Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Decade of Memories

I was asked about the happenings of the past decade by hosts of an online travel group; this was my response:

The past ten years saw serious changes in my life - and
greatly increased traveling. While my husband and I
traveled several times a year - his last trips were to Tibet
and the UK - I increased both the amount of the traveling
and the scope of the trips after I became a single six years
ago. The mobile (a misnomer if I've ever met one) home was
sold, I moved into a triplex and have been on the road ever
since. I've now been in 70+ countries over five continents
and will make that seven continents by February.

I had always wanted to travel but marriage had taken me down
a different path until I convinced my husband to travel
some twenty-five years ago. He had figured that WW2 travel
with US Navy was enough for a lifetime. When faced with an
ultimatum, he decided to tag along. We did gentle travel at
first, nothing to scare the horses. But he ended up willing
to try Egypt, Morocco, India, China, Thailand and Japan
mixed in with an annual trip to the UK.

Since I've been on my own, I have traveled as far out of the
box as seems safe. The Middle East - I've missed out on
Saudi Arabia so far - fascinates me. North Africa? Libya
is still a problem to visit but it looks like I'll make it
to Algeria this year. Asia and Himalayan region are
another of my interests. And then there's Eastern Europe
and the Baltic states; been in some but not all. With luck,
I'll get to North Korea in Sept.

I have a friend who signs on to visit any country listed by
the State Department as a problem - I'm bad but not that
bad, thank you. I'll leave Somalia alone. But I have been
to Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Mali, Afghanistan (twice) and Pakistan
in recent years. And with no problems - just take
reasonable precautions so that I don't become part of the
problem. The plan? To continue checking out the World, so
long as health and money hold out.

So,keep traveling, all! And a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Middle East Chronicles Part 2 - December 2009

King Hussein/Allenby Bridge and Beyond

To the Jordanians, it is King Hussein Bridge; the Israelis call it
Allenby Bridge. Either way, it is an historic entrance into
Israel-Palestine. I was alerted both by one of my GARP companions as
well as the tour people, Global Exchange, there could be complications
with the visa. The Israelis were now issuing three kinds of visas:
one to the West Bank, one for the Israeli portion and one encompassing
both. Also, per Lonely Planet, if you looked undesirable, there would
be questions about the purpose of the visit and a request for evidence
of a return ticket .

I do have a second passport so wasn’t concerned about the passport
stamping but my companion was: he was an Australian researching the
Australian Horse activities during World War I and had a note from the
Israeli Ambassador to Australia, requesting Passport Control not to
stamp his passport as he is in and out of Middle Eastern countries
while working on this project. This really confused the young Israeli
officer and led to following exchange: “Why are you here? “To do
historical research about World War I”? “What was that?” “The war
before World War 2.” What was that?” and so on. She finally let him

My turn: Do I want my passport stamped? No problem! Why was I here?
To visit as part of my interest in the Middle East. That seemed to
flummox her; so at a nudge from my traveling partner, added I was a
tourist. Did I have a return ticket? Yes, and then showed her my
E-ticket which she gazed over, then returned my passport, sans any
stamp. An eighty year old, five foot three inch, gray haired traveler
must have really looked truly undesirable to her.

I assume I did obtain the all necessary permissions for I traveled in
all the sectors though no one asked for the visa stamp at the numerous
check points - and I went through more checkpoints and saw more
weapons than in either Iraq or Afghanistan. And Xe (aka Blackwater)
must have a huge contract with the Israelis for many of the Security
police were theirs.

I was one of a small group traveling under the auspices of Realty
Tours, which sets up educational trips for Global Exchange members. I
had first traveled with them over a year ago to Kabul and had been
impressed by the opportunities to meet with various NGO staff, trying
to provide services and provide some kind of peaceful solution to the
country's’ problems. It had given an insight beyond what one would
normally obtain, looking at one ruin or another.

There were two free days before the tour formally began, two days to do
the usual touristy sightseeing. I was at the Gloria Hotel, just inside
the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. Another group member had also arrived
early, so we paired up for some of the time. He wanted to go to
Bethlehem so we signed on for a half day tour. The two of us were the

A cab came to pick us up with a Christian Palestinian driver and a
Jerusalem license plate: all of this is important for one’s passport
and permit depends on ethnicity, residence and religion which then
determines your ability to travel within the area. We were taken to a
check/transfer point. He dropped us off there, to go through the wall
- and yes, there is a wall to out-wall Berlin any day! - and a caged
barred area. Once through. we met another taxi driver who took us to
Bethlehem where we did sightseeing with our guide, a Palestinian woman
with a Brazilian passport (she and her family had lived there for
thirteen years before they could return, but still no local passport)
and a permit to live in Bethlehem (but still couldn’t go into the West
Bank/East Jerusalem much less Israeli territory).

Though out the various venues, there were many devote believers. I was
most interested in the varied appearance of the visitors. A Cameroon
choir came with their own priest - the singing was lovely; I wished I
had a tape recorder. Most were obviously moved by being in, what was to
them, the most Holy of places. The several modern additions to
ancient buildings showed great sensitivity by the architects involved.

That afternoon, we hired our driver to take us to Ramallah and to view
some of the settlements. Had lunch in a street cafe and saw the
wonderfully designed Arafat memorial/tomb. Also found out that the
“settlements” are large condomium units, set up on hills often
containing aquifers for the area, taken by the Israelis who use 80%
and sell 20% back to the Palestinians. Settlements are throughout the
Palestinian areas, as if the Israelis are setting their stamp on the
land, making it impossible for the Palestinians to have contiguous

Spent the next day wandering around the colorful Old City, with a
break for lunch at the King David Hotel, part of my tracing the
British presence in Jerusalem after the Balfour Agreement and the
Mandate. This was the hotel blown up by the Jewish Irgun in 1946,
killing 91; giving truth to the phrase, one man’s terrorist is
another man’s patriot. Old photos line the hallways of this now 5-star
establishment, bringing memories of another time. I also walked up to the
elegant American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem where TE Lawrence had
stayed, reportedly meeting with his infamous biographer, Lowell Thomas.
They too had a excellent selection of old photos of bygone times,

And on to the tour, which was an investigation of Prospects for Peace
and Justice. In nine days of travel and interviews with at least
twenty-two Israelis, Bedouins, and Palestinians (both Christian and
Moslem), I found a lot of hard working, sincere and devoted
individuals. We met with many human rights representatives, former
soldiers, members of bereaved families, students and administrators at
Bir Zeit University, various women’s groups, a prisoner’s right
organization, an Israeli demographer, non violent resistance groups,
educators, and media people.

We stayed both in Jerusalem and in East Jerusalem (at St George’s
Guest House, across from the American consulate) but traveled to the
Dheisheh and Jenin Refugee camps; stayed overnight at the Ibdaa
Cultural Center at Dheisheh with triple bunk beds and no hot water.
And like “settlements”, “camps” are a misnomer - they are small,
crowded, slum like ghettoized apartments, in an urban area, not the
tented communities I had pictured from CARE’s photos of African refugee

Near Bethlehem in Beit Sahour, we spent a night with a local family.
Mine was a school administrator-teacher with a son in high school, two
daughters married (one still in Bethel and the other overseas) and his
former teacher-wife, now operating a travel business.
Palestinian-Christian, there were photos of himself with Arafat in his
living room; he said he was no longer active - it was too dangerous for
he would be at risk from the Palestinians. I watched the CD of the
Christening party of his granddaughter, which was obviously a Big
Event in their lives.

At Janin, I was most impressed by The Freedom Theatre’s work with the
children, a pre professional program both in media and stage. We were
shown around by an International (overseas volunteers are termed
Internationals in this country which must label and categorize you!)
who had taken a troupe overseas recently to perform. They had modern
equipment and what I saw of a dramatic production, was impressive.

We spent time in Hebron where I was able to enter the Ibrahimi Mosque,
now shared with a synagogue. There were soldiers and checkpoints
throughout the town. Israeli settlers had residences above the local
souk. Barbed wire had been strung above the walk way for the settlers
threw down various garbage on the locals walking and shopping below.
Time was spent at the local [pre-school where several of our group made
their day with balloon creations for the kids - and teachers who took
some for their own children.

Toward the end of the tour, we went north to Jayyous and Mas’ha, to see
the effects of the ever present wall, which has affected the economy
and society of this agrarian community. I observed an instance where
a farmer with horse and cart had to clear though a virtual wall
(electrified fencing along two sides of a cleared “road”)r through an
opening staffed by two armed soldiers to get to his fields. Others
have just left fields untended rather than deal with the soldiers’ and
the sometimes unpredictable hours.

I was in the Negev one day, where an Israeli-Bedouin organization was
working with the semi-nomads to help them establish recognized villages
which meant they could have water and electricity and find a means of
economic lsupport. The last day was spent in Jaffa, the picturesque
former Palestinian port, which has been overwhelmed by Tel Aviv.

Near where we stayed in East Jerusalem, a family had been evicted by the Israeli government so settlers could be moved in. Part of the home had already been destroyed. The Arab owner had gone to Turkey to search Ottoman records for the title. In the meantime, Israeli Police stood by, family members camped out, activists and media made themselves known. I witnessed the sad scene one afternoon as we drove by.

I did talk with a thirteen year resident of Jerusalem, who was
surprised that we were not able to get into one a settlements for a
scheduled interview. Wrong entrance we were told at the checkpoint; we
needed to drive half an hour away, for the “right” entrance for our
minibus. This resident seemed concerned that I was influenced by
presence/absence of Jewish participants and/or the presence of a
Palestine guide. She pointed out that during the last Intifada, she
had had to draw her shades at night for fear of being targeted. She
simply did not go into East Jerusalem.

