gigantic fallen statues as well as enjoy the magnificent view.  Because of the weather - wind and snow and ice - there some question whether our transport could get us to the place where we would start walking.  It did and we did.  And I was certainly the caboose. Periodically,   the group would take a break; I would chug up just as they were ready to move on.    A no win situation.  But everyone was cautious given the weather conditions and we all rejoiced at achieving the top; it was all worth it.

Otherwise, I manage to keep up pretty well and haven’t opted out of any hikes-walks-climbs.  Granted,  I haven’t signed on for an Mt Everest trek (or even going to base camp as my neighbor is doing).  I’ve done OK and held my own  climbing up steps to temples along the Yangtse and  hikes in the Simien Mountains,  around Albanian farms, through Macedonian hills and all  that good stuff.  

I  try to stay in shape.    When I travel, I usually do a couple of  slow  Sun Salutations  and then, several Warrior poses each morning.  At home, I work out with Pilates equipment  twice a week and I am in ballet class twice a week.  Ballet is a forty year passion of mine; I once did daily classes but there was little improvement in technique. At least, once a week,Ido a 90 minute aerobic  hike back of Stanford at a fetching place called The Dish which is essentially a large  outdoor track.  In fact, today I tried adding some dogtrotting to my routine.  When a friend is available, we go hiking  at a lovely park near her home,  choosing the steepest paths we can find.  Come winter, I’ll add some   Modern Dance classes.  If I ever put air in the tires, I could do some biking.  However, until then, I walk to where ever I can.

If worse comes to worse,  it’s off to Boot camp: run up and down the bleachers at Stanford for a couple of hours and the Air Force Physical training routine.  I plan to stave off that one by all means possible.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Last Greyhound

I considered plane and train, but went Greyhound bus to the Ashland, Oregon,  Shakespeare Festival several years ago.  I could catch the bus in Sunnyvale, California,  (where I then lived) at 4:30 one evening and arrive in Ashland at 5:30 the next morning.  It was convenient !  And cheap:  with a Senior discount, it cost $49 one way.  I didn’t consider using my Mini:  what with the  gas prices and the long day’s drive - anything else seemed easier.     In earlier years, my husband and I had driven  which was ok for two:  you could spell each other.  But solo?  Nada!  

(I did have a friend who  modified her Volks so the front passenger seat would lie flat, packed up and took off for a six months solo cross country.  She had a list of campgrounds and a plethora of 3-A maps.  This was the same woman, a Stanford engineering graduate, who rarely paid rent but went from house sitting job to housesitting job.  At one point, she took off for a Russian language summer session   in the old USSR.  Had it not been for tax complications, she would have stayed and worked there.  But I digress.)

Plane and train were in three figures.  And I would have to get to their starting gates:  San Francisco, San Jose or Oakland.  True, there were a couple of connections - San Francisco and Sacramento -  that had layovers of one and two hours but it it would give me a chance to move around.  With the train, I would have been dropped off at Klamath Falls where there was a shuttle to Medford and Ashland. Flying, I would go to Portland and then to Medford with shuttle to Ashland.  So the bus won, hands down!

I don’t know much about today’s train travelers, but I did find out bus riders are somewhat  a  different breed than airplane passengers.  A bit more scruffy and chatty.  There was a combination of young mothers with babes in arms (and  no screamers which I run into when I fly!), old time hippies, young Goths, backpackers and basic working folks going from one job to another - all colors, shapes and ages.  . 

At the San Francisco depot, where in my salad days as a Probation officer, I had chased down runaway kids,  it was relatively quiet  despite  commuters racing off to catch their  local buses. It certainly hadn’t changed much.  Hard   chrome trimmed seats, florescent lights and linoleum floors.  Didn’t seem to have been updated since the fifties. 

 I talked with a Vietnam vet and sometime artist who had bused from Eureka for a evaluation at the VA hospital; he felt safer in the bus depot than walking around outside on this mild, sunny July day.  I ate my previously prepared sandwich - and this you  do  these days even if you fly.  Only   coffee, tea or coke.  But I could have my bottle of water, which I kept refilling at each stop.

