Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Dig! Sift! Enjoy!

This was billed as a Working Holiday - a chance to participate in an archaeological dig. My interest is more in the historical aspect than in a chance to practice any archaeological skills. I had been a student of Middle Eastern history beginning with a fascination with T. E. Lawrence some fifty years ago.

So I grabbed at the opportunity to participate in the Great Arab Revolt Project’s third fieldwork session where I could be in the area so identified with Lawrence, the Arabs and the Ottomans. I had been in Jordan before, but only as a traveler passing through; this would be two weeks of exploration.

There were ten staff and eighteen volunteers; Among the volunteers, seven were returnees, five were Americans, one Australian and the rest, Brits. Ages ranged from 18 to 79. Three were metal detecterists It was a compatible crew with the experienced ones showing good humor and patience with those of us struggling along with our improper techniques of troweling and brushing and sifting.

For the most part, I scraped and sifted . I did less well at measuring for I was still stuck in the world of inches and feet rather than metres. My friend, who I had encouraged to sign on for this experience and is a scientifically trained person, did well with metres.

We spent several days investigating tent rings at Batn Al-Ghoul before we moved up to the fort at Fassu’ah Ridge. There our team of three checked out a possible trench - that turned out to be where water drained down. Then to a outward curve in the rock wall where we did find a couple of expended cartridges; the curve was measured and drawn, both en face and from above.

Then we spent several days out beyond the Fort a kilometre or so to a possible trough and mule lines. That kept us busy. One afternoon was spent bagging aged mule excrement found in our sieves. All recording had be exact: precise measurements and photographed.

There seemed to be little evidence of a any serious Ottoman battles but there was an abundance of finds,. Which made me feel my efforts, as basic as they were, were helpful even though I found little seemingly of significance. But no finds can be as significant as finds.

The several evening talks by the Project Director, the Field Director, the Cultural Anthropologist and the Landscape Archaeologist were excellent, most helpful to me in providing a context for the work. In many ways, they were the high points of the experience.

There were two days off: one I spent at Petra - we stayed in nearby Wadi Musa - retracing some of my steps of several years ago, and the other, we went to the old Fort at Aqaba, scene of one of Lawrence’s great triumphs, and then careened around in 4+4s at Wadi Rum, that absolutely gorgeous piece of Jordanian real estate.

Excitement was provided by BBC who spent two days filming as they were doing a program on Lawrence with Rory Stewart as the commentator. I finally had the chance to talk with him - missed out in Kabul where he heads up the Turquoise Foundation. Ended up being filmed while interviewed by him - suspect it may be cut for my responses weren’t that great.

How did I feel as a novice? Overwhelmed and out of my element, as I do with any new task. Not comprehending many of the whys and wherefores. But it slowly came together; I was with a great group of colleagues. The scenery was inspiring;. I could visualize Lawrence galloping by on his favorite camel, romantic that I am.

So likely, I’ll return next year, a bit more knowledgeable. Though history is still my overriding interest , what is archaeology but confirmation of the past.

For those interested in the nitty-gritty, accommodations were fair to good. Fair was the original hotel, with it’s lack of hot water and equally lukewarm food. Due to an overbooking, we were moved to another hotel for the last few days, one used by Explore when I had been there before. It was good: hot water and hot food. Morale went up - though that was never a problem.

Food was the usual Middle Eastern fare: an orangy juice, pita bread, hummus, hard cooked eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese for breakfast; pita bread, hummus, cheese, spam and dates for lunch, with rice, a cooked meat, a chicken dish, vegetables, salads and a dessert for dinner. Drank a lot of tea.

And let me tell you, it was a long miserable ride home. Had something like a twenty hour layover in a cold air conditioned Termnal 1 at Heathrow before an eleven hour flight to SF.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Getting Gone!

The hardest thing about travel is leaving the cat. Now, I do have an outstanding cat care person, a woman who works at my vet’s, but it doesn’t make it easier. Once I start to pack up, Tiffany sits on the duffel and howls. She knows! The care person assures me Tiff is very good with their routine when I’m gone. But until I walk out the door - when Tiff is lying on her chair with one eye open - I get a bad time.

Also, when I return: I am ignored, totally ignored, until Tiff gets hungry enough to ask for food. Which has some advantages, for I can empty the duffel‘s contents into the wash, look at the mail and brush my teeth before I have to deal with her. She should be used to all this for in the three places she’s lived with me, travel has been the constant.

Packing is the other chore. Since I take only a carry on sized duffel, choices are limited. After two bummers with checked luggage some years back, I’ve used carry ons only, even before airlines started charging for checked luggage. Toiletries I replenish after each trip, so they are not a problem. Copies of my passport and driver’s license reside in the duffel along with travel clock, extra batteries and the like.

So it’s roll up several pairs of pants, throw in the t-shirts, figure out the quick dry underwear, and add a pair of sandals. Some times, I have to think about which items to pack but mostly it’s the same things - or whatever old stuff I can leave. And wear the walking shoes, sweater, jacket, hoodie and/or rain gear I’ll need. I seem to take about the same amount of stuff, whether I’m going to city or countryside, gone for a week or a month.

I have traveled in the States, Canada and overseas for over twenty-five years. No longer hampered with a Day Job, I’m now gone about a third of the time. From two to six weeks. For the cat’s sake, I try to stick to three weeks but I’m not always successful. And I tend to travel on the cheap, often with small, budget priced British or Australian groups. Many American groups charge more than I’m prepared to pay, use upscale accommodations beyond what I need and/or stay close to conventional itineraries. The Brits and the Aussies tend to wing it, much as I do when on my own.

Choosing destinations isn’t a problem. I have a long list but, fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t always get to new places. I keep returning for further exploration. This year I returned to the UK - probably my 20th trip there - and Ethiopia - I had been in the North, to the so called Historical Circuit, but wanted to get into the tribal lands of the South; I will be back in Jordan in a couple of days for an archeological dig related to TE Lawrence and WW1’s Arab Revolt.

But Yemen and Afghanistan were new to me. And come December, a hike into Mali, where the Turang and Timbuktu should be eye openers. So three new and three old add to six extraordinary trips for 2008.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fourteen crashes later!

Last year, at birthday time, I was in Namibia and celebrated with a sky dive. This year, I am home in Northern California. As birthday time approached, I received a notice about twelve hours of simulator flight training at the Hiller Museum at San Carlos Airport. At the same time, I got a discount coupon for a flying lesson at the Palo Alto Airport. Aha! Possibilities!

You must understand that in my salad days, my goal had been to fly, travel and write. During my freshman year in college, I blew tuition money on several flying lessons, stopping when I realized I couldn’t afford both flying and college. For better or worse, my father’s common won out and I went on to collect the Bachelor’s degree.

(And then became interested in sports cars, but that’s another story!)

So I signed up for both the simulator classes and the flying lesson. The simulator classes were three hours over a four week period. Besides me, there was a mother-son and a father-son combination. I have the feeling that the kids - and likely the parents - were brought up on computers, computer games and simulators. They got the picture from ground-zero. They were taking off and landing the virtual Cessna during the first session.

Me? I was busy over compensating. My niece, herself a pilot, warmed me that there was lag time with the simulator which could throw you off. and even knowing that, I was stalling and spinning - great air show tricks maybe, except I kept crashing. The only thing I really learned from the session was how to get the simulator back in position. Between JFK and SFO, I managed some thirteen crashes in my attempts to land.

My niece now started calling me “Crash”!

The second session wasn’t much better. The other four took off nicely from SFO and San Carlos. Not me! First, I couldn’t reach the rudder pedals, much less the brakes. Skidded out on the floor in my secretarial chair. I don’t know how one kid did it for he was considerably shorter than me, but he did. In fact, he came over and looked at what I was (or wasn’t) doing and shook his head in disgust. There is nothing like pre teen disgust! At best, I was swirling all about the airport runways. Crashed on takeoff. So I decided to just fly around. The rest were working on instrument flying and planning trips from one airport to another. I was certainly far from that and after two hours, picked up my toys and went home.

