Friday, November 23, 2012

Fall 2012: Two Weeks in Jordan

Nov 3-18 2012:  Fifth year with GARP

I looked at past trip notes for the  Great  Arab Revolt Project  to see what I could add to my experiences for this two week working holiday.  Only that I continue to enjoy the sense of purpose and the comradeship that joins us together.  Though my work still remains mostly scut labor - sieving and scraping: basic archaeology. Necessary though not romantic.

This began after I heard a presentation by one of the directors and, without any archaeological experience, applied to join this ten year project - there are three yet to go and I hope to hang on to the bitter end.

This year, there were ten staff and eighteen volunteer, six of them, “newbies”.  However, several volunteers are  professionals on a busman’s holiday and others were skilled artisans.  As always, there were several military men:  one a twenty year Marine Corps veteran and another a South African Special Forces  retiree.   So, the  South African,  a Swiss, a Scot, a Jordanian.  two Aussies, six Americans, - the rest English.  Sponsored by the University of Bristol and the Jordanian Ministries of Antiquities, among others,  GARP is an investigation of WW 1 activity in the Middle East.  The Lawrence of Arabia dig, as it were.

We stayed back at the Edom Hotel, the place of my first  trip to Jordan, some years before GARP.  A comfortable three-star whose internet was unworkable, leaving me with regular visits to the pizza parlor cum internet on the main street.  Enroute to the Movenpick Hotel, place of serious ce cream.

So on 7:30AM mornings, our group took off in bus and several 4x4s through the dawn, usually through Ma’an - until that got a bit rough with protests over gasoline increases -to the assignments  d’jour.  Often, several hours commute. Depending on meeting schedules, we would head back latest 4PM. Most of us were on work assignment; a few were investigating further projects, others stayed back to process the prior day’s finds.  It was always evolving,  always subject to change.  Earlier days’  discoveries often determined the next step.

Sites this year were Wadi Rutm Fort, Tooth Hill Camp, Siddon’s Fort (named for the RFC pilot who mapped the area),  Madawarra (near the Saudi border) with a quick look back at Wuheida.  I had been across the border earlier this year, exploring the Saudi side of the old Hejaz RR, which had stretched about the then unfettered Arabian countryside on the road to Mecca. Almost all sites are related to stations along the Hejez RR.

In addition to the usual digging and sieving, mental detecting and recording, there was  field reconnaissance  on several sites with some success. I did spent a day being a rather inept GPS recorder for a metal detectorist - my  illegible handwriting  didn’t help; I never did translate one  item.  Bad!
The wonderful moments were when several staff interviewed a local Mudawarra Sheik whose grandfather had fought in the Revolt.  I would have given my eye teeth to have heard this conversation.   The same man became trusting enough  of our guys to guide them around.  Even better,  he  took control of the batch of kids hanging around, all to  eager to “assist” us.

We did well this year with bits and pieces indicating WW 1 usage: shrapnel, cartridges, tunnels, etc.  Staff was pleased to find work at Mudawarra was feasible; I suspect we will be there again. As much as possible, there is an effort to validate places and finds with existing information including Lawrence’s tome, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The two days off saw me back at Petra - magnificent as always - and to Shobat - an unrestored crusader castle where three of us scrambled about, sans any safety measures. Next year, I hope to arrive early and go  north of Amman to   Umm Qais with both Roman and Ottoman era ruins plus views of the Golan Heights.

I started out this trip, feeling a bit grim.  Rain and chilly weather in CA kicked up the arthritis in my back at the beginning.  Toting goopers full of dirt  exacerbated that so I moved to sitting and sieving.  Eventually was able to move onto scraping and digging.  Walking was unaffected.  But I did feel badly I was on not top form.  And by the time I arrived home, there was the   yearly Fall cold, which saw me across from Amman to Chicago to SFO in a tight,  crowded thirteen-plus hour flight.  A roomier trip onto SFO.  And I did avoid overnight in Terminal 3, my parking place of past years.

Major Costs:  Airfare via Orbitz:  $1226.70.  GARP (inclusive of Room/Board): $3125. Pet  Care: $689.50.

Monday, October 22, 2012

October 2012 at the Oregon Shakespeare

I flew to Ashland, Oregon, to the Shakespeare Festival for my  birthday, likely my thirtieth? fortieth?  time there.  I think   I first went in 1952, then sporadically for several years  before  attending with more  regularity for  at least twenty years, usually in September for I could claim  Labor Day  as part of my vacation time. 

For years, my husband and I drove.  Then we flew Alaska Air, San Jose to Portland to Medford with a shuttle to Ashland.  As a single, I continued with that for awhile.  Then tried  the bus,  then  the train - wrote about both of these trips earlier.  Gave up and have been taking  a direct United flight from San Francisco to Medford, still using the shuttle to Ashland. 

Same with accommodations:  I’ve stayed at half a dozen places:   early on, at Jackson Hot Springs and then in Ashland.  Motels at both north and south ends of town as well  downtown.  I’ve now settled on a Main Street hotel, above various stores, comfortable and cozy, with facilities down the hall.  They do have insuite arrangements, but I can manage otherwise.  In the lobby, overstuffed couch and chairs, hot tea available along with the New York Times.  What more can one want?

So I was there for Birthday time.  Besides plays, I had considered river rafting.  But the downtown office was closed for the season.  And it was nippy enough to require a wet suit - which I didn’t have.  So I settled for theatre though really wanted  to do something exciting at this time of life.  I have been on a camel trek, sky dived, flown an aircraft - five plays in two theatres in three days seemed tame.  So be it.

As usual, I did do some walking about this most picturesque town with leaves turning to rust and yellow.  Lithia Park is, as always, lovely, with various wildlife happily bathing in the ponds.  I have so often threatened to move here; every time I visit, I reconsider the possibility.  With the college and the Festival, there is much cultural activity.  Two things hold me up:  changing my medical coverage and the hassle of traveling out of  Medford. 

The plays were a mix:  Troulus and Cressida was my Shakespeare; Animal Crackers was more vaudeville than farce;  All the Way was a saga of LBJ, Party People was of the Black Panther days, and Medea/MacBeth/Cinderella was a musical mishmash of three classics - need to see that again to figure it out. 

The audiences were enthusiastic. - many of  the gray-haired   set with an assortment of canes about.  This bunch was balanced with   groups of students.  Though late in the season, the house was  well filled; several performances were sell outs.  And it was late enough that the pre show performances were over and the Elizabethan Theatre shut down.  I did attend several  after show discussions which were interesting and gave  insights into the play, the casting and production generally 

Coming home, the flights were running an hour or more late due to fog at SFO.   I was able to catch an earlier flight - which left at about the time of my scheduled flight - and made it home in time to feed Sam on schedule; his schedule.

Costs: United Express SFO-Medford was  $ 347.    Cascade Shuttle: Medford Airport- Ashland RT: $60.  .  Accommodation: $287.  Meals ran about  $150.     .

Plan for next year:  there is a shuttle from the Mountain View to Ashland:  $55 base cost.  I’ll give that a go.  And avoid the airport security hassle.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Yearly trip to the UK: 14-24 Sep 2012

It’s Fall and I am off to London and Oxford:  Theatre, friends and the bi-yearly TE Lawrence Symposium.  Again,. stayed at a Bed-and-Breakfast Hotel near Russell Square in London - immaculate with facilities down the stairs.  Computer services across the way.  I really like London and could have spent more than the four allotted days there. 