Leaving was memorable: three of us were on the sherut (shared taxi) to
the airport. The next person to be picked was tardy but finally
appeared after ten or so minutes: a sixtish black hatted, fully bearded
Orthodox (Hasidic?) Jew, escorted to the vehicle by four dancing,
singing younger versions of himself . Though we collected several more
passengers, none exhibited such panaché.

Getting through the airport and security and onto the aircraft was less difficult than entering over the Bridge. Initially told I was way too early and would have to wait several hours before going through Security - which I like to clear ASAP and particularly, as I was warned of probable complications in exiting Ben Gurion - I was finally directed over to the entryway to the gates. Clutching E-Ticket and passport in hand, assuring one and all, I had no luggage other than my backpack, I was cleared quite routinely, assigned a “2” status (it’s a 1 to 8 scale with 8 being assigned to very suspicious characters!) and sent on my way. No serious search and few questions. No problem!

Reactions: I did not visit Haifa or Tel Aviv nor did I get to the
Golan Heights and Gaza. We did spend time in Palestinian areas and
Jerusalem, which is a small sample to draw from. Overall, I felt that
the Jews, so long oppressed, had become the oppressor. Palestine was
but a suzerainty of Israel.

I had thought matters would be bad but not so bad that there is not
only apartheid, but an apartheid that includes separate roads into
various areas, for separate peoples. Areas are labeled A, B, and C
which determines the right of passage and who is in charge.
Checkpoints galore.

People on both sides of the wall are deeply concerned about human
rights and peacemaking but that doesn’t appear to influence the
leaders’ actions. Talk, yes! Behavior, no! I suspect there is enough
blame around to share so both Palestinians and Israelis could to move
on rather than try to out rationalize and out manipulate each other.
One-state or two-state solution, neither will be meaningful unless the
politicos are serious about a solution.

I returned home depressed: another intifada would not surprise me.

Costs: The Global Exchange fee was about $2200 for accommodation and two
meals a day. I paid $180 for my two additional nights in Jerusalem.
Airfare: BA SFO-Heathrow-Amman; Tel Aviv-Heathrow-SFO: $1491.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Middle East Chronicles Part ! - November 2009 Back to The Dig, plus Toting and Sievin

Back to The Dig, plus Toting and Sieving

Last year I spent two weeks on a dig along the Hejaz Railroad in an effort to determine the extent of the WW1 Arab Revolt. It is part of a ten year conflict archaeological project sponsored by the University of Bristol and the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities. Exhausted and filthy dirty at the end of the 2008 session, I promptly signed on for this year’s expedition. Along with other volunteers, I paid for a three star hotel, meals, time at Wadi Rum, Aqaba, Petra and ten days physical labor.

There were thirty-two in the group, twelve of whom were staff and the rest, like myself, enthusiasts: students, seniors, archeologists, former military and a photographer-writer. A number had been with the project since the start. We began with a recce at Wuheida, south of Ma’an; east of the wadi originally Turkish territory and the west side an Arab encampment, both tribal and Arab army, with a large stone-marked area that might have been Prince Feisal’s compound. Most of the time was spent checking out and digging in this area, though we did return to the Betn al-Ghoul camp sites along the Hejaz for a day.

Rain sent us to an area that we named Makin’s Fort in honor of the Air Corps pilot who photographed the area. - dug at what might have been a dwelling whose roof had burned - artillery shelling? It is exciting to work on sites whose function is under continuing speculation. And so each days work went. My finds improved over last year’s mule pucky: I advanced to an unexploded British Army .303 cartridge.

And this year we had more visitors than before. By the time we finished up at Makin’s Fort, we had been questioned by the Bedouin police, the Army and the Traffic police.

At Wuheida, The local Sheikh came by, claiming the land was his and so, we must hire his two sons to help us haul ourselves and equipment. State visitors and authors came by. Students came by - we were a popular bunch. The sadness was that a good share of the eastern site at Wuheida had been raped by bull dozer.

The off-days were great! Rather than return to Petra - I had been there several times before - I went with a few to Karak (one of the old nearby Crusader Castles), the Dead Sea and finally by Tafilah, scene of a pitched battle between Ottomans and Arabs. - driving by at dusk, there was little to mark the area as memorable, though several of our group spent a day there with one of the military guys, doing a recce.

The final off-day was spent at Wadi Rum; four of us marked out our own path of travel rather than spend part of the day a Aqaba. This was my third session at Wadi Rum: the first by camel and the second by jeep. This was another run by jeep, but we were able to choose our exact itinerary. One person spent most of the day wandering about Lawrence’s Spring while others went off to various canyons and natural bridges. I could spend days trekking around the area. We ended the day with a royal Bedouin feast.

As with last year, there were evening talks by our leaders, helping us appreciate the meaning of what we were doing; most particularly to understand the nuances of conflict and landscape archaeology. In my school days, admittedly awhile back, there was cultural and physical archaeology - and not much else.

I ended this season with a couple of days in Amman where a healthy climb got me to the Archaeological Museum, the Citadel, Temple of Hercules, a Byzantine Basilica., the Uumayyad palace and cistern with adjacent sights. Also, did a wander about town with a fellow digger from the GARP expeditions.

In Wadi Mousa, the Hotel was the Edom: I have stayed there twice before: first with an Explore tour and twice now with GARP. Would guess it to be moderate in price; certainly convenient and comfortable. In Amman, I stayed at the Toledo Hotel, a very elegent 3-star hotel, just up from where the main bus depot been: #1 on Lonely Planet’s current listing. Airfare: BA SFO-Heathrow-Amman; Tel Aviv-Heathrow-SFO: $1491.

Coming: the Middle East Chronicles part 2 - December 2009. The King Hussein/Allenby Bridge and Beyond.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Philip's Camel Trek

(Philip Beck, my Canadian companion on the Moroccan camel trek, reported on his experience. It is a lovely piece - with several corrections: I have yet to travel in South America; while I have wandered about the Himalayas, I haven't done a proper trek; I have been more in the Middle East and Africa than Arabia.

Here's Philip's impressions of the Sahara Camel Trek - and he rode the camel much more than I did, brave man that he is!)

Southern Morocco Camel Trek
by Philip Beck

“For the true adventurer the rewards are found more in the striving and the journey than the achievement of the goal.” (Author unknown)

I came across this quote many years ago and have never forgotten it. Rarely does the opportunity arise for a real adventure: a journey in a remote region where taxing physical effort is required; where the daily rewards are both social, like enjoying your fellow travelers’ company and sharing in your leader’s expertise, and more intimate, like gazing at the Milky Way or even contemplating the crystalline intricacies of a single grain of sand. Exodus’ AMC Southern Morocco Camel Trek is one of these adventures. I was lucky enough to be on this trip in October of 2009.

The backbone of the trip is a 210 km trek from Zagora to Merzouga and the dunes of Erg Chebbi in the Moroccan Sahara desert. This trip’s mastermind and designated leader, Michael Asher, is an internationally renowned desert explorer, author, and environmentalist.

Michael has received the National Geographic Society’s Ness Award for his desert exploration, and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Mungo Park Medal for exploration and for his work with camels. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1996. With his wife, he was the first westerner to cross the Sahara from west to east: a 7,430 km. journey by camel that took nine months. (By comparison, it is only 6,700 km from Dawson City, Yukon to Halifax, Nova Scotia!) Michael has also produced films, directed documentaries, and contributes to leading newspapers and magazines. You could not ask for a more knowledgeable leader: a true adventurer who has spent many years in the Sahara living with nomads. Michael shared stories the whole trip about the nomads, desert life, and ecology.

Our group of eleven included six from the UK, one from Korea, one from the UAE, two from the US, and me. Our ages ranged from a 26-year-old to a woman who celebrated her 80th birthday on Day 7. The cooks made a special dessert that night to mark the occasion. This lady had just come from Afghanistan, had traveled through most of the Arabian Peninsula, trekked in the Himalayas, and hiked in South America. I learned a lot from her. One of her secrets is her can-do attitude.

Our group met in Marrakech. The following day we drove by mini-bus over the High Atlas Mountains to Zagora. We passed kasbahs, oases, and villages, and finally reached the end of the road. We met our camels and camel guides ten km past the end of the road just by the Tzi N’Tafilet Pass by 4 X 4’s. Our journey to Merzouga would take us ten days.

Each day we awoke at 5:30 a.m., before the sun rose at six. By seven we had eaten breakfast, packed up, and were ready to set off. We walked or rode for four hours, traveling five or six km per hour, with a rest and snack break every hour. At 11:00 we would find a place to have a three-hour break. We found shade from the hot sun under nearby trees or hillsides and if needed the camel men would put a large tent up for us. They also had lunch ready by around 12:15 after serving us glasses of re-hydrating and therapeutic green tea with as much sugar as we needed.

The afternoon trek likewise lasted three to four hours. The camel men again had tea ready within 30 minutes of our arrival and set up the tent. We got to our stop for the evening just before glorious colourful sunsets. Dinner was usually between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. Dinner was in the big tent by the light of a single lantern. Each evening we talked about the day and share stories and philosophies. We slept under the stars. Everyone’s last sight each night was the Milky Way and meteorites blazing across the limitless desert sky. We were there when there was no visible moon. This allowed for really clear stargazing.

The desert was mostly uninhabited. We passed only four or five settlements in the ten days. One day we met Berber nomads and visited their tent. Often we crossed paths with herds of camels or goats. We walked through mountain passes, crossed plains, bushwhacked though wadis (dry river beds), and gazed across the desert from the tops of dunes. We got our water from wells. One day we braved a mini sandstorm. Most days a breeze kept us fresh. We all had to keep our faces and heads covered to protect us from the sun. We found fossils. To our great surprise there was a lot of green: oases of palms, grasses, shrubs, desert melons and a few trees.