Going to Sacramento, I had the row of two to myself,  Much more room than on an airplane.  Peaceful and I was able to nap some.  At Sacramento, there was an adjacent restaurant which meant   a fair number of people just hanging out.  As this depot seemed to be  a central connecting point for buses east, west, north and south,  it was a rather noisy and crowded   but no one was discourteous.  My only concern was the possibility of sharing my two seat  row with an old time hippy guy who smelled as if he hadn’t bathed since the the first Burning Man gathering.  .   Fortunately, though we both boarded the Ashland - actually the Seattle - bus,  he was involved in listening to a very verbal young woman, and I missed sitting with either of them. 

I did end up sharing with several construction workers, enroute home before moving on to another job.  One of them - the youngest of the bunch and across the aisle from me - couldn’t sleep on buses and talked sotto voce  all night  to the three of us.  He was a big fleshy guy, spilling over his allotted seat space, who had played  football in high school.   His wife was not happy with his being gone from home on construction jobs so he hoped to get hired as a correctional worker closer to home.

There was a stop at Redding;  we all got out , used the facilities and walked around.  Then we were loaded back in and on to Ashland.  I had remember the Greyhound stop as being in the middle of town across the police department.  Alas, no more.   The bus stop was now  way on the outskirts of town. Fortunately, a yellow cab was there as I got off the bus and Nine Dollars  later I was at my hotel. (Reminded me of another night bus trip from Istanbul to Athens where I was unceremoniously dumped on the outskirts  of Athens, end of the line,  in the dark of dawn but  no cab in sight.  No wonder Athens is  no longer on  my list.).

I didn’t take the bus back - it was a 5:30 AM pickup with arrival at  about 5:30 PM in Sunnyvale.  Rather, I flew on to Seattle to visit  family.  And the sad thing is, I won’t be able to do this again as Greyhound is consolidating  its routing,  Both  Ashland and Sunnyvale,  along with a lot of other small communities, are no longer  part of  Greyhound’s  scheduling.  I now take Alaska Air  to the Shakespeare Festival. 

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Should I go to Oman?

I’ve been blowing hot and cold about Oman.  It is next door to Yemen, where I am set to spend the Christmas holidays. Both are just below Saudi Arabia’s Rub ’al Khali aka the Empty Quarter, that huge piece of desert traversed by St. John Philby, father of super spy Kim Philby.  I had thought to combine trips to the two countries but then found I couldn’t simply take a shared cab or bus across the border, from one to the other, since one tour   ends in Sana”a and the other begins  in Muscat, both at opposite ends of the Arabian peninsula.    

I did consider combining Yemen with  Djibouti and  Eritrea but then, wanted to save those two as add-ons to   another Ethiopian trip that would take me into the Danakil and then down  into the Omo Valley - from one end of the country to another.  I have been in the north on the so-called Historical Circuit,  including   briefly  hiking and  camping in the Simien Mountains.  At the time I was in nearby Aksum, during February-March this year, some British embassy personnel  exploring in the Danakil  were abducted, likely by Eritreans; they were released soon thereafter.  The threat of sending in the SAS   might have done it.  Seems things have been peaceful since.  

Back to Yemen-Oman:  as it develops, there is a flight connecting the two countries via Dubai, where I would end up anyway after travel in Oman. Part of that time  I would be on a dhou.  Since I have done the Bedouin tent sleepover several times with groups of twelve or more, sleeping on a  dhou couldn’t be that bad.  The Imaginative Traveler Yemen tour ends on 5 Jan; I fly from Sana’a to  to Muscat via Dubai and start the Oman tour on the same day.  It works!  