I did see four plays:  three were excellent and one, despite outstanding reviews, was a bomb. There were two mucial performance: one was a combination of film and music (Planet Earth) and the other was a memorial to an academic/musician/author - ended with several Weill songs from The Happy End.  I concluded with a San Francisco Ballet performance at Sadlers Wells - appropriate! 

Visited with friends:  a Hampstead walk and lunch with a colleague from the Iraq trip and then  supper and a show with two women with whom I’ve shared several overseas excursions, people I will meet again in several months on a Copper Canyon holiday trip. 

But the high point was rummaging about at the Palestine Exploration Fund, the group that sponsored Leonard Woolley and TE Lawrence in a pre WW1 trip into the Sinai, as the  “beard” for Colonel Stewart Newcombe’s military survey.  They had original correspondence from Woolley, the expedition’s senior member as well a notes from TE Lawrence, who did not want credit as co author on The Wilderness of Zin.  Additionally,  I was shown a survey sketch by the young  Lt. H. E. Kitchener. Impressive!  Surprisingly, only one of the plethora of Lawrence biographers had been to the PEF office to review their documents. 

I missed out on the Imperial War Museum and the Special Forces Club but did catch the police security outside the Uruguayan Embassy - there just in case the Wikileaks guy came out.  The weather was lovely and I ws able to walk all over - used by Oyster card only to come into town from Heathrow and to get to Marble Arch for the Oxford bus.   Oh well, have to have something on the list for next year!

So off to Oxford to the Symposium.  Housing was at St. Hilda’s, a bit out of the way from main town Oxford.  Room was basic with a bit of a hike down the hall to the facilities.  Weather  was cool and overcast with some rain at the end.  But Oxford, as  Morse and Lewis fans  know, is a lovely old town.  Before, I’ve stayed in the town’s center at Christ Church or St. John’s, both a bit nicer than St. Hilda’s. The Symposium was held at the Jacqueline du Pré auditorium which featured  a lovely photo of her in her heyday, so vital and alive.

There was a prequel to the Symposium  on Friday for those of us who came early - this included several people  I knew from the Great Arab Revolt Project, where I have been a participant for the past four? five? years.  .  We had time at the Codrington Library at All Souls and Ashmolean Museum, viewing Lawrence artifacts, in the morning. The afternoon began with  a  DVD slide show  of Lawrence’s life and times.  Then concluded with one of our  GARP staff’s presentation of the Jordanian terrain, both from RFC photos of WW1  in comparison with own photos., some of which were quite spectacular.   That evening, a lovely supper at a Middle Eastern Restaurant.

On to the two day main event; eight lectures in all, most power point presentations with slides.  Some better than others.  I had trouble focusing on papers read as opposed to those more spontaneously presented. Topics ranged  from friends and contemporaries of Lawrence to his  dress to  Herbert Read (Aldington’s  predecessor) to the Hejaz Railway to   the 1920 Iraq Rebellion to   Arab Spring.

Surprisingly, I found  the talk showing TEL’s various costumes, both military and Arab, quite interesting as it  showed his changing sense of identity. The slides of the Hejaz fascinated me, for I had seen  some of the sites.  The talks on W. F. Sterling and A. W.Wavell were superb - good speakers and exceptional subjects.  While one of the questions re: Arab Spring was how TEL would have viewed the current events; my question was how TEL would have viewed an organization and a symposium devoted to his life and ideas. 

There was a dinner at the college with an after dinner speaker, a quite affable book dealer with a fine sense of humor.     And that was it.  The strays met for breakfast the next morning before catching trains and flights to their next destination - for me, the bus to Heathrow where I, and the San Francisco Ballet company, headed home.

Food:  In London, tended to pick up a bite at Pre a Manger except for two meals in a proper restaurant.  One at  The Wigmore Cafe and the other at Woodlands, an Indian place with some tied to a Omani restaurant of the same name.  Both  good.  At Oxford, the food at the college was excellent as was the  off campus restaurant.  I also had a couple of  bites at a nearbypub which were okay.

Accommodation:  In London, it was my third stay at The Celtic Hotel, a very comfortable bed and breakfast. I paid £290 cash for the five nights.(they will take credit cards for an additional  3%.)  Student room at St. Hilda’s, Oxford was.  £42 a night. (suspect I was the only one left  in this large building that last night. )

Transportation:  United Air round trip SFO-LHR:  $1220.  Oyster card: £20.  Bus fares: £30.

Sam care: $420.

I’m ready to return, like tomorrow!  London was my first overseas trip and I keep repeating it, year after year. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan Corridor June-July 2012 w/ Wild Frontiers

This morning - several days home from Central Asia - I read of six killed in Afghanistan. This was not the Afghanistan I just left. The Afghanistan where I had just spent ten days was free of conflict - no Taliban and no ISAAF troops. Rather, the Central Asia Institute, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Aga Khan Foundation were the active players: in education, training local rangers, providing health services and bridge/road building.

Northeast Afghanistan is a tit of land between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, mapped by Europeans in 1895 in an effort to provide a Afghan buffer zone between Britain and Russia. This is a really a land out of time: The people of the Pamir are Ismaili, a moderate Muslim sect with little of the militancy found in other parts of the world. I had run into Ismailism along the Kararkorum when earlier in Pakistan. The Spiritual leader, the Aga Khan was educated and lives in the West, supporting his adherents through his Foundation.

This was a twenty day tour, starting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, another escapee from Russian rule, having the style and class of a Soviet refugee. There were five us of us, including our leader, a well traveled Danish ex-pat, who managed the logistics, the supplies, the cook, the local guide and four drivers. The two other women had traveled with her before: a London doc and an Irish architect cum photographer - then the Just-Traveling-Through bearded Aussie guy who had taught, some here and more there, throughout the world in earlier years. We ended up sharing sleeping spaces, in one configuration or another.

Few foreign tourists wander into the Corridor, mostly trekkers and mountaineers. Per the guesthouse logbooks, Poles had been recent visitors. While we were there, a group of Canadians were starting their several week trek into the mountains. Our group drove about the area on most challenging roads, to the end of track that melted into the glaciers. Several of our group attempted to check nearby petroglyphs but were overwhelmed by the overflowing streams. I settled for visiting neighbors, who offered tea and yogurt.

The AKF and Norwegians sponsored a series of guesthouses, certainly more comfortable than the teahouses I slept in in a prior trip across Afghanistan in the lower Four-Forty - this now was the upper Four. Beds were either that, a single bed, or a carpeted/matted, platform, With facilities of a sort: Western toilet atop the hole in the ground or a standard squat number or simply, the hole in the ground. Water, yes! Cold, and sometimes warm water, for Hindu shower.

We drove down some of Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway before crossing over the Panj and moving to the Afghan side of of the border. Anyway you want to describe it, it was basic. Countryside was pristine, peaceful, beautiful, awesome. Many Splendored Mountains! The people were friendly - Salaams were cheerfully exchanged. Hospitality was a big thing. It was offered. It was expected.