The third session was a total wipe out: I forgot my reading glasses so was unable to focus on anything. - nada - nothing. Without glasses, I am desperately near sighted. With my regular glasses, I am comfortably far sighted. Since I have avoided bifocals, I was S.O.L. I left!

I did attend the fourth and last simulator session, well behind the herd. They were planning cross country flights. My cross country flight was from San Carlos to Santa Rosa, which I managed, but just barely. Then someone got the bright idea to put me in Piper Cub, which was the airplane I had flown sixty years ago. Viola! No complications. I was able to stay reasonably steady, fly out of the Kabul airport, head out to Bagram Air Field, check out the Panjsher Valley and ease over to the Salang Pass. Had I realized it, I could have cut a flight plan to Teheran. A fitting conclusion. And I was issued a certificate, for whatever that’s worth.

Next, Halloween and the realtime flight lesson - back in a Cessna, but older with a less complicated dashboard than the simulated one. Walked around and checked out the aircraft before the interior check. Climbed up on the wings to make sure we were sufficiently gassed. And then took off from the Palo Alto airport. Cloudy day with some active air pockets, which made it interesting. Got to fly some, bank and yaw, battle the currents and fight the sun in my eyes. Flew about the southern Bay area and certainly did better than on the simulator’s Cessna. Like, I didn’t crash or stall or spin. All together, two hours well spent. And I now have a Pilot’s flight log book.

I may do this again, the flying that is. Not the simulator - think I got everything I could from that. But I will have to get bifocals.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Weekend at Oxford - Sep 2008

It was to be 10 days: a weekend for the TE Lawrence symposium and five days survival training at Heckfield. Only Heckfield was canceled - long story - and is now rescheduled for a session in Virginia late January; so more on that next year.

But the long weekend at Oxford was well worth the long trip over. I stayed in rooms at St. John’s College where AE Housman and Robert Graves had been, saw the West End musical Seven brides for Seven Brothers (good, though I did miss Howard Keel), traveled to Dorset to TE Lawrence haunts, and then had two days of talks about TE Lawrence, then and now. About one hundred fifty attended, a surprisingly number from the US and Canada. Interesting bunch.

Got into Heathrow early afternoon Thursday September 24 and promptly caught the airport bus for Oxford which took little over an hour. The bus station was close to the campus, so walked over and registered. Then picked up a ticket for the evening performance and had supper. Performance was good and the audience was an enthusiastic bunch of the gray haired set. Nice choreography though not up to Michael Kidd’s - since seeing this, I checked out some of his work in the film on You-tube.

My room was large, really large, but with a small single bed tucked in one corner. I had a sink and counter, small portable refrigerator, chairs, desk and book cases. Facilities? The toilet was across the hall and the shower upstairs. With the room went access to the computer lab and the bar - yes, St. John’s has it own pub. Lovely old college with magnificent spires.

Friday was spent with forty others, traveling to Dorset. First, to the Bovington Tank Museum. TE had spent two years there as a ranker before getting back into the RAF, all following his Lawrence of Arabia exploits. There were some memorabilia but I was impressed with the tanks: WW1 and WW2 vintage with various armed cars including the WW1 Rolls used in the desert. Tanks are big suckers!

From there, it was a short journey to Clouds Hill TE’s garden cottage: small, basic and charming. Two Broughs (the motor bike used by TE) were parked there; one may have been an old one of Lawrence’s. The bikers in our group - and there were some - were impressed. I had my picture taken astride one. It was a moving experience, the thought of walking about where TE had been.

From there to Moreton to the local church and TE’s grave and finally, to Wareham where the Kennington Effigy is housed in the ancient Saxon Church of St. Martin-on-the-Walls. It was a full day and a great prologue to the two days of talks.

There were eight presentations, some outstanding. I had been enticed to this gathering by two speakers: Neil Faulkner who was the co-director of the November archaeological dig I had volunteered for, and James Barr, author of a recent book on TEL and the Brits during WW1. They both lived up to expectations and I had a chance to talk with them during the weekend, at length with Dr. Faulkner at the college pub.

Faulkner talked about Lawrence’s precepts of guerrilla warfare and the impact the Arab Revolt had on the desert campaigns during WW1. The Great Arab Revolt Project is an archaeological effort that, so far, supports the military importance of the Arab efforts. Barr talked about TEL and his influence/relationship with the French and its impact on Middle Eastern history.

The other presentations ranged from Lawrence’s relationships with various friends, publishers and writers; his love of the Brough bikes with a hypothesis about the final fatal crash; the Metcalf collection, and a discussion of the Imperial Camel Corps - the later was one of the more interesting reports.

People in attendance were varied: several had been at the Huntington Library gathering last year - I had attended and. surprisingly, was recognized by several. One man was from Georgia, had been a Chief Probation Officer and was into motor bikes, really into them owning six and restoring others that he sold at swap meets. Another rather dapper man, small boned and an inch or so taller than me, dressed in shirt, tie, brown suit and vest, shave d head and with Kaiser Wilhelm waxed mustache, was in the Security business, spending most of his time in the Emirates.

There were two retired servicemen: one with twenty years in the Engineers, twenty with a private firm and now considering his third life - he was also a diver who had a home near the Red Sea in Egypt and gave me good information about arranging a trip to St. Catherine’s. The other had just retired after 26 years as a Warrant Office in the Navy and was interested in museum work. Then there were the two men in their late seventies, one living in Seattle and the other still in the UK, who met sixty years ago in Germany while in the service; they have continued their friendship and meet yearly.

Coming home was a delight! I was upgraded from mid-middle back of the aircraft to business class! All because I had asked to be switched to an aisle seat. Turned out it was easier to switch me up front.

Glad I went, even for just the weekend. Next time, will add on a couple of days to bum about Oxford and take the Morse tour.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ethiopia trip #2: August 2008 in Rifts & Omo Valleys

I just read my report on last year’s February trip to Northern Ethiopia, which concluded with  my intent to return, to travel in the Afar-Dankalia region down to the ancient Muslim town of Harar and  to explore the Rift and Omo Valleys.   This was the Rift and Omo Valleys  trip, two weeks into Southern Ethiopia..  

And like the first trip it was a substitution, this time for a camel trek into Kenya’s Rift Valley,  canceled for lack of attendance.  This tour was available and fairly high up on my list of future travels.  So I packed up the duffel and away I went, yet again!

It started, as everything does in Ethiopia, in Addis Ababa, a sprawling combination of old and new.  I joined the group a bit late in the first day, following their exploration of the city which featured  the Ethnological Museum  - been there,  done that, on my first trip, so didn’t feel deprived.

Now the North is a rather organized third world area, with towns and hotels and churches.  Oh yes, churches for it is very Orthodox Christian what with the Ark of the Covenant and the Queen of Sheba.   The South is rural, tribal country with few amenities for Westerners. While the Cross was worn and replicas were sold at market, Muslims and animists prevail in much of the area.  The South is totally different from the North,  distinctly different , a very African place.   

From Addis, we drove, the nine of us plus tour leader and drivers, in three well used Land Cruisers - as I’ve commented before, I’d love to have the Toyota agency for Africa and/or  the Middle East; I’d never want in this or any other life again!   We traveled near lakes, through National parks, into Mountains and valleys on roads ranging from passable to impossible.  And good or bad, everyone and everything used the roads.  Trucks to donkey carts; motorcycles to pedestrians, cows to goats.  

The landscape varied: there was  lush tropical greenery, dry dusty flat land, mountain and lake.  Per Lonely Planet, the southwest Omo region has been called “Africa's last great wilderness”.  We saw hippos and crocs, zebras and kudu, monkeys and baboons.  We went to tribal compounds of the Mursi, Hammer and Konsos.  We wandered in three various markets, including one where police and army patrolled because of ongoing tribal differences.  And when there are tribal differences, contemporary weapons have entered the cultures.  Guns were evident along with spears and  colorful tribal clothing - or lack of it.  