There were seven camel men plus a cook. Besides preparing our meals and teas and setting up the big tent, they packed and unpacked our gear, tended to the camels, ensured our comfort on the camels, and made sure we didn’t wander off track while walking. I have never seen such a team work so hard and seamlessly in my life. The meals they cooked were far better than the basic fare I was expecting. Every morning I looked forward to oatmeal porridge with fig jam spooned in to sweeten it up. Every day the team made fresh bread in the sand under a fire. These camel men greatly enhanced our group’s experience. They clearly loved what they were doing. Who wouldn't be happy living in the desert at peace, sharing your life experiences to an appreciative group? Our camaraderie with the camel men, evident from the start, developed into real friendships. We walked with them all day long and even though the majority of us spoke no Arabic other than “sukran” and “salaam alekum,” and no Berber, we communicated in broken French (on both sides), smiles, and friendly teasing. These guys spent a large part of the day teasing each other and laughing as well.

The Sahara is wilderness but we were within striking distance of roads and settlements if an emergency arose. We saw snakes and scorpions but a real concern to be aware of was the possibility of dehydration. We had to drink five or six liters of water each day, which for me that meant a few gulps every 15 to 20 minutes. One of these liters had salts dissolved in it to replenish what we’d sweated away.

Some minor annoyances I’d expected turned out to be fine. I was surprised how easy it was to stay clean for so long without a bath or shower. There were a lot of flies in the daytime and moths at night, but we just got used to them. The highest it got was during the day was 32. The evenings went down to about 12.

Our trip ended after a day and a half in the Erg Chebbi. The trip ended too soon. After big handshakes and hugs with our new friends the group realised that we had all accomplished something really big and really important. We also realised how lucky we were to have such a great experience in the desert, learning and sharing.

The highlights were:

• the beauty of the desert and learning about the desert ecosystem

• the Milky Way and shooting stars at night

• the company of Michael Asher

• trekking in a place little touched by ‘progress’

• a slower pace of life as we lived our days by the sun’s rhythms

• learning about and appreciating a nomadic way of life

Morocco is changing and modernizing rapidly. Each day in the Sahara we saw a few jeeps, a specially outfitted overland truck, or quads. Often they stopped and took our pictures. We attracted their interest because we were doing the authentic journey. I’m afraid that in five or ten years the route we took may be paved over. Go there as soon as you can.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Road to Morocco - without Bob, Bing or Dorothy!

For several years, I had been trying to sign on to one of Exodus’/Michael Asher’s camel treks without success. The Kenyan ones were canceled - lack of participation - and there were visa issues with the Sudanese ones.

So when an October Moroccan Sahara trek was announced, I immediately contacted Adventure Center with deposit in hand. I was a fan of Asher’s from his TE Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger biographies to his recent history of the SAS, Britain's Special Forces unit. The fact that he also was the last of the great desert explorers added to my determination to go, cheerfully ignoring Exodus’ listing of this tour as Moderate/Strenuous plus my past experience with camels which have left me walking most of the time.

Normally, I leave tours labeled Strenuous, alone. Adventurous, I’ll consider; Strenuous I avoid. But not this one, my Birthday present to myself. The thought of riding/walking across the Sahara for ten days - magnificent!

Marrakesh was the gathering point for the eleven intrepides who were set for this trip, several of whom had increased workouts in preparation. We were a mixed group: There was an Aussie couple, a Korean woman, an Emirates Arab, a Canadian, another American woman and the rest Brits. Ages: from twenty eight to eighty. And it was the best group I’ve ever traveled with - we bonded together well.

From Marrakech, we drove to Zagora where we were to met our camels and crew and have an introduction to the trekking. The problem was, to use an old Anglo-Saxon expression, some dumb shit didn’t get the word! So camels and crew were not where they were supposed to be and the local agent refused responsibility. Finally we made connections but no trekking that day. Just a chance to try on the camel of choice and camp out, with serious business to begin the following day.

The terrain ranged from hilly and rocky to sandy with brush to a packed gravel road to sand. All walked the first hour and then choices were made either to walk or ride for the next hour segment and so it went. At noon there was a several hour respite for lunch. Usually about six PM, we were done for the day. The scenery was great; the sunsets and sunrises were breathtaking.

By the end of the third day - second day of trekking - I really wondered what I had gotten myself in for. My nether regions were shot. The thought of more camel riding, no matter how the pads and blankets were arranged, sent me into outer space. By the fifth day, I had pulled a groin muscle. I obviously had more trouble than anyone else. Others could give themselves a break with an hours ride. I would try it and within half an hour, was off the animal and back on foot. At the end of the trek, my feet were as taped up as they had been when I was doing point work some years ago.

I had no choice but to suck it up and keep going. And once I realized that, I put myself into The Zone and trudged on, hopefully at a pace that didn’t hold anyone up too much. I made good use of the rest periods. And enjoyed the completion of each days journey, which was about 20+ kilometers. By the time we completed the trek at Merzouga, I was quite pleased with myself.

While others had bits and pieces of problems, most did well. An Aussie walked the entire distance and the Arab only rode the final bit. My fellow American, a devoted cameleer, rode the full trip. Several had intestinal problems. So far as I could tell, my roommate, the Korean woman, smaller than I am, had no difficulty and kept plugging on.

Though tents were provided, we all camped out. Mostly, the sky was clear and, even without my glasses, I could see the starts. It was a extraordinary experience, to lie there and breathe the clean outdoor air. I’ve rarely done this for I was never a camper in my salad days, so really appreciated this experience.

The sadness of the trip was the encroachment of civilization. Motorbikes roaring across the land and the tracks of 4x4s in the sands. of the Erg Chebbi broke into the desert isolation. I wonder if there is any place left that Man hasn’t attacked.

Michael Asher was an outstanding guide - very sensitive about and concerned for everyone’s welfare. Obviously knowledgeable about the area and facile in Arabic, one had every confidence in his leadership. He also kept the evening’s discussions going: we had several very bright and knowledgeable people in the group who were responsive to Asher’s rather Socratic style.

At the end, we had a day in Fez including a tour of the City and the Medina. For the first time, overseas, I bought nothing home with me. In fact, I lost both ball cap and duffel carrier at JFK.

Would I do this again? Probably!


Food was plain but good: pasta, couscous or rice with various vegetables, cheese bread, jam and sardines. Fruit or chocolate pudding for deserts. Often, there was oatmeal for breakfast.

Accommodations in Marrakesh, Zagora and Fez were very comfortable. The Fez Hotel was a bit out of the way, however.

Tour cost was $2703.25 , which included a discount for past patronage. Almost all meals were included. Air transprt was on Delta and Royal Air Maroc and cost $2403.25, plus $200 I paid at JFK to catch an earlier flight to SFO.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Back in the news again!

One of the guys with the Afghan trip forwarded the following, the result of an interview on the last night in Kabul:

Yahoo! News
Afghanistan, via war and election, by minibus
by Lynne O'Donnell Sun Sep 27, 2:30 am ET

KABUL (AFP) – Getting caught in the crossfire of battling warlords or caught short with dysentery might not be the best selling points for the holiday of a lifetime, but in Afghanistan it's all part of the adventure.

A recent group of intrepid -- some would say ill-advised -- travellers who drove through central Afghanistan had to deal with security forces on heightened alert for insurgents bent on disrupting national elections.

For three weeks they bedded down in tiny guesthouses after days spent bouncing along war-pitted roads in an unsprung minibus, being roughed up by police at armed checkpoints and facing daily fear of kidnap.

Amid the discomfort and fear, they discovered the warmth of people who spontaneously invited them home for tea and cake, as well as breathtaking scenery and some of the world's greatest but least visited historical sites.

Geoff Hann, a Briton who specialises in travel through seemingly inaccessible parts of the world, has been bringing tourists to Afghanistan -- on and off depending on the security situation -- for 30 years.

Leading his latest group of five, he arrived in Kabul on August 2 for a tour of some of the many sites, including the minaret of Jam and the mountainside niches that once held the Bamiyan buddhas, that could make Afghanistan, once again, a tourism hotspot.

But as a Taliban-linked insurgency expands its footprint across the destitute country, the flow of tourists that reached a peak in the 1970s has slowed to barely a trickle.

European tourists first started coming to Afghanistan in 1959, when 600 came to see historical sites on horseback, said Sayed Amanuddin Baha, director of the culture ministry's Afghan Tour travel agency.

By 1977, when Afghanistan was a fixture on the hash-hazed hippy trail, the country was earning millions of dollars a year from about 120,000 foreign visitors, he said.

Since then, Afghanistan has been mired in violence and during the rule of Taliban fanatics from 1996-2001, few foreigners were granted visas.

Things began to pick up after the Taliban -- who refused to expel Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks -- were overthrown in late 2001 in a US-led invasion.

But with the insurgents having re-established a permanent presence in many parts of the country, visitors who come for pleasure are rare.

Hann's group ranged in age from 29-year-old Mark Hansel, an electrical engineer and history buff from London, to 79-year-old Jo Gilbert, an inveterate traveller from San Francisco and one of two women on the trip.

After a day spent bumping over cratered roads, the group would sometimes turn up at a remote teahouse, the only accommodation available, to find they had to share a room and, yet again, forgo a shower.

"I didn't mind the conditions at all," said Gilbert, a former prison officer who described herself as "a traveller and a blogger".

"We became tolerant of each other's foibles," she said, as Hansel mumbled: "It's not like we had a choice."

Hann said he aims for a few tours a year -- 10 travellers being the optimum number -- despite the deteriorating security situation, and finds most problems are more to do with the digestion than security.

"We get people who get dysentery. One lady broke a foot -- she stumbled along on a crutch. Three or four years ago we were caught up in a warlord's battle and we had moments in 2001 when we came up against the Taliban.

"My philosophy is that you could be in your hotel and get blown up, which is fairly unlikely. We are not in the danger area for IEDs," he said, referring to roadside bombs the Taliban deploy against foreign and Afghan troops, mostly in the south where their influence is strongest.