Yet, they were were not totally isolated: Solar units and satellite dishes popped up across the landscapes; the electric light bulb in our guesthouse was a modern energy saving one. Near one place we stayed, Pakistan workers were building a detention facility - also near the conservation center focused on tracking the Snow Leopard.

We and the Canadians financed an afternoon’s game of buzkashi, which involves a headless goat, some horses and their riders. So far as we well could tell, our cook, a wild horseman who could manage upsidedown riding, won.

We were able to spend time in several schools with both boys and girls in attendance. However, the girls left early on for they had work to do at home, while often the boys were able to stay later. Built by the Greg Mortenson group, they were were not always fully staffed by the government. I talked with one set of parents who were very pleased by the education offered all their children. We also talked with the doctor and several nurses at one of the local clinics.

There were several efforts to set up craft work spaces for the women. They appeared barely used. Four hand sewing machines were still boxed. The space seemed most used when visitors came to town. Otherwise people worked in their homes or brought crafts to your place. The women were not traditionally covered but wore colorful red based garb with great freedom of movement.

There were, to me, surprisingly few check points. There were police but no Army around. All the Border crossing, processing was done by hand. A couple of officials, a couple of scribes, and some hangers-on. In our two Land Rovers, we drove about the Corridor, our drivers conquering the rocky and wet river crossings, with aplomb and a minimum of blown tyres.

Ah, food. We brought our own, along with our high riding cook, who came up with more creative ways to fix canned this-and-that. Once we left Tajikistan, there was no fresh whatever. Muesli, dried and canned fruit and juice for breakfast, tuna and pasta and canned vegs for lunch and dinner. Once back across to Khorog, Tajikistan, hot shower and omelet for breakfast.

By the time I got back to Dushanbe, I had a intestinal problem - I rarely get sick but I was wiped out at the end of this trip. I had, accidentally but fortunately, a two day layover. I spent time in bed though did get out the last evening for an Operatic performance of “historical significance” - totally unintelligible to me though I did figure out a hero an a villain.

It took me several days and three flights to wing my way home. On the last, from South Korea to San Francisco, I was lucky enough to have a vacant seat next to me. For the next few months, I'm home per Sam's demands - he's been a good patient cat throughout my travels and it's time to listen to his request.

An expensive trip - in fact the most expensive trip I’ve undertaken. It’s been an expensive travel year - back to the dull roar next year. Cost over $5000 for the tour and another $3200 for airfare. Cat care cost $930 - but he's worth every penny - and visas and permits close to $500.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ten Days in Cuba: May 2012

Back on the road again. This time, Cuba, the last of the three countries heading my travel list for some years. Countries that have been all but impossible for me to visit. And this year, I’ve done them all: Saudi Arabia, Libya and now, Cuba.

I entered Cuba as a “delegate” with Global Exchange with a tour focused on Arts, Culture and Architecture. Most of the time was in Havana for we were rained out of Trinidad - in fact, the local resort where we stayed a night, closed down, thoroughly soaked by storms. We ended back in Havana a day early, at the Hotel Nacional, no great hardship there.

But to begin: there were twenty-two in the group: Writers, photographers, architectural historians, students, dancers and other interested travelers. Most stayed with the program though some went their own way - they had other agendas. The itinerary included a walking tour of Old Havana, visits to the Fine Arts Museum, an artist’s studio, meeting with an urban planner, time at various organizations, i.e. the Muraleado community project, the Ludwig Foundation, the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation, Casa de Africa and Fototeca (local photography) plus observation of dance classes and a rehearsal. And more.

Extra curricularly, I attended several performances of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s student and main company, an enthusiastic song-dance Opera on the Streets and the Buena Vista Social club with its two marvelous Spanish-style ballroom dancers. And I did get to Hemingway’s Cuban home, now a museum, Finca La Vigia. I missed the Museum of Danse.

Cuba has been described as a country fixated in the fifties. There is some truth to that, what with the old cars and buildings, both in good condition and dilapidated disrepair. Buildings are old Spanish influenced Greco-Roman with decorative metal on both windows and balconies. In the Old Havana, the ground floor was often barren with rickety stairs leading to apartments that would be rejected by any self respected tenement.

My roommate visited several locals, friends of a friend, and reported the basic living conditions of even middle class, had few facilities in their small living areas. Toilets there and elsewhere, were sans seat and lid, leading to a half squat; toilet paper was rare, often handed out at entry for a small tip.

We started with a walk and talk about Old Havana, a presentation of the Master Plan for restoration. Into various plazas and religious buildings. A good orientation to the area.

For me, the high point was the time at Pro Danza, Laura Alonzo’s dance studio and company. As we drifted into observe class, I felt totally at ease, set to remain there indefinitely. The dancers were good, well trained - the men all but hit the ceiling of the room with their jumps and leaps. I was able to talk some with Alonzo, the daughter of Alicia and Fernando, who was charming and energetic as she talked of her background and the company. At seventy, she still takes class - my kind of woman!

Miguel Coyula was an outstanding speaker - not the filmmaker but the architect and urban planner . He reviewed the history of Cuban from the 1500s when it was a stopping point for ships from the colonies onto to their home ports, to the present. (Noted was that the Cuban Capital building, almost identical to the US Capital, excepting two metres taller.) Baptista and the Mafia worked hand in glove. So it was at Revolution, people trashed the casinos. - and parking meters! Afterwards, modern buildings rose, often prefabs influenced by the Soviet and Eastern European styles.

Coyula talked of owning his apartment but has a struggle to find funds to maintain it. The cost of materials is very expensive. Until the Soviet Union collapsed, 80% of the trade came from the Eastern bloc. Since, Cuba has been struggling. Seventy percent of the food is imported. There is encouragement of small farming and interest in a hybrid economy: 40% planned and 40% private. Problem is fifty years of a planned economy to buck against. Plus a brain drain. Tourism is increasing - Canadians and Americans are most numerous. And they were obviously all about. (And the Cubans do come out ahead, what with two currencies - one for them and one for us - plus a 10% cut, with American dollars).

I found the Muraleando Community Project, fill of life, much more interesting than the Colon Cemetery. Members had decorated several blocks of the area surrounding their building, worthy of mention in Lonely Planet. The stop at the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation, a cultural and scientific organization was most interesting for along with Jimenez’ writings, was a nice collection of artifacts from Peru and Mexico. The Fine Arts Museum had an extensive collection including some children’s art work. Across the street was the Military Museum, which was being repaired so no admittance.

Out in a one time elegant residential district was Alicia Leah’s home and studio. I was more interested in the neighborhood and her home than her painting. Her home was well kept as were some of the neighboring places - but not all. I thought of Coyula’s comments about the expense of maintenance materials..

The Ludwig Foundation was a NGO focusing on contemporary Cuban art while Case de Africa took a look at the African influences - I opted out of that early; the drumming was too piercing, man! I also left the Fototeca early, becoming bored with some of the presentations; they also had a Andres Serrano exhibit, most of which was a bit too avant garde for me. .

I took off with two of our poets one night, to a cafe where poets were reading their work. It was well attended and they had good ice cream, a must for me. Some were really performance artists while others just stood and simply read. It was mas intersante! Even in Spanish.