We were welcomed, either as a curiosity or a source of income - two birr per photo required by the tourist savvy.  Kids would immediately run to take your hand, sometimes to ask for a  pen and most often, just to grin happily at you.  I often felt overwhelmed by the tribal people and would back off while others in our group managed  more gracefully.  One Brit, a primary grade teacher, knew a few basic magic tricks which made him the pied piper of our bunch.

I talked with two teen-aged boys, who attended school in Jinka, the door to the Omo Valley.  They boarded there and were awaiting results of their preparatory school exam.  One hoped to be a teacher while the other, a doctor.  Both wanted to return to their tribe.    One boy  pointed out his younger sister to me but though he wanted to help her, admitted there would be little he could do  for when he returned from his schooling, she would be married and with a family.   Girls simply had little educational opportunities:

Early on, we stopped at the  Black Lion Museum, the Rastafarian community’s headquarters at Shashemene.  The current leader  (they rotate), a rather imposing Jamaican, gave us chapter and verse about the Rastas - he was a good looking mature man with patience for our questions and a nice sense of humor.  

We camped four of our fourteen  nights.  The first night was  near a river, quite basic isolated place though there was a pump for water and a rudimentary toilet of sorts.  The other three nights was at a somewhat more organized campground, with several oil can jerry rigged showers and  basic squat  toilets; there was also a water pump used by campers and locals as well. When we arrived there were nearly two dozen land cruisers about with the campground quite full.  After the first night, the population lessened considerably.
Covered space was also  available for cooking: we had picked up a cook  to accompany us throughout the camping experience and he was superb.  Missed him dearly when we returned to local restaurant  meals.  The Ethiopians may have politically  expelled the Italians,  but  the culinary  presence remains for all menus, everywhere,  offered pasta  as an option.
It was from the campgrounds, we could travel to some of the less accessible  sites. We  had some contact with about half a dozen different tribes., most  grazing cattle, goats and/sheep.  Body and hair decorations differed from tribe to tribe.  Some wore bits and pieces of Western clothing, some did not.   We lost what few  tourists that had been about;  Italian and French seem to predominate.

As we came  out of the tribal lands, we drove and walked  to the stelae, ancient rock carvings, at Tututi,  Not as spectacular as at Aksum, but still impressive.  There were two areas with columns of differing lengths lying about.  Likely, there were double that still buried.  On the last day on the road, time was spent at  Lake Awassa and the lakeside fish market enroute Addis Ababa.  

Hotels were, with one or two exceptions, rather basic.  In fact, one, St Mary’s at Konso, was god awful; I suspect it hadn’t been cleaned since the Italians had been expelled.  Below basic!  The resort hotel  at Wondo Genet, had allegedly been a stopping place for Haile Selassie in the old days - the grounds were extensive with blue balled monkeys running rampant.  I, and others in the group, did a several hour climb about the area.  Rooms and food were mediocre, however.  

The Addis Ababa accommodation was certainly an upgrade from last year’s accommodation.   The Ghion Hotel had been 5* in its day and was the premier local hotel.  The grounds were extensive and meticulously maintained.  Rooms showed evidence of years of use but were clean - and there was hot water!  I was there three nights: the first night and then two nights at the end of the tour.  I spent that time just wandering around, picking up some gifts for friends and clearing off hundreds of Emails once I found an Internet place.  

Interestingly, the flights and hotels were jam packed full with a combination of students, NGO workers, and adoptive and would-be adoptive parents.  It appears Ethiopia is a mecca for would be adoptive parents, both US and European.

The last night of the tour was at the Crown(?) Hotel’s restaurant which had both band and dancers.  They were quite good and did  various ethnic music and dances. while we had  the Ethiopian nation dish:  injra.  Simply put, this is a large pancake with food place atop it.; you tear off pieces to use in picking up the food.  No knives, no forks!   By the time the night ended, our leader, several of our drivers and others in our group got up to move to the music - including moi!  
There were nine in our group: seven Brits, an Irish woman who had been a month in Rwanda prior to this tour, and myself.   Only one came through the trip unscathed:  I badly sprained my wrist the second day, missing a foothold while climbing up  an embankment and the rest had intestinal problems of one kind or another.  Our tour leader was excellent; though from the North, he was familiar with animals, birds, fauna and tribes in the south.  

This was an Exodus tour booked through Adventure  Center in Emeryville (www.adventurecenter.com).  Like most of the others I’ve taken, it is a  eco-conscious, budget priced, small group British tour.  Cost for the tour was $2420 (twin share - I paid an additional $30 to have a tent of my own!), which included all meals.  Airfare, via United to Dulles and Ethiopian to Addis, was $2388. Extra hotel cost was $34.  

Incidentally, I paid 8 birr for the taxi ride from the airport into Addis in a bad, sad cab reeking of gasoline fumes; booked through the hotel, I paid 6 birr for the return ride in a  Benz - not the newest but running perfectly.   Go figure!   

Comment:  Storks and Vultures are some ot the world's the ugliest creatures, more so than crocs!  

Still have the the Afar-Dankalia region and Harar to go!  May combine that with Djibouti and Eritrea, if the Eritrea-Ethiopia border ever opens.  

(NB:  roughly, a birr is a buck!)


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ashland and Points North - 2008

It was June and time to get back to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Ashland, Oregon.  I finally figured out that I first went in l952 - I used to think it was l954 but looking at old programs:  it was l952.  We, my husband and I, went with Jack Jacobus, who became our housemate.  We all worked at the Oregon State Penitentiary at the time.  I remember seeing the Tempest in the outdoor theatre; I remember the lovely Lithia Park.  

We didn’t get back for maybe, ten years but then started a regular yearly drive - later, to be a flight - to Ashland, missing only a year when I was recovering from surgery and the year before Robin’s death.    So I continue the tradition, flying to Medford and shuttling into Ashland and the Columbia Hotel, an old establishment on the main street, a second story store front place with a Victorian motif and facilities down the hall.  Reasonably priced and more than centrally located.  I’ve stayed there since I’ve been a single.  Have breakfast  outside overlooking the creek at the Greenleaf Cafe.  Walk around in the mornings, f rom town  up into the Park, check my E-mails at the library, look into shops for a guest-gift for my niece and sister in law who I will visit afterwards.  

And go to  the plays - four at OSF and one at the Cabaret theatre.  I also sign on for all the lectures and discussions, whether they apply to plays I’m seeing or  not.  Archie and Mehitabel was at the Cabaret Theatre this year and, along with a fruit and ice cream dessert, was fun.  I saw most unique Indian musical  of sorts Clay Cart,  a wild Midsummer Night’s Dream that did justice to Gay Pride Weekend, a moving Our Town that had me in tearing up at the end and the out of the box Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler.  Hedda Gabler made the least impression on me, for I keep forgetting it.  

Now,, instead of the one outdoor theatre,  they are three working theatres and small ex-theatre used as a lecture/discussion area.  I suspect OSF  is Ashland’s biggest draw , even with the University and Rogue River rafting runs.   Bay area people, like me, dream of moving there.  In fact, enough have so that real estate is comparable with the Bay area.  Expensive!  Still, for several days a year, it  remains a place out of time and, when I was a worker bee, a neededrespite from my stressed  world.  

From there, I did the family bit:  to the Seattle area to visit with my in-laws.  My sister in law and her husband are still managing quite well:  they’re in their eighties; in fact, he may be ninety but still volunteers at the Air Museum.  She is a crafter:  does marvelous quilts.  Their younger daughter is my executor  so we spent time reviewing trusts and the like. Others in the family were  over the Fourth weekend  and then I headed  home.  We enjoy each other for the several day stay which seems  just right.  It’s on the list for next year.  

Along with Mesopotamia, a return to Afghanistan, Palestine/Israel, and Libya if they’ll give me a visa.  The Rift Valley  camel trek is off for both this year and next but I’m signing on to a week long course for survival in hostile environments - looks like I’ll do that in September, consecutive to the TE Lawrence symposium at Oxford.   Expensive but necessary if I’m continuing to go to places with a plethora of old Russian AK-47s  lying about.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Two - No, Three Stops Up the Track!