"When it comes to kidnapping, we don't advertise where we're going or what we're doing, we use local transport hired on the spot and I find that people look after us as their guests -- and they want the money," he said.

For those willing to risk a war-zone vacation, insurance costs 200-350 pounds (325-570 dollars) for three weeks, he said, and double that for the over-75s.

Gilbert said she has been traversing the globe since 1976, largely alone since her husband died in 2003.

She wanted to see Afghanistan "outside the urbanised bubble of Kabul", she said. Because the war-ravaged country is in such dire need of help rebuilding itself after 30 years of war, she would like to do voluntary work.

"I can teach, I was a prison officer so I can work with the police, work in jails, as a consultant," she said.

After a couple of days in noisy, dirty Kabul -- where most buildings are hidden behind massive blast-proof walls and barbed wire, and traffic follows no discernible rules -- the group headed north to Mazar-i-Sharif.

That meant driving through the Salang tunnel on what has become, just weeks later, one of the most dangerous highways in the country.

Locals report increased Taliban activity as the insurgents target a new supply line from Tajikistan for the more than 100,000 foreign troops under NATO and US command.

Mazar, a bustling trading cross-roads for Central Asia, is famous for its carpets and textiles, and the Blue Mosque, which is revered by Shiite Muslims and which is under a constant cloud of circling white doves.

From there they drove to Bamiyan, formerly home to the famous Buddhas carved into the side of a mountain 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) above sea level about a thousand years ago but destroyed by the Taliban in early 2001 as idolatrous.

The group visited some of the country's most famous landmarks, including the minaret of Jam in Ghor province, a region so poor that even the capital Chaghcharan has little electricity or running water.

Not far from the minaret, the group had an unnerving encounter when their minibus was flagged down by two armed men.

"It was a nervous time for about five minutes," said Londoner Kulvinder Matharu, 44, a telecoms engineer and keen amateur photographer.

"I was thinking we'd have to get the dollars out and pay these people off," he said, the memory of his fear still fresh.

In contrast, he said, he was delighted by the charm and hospitality of the western city of Herat, regarded as Afghanistan's most cultured city and where Iran's influence is strong.

"In Kabul it's edgy and you feel slightly under siege but Herat seemed like a different country," Matharu said.

"Out of the blue, this family asked us to share cake and tea with them, and I thought that was wonderful."

Security considerations forced Hann to change some plans -- arriving by air rather than driving through the famed Khyber Pass from Pakistan and spending time in Kabul around the election rather than venturing too far from safety.

Nevertheless, Gilbert said the August 20 poll "was one of the reasons I was glad to be here at this time, to see how involved the people were everywhere we went in the election".

The vote has since descended into farce amid allegations of fraud that could force President Hamid Karzai into a run-off against his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Copyright © 2009 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.

NB: I didn't start serious traveling until 1986 and while I did work a year in a prison I managed thirty-plus years as a probation officer. (Ah, the confusion continues between probation, prison and parole!)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Conferences, culture and modern plumbing - two weeks in the UK!

Once a year, I must get my UK fix - while others head to New York or Paris, I go to London. This year worked well for I was able to combine two conferences with some play time. First, I signed on for the Oxford Conflict Conference which focused on The Making of the Modern Middle East. This was consistent with my interest in that area plus my participation with Global Exchanges’ December Israel-Palestine study tour. Following that was an Ancient World Conference at the University of London, focused on Egypt - I wouldn’t have made the trip for that but since it was there and I was there, why not? And then came several days of seeing friends met on various tours and going to theatre - at best, combining the two.

I knew the potent were positive: at the start, United Air upgraded me from economy to business class. And that’s it how it continued. The Heathrow-Oxford bus timing was perfect; the Christ Church college room was newly refurbished and ideal for me. I had stayed at St. John’s College last year when I attended to the TE Lawrence symposium. St. John’s was put to shame in comparison to the grandeur of Christ Church, particularly the magnificently high vaulted ceiling dining room used in Harry Potter films. One of my fellow attendees who had studied at Christ Church, commented he felt so unworthy - and I could understand that.

The conference was held in a small modern lecture hall with good sound. It was put together by the Middle East Centre at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford with experts from the UK, Australia, Egypt, America, and the Middle East. Starting with TE Lawrence, talks progressed through the mandates, the Arab-Israeli conflicts, Egypt’s role, Hamas and Hesbolla, security issues and Al Quaeda ending with missed opportunities for some kind of resolution. It seemed Israel was mostly responsible for dropping the ball - or refusing to catch it.

For the most part, wonderful, engaging speakers. With an equally bright and knowledgeable audience including PhDs, retired and active Navy personnel, government staff and politically interested souls like myself. There were about 120 attendees (including thirty Elder hostelers), primarily Brits and Americans with a few assorted Europeans.

A pre-conference day gave me a chance for a walking tour of Oxford, including visiting several other Oxford colleges and a boat trip to Iffley with its lovely little ancient church, St. Mary’s. Mid-conference, we packed up and went to Waddesdon Manor, the home of the Rothschilds who were active in supporting early Jewish settlements in Palestine. It was an absolutely fascinating place: the Manor is actually a museum. The grounds are extensive. All part of a bygone era of “Conspicuous Consumption” as Veblen termed it.

I ws so stimulated by the conference, both speakers and attendees, that I didn’t sleep much but kept rewinding the tapes in my head. One of the speakers I met during last year’s TE Lawrence Society symposium and I did have opportunities to talk with him. In fact, all the speakers made themselves available to the conference attendees for questions and discussions. And comfortably housed and fed, I did hate to leave.

But, moving onto the London: I had miscalculated in booking my hotel, so had no place to stay the first night. Ended up in a small hotel in Bloomsbury where I had stayed in years past. It had deteriorated into a backpackers place: bed but no breakfast. Cheap and relatively clean. The rest of the time I was at The Celtic Hotel at Russell Square: recently repainted with bright new facilities. A rabbit warren of rooms throughout - three row houses combined, similar to The Tabard Inn in DC. I was on the top floor in a small room but with toilet across the way and shower down the stairs. Full English breakfast, for those that want that much. Impeccably kept place. I will return!

And off to the the Ancient World Conference at the University of London. This group was largely concerned with early digs in Egypt including facial analysis of ancient Egyptians and the like. It was hard for me keep alert though the audience was fascinated and the Q&A was spirited. I was interested in a talk about Nimrod for I had been so close and was totally awake for Michael Wood’s presentation: Alexander’s Greatest Battle. He was a terrific presenter with outstanding films of Syria and Iraq - and the Panshjer VAlley in Afghanistan. He had been filming there accompanied by the military and two armoured cars, a far cry from five civilians and a minibus.

Monday arrived and I now had three days to visit friends and check out theatre. Spent one day in Hampstead with a companion from this year’s earlier Iraq tour: a mid-seventish woman who bicycles all over: London, the UK, Africa, the world. The next day she and I met another Iraqi tour participant, an Ukrainian who may å be moving to Moscow, and had lunch while I spent the evening with a friend from my Mali trip - she is interested in the Salalah-Ubar-Rub Al Khali possibility. I’m recruiting for t hat, if I can get it together.

The final day, I had lunch with a young engineer, a survivor of Afghani chickhanas. And the evening was with a friend from my first Mid Eastern trip who is about as passionate about theatre and travel as I am. The plays seen were The Pitman Painters at the ‘Royal National (excellent); War Horse, also a Royal National production (outstanding total theatrical experience) and Judgment Day at The Almeida (dark Brechtian drama)

And United upgraded me to Economy-plus on the ride home. What more could a girl want?

Costs: Airfare from SFO to LHR: $831.60. Christ Church conference, including accommodation and meals: £1200. Ancient World conference, including meals: £155. Accommodation in London including breakfast: £250.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Afghanistan 2: Three Weeks of August 2009

When I left Kabul in March 2008, there remained four more things I wanted to do there: come in through the Khyber Pass, spend time in the countryside, visit the Minaret of Djam and work for a month or two in Afghanistan. I achieved half of the goals this August: countryside and Djam. Plus, the excitement of being around during election time.

I traveled for three weeks: Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, Herat and “the places in between.” The route started from Kabul, through the spectacular Salang Pass - the tunnels reminiscent of ones in Georgia, also built by the Russians - to Mazar; then back down to just short of the Pass where it was a back country road to Bamiyan, where once the huge Buddhist statues stood until the Taliban took them out in the name of Islam.

From there to Afghanistan’s newly established national park at the scenic Band-i-Amir lakes. Then across the mountainous Central route to Herat, with a stop at the Minaret of Djam, the magnificent remains of the an ancient civilization, hidden in a valley at the end of a nearly non existent road? trail? path? The route walked by Rory Stewart a few years back and now reportedly too dicey for Western travel. I don’t know if that’s because of Security concerns, bad roads and/or lack of acceptable accommodation. Or all of the above.

Rather than follow the Northern route from Herat to Mazar-i-Sharif and then back to Kabul as planned, the return was on a Herat-Kabul flight so more time could be spent in these two cities, both targets of the Taliban set on invalidating any elections. There were threats, bombings and shootings in both Herat and Kabul who were under close security just before and on election day.

I traveled with three others plus our tour leader who arranged the trip - same person who had set up the Iraqi tour. He was familiar with the territory, having traveled in the area since the hippy days of the seventies. Cross country travel was by mini bus - four cylinder, 4 wheel drive vehicles that took the terrain in stride - into, onto and over rocks, streams, river beds, cow/sheep trails and dirt roads with a bit off off-road driving. Other than in the cities and Bamiyan, we stayed in Chaikhanas (teahouses), all in one room with sleeping bags on the floor. Facilities, when available, were on a par with those in China’s old Hutongs. Otherwise, it was back of a wall. Several Chaikhanas did not welcome Westerners so we took pot luck.