The trip ended at the Artisan’s Fair, located in an old warehouse with three elderly train engines before it. It was made clear to us, rail travel was NOT the way to go. But the engines were nicely restored and made an interesting entry way to the building, where all sorts of artistic items were sold. Paintings, leather work, weaving - you name it. A nice ending to our explorations. I walked across the street to look into an old 15th Century church (San Francisco?) with a stained glass window of recent (2000?) origin - obviously new but appropriate to the building. From the chairs and music stands, it must have fair acoustics as it obviously is used for chamber concerts.

Wile we did see and walk about Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South, we missed out entirely Trinidad, a World Heritage site - the tropical storms were just too much.

There is a lushness to Cuba, greenery about. Though it contrasts with the exhaust smoke from the autos. But, there was the spirit and vitality of the people. I couldn’t help but compare to Libya: there they had recently thrown off the yoke of a Strong Man, now determined not to repeat that; conversely fifty years ago, Cuba had thrown off the corruption of a Strong Man, but replaced him with another Strong Man. Yet, I had the same feeling of exuberance from those I talked with in both countries. Like Libya, Cuba is poor, third world, but full of hope.

Bits and pieces: Patterned hose popular on the younger set, even those in uniform. Hava Nagila being played by a roving quartet at mealtime. The wet suited scuba diver with harpoon and fish, rising from the harbor water by the light of the moon. The sound of the evening cannon going off, leaving me with a day’s worth of ringing in my ears and a broken blood vessel in my eye - I was right next to it, a bad mistake! The couple who gave three of us a ride to the hotel when taxis weren’t forthcoming. The non-English speaking woman who was so concerned that I had a untied shoe lace.

Accommodation: We stayed at four hotels, three in Havana and a resort place outside of Trinidad. The first two hotels were in various parts of Old Havana - we were moved to give us a chance to experience various architectures and districts. These were comfortable 3* hotels with an efficient staff. The resort was having its problems but, given good weather, would have been quite comfortable.. Its customers had come down for R/R and were not happy campers. The last hotel was the Nacional, a year younger than me. A 5*, it was elegant with three restaurants/cafes, a swimming pool and a couple of night clubs. I snuck in one night to see a couple of would-be Apache dancers perform; it was there I saw the Buena Vista bunch.

Food: Excellent. Usually we ate at restaurants patronized by Westerners. Two meals - breakfast and lunch or dinner, were included. Some places I’d never find again and others were quite evident. Choices were usually chicken, fish or pork. You could pick up cheap but good sandwiches at street cafes.

The Tour: Well planned, keeping in mind various artistic interests. And enough spare time to pursue individual agendas. The guides were exceptional: knowledgeable and patient - chasing down tickets for various evening activities. A minimum of propagandizing.

Cost: Global Exchange charged $2600 which included airfare from Cancun to Havana. The sllight from San Francisco to Cancun: $509.63. Overnight Cancun (including restaurant): $150. Entertainment, meals, donations and gifts in Havana: $500.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tysons Corner, McLean VA: April 2012

Tysons Corner-M clean, VA

Less than a year ago, I flew into Raleigh, North Carolina for a Spy Conference, sponsored by local media. I had a good time and learned a lot. Also I was recommended for associate membership in the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, which includes not only CIA types, but strays from military and law enforcement. I managed to slip through one of the loop holes and thus, took myself at their two day yearly symposium in mid-April, 2012.

Home base was the Crown Plaza Hotel, Tysons Corner: quite elegant! This has been a year of elegant hotels for me, what with the stays in Saudi Arabia. I must say though, Tysons Corner is not the beauty spot of Virginia - busy thruways, a collection of office buildings, a large shopping mall and the work-in-progress rail link to DC. did not encourage early sunrise sightings.

However, we spent part of one day at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at Liberty Crossing and a full day at the Defense Intelligence Agency at Bolling AF Base. The Symposium concluded with a gala banquet. I didn’t know a soul there; looked for my sponsor, a semi-retired AF Colonel, with no success.

Most of the attendees were of the gray,white, or no haired set: about a dozen women - they came from that time where females were mostly clerical workers - half a dozen African- Americans (and about four of them female) and several Asians. They were an alert audience and made good use of the Q&As. One individual had been charged with training Afghan army recruits; another had contact with Robert Hansen, not one of the FBI’s finest; others were active with cyber security, and so on.

The military types have impressed me as no-nonsense guys, forthright and direct in their discussions. James Clapper Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, started as a Marine and retired as LTG, USAF; LTG Mike Flynn, USA,Assistant Director of National Intelligence (and soon to be Director of Defense Intelligence Agency), and LTG Ronald Burgess,USA, Defense Intelligence Director were all individuals I could respect.

The Symposium started at the hotel with a former FBI Counter Intelligence and Security Director, who who presented background on US intelligence gathering. According to David Major, Russians and Chinese are the two biggest collectors of information - and also are busy, spying on each other.

We were quite efficiently processed into the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. There were six speakers, including Director Clapper, focusing on private sector engagements, Intelligence integration, human resources, and technology. I should explain the Director Clapper is the Intelligence Czar; a position created out of the rubble of 9/11 - I asked one of the experts whether it was a helpful move or just another layer of bureaucracy; that person originally felt it was another layer of bureaucracy but now was supportive of its efforts to coordinate the collection of existing intelligence agencies.

So, here are abbreviated notes from the sessions:

Post WW2, there was a system of containment which worked given the Cold War time. However, all changed post 9/11. Since, a fully integrated intelligence community has made the nation more secure. The current approach is to be problem preventers rather than problem solvers. The Intelligence office now works closely with Congress, Civil Liberties groups and legal communities. They are learning more about the scope of social media and cell phones. Comment: need is to focus on the problem rather than just the data.

Intelligence integration makes the whole better than the parts. Basically, there all areas should work together, including the private sector, eg: academics and non-governmental organizations. It appears the US is still in the running vis a vis the Chinese. But admittedly, the US has made poor assumptions: eg: Iraq!

The worldwide Intelligence Community is changing: There used to be were similar values among the players;. now, other cultures, not all nation-states, are involved. Again, integration of information is the key, involving federal, state, local and tribal services.

Concurrent with the new crises, there is the demand to reduce costs, eg. by 25%. Which leads to out sourcing and sharing single cyber platforms. In short, the effort is to protect the mission despite taking a cut in the budget.

Per Director Clapper, agencies did acquire many more people since 9/1, but now, the agencies must deal with financial cuts. He is trying to take the negative and turn it into a positive: Integration is most important, involving all the leaders in the community. He listed several considerations: 1) sustain staff, 2) employ agile capabilities, 3) key investment to maintain strategic advantage. 4) enhance cyber security and Counter intelligence, 5) more integration with Department of Defense and allies.

In answers to questions, Director Clapper commented that the Muslim Brotherhood is not monolithic and not necessarily a terrorist organization; there are 50 pieces of pending legislation re: cyber security, overseas threats appear more serious than home grown ones, contractors have been cut by 30% as directed by Congress. and that it is hardest to deal well with things that haven’t happened.

At near daybreak the next day, nearly 200 of us gathered in three buses for the ride to Bolling AF Base. A nice day, we drove on freeways in various states of building and repair. The Defense Intelligence Agency was housed in a huge, new glass-steel building at odds with the older brick dwellings of the air base. The security arrangements were strictly TSA sans any check of individual ID?