It was impulsive.  Walking home from the library, I got talking to a workman who was taking a break in the shade of the park trees.  All enthused, he told me about the Vertical Air Show at the San Carlos Airport the following day, Saturday.  Take the train up and you can walk over from there!  Why not, I thought as I continued my way home; haven’t been to an air show since early salad days and I’ve always meant to stop by the Hiller Air Museum, next to the airport, all located along Freeway 101.  Why not?

I checked the train schedule and figured  I could do my Pilates workout, get the groceries, buy my round trip ticket and make the noon train out of Menlo Park.  Two stops and I’m there - oh, there would be  one at Atherton, which only has weekend stops these days.  All went according to schedule, at least my schedule.  Got to the depot on time but per the notice, the train not only was running ten minutes late but all trains were running on the northbound track.  Working on the southbound track at Atherton.  

Eventually the train arrived, more like twenty minutes late.  However, it whizzed  past Atherton and all the construction work, stopping about half way  before Redwood City.  Whoops, the engineer forgot he was on the weekend schedule and after some thought and calling in with the powers-that-be, the train backed up and picked up the Atherton would-be passengers.  From there we were ok and I got off as planned at San Carlos.  Did my several miles walk over the freeway to the Airport.

My experience with previous air show had been in the Forties when I lived in South Dakota and was determined to be a flyer and was a serious cadet with the Civil Air Patrol.    As I remember, the runway was dirt and  there was a daily Western Airlines flight in from Cheyenne, Wyoming (It’s about the same now except the runway is asphalt and the Northwest Airlines flight is in from Minneapolis).  There were all sorts of old aircraft, some from WW1, open seaters, Fokkers with the locals awe stricken at the  wing walking and parachuting.   

This time, it was helicopters - all shapes and sizes.  Craft from the military, police, air-evac, TV stations, private - you name it.  I was able to wander about, get inside some of the copters, look at the museum exhibitions, talk with various flyers.  Alarge number of families were there with excited yelling kids.  During the show, there were demonstrations of helicopters’ abilities including  stunt flying and sky diving.  Despite the 100 degree heat, The entire scene was exhilarating and left me trying to figure out how Flying lessons could fit into my  life.
Back in the forties, when I was a single college student, all my extra money went into flying lessons.  An old Piper Cub, as basic and simple as you could get.  The I met a guy,  student, a Navy vet, and learning to fly flew right out of my life.  We ended up into sports cars - and I must admit, the atmosphere at sports car races is similar to the air shows.  But at the moment, I am single, the owner of a Mini (after several Jags, a MGA, and three Alfas) and I’m gone, traveling at consistently at least twice a week -- ain’t going to happen unless I give up exploring the universe.  And I’m not.  

I barely manage to squeeze in a weekly  afternoon volunteering at the Library  and a monthly morning for the League - and they all understand my erratic schedule.  So it looks doubtful I’ll fulfill my dream of a Private Pilot’s license, though I may see about volunteering at the Air Museum, if I can work something out.  It’s  second best, but then I am doing the traveling and writing that were also part of that dream package.  

Anyway, walked back to the train station where I found I could have taken a shuttle to the airport!  Got back to Menlo Park, with required Atherton stop,  in time to pick up a sandwich at Barrone’s cafe and then home.  

(For what it’s worth, I ‘m still trying for the Kenya Camel trek for February.  I did send in  deposits for a Mesopotamia trip in March-April 2009 and another  Afghanistan trip  in August 2009,  this one in the mountains and  including Herat and the Minaret of Jam.)

Monday, June 9, 2008

James Bond, Ian Fleming and the Spy scene!

I don't really fit into the Elderhostel scene though there are some interesting people who travel with them.  This was my fourth experience with Elderhostel:  two daytime workshops and a trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon predated this excursion.  Plus this  was about my 20th trip to London  and my second to Cambridge.  Love London! 

It was  the topic that brought me:  the 100th birthday of James Bond/Ian Fleming plus the Cambridge spies. Eight days in London (staying at a most elegant hotel near the old Tate Museum) and three days in Cambridge (another 4* hotel), this time focusing on the Cambridge spies and the SIS. 

I flew in four days early and booked a room at my affordable  2* establishment in Bayswater with facilities down the hall.  I had tickets for the Royal Ballet (Robbins' Dances at a Gathering and Ashton's The Dream) and one of their New Works series, sux short ballets done by young choreographers.  These were the high points of the trip.  I also had a ticket for Jeremy Iron's portrayal of Harold MacMillan in Never So Good, a real tour d'force. 

Saw a couple of other plays:  39 Steps, a comedy based on John Buchan's adventure story,  Brief Encounter, a muti media version of Noel Coward's play. and Tim Piggot-Smith in Shaw's Pygmalian.  A night at Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic and a Sunday noon concert with a chamber orchestra at the Wigmore completed my cultural journey.  Did it on the cheap by eating at take-aways and the theatre cafes.  Happily walked all, except when it came to moving from Paddington to the Westminister hotel - that was done via tube.

I was odd woman out!  I was an "enforced single"; had the room to myself though I had paid to share.  The oldest in the group was a 86 woman, most attendees were retired, almost all had been professionals - doctor, lawyer, educator ,plus a couple of former NSA types.  Several were seriously into Bond and could recite chapter and verse from the movies and films.  Then there was me who hadn't seen any of the films but had. in my salad days, read all the books - and remembered little from them.  I was much more interested in the Intelligence history.

The leader of our motley band of fifty  was Nigel West, author of several dozen books on espionage (of which I had half a dozen plus another dozen by other authors).  He was knowledgeable, articulate and could talk indefinitely sans any notes.  His supporting cast included Andrew Lycett, a Fleming biographer (had that book), Boris Volodarsky, a Russian defector, Corelli Barnett, a rather pessimistic British historian, Andres Lownie, a John Buchan biographer (had that book too; love Buchan!), and  Kate Westbrook who talked of her experience in putting together the MoneyPenny series.  There were several others who talked about the Bond films and the Bond books.  We also spent time at the Imperial War Museum, where the big boys' toys are on display.  The Bond exhibition was okay but I really enjoyed The Secret War section which had bits and pieces of things from MI5, MI6, SOE and the Special Forces (SAS being another of my interests).  Lording over all  was one of T E Lawrence's beloved Broughs.  I passed through the Fleming Collection of the Book Covers and attended the Reception and Gala dinner at Gladstone's Library.  It was enough:  I was well Bonded. 

While in London, I had tea with the son of a good friend, who had just had his Master's thesis accepted, met with my roommate from the Jordanian portion of an earlier Middle Eastern trek and saw the tail end of a bike race that had gone from the UK to the battlegrounds of France to raise funds for a charity for veterans - it seems as if hundreds had gone, civilians to military riders.  Bagpipes were playing which always bring tears to  my eyes.  I did make my obligatory visit to the British Museum and got up to the National Geographic Society and British Library with its Ramayana Exhibit.

By the time we reached Cambridge, ten partipants had dropped out and I acquired a very compatible roommate.  West was the lecturer the entire time:  talked about the Cambridge bunch and how they interlinked as well as spent some time discussing the NKVD Illegals.  We wandered about Cambridge, one time  on organized  tour and the rest disorganized.  West spend an evening reviewing Cold War films and then showed Tinker Tailor - four of us hung on through all seven segments, to the bitter end, trudging to our rooms at 2 AM.  I remember seeing this on PBS, trying to recall the plot line  from week to week.  Great to see it in one fell swoop. particularly as I remembered who the Bad Guy was.  And Guinness was such a magnificant actor; who else could be "Smiley"? 

The final piece d'resistance was the aftenoon at Chicksands Museum.  Chicksands was a USAF base and is now an active Military Intelligence School.  Included  was a collection from Brixmis, cold war intelligence gathering (I had just finished Tony Geraghty's book about it) and all sorts of photographic and radio equipment  - Fascinating displays. 

This was a more expensive trip than usual: With airfare and all, I estimate $6000 for two weeks.  I suspect I'm the only one, who in the evaluation, suggested they could down grade the accommodations.  I mean, I did not need my own individual computer in the room - I'd settled for a shared freebie at the hotel.  A 2*/3* hotel would have been fine.  But considering my interest in  Intelligence services and Special Forces operations and my need to return to London,  it was  worth it. 