Oman got really interesting when I was rereading -  skimming really - Michael Asher’s Shoot to Kill, the story of  his experiences with  the British Parachute Regiment and the SAS.   His SAS colonel was noted for defusing an angry crowd in Jakarta by patrolling the street outside with clan kilt and bagpipes; also had been awarded an MC for action in Oman - my kind of guy!    That decided me. I would combine Yemen with Explore’s Oman tour.  Fifteen days in Yemen,  mostly in the desert; then eight days in Oman, mostly on the water.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Thoughts on life and travel

It seems like I’m doing it all bass ackwards.  In your twenties, one should be galavanting around, backpacking overseas and doing the single number  Then the script says, you settle down to job and marriage.  Ain’t the way it went for me.  I married young, did the career bit and then in my mid seventies started the single life.  

It was the mid forties, the vets were returning from WW 2 (remember that one? No, you don’t, you’re too young!) and as a college sophomore, I fell in love and married a returning Navy vet who also played jazz piano.  Ah, it was romance for the girl from Pierre, South Dakota  At the time, there were a number of married students attending the University: scrounging at any kind of job  to augment the GI Bill, living in veterans housing, drinking home brew - poor as church mice but optomistically looking forward to the Good Life.  

I had planned to be a Great Foreign Correspondent and travel!  That did not happen. I did finish college; in fact, I did some graduate classes.  I worked as a prison mail censor for a year, county welfare worker for several years and then, thirty-five years as a county probation officer in the Bay area.  

It was a good life.  It was a good marriage.  We did lots of good stuff - attended all sorts of concerts, saw various dance companies, bought books and records  - and traveled some. In the beginning, North America but then branched out to  the UK and  Europe; North Africa and Asia.  We celebrated his eightieth birthday in Tibet and Nepal.  We went mostly independently though we did use local travel agents’ services.

Three years ago I became a widow.  A terrible word that, widow.  Let me change it: I became  single.  For the first time in fifty-four years, I had no one else to consider, except the ever faithful cat.  Over a year ago, I sold the mobile home  and moved into a triplex, closer to town and transportation and the bookstore  and the library;  important things, at least  in my  life.  And  I  focused on the most important thing for me: travel  Since, I’ve been overseas some four times a year, now having wandered about in   sixty-plus  countries.  .

To back track a bit:  my niece had done a fair amount of traveling , maybe twenty years ago,  joining a French dig in Syria for several summers as well as the touring through Europe and parts of Asia.  She had told me of a booking company, Adventure Center, in nearby Emeryville which she had used on several tours.  

I decided I did not want to travel solo to many of the areas on my to-do list, but  I also knew I would not find a fit with most of the standard tours.  I contacted Adventure Center who sent me brochures about six or more British and Australian companies who specialized in small, eco-conscious budget tours to out of the way places.  Just my cuppa tea.  In fact, I had run into some of their groups at hotels my husband and I had  used  in Egypt and Spain, so I knew I was on the right track.  

Though here have been  three independent excursions to Bilbao, Sarajevo and London, I mostly book through Adventure Center, going with three  British firms and two Australian ones.  It’s worked.  The cost is reasonable; the groups top out at eighteen, my fellow travelers have been experienced and there has been plenty of time for me to do my own thing.  It has been the best of both group and  independent travel.  I’ve taken a dozen trips in the past three years, working my way around the world, slowly with intermittent stops home to reassure the cat of my continued interest in her well being.  

When I started out, my great passion was  China. I’ve now moved onto   the Middle East, Africa and the Himalayas.  In May I took my third trip into India which  moved on to Pakistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan - the old Silk Road, southern route.  Much of this is the area of The Great Game of years past, involving the British, Chinese and Russians with the added fillip of  local triball feuds.  This was my fourth effort to get into Pakistan.   Three previous tours canceled: not enough signed on or security problems.  I was apprehensive of signing on, via internet, for a solo trip, sight unseen and equally leery of just going and improvising.   

And why, at this time of my life, am I traveling. almost compulsively  to the out corners of the world?  I am living the dream of my youth but doing it at a time  I can really appreciate it.  I am a rather curious person (and take that any way you want!), curious about people and cultures - which is why I wanted to gointo journalism , why I was a good  probation officer, why I survived in the minority community where I worked for twenty plus years.  I  want to  understand the  motivations of those unlike me  So life  is  this exciting and enriching learning experience.  