There were a dozen participants, including LTG Burgess. Topics included discussion of a five year strategic plan, the role of Defense Intelligence Officers, Counter Intelligence/ Humint Center, collection management (strategy and programs), the National Intelligence University, and cyber security/ analysis.

Per speakers, lessons were learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, intelligence was going to do more for less. While Defense Intelligence was primarily to assist military operations, there was the emphasis on integration of information as well as working outside US Intelligence organizations and other think tanks.

Trilateral threat assessments are coordinated with US, Canada and Mexico. Drug, terrorist and cyber threats are evaluated by this coalition. The Diplomatic Attaché program is also managed by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Before 9/11, it seems that the various agencies marched to the tune of their own drummer. Since, strides have been made to integrate the various agencies. Counter Intelligence seemed “ahead of the curve” more than other aspects of intelligence.

LTG Burgess talked of turning currents against Al Qaeda, which continues to be active in Iraq (pro-Sunni), showing up in Syria, with increased activity in Yemen, popping up in Libya, and busy in Somalia. There are current concerns with Iran and cyber security. In 2020, he sees China, as a regional power, competing with the US but not a global peer competitor. To sustain her populations, China will be busy as she must create ten million new jobs over the oncoming years.

A National Intelligence University was started in 1962 and has continued, under varying names and guises. It has a teaching, research and outreach mission. Master’s degrees are offered along with certification programs. The University is accredited.

Talking of cyber security, it appears there are three levels: hackers, criminals and purposeful actors eg: nation states , non national-states and individual groups. Recently, social media has come to the fore. There was some discussion of Wikileaks. Again there was the emphasis to collaborate on all aspects - cyber security and counterintelligence.

Lunch was in the lobby, I was seated next to an Iraqi Scud missile. There was also a shop with caps, sweatshirts, t-shirts, coffee cups and the like, labeled DIA, CIA and related identification. I decided not to buy as couldn’t quite see myself wandering about the Middle East or Central Asia with a cap or t-shirt reading CIA. In fact, there was a shuttle run from the hotel to the CIA gift shop at Herendon for the committed. I also missed that one. But I did do the Banquet - Spies in Black Ties! That turned out to be quite social. The group at our table was a chatty bunch and fun.

The speaker was a former Deputy Director of the CIA, now at Johns Hopkins University. He started by commenting that Intelligence is the least understood instrument of foreign relations. US was the last major country to organize intelligence; we have had an intelligence organization only since 1947. Since 9/11, the government has devoted resources to intelligence activity, giving it a robust legal authority, obtaining unprecedented cooperation from both civilian and military sources.

He gave background on AlQaeda, past to the present, reporting while the core is weakened but the affiliates and lone wolves have come to the fore. The US is probably safer now, but not out of the woods. His concluded with the observation that we now live in a time where events in one part of the world quickly affect the rest of us.

That was it. I did show up to the Saturday breakfast meeting, but it was a housekeeping session. I checked out and flew home. I don’t know that I would do this again: it would depend upon speakers and field trips. But I did find it worth while, once around, to experience the ambiance of this particular world.

Cost: Air fare: $440.60. Hotel: $340.38. Conference: $695.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Colby Miitary Writers' Symposium April 2012

Norwich College, Vermont: April 2012

Two years ago, I flew to Vermont for the two day Colby Military Writers Symposium, interested in their discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Norwich College, where the gathering was held, was charming; Then, it was cold, snowy and picturesque. On return this year, I found it chilly, mostly dry and still picturesque. Both the town of Northfield and the college.

To explain: The Colby Military Writers’ Symposium is named after former CIA Director, William E Colby, a WW 2 OSS veteran. A long time friend of Norwich University, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service in 1992. In 1997, the Military Writers’ Symposium was named after him.

As before, I found the participants thoughtful and considered in their discussion of the country’s present problems - the title of the symposium was Afghanistan and America’s Endless War on Terrorism. And certainly not boring.

But preceding the symposium proper. there was a day’s presentations by four authors. All their recent books but one were with a military theme: a novel about the Civil War, a study of Naval warfare in the South Pacific during WW2, a memoir of a Marine’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the status of today’s media by thirty year ABC Journalist. It was a nice balance of participants: a retired light Colonel, a Marine Captain who had moved onto to strategic analysis, a naval historian cum literary agent, and the long time reporter.

Barrie Dunsmore, who wrote There and Back, talked about The Demise of the News Media and Why That Matters. pointed out past commitment of networks to the news. In recent years, though, ratings went down. Beancutters moved in, a business model prevailed plus the challenge of cable and the Internet in all varieties. One comment that scored for me, a former Journalism student, was that current audiences seemed to identify with opinionated commentary rather than factual reporting.

I was most interested in Ralph Peters, retired military, author, commentator, and columnist - I have read several of his books and follow his column in an American military magazine. Don’t always agree with him, but find him articulate and knowledgeable. He has written one of the best travel books I’ve read, Looking for Trouble. His current book, Cain at Gettysburg, is a novel of the Civil War so it was logical he spoke of Myths of Gettysburg.

One comment Peters made about writing: the historian gives the facts while well done historical fiction captures the flavor and emotions of the time. Also, while the current thesis we have never been so politically divided, is not true when one considers past intramural conflicts. Peters talked at some length about the battles at Gettysburg and the leaders. For him, it was clear that Meade won Gettysburg for the Union.

Nathaniel Fick, a infantry officer. had won the Colby award in 2006, with his book, One Bullet Away. Now CEO of a security research organization, his topic was American Power and Purpose in Afghanistan, Iraq and Beyond. A classics major as an undergraduate, he read of the Peloponnesian Wars before his active duty which found him with the canceled mission at Tora Bora. He talked of the difference between Iraq, urban warfare, and Afghanistan, which was definitely rural. And the college’s cadets poured in to hear him.

In his comparison of conflicts, they range from Insurgency (ie: Iraq and Afghanistan) through conventional warfare to the nuclear option (North Korea and Iran). Two comments that got my attention: the Interest on the debt will soon be exceeded by defense expenditures; our allies are spending less on defense while we are the world’s biggest defense spender. Also, : the US is good at building but needs be more flexible and relevant.

I remembered James Hornfischer from the 2010 Colby; his third book, Neptune’s Inferno, is just out. And that was what he talked about, the WW2 naval engagements in the South Pacific during WW2, at Guadalcanal. I was most interested for my husband was a Yeoman aboard ship anchored at Noumea during that time.

Horfischer described the problems with the Guadalcanal campaign. The Marines were dropped off, with the Navy then caught up in its own problems. Though the US had superiority daytimes, the Japanese took over at night. The non use of newly developed radar compounded the issue. Changes in command lead to Halsey’s appointment as the in-charge guy - respected by subordinates and a gambler by nature, he took chances and won out. Comment: Midway belonged to the air fleet while Guadalcanal was a naval foray.

Speakers were on the local radio and met with students in classes. A military school. Norwich has combined civilian-cadet students. One of the graduating cadets I talked with, is an education major hoping to teach in elementary school upon graduation. No plan to enter the military. All types, including former service(wo)men.

The Symposium featured the three authors with James Hornfischer moderating. It was the third year that the Afghanistan conflict had been featured: The Endless War?