The highlight for me was getting to the Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan's first World Heritage site. After taking photos, I just sat and reveled in the aura surrounding the place. Our two guys skinny dipped in the adjacent river, the rest simply walked about the area. The police stationed there to discourage visitors from stealing artifacts, fixed tea for us before we left.

I did appreciate the opportunities to talk with local Afghans. One time, while at a Sufi Shrine, we shared tea and cakes with a group of young people. Later, at another Sufi temple, the Imam, his brother and his nephew prepared tea for us. Most people seemed friendly, though in the villages, very curious about the strange foreigners, The police, most concerned about our wanderings, stopped and questioned us at various chec k points. We were briefly detained though offered tea, In Chisht, when we were quite close to the end of the journey to Herat. After a night in Obeh at the Hilton of Chaikhanas (indoor plumbing and water), a relay of armed guards then accompanied us to our Herat hotel.

The closer to the election, the tighter the Security. Initially, Kabul seemed to have less police and Army visible than when I was there earlier. But the divisive cement walls and barriers, a la Baghdad, were being installed. Whatever charm Kabul had - and it isn’t much at best - was lost in the translation. However, by the time we returned,to Kabul, a day before the election, Security was ever present. The airport was closed for several hours following a shoot out with the Tallies at a local bank. Several days later when I left, things were more normal. But walking around Kabul election day with everything shut down and little traffic other than police and Army, reminded me of Neville Shute’s “On the Beach”.

Remembered: Heat and Dust, though no Julie Christie. The striking tiles on the Mosque at Mazar-i-Sharif. The de miners and European Union representative at Shahr-e-Zohak citadel near Bamiyan. The dedicated South African with Wildlife Conservation working with local Afghans in developing the park at Band--i-Amir. The nomad camps lining the way into Djam. The Citadel at Herat where the guide, a guard with a Kalashnikov in his right hand and a cast on his left arm, took two of us into every nook and cranny of the in-process restoration. The drone taking off at Herat's airport. The cheerfully optimistic rug dealers who were sure one of us would buy that extra special rug - and sure enough, three guys succumbed. Kabul’s now totally blocked off and unviewable Bella Hassar. The crowded, noisy and colorful bazaars of Herat and Kabul. The freelancers at the no-star Mustafa Hotel vs the expense account set at the 5-star Serena Hotel. Istalif the pottery village developed by Turquoise Foundation, with few customers and closed shops. The Panjshir Valley with Massoud’s mausoleum becoming a building site as his admirers continue to “improve” it. The Shah M Bookstore where I bought George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers, covering the First Afghan War.

Accommodations: Ranged from Chaikhanas to basic Afghan hotels to the yurt in Bamiyan, with nary a Westerner in sight.

Water: I had purchased and packed a water purifier. Didn't need it for bottled water was readily available. Also Rani, a wonderful fruit drink from the Emirates.

Food: Nam and tea were standard breakfast with sometimes eggs and jam. Lots of Kabobs and rice. Two trips to the Serena found me happily chomping away at their luncheon buffet at $30 per person. In Herat, ate at two newer and nicer hotels, patronized by Westerners, for around $20 for the evening meal. A final night in Kabul took us to Sufi 2 on Moslem street: good Afghan food and great Afghan music; packed with Westerners.

Costs: Hinterland Travel charged £1980 for the tour which accounted for a 10% discount for early booking. Only breakfast was included. I also paid approximately $100 for add-on excursions. Airfare on Emirates, San Francisco-Dubai, was $1583.09 plus Kam Air Dubai-Kabul $430; (Despite some reports, Kam Air does not use aging Aeroflots but Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas aircraft.)

N.B. Keep tuned for there is a good chance I’ll be returning to complete the other two parts of the pinochle, Khyber Pass and short term work in Kabul. For the moment, I’m off to the UK in September for a conference at Oxford and play time in London.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wanted: Tourists for Iraq and Afghanistan!

You really can’t blame them for trying. Poor countries. The Dollar and the Pound and the Euro look good. Are good for their economy.

Both Iraqi and Afghan government tourist pooh-bahs is are encouraging travel in their countries, regardless of ongoing conflicts. Granted, eight of us got through Iraq in March 2009, the first Western travelers since 2003. And it’s gone to their heads - more tours are planned with both British and, believe it or not, Taiwanese tour operators.

Admittedly, the Iraqi’s State Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities have been encouraging travel into the country irrespective of bombings and blastings, but it’s been the Iranian Shias, who honor the sacred shrines in Karbala and Najaf. But there is a difference between managing the religious pilgrim and the Western tourist. Martyrdom is not part of our lexicon. Our expectation to to arrive, see some of the country and its people and then, survive - leaving in one piece.

And that did happen with us. But there was little help from the Ministry in providing opportunities to visit significant sites, ones not problematic security-wise: eg: despite several opportunities, our group was not allowed in the newly opened Museum in Baghdad. And we had to fight to get into Ur, located between two military bases.

Originally, we were to have two Security people,then a carload of guys, then nada! Nada was better for our mini van wasn’t that conspicuous - except when local authorities gave us front and back protection with sirens going full blast.

I must admit the Iraqi took every opportunity to publicize tour travel: media at Babylon, media in our bus, media at the Baghdad hotel: they loved idea of tourism but really didn’t know or want to know how to deal with the reality. The best reception our group had was at Basra with several local Tourist representatives who escorted us throughout that area. What the National Ministry coulda, shoulda and didn’t do.

Now Afghanistan: Several months after I’d returned from Kabul in March 2008, there was an article in the SF Chronicle, heralding the opening of a national park at the Band-i-Amir lakes in Bamiyan province. Apparently, the Aga Khan Foundation is creating an ecotourism project in the area. In June 2009, there was a formal dedication of the park, per CNN. This is in the province where the Buddhist statutes were blown up in Taliban days.

Reportedly, it’s a three hour drive on rocky roads in a 4x4 so getting that should be an adventure in itself.

And there is also word someone is building a five star hotel in Kabul!

I’ll find out for I’m returning in August - which will be hot. dry and dusty! While I’ll return to Kabul briefly, I will be traveling on the old caravan routes to Herat, Mazar-i-Sherif, the Minaret of Djam, as well as Bamiyan province. I suspect I’ll see little of the Ministry of Culture’s minions and the media, but given my Iraqi experience, that will be for the best. Wandering around these fragmented countries, one needs to be as close to the ground as possible.

Surprisingly, there are five organizations booking travel in Afghanistan: two local, one Canadian and two British. All in the north; no one other than military should head down south. Kandahar and the Helmand province are way beyond dicey and no place for civilians. And the Afghan-Pakistan border is another hot spot. But north and central parts of the country have been relatively safe.

So I will have the opportunity to compare - and contrast - these two countries who want to be included on the world’s travel calendar.

(Other countries on my list to visit: North Korea, which which does not encourage visitors; Libya who is still mad at GW and won’t give US citizens visas, and Cuba, which welcomes tourists but it is the the US government which restricts access.. In fact, peaceful and stable Cuba is the only country where the US forbids US travel. Go figure!)

Friday, June 19, 2009

The June Journey: 2009

The yearly Oregon-Washington Trip

It’s been a lazy spring-summer so far, with my only traveling occurring earlier this month: the yearly trip to the Ashland, Oregon, Shakespeare Festival - done that since the mid-l950s - and then, onto Washington where I visited my husband’s family - done that since he died five years ago.

Should start with Ashland, a pretty town with well kept old time frame homes built during the 1800s and a park, Lithia Park, that is one of the most superb patches of greenery I’ve seen wherever. I stay downtown at the Columbia Hotel, upstairs above the various retail shops, a place with a Victorian motif throughout. Some rooms have facilities but I stay in the back with toilet and shower down the hall. You just try to avoid the sunny side for one will sizzle and fry on a hot day, despite window and ceiling fans. Even in the high season, it’s reasonablly priced.

I fly in to Medford and take the shuttle into Ashland. In past years, I have driven up but it is a long, tiring journey. I did take the bus one year when the bus still stopped on the outskirts of Ashland and I may try the train next year: Bay area to Sacramento or Grants Pass with a shuttle from there. Anyway, Ashland and the plays were fine; the only problem was finding a workable computer. The library PCs didn’t like AOL (or vice versa) and the coffee shop’s IMac also was a bit taken back by AOL. So the cell phone got some use.

There was an ongoing crisis - isn’t there always with families? My sister-in-law’s oldest daughter was seriously ill, in and out of the hospital, so there was some question whether I should go on to Washington. Turned out I did and it worked out, particularly as I left a day early (which cost but was worth it!). Concurrently, my nephew, who I had hoped to see, was down in Southern California, cleaning out his recently deceased mother’s place. So what had seemed like a good plan in April was a bit of a disaster, come June.

The plays were good: Henry VIII and All's Well were in the outdoor theatre where, even with three layers, I had a hard time staying toasty. It always is warm during the day and cold at night. Both plays were well performed. Music Man was the musical and I had a hard time erasing Robert Preston from my mind as I saw this very professional production. Nice choreography! Dead Man’s Cell Phone was sold out when I ordered tickets in “April and was still sold out when I went to the Box office on arrival. So I sat out front until someone came up with a spare to sell - and at face price. The play was a commentary on cell phones and relationships: a bit crazy but enjoyable.

The two I liked best were Equivocation, woven around Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot, and Servant of Two Masters, an outrageous Italian commedia dell’arte piece. Both were well directed and very sharply performed. If I hadn’t gotten into the Cell Phone, I was going to try for River Rafting - ah, next year!

I enjoyed the Washington visit with my sister-in-law and her family but three days was enough for all of us, especially since I wasn’t going to have a day with my nephew. Got to Pike’s Market in Seattle which I always enjoy. My sister-in-law’s youngest daughter, with whom I am very close, is a professional editor. I had a screen script with me I had been asked to critique so we spent sometime with that.