The July Kenya camel trek is off; I'm returning to Ethiopia instead, this time south into the  Omo Valley. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Reading while crossing the Atlantic - or Pacific?

I've discovered some really interesting  authors at various airport shops, ones whose writing I've tracked down, even after the flight.  Through flying to the three corners of the earth, I've found Ian Rankin, Vikram Seth, Clive Cussler, Lee Child, James Patterson, Tom Clancey, Harlan Coben and Robert Ludlum among others.  Some are adventure fiction, stuff I read and leave on a bench  in some far airport, but then, there are the  keepers.

Seth and Rankin are keepers:  I remember buying Seth's A Suitable Boy in Singapore as it was thick and looked as if it would last on a long flight to SFO.  Marvelous, wandering story of Indian family life.  Rankin, all of whose books I've now read, is the creator of a   disillusioned detective, Rebus, who worked  the streets of Edinburgh; writes well and with love of the character and city. 

Cussler does imaginative adventure stuff, with  two pals working in a government maritime agency.  A diver himself , Cussler is at ease when it comes to nautical themes.  On occasion he gets to places I've been and that's really fun.

Clancey and Ludlum do the thriller-spy bit that have you big into all possible conspiracy theories.  Clancy has Jack Ryan and Ludlum has Jason Bourne.  Movies have been done based on books  from both authors - I like the books better than the films.

Coben is another matter:  a literate juicey mystery writer with really well drawn  characters and a cut above most.; for the airplane reader, an added bonus  that the books are long.    Now, Patterson's lead character is usually a African-American  psychologist-detective though he also has a series based on a female San Francisco  dectective that has become a series on TV -  again, books are better than the series.  

Lee Child's hero is Reacher, an outsized loner,  ex MP,  who goes around solving unbelievable screw-ups in a rather direct manner. 

I'm off again, to the UK this time, so it won't be an unbelievably long flight.  I picked up at the Library's free and resale bins, a paperback Coben and  Ludhum, which should get me to LHR and maybe, return.  And always carry the pocket edition of 7  Pillars, my bible. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In Kabul and Environs: Afghanistan March 2008

In more than twenty five yeas of traveling, this was the most inclusive tour I’ve ever experienced.  The country was Afghanistan. severely ravaged by strife for as long as I’ve traveled; the agent was Global Exchange,  a non profit international human rights organization.  So it wasn’t just a sightseeing trip - though I did that - but  there was a series of interviews with the would-be movers and shakers  struggling  to rebuild the country.  Much of this focused on women as Women Making Change was the theme of the tour - very appropriate for Afghanistan. The tour was ten days and I stayed  an additional four days.  

As I write this, I am remembering a statement from  an expat Kiwi, a library  coordinator:  don’t believe anything you read about Afghanistan and only half of what you see!  Keep that in mind; and it probably applies to more than just Afghanistan  

Actually, I was in Kabul more than into Afghanistan though  I did get  into the northern area a bit - the village of Istalif, the Paghman summer retreat, into the Panjshir Valley. and  up to Salang Pass.   I had hoped to get to Herat,  one time capital of the Timurid Empire and out to see the Minaret of Jam  - but another time!  

The first thing you notice is the security in and about Kabul.  Private security, local police, Afghan Army and ISAF (International Armed Response Forces) .  The Army and ISAF drive around in tandem armoured vehicles  At either end of the street where we stayed in West Kabul were barriers and security guards.  Across from our guesthouse was an international school, as well as private homes.  The Afghans 4 Tomorrow, who ran the guesthouse, had just moved there because of security concerns.   An  Afghan worker  I talked with, crosses Flower Street enroute to his job, which worries him for it it is downtown , the target area for kidnapers and bombers.   

Almost every place I entered had security staff checking you in and out, even the Kabul Coffee shop with two metal gates at least six feet tall.  The Serena Hotel, recently bombed,  not only had two really tall (10 feet?) metal security gates with guards at each sector - it was like going through a prison sally port -  and  a thorough individual inspection - as good as at any  any airport.    Security is on everyone’s minds.  If you are uncomfortable with guns around, don’t go to Kabul.  The one positive thing was that, unlike Yemen, the guns I saw were all in the hands of the uniformed  guys, not the tribesmen.

Interestingly, the streets, while full of Afghans, all shapes, colors, sexes, and sizes, were devoid of Westerners.  I saw some at the Hotel Serena where some  mercenaries stay (the food is lousy I was told by an Aussie ex-ranker) and a British TV couple doing a story on Afghan cricket, very popular,  at The Landmark Arcade (where the local ATM is - that would be a good target for the Taliban!).  In two instances, I observed other visitors being taken around, certainly more officially than our bunch. They were in the  ever present Land Rovers wrapped in Kelvar vests with  their “minders” carrying sidearms. I did see Westerners on the loose at the Kabul Cafe and at several upscale shops.  At the Golf course, they were with minders but no Kelvar.   The same for the runners along Lake Kagha.   On the other hand, we  (there were five of us on the tour: a activist, an academic, a pharmaceutical consultant, a Red Cross worker and me) went about with our leader/guide/minder Armed with his mobile, and a driver with his  rather unreliable van - ok in town but broke down twice coming back from Istalif.   And our only personal protection were headscarves.  

Kabul is a gray sprawling city divided by the polluted appearing  Kabul river,  in a valley surrounded by the   Hindu Kush mountains.  Population is now estimated as approaching four million.   The city was wasted in l982 by the mujaheddin and it went bad to worse after the American bombardment  of the Taliban in 2001.  It seems that half the buildings are shot up; mortar and bullet holes are throughout.  The edge of the airport runway is  littered with smashed fuselages and airport buses.  In the midst of the city’s rubble are a few newer buildings of glass, concrete  and steel, somewhat incongruous with the old mud and brick architecture, but with small shops peering out from the first level.  Most of the roads match the buildings:  pretty dismal though there are some asphalted streets running through town.  

But trash is cleaned up.  The Afghans are tidy.  They stack it all around the corner in hopes someone, someday, will stop by and haul it away.  

All about is the bustle of human activity:  men in various head coverings with safari vests or suit jackets over their shalwar keemiz.    And women in birkas.  My guess is that one third of the city women wear the blue birkas while maybe 2/3s of the country women  wear  them.  (interestedly  the most militant of our ladies wanted  to buy a birka at the store the local women purchased them - she had to settle for one picked up by our guide! Another member wanted a Kevlar vest.  Go figure!I  I settled for a  ball cap!)

I visited most of the Lonely Planet suggested sights:  Darulamen Palace which was a shell of the old Royal Palace, across the street from the Kabul Museum.  The Museum collections had been  decimated by both mujaheddin and Taliban.  But there was a magnificent 1970s photographic exhibit  of Tashqurghan, an ancient caravansari destroyed by the Soviets in a 1981 retaliatory air raid.; the showing was sponsored by the Dutch. I would love to find a collection of these photos published.

Our group  shopped on Chicken Street one morning, the magnet for Afghanistan’s tourists, except there were  only us five and the shopkeepers.  It features all kinds of handicrafts, including the thimble I was looking to get for my sister in law.  We also wandered about Babur’s Gardens, a 16th century formal park created by the first Mughal Emperor with a small  restored white marble Mosque.  There we saw the beginnings of spring.  

The OMAR Land Mine Museum had were sixty - count 'em, sixty - kinds of land mines  found in the country, including  the Russian butterfly mines so damaging to children.  (Later, we visited the ICRC Orthopedic Center where not only mine victims were treated and outfitted with prosthesis but also those handicapped  from other difficulties.  I watched a two year old, helped by what I assumed was her father, slowly forge ahead  with her tiny braces.)