The newsman, remembering when the Russians came into Afghanistan, felt it was time to make an end to our involvement, commenting that there were similarities to the Russian experience as well as US efforts in Vietnam. Concerns about neighboring Pakistan seem to justify the US involvement with Afghanistan. But, we need allies there and our allies seem to be bailing.

The former Army officer thought the US had been successful in the original mission in 2002 but then confused AlQueda and the Taliban, the latter being the local Afghan hill billies, no particular threat to the US. He was very critical of US efforts at nation building and the COIN philosophy, which does assume a stable government. He felt religion was a key factor in the insurgency. He thought Pakistan was more important in the Cold War context than now.

The Marine noted that while Kabul was the political capital of the country, Kandalhar was the spiritual center. Also, a deadline for the Western military support means you have given up any supremacy. Another problem is the dis inclination to relieve poorly performing officers from command - at one time, an officer could be transferred to another assignment, where he might be more successful. Any such move is now seen as a “demerit”. He also suggested the US and its allies, should be thinking in terms of Pakistan-Afghanistan rather than Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Concluding, the Marine paraphrased a ET Lawrence quote: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands; better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It’s their war and you are there to help them, not to win it for them,” as applying to the Afghanistan problem. And then commented that concerns with Afghanistan may diminish as the West becomes more involved with Israel and Iran.

The Reception and Dinner was the final evening, a mix of authors, guests, donors, alumni, and cadets. The menu was mixed, inspired by the books featured during the Symposium. There were several presentation, including the 2012 Colby Award winner, Michael Franzak’s A Nighmare’s Prayer, a Afghanistan memoir by a Marine Harrier pilot. It was at the Dinner’s conclusion that the Symposium’s Director, Dr Andrew Knauf, gave an outline of Terrorism, from pre Christian times to the now -well researched and presented.

And so the next morning, I packed up and headed back to San Francisco.

I stayed in a nearby B/B - the operators were off in the UK but had left a key for me. I had breakfast at the college cafeteria. So it was $310 for three nights at The Elizabethan, $200 round trip shuttle to/from Burlington airport, and $150 for the Symposium. Round trip airfare was $472, with United going out of its way to change flights so I could return home several hours earlier.

I probably will return another year, depending on program and speakers.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Finally, Libya! 6-18 March 2012

I've been trying to visit Libya for some years. I have a number os articles by those who gt in circa 2004; their experience was totally different than mine. They had minders and fund Tripoli depressing and drab. I had no minder and found Tripoli full of color and energy. The difference: Gadaffi was gone!

I immediately signed on when Political Tours announced a March trip to Libya, even though it centered in Tripoli rather than Benghazi in the East, my main interest. Political Tours' purpose was to explore "the overall fall out from the conflict" and look at "how best can peaceful and durable political settlement . . . be achieved."

Understand that Libya consists of three main sector - Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan (the West, the East and the South) - which have been played against each other by Gadaffi. The East led the "Arab Spring" revolt against Gadaffi and it was only six months ago, that the last holdouts in West and South surrendered. The East, which had the oil, felt cheated by the West which had the power. The Sth, desert tribal country, was catered to by Gadaffi. So to say that current governance is in flux, might be an understatement.

There were five of us, led by Political Tours director, an ex NY Times foreign correspondent. Besides myself, there was a semi-retired Texas energy man, an Australian attorney, a British NGO worker from Yemen and a British-Australian-American college student from Colorado. All good travelers; all knowledgeable about the Libyan crises, past and present.

Over the week, we had access to various media representatives, NGO people, local and National interim administrators, British Embassy staff - the American Embassy was on the edge of town and staff unavailable except in emergency as remodeling was occurring - consultants, school staff, militia council leaders, displaced person and average citizens. We were based in Tripoli all but on night when we drove to Misarta and Tauorga.

For the first few days we were followed and filmed by a CNN team and a French TV crew. (see and The Tunisian cameraman, half of the French crew, was probably one of the most unforgetable characters I'll ever run into. Energetic and always gleeful, he got into the most unbelievable and dangerous positions to get a shot. Hanging out of the window of a moving auto -

Though I found enthusiasm for a Gadaffi-less country, there was a concern things were moving to slowly toward a functioning government. Yet there was a need to move carefully to avoid further conflict. It all depended upon who you spoke with. The(wo)men on the street were joyful: revolutionary signs and the old/new Libyan flags were all, and I mean all, over. The first Friday I was there, there was a loud and enthusiastic rally supporting an United Libya - One Libya - no federalization. This was in response to a report that Benghazi and the East might loosen ties with a national government from Tripoli.

Another problem was that of the militia/brigade/kitiba members, who continued to main checkpoints and wander about in military garb, carry weapons. On the street and at the airport. Manning check points. Not particularly threatening, at least to us, but there! The hope was most would drift into the army or police - so no direct confrontation with them ala Gadaffi.

Then the garbage: garbage has not been picked up in Tripoli for months. People leaned abut their establishments and took it, neatly tied in plastic bags, elsewhere. NIMBY. According to a member of the Tripoli council, the owner of the previously used garbage site had been forced to provide service during the Gadaffi regim so - with Gadaffi gone, he declared independence from Tripoli's garbage. De facto sites included a mile or more along the airport road with smoldering fires polluting the air. Admittedly a health hazard, the local council was committed to negotiations rather than force the issue with the site's owner. Another effort not to emulate the past.

It's all complicated by a non elected, volunteer government. Much hope is placed on summer elections which will select individuals to hammer out a Constitution - we met with a woman anxious t be one of those selected. Subsequently, an other election to approve the Constitution and elect representatives. At the moment, the National Transitional Council theoretically heads the country and the Tripoli Local Council has responsibility for the city. Along with militias and the like. But political parties are being to be former. Remember, this is a country with 42 years of autocratic rule, feeling it was politically.

As a local Journalist pointed out, Libya had a social uprising while Egypt had a civil war. And the Libyan uprising involved planning between militias, army and NATO. At the beginning, it was thought all would end quickly, as in Tunisia and Egypt. It was a surprise that Gadaffi reacted so strongly. One comment was that it was probably good that the revolutionaries didn't realize the extent of Gadaffi's resistance or there might not have been a Libyan Revolt.

We visited Bab Azizya, the remains of Gadaffi's headquarters and home. Thoroughly trashed by NATO and locals, much more than Saddam's Babylon palace. Some families moved into nearby army bunker, cleaning up the interiors and caging electricity from a nearby apartment complex. We talked with a hospital administrator who had moved him family in he could not manage ongoing rent. Salaries are not good to civil servants.

At the old prison, Abu Seleem, where people had been detained indefinitely in the old days, a former immate was our guide. Other ex-inmates were around, showing their former quarters to their families. Our guy had been there for eleven years for the crime of early morning prayer at the mosque - never convicted.

At Misrate, there are various militias whose members were active in the fighting, not only locally but in Tripoli and Sirte. They also hated their neighbors, the Tauogans, ex-slaves of generations ago, considered as pro-Gadaffi. I'm not sure in what order it happened, but some Tauogans raped and pillaged Misratans and Misratans trashed Tauoga and ran residents out, holding all responsible for the actions of, possibly, several hundred.