I stay at a Days Inn in Kent, walking distance to family, which gives them and me some independence. It was a day with each of various family members, all enjoyable. And the Days Inn has a shuttle to the airport so there is no inconvenience to anyone. Just hope all our various crises are down to a dull roar next year.

Since my return, I was googling to get information regarding the author of the screen play (he’s on Facebook) and ended up googling my name: I found that a gracious writer, Julia Ross, named me as one of Twelve Inspirational Women Travelers on I’m keeping company with Martha Gellhorn, Julia Childs and Gertrude Bell among others. And I was really impressed that she liked my writing! Thank you Julia! (And thank you, Warren Price, my old J School Prof, wherever you are!)

Monday, June 1, 2009

April-August 2009: At Home

For over two months, I’ve been at home. Not traveling, little writing. Reading. Some worthwhile things like working on Robert Fisk’s tome on the Middle East and Dalrymple’s work on the Indian Mughals and some fun stuff, like Jack Higgens’ and Gordon Kent’s adventure writings. Recently, I discovered Dan Fesperson, a worthy equal to John LeCarré and Frederick Forsyth. It was one of his books that was out on the local library’s display table that I casually picked up and checked out.

Most interesting, he writes very human stories that are, incidentally spy/adventure tales, with locales familiar to me: Sarajevo, Berlin, Peshawar, Amman. Amman less so for basically, I’ve been in town only for flights in and out. But I have been in Jordan several times - going back in November for another shot at the GARP archaeological dig along the Hejaz. But his descriptions of Amman provide an excellent guide. And with luck and a second passport, I’ll have time in Amman enroute to Israel and Palestine in December. (Second passport is necessary for any indication of an Israeli visa/entry stamp precludes admittance to Mid Eastern/Muslim countries, excepting Egypt and Jordan).

Anyway, I have become hooked on his novels and have several more recent ones to track down. Like several good writers, he’s a journalist. Journalists - and I was a wanna be - tend to be very observant of details of both the physical and the personal. They use language respectfully as it is the tool of their trade. So these skills serve them well when they move onto to fiction, particularly if it is a combination of reportage and imagination, as in Fesperson’s books.

In my early days, I was a J school student who also enrolled in Short Story classes. I could report but didn’t have the imagination to make it as a fiction writer. As it turned out, for over thirty years, I wrote reports for Courts’ use in sentencing criminal offenders. Often, I tried to find a word or phrase out of the ordinary that might catch someone’s attention; I never knew if I succeeded as there wasn’t a response.

But unlike most of my coworkers,who viewed report writing on the same level as having a root canal, the writing for me was the fun part of the job. Interviewing, yes, but then trying to put a thumb nail sketch of the offender and the crime on paper, particularly within the confines of an imposed outline was a challenge.

And then I got to tag around after him/her, assuming they were not incarcerated, for several years and fine out how right or wrong I was in my assessment It was fun while it lasted, And I have missed the writing, which is one of the reasons for the blog. The other is, to keep track of myself.

For two years ago I was in the Swat Valley, today part of the turf battle between the Pakis and the Taliban. I remember it as beautiful, peaceful place. I looked up my notes: there was a bad road (oh, I remember that, one of the worst!), I ate at Charsadda and stayed overnight at the Rock Resort Hotel. I walked among Buddhist ruins and was impressed by a lovely carved Stupa. I fear all that’s left is the bad road. I see news shots of the area, the distruction in Mingora, the refugees!. A sadness! Man’s worst enemy is man, someone said, and at the rate we’re going, we are going to knock ourselves off before another century.

Come August, I’m back to Afghanistan, this time in the countryside. Up north to Mazur-e-Sharif, over to Herat and Banyan and then through the central part and the Minaret of Djam. Maybe, coming in through the Khyber Pass, depending on safety issues. There are three alternate itineraries. I’m excited about returning to the Land of the Great Game and the unbelievable Himalayans. They are at one end of my spectrum with the desert at the other. People who have conquered either are high on my list of heroes: Ran Fiennes (who also has the two Poles under his belt in addition to Everest) and Michael Asher (ex-Para, SAS and author who has lived in the deserts of Africa). In fact, in October, I will spend my birthday on a camel trek led by Asher - a real high point for me despite a probable sore butt.

In the meantime, I mark time at home: setting up future travels, doing household stuff, taking ballet and doing Pilates, tutoring a foreign speaker and reading. The four months I’ve been home this spring/summer is the longest I’ve been around in five years - the cat appreciates it. Though I am fudging a bit by taking off a week this month for the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon and then, several days with family in the Seattle area.

The late summer and fall will have me on the run, between Asia and Africa and the Middle East, with ten days in the UK stuffed in there some place. At one point, I think I’m home little over a week in between trips. But this is the life I’ve chosen, once I left my day job: travel as much as you possibly can!

Friday, March 27, 2009

First Iraqi Tour since 2003!

Iraq March 2009

Eight of us were on the Iraqi tour: five Brits (one of whom was a Russian with three passports), a Canadian and two Americans. Ages: 36 to 79. All had traveled extensively, Only one had not been to Afghanistan. For over two weeks of March 2009, we traveled from Kurdish Iraq to the Marsh area.

The trip was organized by Geoff Hann who operates Hinterland Travels and who was the leader of the band. Three of the group had traveled with him before. This was the first authorized civilian traveling group since 2003. The scheduling was unpredictable as the present Ministry of Tourism had little experience in managing more than the Iranian pilgrimages to Kerbala.

For example: we were to have two security guards. Then it was none or Twenty. We chose none, which I felt was safer than even two traveling with us. There was a small bus, driver and interpreter (who saw himself as in charge despite the fact he had never been to most of the places). Occasionally, we picked up police cars, front and back, at times with sirens roaring and lights flashing but most of the time, we were left alone.

And I do mean left: left sitting at checkpoints while police and militias decided what to do with us. Not safe for us. Sometimes, they would drive us to the next check point, heave a sign of relief and a wave as they returned to their post and left the problem with the next bunch. Sometimes, they just let us go.

Forty checkpoints between Basra and Baghdad. Unknown number of speed bumps. No one travels fast in Iraq.

Baghdad: We stayed on three occasions at the old Sheraton, outside the Green Zone but inside security walls; across from where Saddam’s statue was toppled. It was comfortable but not well maintained. There were variety of security people with green, gray, blue, and tan based camouflage uniforms but, all with Kalisnikovs, the weapon of choice in the Middle East.

Ugandans, male and female, handled the Green Zone checkpoints, all four of them. Two pieces of picture identification required. Thorough search - I know, I worked in a prison at one time in my life.

Traffic ranged from tanks to donkey carts. There were concrete walls lining the main thorough fares and concrete blocks necessitating a zigzag approach to enter most streets. A besieged city still, for car bombs and shooting still occur.

We did get to the Kahidmain mosque but never did make it to the nearly opened Museum - which wasn’t open during any of the stays in Baghdad. I was told by the press there wasn’t that much in it; some of them had also gotten a run-around. We did visit an Anglican Church. During the last stay in Baghdad, we returned to the Green Zone and saw the Crossed Swords and then finished up with the Arc of Ctesiphan, an awesome structure in an area guarded by the Sons of Iraq, ex AlQaeda lads.

The North: While there was a fair amount of security around and we were refused admission to Nimrod, things seemed calmer in the Kurdish controlled area. Enroute to Erbil, police escorted us to magnificent Minaret and Mosque (in process of repair) at Samarra. Impressive even though the Minaret was in a Railway yard with barbed wire rolled in front of it.

We drove past Kirkuk, reportedly a bit dicey and not the place for our driver to get lost - but he did. He couldn’t read the Kurdish road signs so he had to ask the locals. Signs are Kurdish/English - no Arabic! Got to Erbil ok with half a pizza for supper. The next day it was The Citadel and textile museum and Mar Benham, a Syrian Orthodox church just out of Mosul.

Then the long drive back to Baghdad and onto Babylon, where Iraqi officialdom and the Iraqi press discovered us. As I didn’t trust their claim not to run anything until we’d left the country, I had nothing to do with them - and they did run material within a couple of days! For security reasons, I didn’t want to be on anyone’s TV until I was well out of the way.

The South: Babylon was extraordinary. The lion and the tower of Babel; Saddam’s old palace which had been stripped of anything valuable. Then to Kerbala with a police escort, leaving us at the town’s border. I felt like I was entering another country for on came the scarves and hejabs. This was the city beloved of Shias, with the Shrine of Abbas and Hussein, martyred grandsons of the Prophet. Our Canadian found a fellow Canadian, here on pilgrimage. There were throngs of Iranian pilgrims wandering about, paying their respects.

Then to the AlTar caves and the desert fortress of Ukhaidher. We were driving around in a sand storm with a 20% visibility on road with long lines of trucks hauling potash. There was a stop at Khifal, an old Jewish Shrine of Ezekiel where I managed to bash my head coming out of the toilet. We ended up at Najaf, the holy city with the tomb of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and fourth Inman.

Then, traveling from one check point to another, we arrived at Nippur, an extensive site and major religious center. We were escorted by the local guards who liked having photos with us and gave us tea at the end of the tour though having only enough glasses for several people at a time.

Moving on, we landed unexpectedly at Samawa in the crummiest hotel of the trip - which is saying some - and where our Russian-Brit got arrested but was returned to the hotel, after trying to sight see around town. Not much to see from my point of view! But in the morning, we were at the site at Uruk where the ziggurat over looks what had been palaces, temples and walls. To Nasiriyah and another basic hotel.

From there to the US Army base where we made arrangements to enter Ur, another archaeological wonder, one I was most interested in as Leonard Wooley, one of TE Lawrence’s coworkers at Carchemish, was the lead archaeologist. It got complicated as someone didn’t get the word our group was to be admitted, which led to a morning wait in the bull pen. However, two female Army Specialists went way out of their way to get us in, feeding and watering us during our wait. And we did get in, supervised by an apologetic captain in the Chaplain corps; we were allowed to photograph so long as cameras weren’t aimed toward the nearby Air Force installation. Amazingly, the site seems in good condition.