We went to several schools, three for girls and one for street kids.  The buildings are basic, the children crowded into small and badly in need of paint rooms.  But there is great enthusiasm by both students and teachers.  Two of the girls school were run by Afghans 4 Tomorrow, the plan being to try toget the girls up to grade, for some second graders were nearly as tall as I am.  Their education had been sadly/badly neglected during the Taliban era.  The supplies were limited:  you may be able to vamp a bit for the social sciences, but you need lab equipment for the sciences.  The other  girls’ school was a Madrassa, run by a blind cleric from his own funds.  The Street Children’s Training Center boasted a swinging band made up of  indigenous instruments and several variations of the accordion.  

There were urchins at large on the street, selling and/or begging, along with a fair number of blue birka clad women. and pathetic old men.  There is not much of a support system here if you are down and out.  Except the charity of the good Muslim, which our tour leader certainly was.

One of the unique places we saw was the Fatema Women Carpentry Workshop, a training/production  company working with sixty widows of Hazara descent. The factory itself was a large canvas tent where the women made sofas, desks and cupboards.  We met with a  number of Women’s activists, some of whom  left the area during the unrest and others, who had stayed albeit with a low profile.  There were also a couple of people into micro financing which allowed women to open small businesses or help with their husband’s endeavors.  We interviewed a dynamic  Afghan-American committed to working on a Masters of Education program for the University who also arranged for  us to spend an evening in a relative's home,talking with them abut life in Kabul today.  The  daughter- in-law made clear that stable electricity was high on her list of priorities, along with security and education.  

We met with several women doctors: one Member of Parliament and the other, Director of a hospital.  There was the feisty   psychiatrist, a former member of Parliament who has her own foundation,  working behalf of women and children.  We went to the National Achives and the Research and Evaluation library.   We spent time with CARE, Save the Children and the Red Crescent, which rents space to another organization, Parsa.  All are working with the disenfranchised; all are working toward human rights; all are  trying to provide education and vocational  services.  An American couple were affiliated with one organization - they were born in Afghanistan and met early on as their  families  had been working there with a NGO; later on,  they reunited and have returned in retirement to render service.

One of the high points for me, was the contact with Turquoise Mountain Foundation, started by Rory Stewart, author  of The Places In Between and Prince of the Marshes.  He, along with Michael Asher, has been one of my heroes and, unfortunately, he was in the States when we were there.  But I did get to see the work he’s spearheaded  in restoration of the  buildings in the traditional style.  I first became interested in restoration within the perimeters of the existing culture when I became acquainted with Dwarka’s in Kathmandu.  This is in the same mode, including training of a work force in the old way, which is likely more earthquake resistant than today's slapdash approach. The Foundation is also working with the potters in Istalif - I saw the shops and show room there - and reconstruction in the Old City - which I also saw.  I was most impressed.  

Women's Day, which really hasn’t been a big thing in my life, is a Big Thing there with several different celebrations.  We went to the Mother of them all, in a local high school auditorium with exceeding tight security for  President Karzai was speaking.  The auditorium was packed full of local women, all appearing to be from the upper tiers of Kabul society with some men interspersed throughout the audience.  Two  women Generals  were in the first row, in uniforms that must have dated from the Russian era.  We were just behind the American Embassy bunch, all fitted out with our  translating ear pieces.  Secret Service types, ours and theirs, prowled the aisles, before, during and after, Karsai’s talk.  In brief, he emphasized the need for women’s education  - for the good of the men and the nation.  He’s an attractive man who certainly knows how to meet and greet.

As we interviewed, we would first have tea, then receive a rather prepared presentation of the organization’s program and goals.  It was then  in the  informal  discussion that we would hear a more candid view of the country’s problems.     Overall, I understood waste and corruption to be the greatest problems with education and security to be the greatest needs.  People felt morepositive toward European countries.  There didn’t seem to be a lot of good will toward the US government; we didn’t seem to have been very tactful.  

For example:  Money would be allotted for a project that might or might not be needed. US firms would get the bid. US workmen would be imported to the  work.  The money  did not go into the Afghan economy but right back to the donor.  The estimate was  about 20% went  into the Afghan economy.  Specifically:    the US sponsored a new University. Laura Bush came out to dedicate it. Tuition will be $5000. Instructors will be from overseas.  First,  what Afghan short of the warlords’ children, can afford it?  Second,  how does this help the Afghan economy?

Another one:  A monster dorm for women was built but very few use it.  Again, the plan didn’t meet a need.      The corruption is tied in with the warlords who have ben invited into the government and cabinet and ministries.   The question seems to be whether Karzai  is corrupt or just weak. part of it On a lower level the police are  considered corrupt, but then they are paid a pittance.  
The four days on my own were with with our tour leader and a driver.  I was able to wander in the Old City a bit, get to  but not inside Bala Hissar, the old British Fort,  see the Ghzi Stadium where soccer was being played and into the British Cemetery, where Aurel Steins, a Central Asian archaeologist, was buried.    At the cemetery, I found  memorial plaques for Americans, Germans and Brits recently killed in Afghanistan.  The caretaker, who has been maintaining the cemetery for a pittance for 26 years, was  delighted to show me around.   (Online, I found both the NY Times and the Toronto Star  had articles published about the cemetery and custodian - I hope to use those to support efforts to get him  a raise!)

I spent one day with one of my companions from the tour who was forced to stay over with   
passport and visa problems, e.g.: she lost them.  So I made my first trip to an US Embassy.  Through several sets of cheerful security personnel, we advanced to the glassed  consular window where we were courteously treated by our US representative who sent us off to get photos and fill out the requisite form.  We took what must have been the oldest and gassiest cab in Kabul to Flower street for her photos - fortunately she got an extra pair for those were needed the next day when we went through a similar routine  with the Afghans.  Anyway, within several hours, she had a one year passport.   And it took several hours the next day and the help of our long suffering guide, for her to  come out with an appropriate visa, including a stop at the street scribe’s chair outside the Ministry for all her information to be translated into Dari.  

We - the leader and myself - went through a smilier routine to obtain permission for me to leave the confines of Kabul:  I wanted to travel into the Panjshir Valley and up to the Salang Pass, which required special permission for a foreigner to leave the city. In fact, at one point, they were talking of sending an Army guy with me!  Turned out unnecessary for  the Minister had been there the day before and felt it was safe.

So in a more reliable sedan than our van, we - the guide, his 11 year old son, driver and myself took off.  Countryside was lovely, just starting to blossom into spring.  We drove through several small villages and ended at Ahmed Shah Moussoud’s grave, which I suspect will eventually become a shrine.  He was the Tajik head of the Northern Alliance who as assassinated  by by Al-Qaeda.  At the grave is a memorial with words by his son and a Colonel Pike, USMC, extolling him and his life.  

From here we turned back to head out to the Salang Pass., stopping for lunch at a road side restaurant along the way.  Again., wonderful snowy mountain country, the kind of country trekkers die for.  The Himalayas I keep coming back to.  Got into the snow and exchanged snow balls with my young traveling companion; we then turned around, homeward  bound.  

The next morning saw me in jail!  In view of my past life, I had indicated an interest in visiting the jail and/or the courts.  Apparently, there had been trouble in the  main facility:  several Taliban had escaped and heads were rolling.  Not a time for a foreigner to wander in.  But I was able to convince the head of the women’s organization providing services to the women’s initial detention facility of my legitimate interest, so came in with her  assistant and three other workers.  Between us and the four women employees (ladies in long black dresses with shawls covering their  heads are hard to term  “guards”), we almost outnumbered the twelve rather sad ladies in custody.  It was a small, well used facility, with about five cots per room and a small asphalted enclosed area for a yard.  The women sat in chairs with their faces to the wall and backs to the sun.  Cooking pans were drying the the middle of the yard.  
With the help of the accompanying women, I talked a bit with them.  They were there from 3 days to, in an extreme case, four  months while their cases made an initial appearance before  before the Court.  Apparently no one was released pending Court.  One very depressed looking youngster was there for running away from home, have done this in response to a forced marriage - she faces  five, count them, five years incarceration.  Two others had been arrested for what sounded like embezzlement.  Several were charged with  prostitution.  One woman, looking more middle class than the rest, kept the bottom half of her fact covered throughout though she was quite articulate.    No personal items are provided, bed and food  only (literally, three hots and a cot!); the women’s organization does provides any “extras”.  All have attorneys though most ae court appointed, some attorney s are women, some judges are women and few trust their attorneys.