Misrate was really decimated - there was hard, hand to hand fighting and I could see where mortar and sniper shots landed on the buildings. There is now a museum, with captured military equipment and walls lined with photos of those killed, both fighters and victims. People. obviously moved by their time visiting, wrote rather lengthy comments in the visitors' log. A military cuncil commander, a former agricultural worker, mentoined problems of PTSD resulting from the conflict. Like the Triploi officias, he talked of the militias being absorbed into police, army or back to their old professions.

The Tauogans were rescued and brught t Tripli where they are housed in a former Navy facility as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Effectively, they are detained, for they are endangered if they leave the camp. (I heard the chairman of the NTC refer to them as "non Libyans" though he quickly reversed himself) As a group, we met with several leaders of the community. Later, two from the group returned to spend more time talking with them. The Tauogans want to return home and feel no one cares about what happens to them. Their homes are severely damaged and they are unable to protect their lands. Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children are the agencies presently helping them.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the status of those detained by the militias rather than the Ministry of the Interior - and thus subject to the caprices of the winners. Another example of oppressed becoming oppressor!

In and about Tripoli, there were uncompleted building projects, with silent cranes standing sentry, and a deteriorating infrastructure. Conversely, people were working on small remodeling and maintenance projects. In the Medina where I stayed, there were ongoing efforts - along with some of the more creative writing Ive seen sort of Chungking Mansions in Kowloon. As usual, by the time I figured out all the byways, I moved on.

Many women wear headscarves and long coats though a younger group is in tight jeans but head, headscarf. People were welcoming asking where I was from, happy with the American help in the conflict, and approving of my Palestinian head scarf. Throughout I felt perfectly safe, poking about on my own, Though the tour group did have Security for most of our travels - the best and most professional I've run into in he eight countries where I've dealt with it. Inconspucious but aware. No weapons, but even so, I wouldn't want to tangle with any of our people. Excepting the in-charge guy, they were locals with their stories of the fighting.

There were two sightseeing opportunities: Leptis Magna, as part of the tour, and Sabratha, where three of us went on our own. Both were exhilarating. World Heritage sites. Part of my ongoing efforts to track the Romans on their travels of centuries back. Both on the coast with a backdrop of blue sea for the ruins. We were among the few visitors to both sites. Fantastic experience.

Accommodatons: Could not have been better; The El Khan Hotel in the Medina, near the Marcus Arelius Arch. With conveniences and atmosphere.

Food: I ate more pizza than I've ever had in my life. It was that or baked chicken or grilled fish or kabobs. My best meal was a chicken-cheese-spinach sandwich with a mixed fruit drink at a nearby cafe. However, I must admit two buffet breakfast at the Cornthia Hotel were superb, though $30 apiece.

Tour: In some ways, this tour was similar to the several Global Exchange/Realty tours I've gone with - an educational experience, above and beyond the usual sightseeing. A bit more pricey but I though it worth it given the quality of the interviewees. I'll travel with Political Tours again, likely into the Balkans.

And I'm still hoping for trek into Eastern and Southern Libya.

Cost: The tour cost: about $7500, including the last minute visa fees. I was there three days on my own. I used frequent flyers miles - about wiped our my account - only $205 airfare, including two segments Business class. But even in Economy, the seat next to me was empty - second time that has happened. I must be living right.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ten Days in an abaya: 11-23 Feb 12 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one of three countries high on my list of places to go; also high on the list of countries difficult to access. And it looks like I will get to all three this year. But back to Saudi Arabia: Lonely Planet terms the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as “one of the hardest places in the world to visit” unless you are willing to sign onto “fixed itinerary, high end package tours”. Which I finally did though the itinerary was pretty flexible.

Even so, I had to write a short essay for the KSA embassy people, justifying my interest in visiting the country before I received my visa. So with eight others, including the tour leader, the Arabic speaking owner of the travel company, I took off. The trip managed to touch north and south and places in between. Did several internal flights and one long road trip. I saw desert and mountains, modern and old buildings, covered and uncovered woman’s heads --but all women in abayas. We touched on eight cities, staying overnight in six.

Riyadh, the capital, was the most conservative - head scarves were mandatory for the women with a number also wearing face veils with eyes only showing. Luckily, we ran into the Janadriyah celebration with its performances and exhibitions - and locals interested in taking photos with/of us. Then there was the usual sight seeing: the city’s tallest building with requisite observation deck,a beautifully designed museum, the Old Town, the souk, first of many, and an old fortress.

And traffic in Riyadh, and elsewhere, was fierce. Though our local guide said there was public transport, I didn’t see any. But taxis did good business. And the Toyota company did well, both in the cities and countryside. Toyotas abounded!

We flew to the south and Najran, near the Yemeni border. I felt I had returned to Yemen for the architecture was so much the same - mud bricks with white trim. It was here we met the security police that sporadically led/followed our bus about throughout the trip. The outstanding bit for me was seeing photos by St. John Philby at the Museum. And there ws a camel market plus sheep and goats. A Pakistani goat was a featured player - big and homely - never saw one quite like him before! A huge dam in progress, the local souk and the Historical Palace were before the the nearby ancient rock carvings, the first of a number scattered throughout the country. Per LP, there are some two thousand sites with concentrations about Najran, Al Ula and Hail, extending back some three thousand years.

The mountain city of Abha, adjacent to he Asir National Park with the deserted village of Habalah. was next. A cable car ride takes visitors to the “hanging” village where residents had gotten around via climbing ropes. There was a second cable car ride to another almost inaccessible village. Lovely mountainous countryside.

Next a flight to Jeddah followed by a long, rather tedious ride to Al Ula and the old Railway stations along the Hejaz and the Nabatean ruins (step child to Petra in Jordan) in Mada’in Saleh. This was what I was most interested in for I have been digging along the Hejaz Railway in Jordan for the past four years as part of the Great Arab Revolt Project, and been into Petra on various occasions.

Most of the Saudi track and ties had been “liberated” by locals to use for building projects - our bus gingerly drove atop the railway bed for several miles. Unfortunately, the train barn was locked and I couldn’t see the restored engine though I did wander about the numerous restored buildings at the Hejaz Station - plans are to add a hotel and make it more a tourist site.

Mada’in Salah ws much more spread out than Petra but with less spectacular tombs. A combination of Petra with Wadi Rum. There is a small siq near one site and many of the formations are quite unique and colorful. Time spent there was well worth while. - nothing like clambering about with abeya tied about the waist.

Though there was no overnight stay at Talma, we did spend time there. A very significant archaeological site with the well of all wells, at one time using up to sixty camels to bring up water. The night was spent at Hail, significant as a stopping point for the pilgrims to the Holy Cities and home to the Rashidis, early rivals to Ibn Saud. Then backtracking to the Jubbah area, where there were numerous petrogyph sites. The museum fascinated me with old photos of TE Lawrence, Glubb Pasha and Anne Blunt.

Hail to Jeddah via air for two days and a night: there was the routine sightseeing drive. A wander about the Old Town, still inhabited by refugees from Africa’s conflicted areas. Missed out on one museum but managed part of another with with rooms designed in Arabesque styles with filming of the entire collection. The Corniche was quite impressive and there were malls and souks enough to make any shopper’s heartbeat quicken. Did get to the fish market, where an old Arab,a former Texas resident, wanted his photo taken with me along with a kiss. Then out to a camel farm where camel milk was offered - tried it, still warm from the camel’s udder.