I continue to explore .  To see on television and/or  to read about  places I’ve been is a thrill.  And I almost always want to return.  The UK, China and India are the three areas I’ve visited more than once but there are so many others where I feel I’ve only skimmed  the top layer and need to dig for a bit more.  Then there are so many more where I haven’t been  at all.  I’m off to Southern Africa this October  and then Yemen  for Christmas (I like spending Christian holidays in Muslin countries - one year in Sarajevo, last year in Turkey and this one in Yeman!!).  In 2008 I have a March two week trip to Afghanistan  and a May two week symposium celebrating Ian Fleming’s/James Bond’s 100th. meeting in England.    Not sure about the rest of the year; will have to see what comes up: maybe Mali? Kashmir?  Libya for sure if I can get a visa.

Interestingly, given the role of the US in the world today, I’ve experienced no animosity, excepting an angry Brit.  It was the day after the reelection of GWBush with the London papers headlining his win.     I must have clearly reeked American as I walked through the lobby of London’s  Regent Palace Hotel for this rather respectable gentleman turned about and    bashed me with his folded newspaper, loudly asking: “Do you Americans realize what you’ve done to the World?”.

I did better in Syria:  In Palmyra, a delightful storekeeper, once he found out I was American, asked: “why does George Bush think I’m a terrorist?”  This lead to tea and nearly an hour’s discussion on American-Syrian relations.  His fellow shopkeeper down the street, only wanted to marry me off  for I should not be a single lady, according to his beliefs.  In Damascus, I bought bananas and oranges daily at a small store up the street from my hotel.  Usually, an older man waited on me.  His English was on a pare with my Arabic - and my French was limited to ballet French: I can count to six.  My last day, I found a younger man at the store who spoke some English and was curious where I was from.  Once that was established, he said very quietly and flatly:  “George W. Bush?”  I smiled and responded with a two thumbs down  gesture.  He gave me a big grin  and refused to let me pay for my purchase.  

Throughout, I found a distinction was made between people and governments.  This has certainly  been true  in all of the Muslim countries I’ve visited,     including Pakistan and Iran.  In Shiraz, our foursome - two Brits, an Indian-Brit and me - were seated near a large family gathering.  The patriarch of  family was giving a party at our hotel restaurant to honor his return from Haj, the pilgrimage from Mecca.   A middle aged man at the table next to me asked where I was f rom;  he  turned out to have a MEE from the University of Washington.  Soon, the entire family  including the patriarch, arrived at our table to chat and practice their English.  This friendliness contrasted with the large “Down With The US” sign painted over a replica of the stars and stripes on a downtown Teheran building wall.  

Life when not traveling?  I live in a two bedroom triplex, furnished with old and new.  Some stuff I’ve had since early years and some collected on recent trips.  Seventeen bookcases got pared down to a dozen in this last move.  Despite good intentions, - I live several blocks from the library -  I continue to buy books.  

I read a lot.   It is  authors such as Peter Hopkirk, John Masters, Charles Glass, Michael Asher, Jan Morris, James Barr, William Dalrymple, Colin Thubron and Rory Stewart that  have inspired me.  I also revel in   adventure novels - Frederick Forsythe is one of  my favorite writers - and detective  stories - Ian Rankin is the best -  and   biographies, particularly of those crazy Brit ex-pats that explored  the deserts and mountains of the world. Too often I have several books going at once. I continue to collect  writing by and about TE Lawrence, who, along with Richard Burton (not the actor), is one of the most fascinating  characters in history.  

The other  interests are in theatre, dance, and music (classical to jazz).  In fact, I keep in shape with dance classes, Pilates workouts and hiking. And untilthis last year, I was in London yearly for my cultural  fix.  But the UK has gotten way too expensive for Americans.  I can take two trips to far off corners of the globe for what one London excursion will cost. So it looks  like the UK  for a specific event, eg: TE Lawrence display at the Imperial War Museum,   or a short stay as I pass through to another destination.

But more than a month at home and I have itchy feet; I’m ready to move out.  Which is now!