From there to the Marsh Arab country where water is returning into the marshes (Saddam drained it off to move the residents out) and where the old timers are slowly moving back.

Basra: Much security but less of the divisive cement walls. Unlike Baghdad, people were out on the river bank, promenading at night: men smoking hookahs, kids running around and families out for a stroll. While there was evidence of the two invasions, one war and the sanctions, it seemed less depressing than Baghdad.

There were four Ministry of Tourism guides with us, two women and two men. The women were clear that no headscarves were needed and all were most hospitable. I suspect we were the tour of the year!

We went to Qurnah, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates and where nearby is Adam’s Tree, where supposedly was the Garden of Eden, Another Ali mosque, memorials to Indian and Gurka soldiers and a boat ride on the Shatt Al Arab, where trash and fish met along with upended boats and ships left from various conflicts.

However, one of the most memorable experiences was getting stamps for postcards at the Basra post office. In front of the building were at least 100 people, mostly men,waiting with an equal number inside. It took the Army to get us inside and up the stairs where postal employees went to find the person who sold stamps. This was all complicated by the interpreter's misunderstanding that we wanted souvenir stamps. Help came from a young woman who spoke quite good English, whose brother was a graduate of Portland State University, Oregon, where he now lived and worked. Apparently, people were waiting at the Post Office for remittances; the Army was there to provide for their security.

Back to Baghdad with a stop at the Tomb of Ezekiel (assuming he’s not buried in Israel) and a brief photo op for me at Kut, historically interesting as the place the Brits surrendered to the Turks during the First World War. Upon arrival at the Baghdad ex-Sheraton, we were set upon by press and television: good publicity for Geoff who will be leading future tours into Iraq and fascinating for me, an ex-journalism student, having my fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame.

Security on the Baghdad Airport road is tight. For a time, this was the most dangerous road around. Getting there, you take your vehicle to a large parking area where you switch into an approved auto. Dogs check b oth vehicle and luggage. Then to the airport where again, dogs check luggage before you put them into the airport x-ray machines. No chances are taken and the road is secured with cement barriers and walls.

With a late start and all the security checks, we missed the flight to Damascus. The Ministry representative, a Mr. Ali (I had a fantastic guide in Sikkem, also named Mr. Ali) chased around and got us on later Sham Air flight, so we got to Damascus in time to check in a very comfortable hotel I’d recommend to anyone, the Alfami near the old train station, used by Explore and Imaginative Traveler. Several of us wandered off to the souk and then to dinner.

Later, we went around to the old Railway Station, where a French group were having a reception, with juices, wine and petit-fours. We were invited to crash the party. It was an elegent ending to the several week excursion.

The next morning was the flight to Heathrow, where I spent the night in Terminal 1, being too cheap to get a hotel room. Caught up on Emails.. Security moved all the overnighters - about twelve of us - to Gate 36. where they came with cocoa and coffee at 4 AM. I met an very interesting Irish woman, an editor from Cairo, who had been married to an American. We chatted and had breakfast before her flight.

United flight was about one-third full so I could stretch out in Economy Plus. So not too bad a flight back.

Impressions: On the whole I think the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism likes the idea of tour groups but really isn’t prepared to deal with them. They had poster and cards prepared, but were at times, less than helpful when it came to implementing the itinerary.

I did have much more freedom in getting about than I expected. In the morning in Basra, I was able to get out and pick up breakfast: bread at the bakery, and cheese and yogurt at the corner store. Utilities were more reliable than expected - electricity went off occasionally for a short time. Bottled water was always available: Iraqis drank it as much as we did. Towels, toilet paper and soap were not always provided at hotels which often featured creative plumbing and strange electrical writing.

Food was plentiful: Usual Middle Eastern breakfast: bread, cheese, yogurt and the occasional egg. Main meals included soup, a selection of starters and then either chicken or lamb with rice. I shared with one of the other women throughout and had more than enough. I discovered Rani which was a nice fruit drink, much, much better than Fanta, CocaCola’s contribution to Middle Eastern soft drinks.

Despite security glitches, I never felt frightened. I was cautious and aware throughout but not scared. I should also mention that my experience with our Armed Forces was excellent: these people went out of their way, both at Ur and in Baghdad, to help us get where ever we wanted. That’s my team, good guys/gals all. I feel better about paying my taxes this month.

The people we ran into were friendly though I didn’t have much opportunity to talk with local Iraqis. Kids, as always, were great and I had them hi-fiving from Baghdad to Basra. We had shy smiles from the women, friendly smiles from the younger men and looks of curiosity from the older people. The security people always gave us a wave when we finally passed through.

I did talk with several contract workers: two with NBC News (Pilgrim Security and ex-SAS) and several at the Damascus Airport. They seemed to be stable, right-on guys; several were ex-cops working with the police.

Overall, a good trip but one I would recommend with qualifications: one should be more of a traveler than a tourist. Be prepared to rough it; have a sense of humor and don’t expect an itinerary to be anything but an expression of intent. Everything is subject to change. And take responsibility for your own security.

Cost: including airfare, about $6000, give or take, for the trip. Add on another $720 for the cat’s care. But for me, this was a window of opportunity I couldn’t resist. So well worth it!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thoughts before March 2009 Mesopotamian trip

I’ve really given a lot of consideration to this trip. I suspect more than I gave to the Kabul tour, but then I felt Global Exchange wouldn’t be sending us over to Afghanistan without precautions. This Mesopotamian tour is run by a guy who is into archaeological expeditions, is very familiar with the area - also, Afghanistan and environs -and is co author of Bradt’s Iraqi travel guide. So, I trust.

But this trip partly motivated my enrollment in Centurion's five-day Hostile Environment and First Aid training course. And that turned out to be everything I hoped for: upgraded my long outdated First Aid practices and prepared me for unfriendly territory. Well worth the $3000 cost.

Most interesting has been the reactions of two experienced travelers. One spent four years orbiting the globe and another has worked in Iraq and trekked in Afghanistan. Both were amazed/appalled. The first one bought me lunch as he tried to figure out what made me tick while the second gave me his Emil address and cell phone numbers to contact if I got into trouble.

Then there was the tattooed Marine vet at the surplus store: he had been in Iraq along the Syrian border during the 1990s and also in Afghanistan during the time the US was aiding the Taliban in their resistance to the Russians. While he was proud to have been a Marine, he would never re enlist. He was embittered by the politics involved and certainly, was bewildered why I would go into these countries voluntarily.

The only explanation I can give: I go because it’s there, I am curious and it is accessible. I can wait, sure, but then I’m not convinced it will became any safer a year or two from now. If I wait until it’s safe, I wouldn’t have wandered into Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Mali, Ethiopia - all places where outsiders have been at risk.

One of the travelers asked me where I would not go - my response: where there was active conflict and I would be endangered or get in the way, e.g.: at the moment, I am not planning to go to the southern part of Afghanistan or into Pakistan’s Northwest Territories.

At this time of my life, I can afford to take some chances. High on my list are Algeria, Libya (assuming acquisition of a visa), Palestine, North Korea. Kashmir, Kosovo. Serbia and the Baltic states. I’m thinking of taking off for nine weeks, from October-December this Fall, spending time in North Africa and the Middle East. I would do several tours, participate in a dig and rumble some on my own.

I tend to travel on the cheap though short of sleeping “rough”. And as a gray-haired female who speaks only English, I am limited. So, for some trips, I do British/Australian budget tours though at times, I’m on my own. I’ve gotten braver as I’ve become more familiar with the areas. But there are still places where I want the structure of a group, especially the first time around.

And Mesopotamia is certainly one. Though it seems to be getting a bit crowded. A current Email from the leader reports our Security contingent is being increased from two, upwards. Soon, more Security than participants (nine have signed on). Which increases the cost to us and the income to the Iraqis. And the advice of my HEFAT people to become a “gray person” goes down the tubes.

In both Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Yemen, there were Security people. The Ethiopian guy didn’t know how to manage his weapon safely; the Bangladesh bunch seemed ok as they followed us around but the Yemeni soldiers didn’t appear too reliable as they chewed khat while checking out the AK-47 mounted on the Toyota pickup.

Oh well, it will be a trip, any way you look at it!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

HEFAT to Haydn

In the August 2008 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine, there was a squib about Centurion Safety’s five day HEFAT (Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid Training) course. Given weekly in the UK and monthly in the US, it made some sense to me. I manage to travel in areas where weapons are prevalent and occasionally, people have been taken hostage. Additionally, what First Aid training I had was in my college days - and we won’t talk about how far back that is. They’ve developed three or four various CPR techniques in the meantime. And a whole different way to deal with snake bites.

So investing time and money in this kind of training: not only the First Aid but becoming aware of potentially dangerous situations and, dealing with simulated scenarios devised by staff, all ex-Royal Marine commandos, seemed a good investment to me. Most of the students are media people and NGO workers and our January 2009 group of thirteen was no exception. Many were BBC people with an AP reporter thrown in for good measure, with the rest NGO representatives. One correspondent was a Sandhurst graduate with four years in the Grenadiers; another a Russian with dual Russian-UK passports.

The classes were held on a farm in Woodstock, Va, half an hour from Strasburg’s Ramada Inn where we were housed. The weather was wintry cold - snowy and icy at times. Classes alternated between indoors and outside. There is nothing like “hitting the deck” on wet slushy ground. And we did learn to immediately dive down upon hearing gunfire.