As I left, I noticed no visitors for these women while there was a long long of men waiting to visit at the main jail.  

No one I talked with would predict the country’s future.  They would shrug when I asked about next month (the Taliban  have announced an Spring offensive for April) or next year.    They were too busy trying to do today.  It was the old AA adage, A Day at a Time. So much energy; so much effort, so much to do!  You could cry!  
Leaving Kabul, I stopped at the Kabul Cafe which was on the way to the airport, where earlier I had  a mango smoothie - a hangout for Westerners with a nice garden where you could enjoy Kabul’s answer to Starbucks..  And earlier,  I did get to The Bookseller of Kabul, though  bought nothing there.  But I plan to return next year and  volunteer, maybe doing conversational English at Turquoise Mountain Foundation, and then travel,at least to  Herat and Mazer-e Sharif.  For the country is beautiful and the people most gracious.  I’ve never felt more welcome. And  I’ve never drank as much tea for tea is part and parcel of any welcoming.

Costs:  Roundtrip airfare British Air SFO-LHR-Dubai: $1267 plus Kam Air Dubai-Kabul: $410.  Reality Tour charge: $1700 (including two meals/daily).  Additional cost for 4 days: $760 including two meals daily). Tips:  $120.  Overnight Dubai: $100.  

The guesthouse was quite comfortable:  two to a room excepting our fifth woman out.  Electricity was unpredictable - we had solar backup but that didn’t help with our heater or the hot water.  Food was basic:  rice, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, kabobs, flat bread, beef, potatoes, tangerines.  Lunch was at small restaurants  used by  the locals, not foreigners.  We ate at the Rose Restaurant several times as it had chicken kabobs.   

It was a well organized schedule which kept us moving and ready to return to our quarters by supper time.  Our leader/guide/minder was outstanding and very patient with us.  One of the group described his job as “herding a bunch of cats” for we would  invariably head off in different directions, according to our interests.  

Besides  Rory Stewart’s books, I suggest  Greg Mortenson’s and David Relin’s  Three Cups of Tea, Sarah Chayes The Punishment of Virtue and Greg Mills’ Africa to Afghanistan  all giving a different perspectives on the area.  Besides the invaluable Lonely Planet, I found Bijan Omani’s and Matthew Leeming’s  Afghanistan, a Companion and Guide helpful.  

Monday, January 21, 2008

Yemen - Oman Dec 2007-Jan 2008

Two weeks in Yemen and six days in Oman, that was the schedule.  Starting in Sana’a and actually, ending in Dubai.  The travel in Yemen was part of an Imaginative Traveler tour, one of the first they’d sponsored since 1999 when some Explore tourists had been killed in a shoot out with their abductors   and the Army.  This hadn’t stopped some Italian and French groups from continuing to tour about, but did put a brake on the Brits until this past year.

 I signed up  for Christmas and New Years in Yemen the minute I saw the announcement.  And no regrets!

(I should note that less than a week  following my return, the SF Chronicle had a news piece about suspected al Qaeda militants shooting at a convoy of tourists in Wadi Hadramuwt, killing two Belgians and a Yemeni driver.  Three weeks before, I was there!  I suspect it was less al Qaeda and more a tribal issue with the tourists in the way)

Yemen is the poor man of the Middle East.  It reminded me of Albania:  the people were welcoming and full of spirit (and qat - a leafy stimulant chewed by the men) but the infrastructure was kaput.  It impressed me as  still a tribal  society  despite 21st Century  television, computers and weapons.

And as in  Albania, they hadn’t figured out what to do about the trash.  Villages were overwhelmed with  plastic sacks and wrappings atop plastic sacks and wrappings.  But  you could overlook this, what with  scenery of unparalleled beauty with some  areas comparable  to the Grand Canyon.

We were a group of twelve: two Americans, a Swiss, a Norwegian, a Welshman, three Aussies and the rest Brits.  We had a magnificent Egyptian tour leader who kept things going, necessary as we had bad luck in local guides.  We started and ended in the capital city, Sana’a which boasted  an active old town medina with art and crafts museums housed in a traditional tower houses.

Women were all covered, mainly in  in black including  most of the face, relieved with a few  multicolored  abas, left over from an old tradition.  The men were either in a long dress or a wrap around skirt,  with an elaborate belt holding a curved knife topped with a standard suit jacket. Scarves or turbans, often red and white checkered Bedouin ones  completed the dress.  Few were in Western dress, most often younger males.  

From Sana’a, we flew into Wadi Hadramawt, a 200 km valley in Eastern Yemen.  We stayed in Sayun for three nights, while driving around to the UNESCO protected city of Shibam and the palaces and mosques of Tarim.  I was fascinated with  Tarim’s manuscript library used by Arabic scholars both then and now; we also snuck into the Aynot Cemetery where visitors were quite unwelcome.  In Sayun itself was a the old Sultan’s Palace which had been converted to a museum.  While it contained the usual archaeological items, it also had a marvelous collections of photos including some by Freya Stark.  Christmas Day was in Seyun,  celebrated with roasted goat (tough and stringy) followed by  local music and dance.  Accommodations was really excellent in what was reputed to be the best place in town.  

Drove down the Wadi, finally ending up at the port city of Al Mukalla,  where we acquired an  Army escort to Aden. Great discussion whether to road from Bir Ali, a beach area, to Aden was safe what with local disturbances.  Finally, off we went, four Land Rovers led by  a Toyota pickup with a Kalishnakov mounted in the rear carrying seven young  qat chewing soldiers.  A wild ride.  Reportedly the disturbers of the peace liked to  a)  take a pop at  each other, b) shoot a couple of soldiers and c) capture a few tourists for ransom.  We were two of the three; I figured we might do better on our own but, not my decision.  Aside:  if I had the Toyota franchise for Yemen, I’d be a wealthy woman - often old and beat up, they were ubiquitous.

We did get to Aden safely, the city where Noah’s ark may have been built and launched and the US Cole was attacked.   We wandered about  a series cisterns/reservoirs which could  date from the First Century,   spent a bit of time in one of the museums,  the Arabian Sea Promenade and finally,  a restaurant around the corner from the hotel with the best bread I’ve ever eaten.  Flat bread cooked along the side of a hot, hot kettle.  Ahh!

In the evening, one of the guys from the group and I ended up at a wedding celebration, held in a secluded part of the public sidewalk.  Musicians with PA system:  drums, sitar and other unknown tome instruments with two rather athletic dancers performed before a all male (except for me and a three year who was with her father - or at least, I think/hope it was her father)  gathering.  Surprisingly, I was welcomed and eventually was in one of the front rows of sitters as opposed to the standees.  Wonderful seemingly impromptu performance - though everyone appeared familiar with the music and ritualistic hand clapping.

Ta’izz was our next stop, after exploring the old cities of Ibb - a city with buildings of 550-1000 years old still in use -  and Jubla - famous for its qat souk.  .  As we walked about, we were accompanied by a  cadre of urchins, eager to give information and to ask for money or pens;  tourists had obviously passed this way before.  I did get to stick my head into a girls’ school, a bit unique for women play such a minute role in public life.  

New Year’s Eve was in Al Mokha, a seaside resort of sorts.  Some hardy souls stayed up through midnight, dancing to someone’s wind instrument and drum in an ocean side cabana.  Here we acquired our last local guide; the two previous ones had been totally inept and had been returned to sender.

From here it was two nights in an 11th Century mountain top village, Al-Hajjarah, staying with several other tour groups (French and Italian) in  the local funduq (guesthouse).  Communal sleeping arrangements (six of us in our room) on mats with six shared toilet-shower combinations for some thirty of us. Two Western toilets and two showers with hot water.  

After the evening meal, there was music and dancing - both of a higher caliber that we’d previously experienced.  And it was a participatory experience.  During this time in the mountains, we walked around villages clinging to the mountain sides, climbed up to a hilltop mosque, saw the terraced mountain sides but continuing to step over and around the plastic sacks and trash left over recent years.  Great hiking country.