The five instructors dealt with different topics from First Aid to Map Reading to Weaponry to Personal Security to Disturbances and all the places in between. Teaching was both didactic and realistic . At times, I felt I wasn’t ding anything right but eventually got the hang of checking out wounds and getting bandages on tight enough. Two of the instructors made marvelous howling victims - they would have passed any audition at the Royal School of Dramatic Art.

The NG Adventure article said Centurion had been doing their US course for seven years; they certainly knew what they were doing. I came out of it not only with practical knowledge but convinced awareness was the key to survival; that I had to be proactive and take responsibility for my own safety, whether I traveled alone or in a group.

In fact, much of their material would have been useful in my prior life in Probation.

From there, I hitched a ride into Washington DC with one of my fellow students, who was soon to go into Gaza. Stayed at The Tabard Inn, where I had been with my husband some ten? fifteen? years before. It’s a charming forty room establishment located in two old townhouses with a somewhat upscale restaurant. I was on the third floor of a rabbit warren of rooms, a single with facilities down the hall.

I had booked a Gray line Spy tour for Saturday, a trip around town with a guide pointing out significant places in DC’s espionage history. Afterward I went to the Spy Museum, which had a rather glitzy presentation of the covert world from then to now, then being pre-Elizabethan times. I walked back to the Inn near DuPont Circle and then down to Kennedy Center where I had a ticket for André Previn conducting the National Symphony with Anna Sophie Mutter soloing. A Haydn, a Mozart, one of Previn’s own pieces and concluding with a Richard Strauss.

Previn is a contemporary and I remember him yeas back, bright eyed and busy tailed, as a wonderful jazz pianist. However, seeing him at the Kennedy, he seemed so very frail, hardly able to get on the podium and needing help to get off. Both the usher, also a bit long in the tooth, and I thought he could benefit from a yoga class.

As I arrived to the Kennedy early, I was able to sit in for over an hours worth of Broadway composers’ and performers’ presentations in the Kennedy’s Millennium Stage series'. Thus supper was a sad chicken salad sandwich from the food cart which I ate during the symphony’s intermission.

Spent Sunday checking out The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, and
Washington Monument, and the Mall. The Vietnam Wall was just as moving as I had been told - you couldn’t help but be teary eyed. Also added to that area since I was last here, was a large WW2 memorial which didn’t impress me particularly. A fair number of sightseers were around, particularly at he Wall.

I also walked up to the Crime and Punishment Museum which was quite extensive and well done. A entire wall was devoted to Patty Hearst, who I last remember housed in the San Mateo country jail during her trial in SF’s federal court. There was stuff from the old G- man and prohibition days to present day bits and pieces. Coming out, I had to escape the crowd lined up for a Chinatown parade as I went back to the Inn.

Monday and Tuesday were spent looking into visas - got my Syria visa and sent in material requesting an Iraqi visa. Monday, I had a leisurely lunch with an old friend, my husband’s former boss, who had just retired from the VA. Tuesday, I wandered out to Georgetown and explored around. I really like Washington though suspect I could not afford to live there.

Surprising sighting: Also staying at The Tabard Inn was the author, diplomat, and BBC presenter, Rory Stewart, who I had missed in Kabul but caught up with in Jordan. We chatted briefly; he was amazed/appalled at my March Iraqi venture though he himself was headed back there - he had been involved with the Coalitions efforts at governance. Charming and very bright guy!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Timbuktu for Christmas 2008

Actually, Christmas 2008 was spent wandering around Dogon villages with Christmas dinner at Sévaré, where I cleaned up after three nights camping. For I was on a fifteen day Exodus tour of Mali over the holidays, just before people poured in for January’s Festival of the Desert celebration north of Timbuktu.

There were three stages up to Timbuktu: bus to Dogon county, trekking in the Dogon country, boat to Korioumé (port for Timbuktu); on the return, we drove but the first part of that was on an unbelievably unimproved dirt road that took most of a day’s drive - we were in a M-B vehicle that was a cross between a Safari truck and a Hummer. (There are twice weekly flights that will likely increase as the new Sofitel hotel is completed.)

The trip started in the capital, Bamako; with thirteen others, mostly Brits but with a couple of Canadians, a Japanese and myself, we traveled north via Segou (where the Festival of the Niger is help in February) and Djenne to Mopti, where we veered off to Dogon country.

Djenne has this magnificent mud brick mosque, the largest mud brick building in the world. I was able to get inside and it was extraordinary. Monday market was packed with people and it was difficult to move around. The next night was at Sévaré, the bedroom community for Mopti, a busy port on the Niger. Before tackling the Dogon, we spent a morning checking out the very active market and port, with motorbike, people and goat washing occurring next to docked boats.

While we had camped atop a roof in Djenne, serious camping began in the Dogon country where the trekking began. Now all, that is all but me, had signed on for this trip because of the camping and trekking. They were serious campers and trekkers. Me? I signed on despite the camping and trekking - and wondered how I would survive both. All fourteen of us managed nicely, thank you very much.

The Dogons had moved off into their own territory to avoid the Muslin majority where they remained isolated until the thirties. They are now Muslim, Christian and animalist - all living together peacefully. Lonely Planet lists the Dogon country as one of the top-10-places-to-see-before-you-die.

The Dogons’ villages are above and below the 150 meter Falaise de Bandiagara, which is a serious climb both up and down. But the views are exceptional and for some of the villages, the only way you can visit them. Paths link the villages with occasional primitive ladders often the only way to cross chasms. We spent several days, less the noonday sun, traipsing from one to another. The villagers were friendly, eager to sell their craft work. The children were almost overwhelmingly friendly.

Camping was at campmonts, organized camp grounds, with our crew including cook, traveling in the 4+4 meeting us at specified times with food and tents. Campmonts were basic, some more than others. One had facilities of a sort; others simply provided a semi-private hole in the ground along with a large oil can jerry-rigged for a shower.

We came back to Sévaré for a respite before more basic camping in conjunction with the three day river trip via traditional pinassee - engine powered wood long boat with fixed seats in front and thatched roof covering the mid boat placed “thunder box”, a square red metal container, which contained the toilet, which was set up several steps and left you observing yourself suitably enthroned for there was a fair sized mirror opposite. (Thunder box was name given the somewhat portable toilets used by the Brits stationed in India during Kipling’s time - it seemed to fit our facility.)

During the day, we would stop at villages for a break and to check out the markets. At night, we would stop at a clear area and pitch our tents. We continued to travel with the cook who could put together a meal on the boat and bring it to the camp site. Both nights, we built a fire but no marshmallows! The last village visited seemed the most authentic: less Western garb and no gasoline powered machines. Just donkey and man power pushing/pulling the carts.

Then for two nights at Timbuktu. The Old City is, while dusty, picturesque. Mud bricks which have to be restored at the end of the rainy season were still used though some buildings were of sandstone. There were three magnificent mosques, several museums and the residences of several of the explorers who made it to Timbuktu. Outside the old city, it is the usual basic African town, with a series of ramshackle shops and mostly unasphalted streets.

Three of us spent an afternoon with a young Tuareg tribesmen (they wear blue scarves covering their faces and have a history of past conflict with the authorities - Algerian, Malian, Nigerian, whoever!)) who was a leather worker and familiar with the local Museum of Ancient Manuscripts. He took us to his family’s place for tea and then out to the dunes so we could see the sun set over the Sahara desert. The Tuareg still camel caravan salt across the Sahara to Timbuktu, where it is placed on a boat to go down the Niger to Mopti, where it moves onto a truck for further distribution.

We worked our way back down to Bamako via Sévaré and Segou. This time, we explored Segou a bit:, walked abut the old French Colonial mansions, now used by the government for offices and/or residences, .sauntered along the river bank and saw where the Festival of the Niger would be held. Segou seemed to have some charm. Sévaré did have a bar where New Year’s Eve could be celebrated. But we almost didn’t get there: bus broke down - fuel line blockage - but after an hour of activity, it got fixed. Ah Africa!

It was at Sévaré I ran into Kate and The Mog. Kate is a Brit, in her 30s? 40s? who had traveled from Scotland, through the Ukraine, into Southern France, then Morocco and on into Mali. She and a companion operate the Mog, a camper on steroids. The cab and chassis are M-B, made for the German Army while the trailer is custom done - a self enclosed unit with all facilities There is a tent packed in on top and a motor bike attached to the back. Check it - and her - out at I gave her my card and told her to call if she wanted another companion.

General Impressions: Mali is a poor country, mostly Muslim. Infrastructure is very basic, more so than Ethiopia . Exports are cotton, gold and the music. And with the music comes tourism. I did see several other tour groups, one Asian, in the Dogon country and ran into some Americans on their way to the Festival of the Desert.

Now is the Mali tourist season: they make it in during these few months and then, there’s nothing. Our guide who spoke four languages, trained as a teacher but could not find work as an educator for there was no money to pay him. He told me doctors, who are in sore need, work as tour guides as there is not the money to hire them.

French naturally, since Mali was part of French West Africa, is the official language but there are half a dozen tribal languages. As an English speaker only, I had some difficulty and was bailed out by the kindness of others in the group.

Food was ok. For the most part, I ate vegetarian with some excellent white fish on two occasions. Otherwise, vegetable sauce and pasta, cous-cous or rice. Breakfast, as you would expect in a French influenced country, was roll, butter and jam with sometimes, cheese, and always, Nescafe. In self defense, I carry my own herbal tea.

Exodus says in their trip notes that hotels are simple but clean but showers may be cold, the roads can be particularly bumpy and dusty and the heat makes the trekking tiring even though it is not difficult. These are fair statements. But I found it all worth while to see a rather unique country and to earn my T-shirt: I have Been to Timbuktu and Back!

Details: Flew over via Air France: SFO to Paris, then Bameko. Return, Bameko to Paris to Seattle to SFO - the Paris-SFO flight was overbooked. Airfare was $2622.77. The tour cost $2656 which included about half of the meals. Adventure Center handled all the bookings with their usual competence.