Coming off a rather hairy detour - and there seemed more detours than roads in the mountains - we were blocked by  a gathering:  two young Muslim bridegrooms with decorated turbans and magnificently carved silver scabbards over their swords,  a honor guard of two Uzi toting friends with another dozen  buddies dancing to  the best of drummers seated in  the back of a Toyota pickup.  Naturally, our drivers stopped and joined the dancing.  Periodically, there were bursts of fire from the Uzis, friendly celebratory fire.   

We finally did get to Kawkaban, an old fortified mountain top village,  The hotel was an original with few modifications from the old days.  More charm than convenience.  The next morning, some of us hiked down a steep path to Shibam (another Shibam, not related to the Wadi Hadramawt Shibam) and Friday Market.  From there to the old Inman’s palace at Wadi Dhar,  now a museum of sorts.  And another  lovely view.  And then Sana’a.  And home - or the next destination on one’s agenda.  

Normally, accommodations were pretty basic.  Most times we had hot water, most times we had a Western toilet:  But not always.  You vamped.  But other than the funduq, there were beds.  Food was soup, rice, veggies (mostly potatoes), salad (tomatoes and cucumbers), bread with chicken, fish, camel, or goat.  Toward the end, we were also offered spaghetti - the Italian influence I guess.

My next stop was Muscat, Oman via Dubai.  On the Sana’a-Dubai  flight, I was seated next to a German, forty years in the US.  He was aa academic who consulted on planning and economic issues for the UN and various  NGOs.  We talked non stop the entire trip for he had been all over the world in one capacity or another.  Fascinating man! 

Originally I was to be on a eight day sea trek but that didn’t come about as not enough signed on.  So I went on my own to Muscat.  I contacted a travel agent there for hotel and day tours.  And Oman is another world from Yemen even though they are next door to each other: neat , modern and tidy.  My hotel was a righteous 3* facility with swimming  pool, conference rooms, several restaurants and a work out room.  Clean sheets, a bath tub and hot water.  A distinct change from a mat on the floor and squat toilets.  And after  intense relationships in  a group of twelve, being alone was a relief.  And no head scarf was required.

I did a half day city tour and then two day long tours:  one to the Jebels Shams (mountain area) and the other to the Sands (desert area).   I had hope to take  sunset dhow  cruise, but that wasn’t to be.  I did take the local bus from Muscat to Dubai (where I wouldcatch my flight home) so I could see more of the countryside - wasn’t sure about the bus ticket for the agent’s ability in English was only exceeded by my ability in Arabic.  But it worked out.

Touring about Muscat, I found it reminiscent of Singapore.   Well maintained streets, landscaped with art objects decorating the roundabouts.  Buildings were white.  Most autos were white.  Everything clean and maintained.  Cabs had  orange trim, owned by the drivers who took meticulous care of them and all dressed in long gown (no belt and knife) with a pill box hat.  Coming in from the airport, I felt I had limo service rather than a simple taxi.  

Muscat is sprawled out.  I was staying in Ruwi, an rather commercial area  labeled “Little India” by Lonely Planet.  I did get  to the Grand Mosque, the  Walled City, the Sultan’s Palace, the fish market and the souq.  My driver took me to several resort hotels and the row of embassies (no photos or else!)    Development obviously has been thoughtfully planned; there are no out of character high rises and I saw no poverty.  

The next day, I took off for Nizwa  - impressed with the Fort which sported an old cannon donated by the City of Boston - never figured out which old cannon though.  Then we took off for the Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain. ( I didn’t get to Jebel Akhdar where the British SAS fought rebels on behalf of the government  in the 1950s and where they are great walking paths.  Another time.)  Jebel Shams were quite spectactular however; with dirt  roads that barely clung to the mountain sides.  There was a section that was compared to the Grand Canyon; where had I heard that before.  But it was breath taking.  

My other day  out was to the Wahiba Sands, home to Bedouins and their racing camels - got several photos of the camels and did see the racing rack.  Then to the tell dunes.  Drive almost straight up and then a vertical down,  At times I suspect the driver was testing me; he kept asking how I was doing.  Or testing his Land Rover.  He didn’t know he had the Sky Diving Kid!   At the end, drove into a secluded Oasis - don’t know the name of it - but it was peaceful and lovely with water and greenery all about.  A distinct change from the sandy desert.  

My last day,unfortunately, was a religious holiday, Muslin New Year, which meant   museums were closed,.  I did get into the  the Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum which was a delight.  An old  royal summer home  used as the headquarters for the armed forces,, it is one of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen. They have a marvelous collection of well cared for weapons, from days of yore to the present  Fortunately, I was able to wander about on my own though LP indicates there is a mandatory military escort.  I must have looked harmless.

 The lower floor has artifacts and information from Oman’s early days while the second floor starts with the current Sultan, a Sandhurst graduate who served with the British Army before inheriting Oman from his father (with the help of the Brits whose involvement is not mentioned in any of the write ups at the museum),

In the 30-odd years Sultan Qaboos been in power, he has - from all I saw - done an excellent job of bringing Oman into the 21st Century without sacrificing the cultural foundation of the country.  While there are  expat workers, eg Indians and Paki, he is determined to Omanize  the work force.  Certainly Oman impressed me as  the opposite of the tribal and poor and chaotic society of Yemen.

From there I had lunch with an Australian woman I had met in Yemen, who is on a two year  contact, teaching core subjects to girls in a local Muslim school.  Hope to keep in touch with her. Then walked about a bit before packing up for the  7 AM bus to Dubai.

So off to Dubai on the early morning bus with no other Westerners, five other woman and half a bus load of guys, mostly Indian.   I got a good look at local towns as we went past; a pit stop was made at a new fast food place with immaculate facilities;  it took a bit to get through United Arab Emirates customs.  But in about five hours, we were in Dubai.  

The stop (not a depot as in Muscat) was walking distance to my hotel but!  Construction was going on and the path to the hotel was blocked.  I had to go up and over two metal barriers; I was helped by a gentleman holding my carry on as I and a conservatively dressed Muslin woman crawled across.  Then to the hotel, selected as  a  reasonably priced and located 2* on the Internet.  Wasn’t sure what to expect.    The Regent Hotel turned out to be charming, with a delightful cafe , much more a 3* place.  I made arrangements  for a $55 half day tour of Dubai the following day since I would be there two nights.  The hotel was in the al Riggia area, which had high rises and hotels galore.

 In fact, all of Dubai would do well in Las Vegas.  Lots of high rises and no class.  Something like 25 shopping malls, including one with skiing and ice skating in an enclosed area.  In the half day tour, I saw little of charm and lots of glitz.   Workers, mainly expat Philipinos, Indians and Pakistanis, are crowded in high rise flats, similar to Hong Kong.  Dubai is not my kind of place - but then, neither is Las Vegas.

What I did enjoy were the five five simultaneous cricket matches occurring on a vacant parking  lot  near my hotel.  I never understood cricket but was interested in  watching the players.  And there was an authentic old residence hidden amidst the high rises - it was the only one I saw.    


The Yemen tour was arranged through Adventure Center (800-227-8747) which with a discount, cost me $2377 and often included several meals daily.  Local charges were $440 with a $65 tips kitty.  Also tipped the tour guide, who was absolutely superb, $100 and spent about $200 on meals and sundries. Airfare was  $2013.83.

Oman costs: Arrangements for tours and hotel were made with Balwan Travel Agency in Muscat  and the total cost was $1400.  Half went for the tours and the other half for the hotel.   I know I spent about $150 cash and would estimate bus fare back to Dubai at $25.

The Dubai hotel  room was $226 for the two nights; what with breakfast and shuttle to airport, quite reasonable. 

Now to enjoy my break at home before setting off again. 

FYI:  International Living magazine just issued its 2008 Quality of Life Index:  France was tops with an 85 score with the US third rated at  83.  UAE (Dubai) was rated at 45, Oman at 43 and Yemen at 31, fourth from last placed Iraq  at  29.