I did met an academic who had studied in the States, a woman who was a King’s Scholar, working in Artificial Intelligence affiliated with the universities at Jeddah and Hail. Bright, attractive and articulate.

I didn’t find the old British Legation nor the old French Embassy where T E Lawrence stayed at various intervals.

The tour leader asked about the difference between expectations and reality after our time in Saudi Arabia: I found it not as repressive as I expected; people were open and friendly. Also the tourist infrastructure was extensive, contrasted with the difficulty of getting visas and dearth of tourists. I didn’t expect English to be a common second language. Another was amazed at the extensive amount of rock art.

Observations: In contrast to the highrises, glass and steel, concrete modern buildings of Riyadh and Jeddah, there was the occasional black Bedu tent in the countryside - with pickup, and livestock, including a couple of camels. In the same vein, I was surprised that most of the toilets were Western rather than “squat. This is truly a country of wealth and progress, except in Human Rights as we Westerners understand them. But the English-language newspapers seemed free enough - Associated Press coverage. Television had BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.

Food: uniformly good. Mostly hotel buffets though ate a couple of times in local cafes - rice and meat in central platter with a right hand grab. Two times at airports. Several times in upscale restaurants.

Accommodations: Four to five star. Radisson, Holiday Inn and Intercontinental. What more can I say. Best available but then, LP states women should not stay at lesser hotels.

Cost: Tour cost $6715, inclusive meals and domestic flights. Overseas airfare was $1374. Tips totaled about $250. Cat care was $520.

All in all, a good trip - a comfortable trek across the country, sort of a survey 101. Came home with a plethora of maps and literature plus a CD from KSA Tourist Authority.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rajasthan: Xmas 2011 plus New Years 2012.

Or this could be subtitled, The Dog Ate the Newtons, or The Cow in the RR station.

This year three of us from last year’s Oman trip plus a fourth from a Mali trip, joined forces to explore Rajasthan independently. Two Americans and two Brits, all women of a certain maturity. Most of the planning was done by one of the Brits and implemented by a New Zealander with an Indian bas ed tour company.

Accommodation was in reasonably priced guesthouses, havelis, hotels and two nights sleeping out on charboys. Transportation was mostly by train - first class, second class, third class, coach - where ever we could get seats. Several times we had car and driver as there was no other way to reach the destination. Locally, the four of us crowded into motorized rickshaws (aka tuk-tuks) as necessary.

The itinerary was Delhi>Jaisalmer>Jodphur>Jaipur>Pushkar>Udaipur>Ranakpur>
Ranthambore>Agra>Delhi with one going on to Bharatpur for two days bird watching while two headed home and another onto Mumbai to visit a friend. Armed with three guidebooks - Rough Guide, Lonely Planet and Footprints - and an ability to bargain, we spent three weeks in Rajasthan. And yes, Indians celebrate the holidays, with lights and trees and tinsel.

Actually, on Christmas Day, we were homeless in Pushkar. We had to check out of our guesthouse before noon and weren’t due to take the the “Midnight Flyer” out of Ajmer to Udaipur until 12:55 AM. Fortunately, the parent haveli for our lodging let us leave baggage. We wandered about the town, famous for its Fall Camel Fair.

Three of us made Puja with flowers given us; however, we may not have had the proper attitude for difficulties followed us for a few days afterward. We had a good Christmas dinner at the haveli and then to the Ajmer station, where the floor was covered with sleepers, not unique, but the wandering cow was. Roaming in between prone bodies, she managed not to splat on anyone.

Turned out there was a mistake in our tickets, the first train to Udaipur was full up, and we waited for the next train, now with only a General ticket but no seat/bunk assignment. Time was spent observing the rats’ activity about the station. Did get on this train, did get places to sit/ lie down.

New Years was better - we had a roof over our heads at Ranthamblore - but a severe thunder storm blew the management’s plans for a big New Years Eve Garden gala outside with food, fire, music and dancer. It became a crowded inside affair, still with food, music dancer - and space heater.. New Year’s Day was dry so we did eat outside, huddled about the various fire pits. But two trips for some, three for others, out to the the National Park netted no Tiger sightings - suspect they holed up with the storm and the wet. But there was a interesting film shown, Broken Tail, following a local tiger that wandered way off its turf

But first was Delhi where we stayed in the Old City, walking distance to the Red Fort, the Jama Mosque,Lahore Gate and Gandhi Memorial. Hiring a taxi, we moved into New Delhi and Humayun’s Tomb (precursor to the Taj Mahal), Connaught Place, India Gate where a rehearsal for Government Day ceremonies was happening, and a walk around the beautifully maintained government buildings - as contrasted with other parts of Delhi that weren’t as beautifully maintained.

Then, to Jaisalmer on the edge of the Thar desert. It reminded me of Timbuktu - what is there about frontier desert towns? A gritty, unfinished quality. We stayed at a charming guesthouse on the edge of town where arrangements were made for two nights in the desert with two camels, overnight in the desert being a big tourist attraction, I found it a tacky desert, decorated with bits and pieces of trash.

We “camped” roadside near the structure holding equipment for the campout. The quilts and charboys were lugged a bit away, so there was an illusion of solitude,but tire tracks and lights of a nearby village gave lie to that illusion. We, our guide, his eleven year helper, and the camels, wandered about aimlessly, returning to to base at night. To experience the true Thar desert, you needed a permit to get further in, nearer the Pakistan border.

But others in the Gang of Four, enjoyed the experience. even the roaming dog who stole the raspberry newtons from my backpack, wrapping and all.

In Jaisalmer, there was the Fort with its shops and Jain Temples, the lovely Gadi Sugur, once the source of water for the town, and the puppet show - actually marionettes. Fascinating place.

Jophur was next: My notes describe it as “crowded, colorful, dusty, noisy and messy” but then, that describes many Indian towns. LP says of The Fort, Meherangarh, that it is “the most formidable fort in fort-studded Rajasthan”. No argument from me. Awesome, though I was impressed by all the Rajasthan Forts. However, this museum shop had the best selection of any shop on the trip. And the Museum had a lovely collection of old photos taken when King George and Queen Mary were in Jodphur for a Dubar.

Onto Jaipur where we stayed in the middle of the old city where the hotel warned occupants to keep windows shut to keep the monkeys out. On our list was Jantur Mantar, the observatory, which is the best preserved of the five built by Jai Singh. It was as I remembered, with various constructs for measuring the sun. Three of our group took a look at the City Palace Complex and weren’t particularly impressed. But the Fort-palace at Amber was not to be missed, with or without the elephant ride.

Next was the brief stay at Pushkar before heading onto Udaipur, where we relaxed three nights at a haveli overlooking Lake Pichela. Per LP, Udaipur is called the Venice of the East. Lovely and serene - though once away from the haveli, the sounds of India were unabated. We took a boat trip about the lake, three of us had massages, we explored the City Palace and museums, had free tea in the Chrystal Gallery - or at least I think it was - and an evenings entertainment by rather mature dancers and marionettes.

Ranakpur was next. This by car as no train went there. Enroute we stopped at Kumbhalgarh, a huge secluded 15th Century fort, with 36 km. of walls, surrounding palaces, gardens,and temples. Once at Ranakpur, we had the evening meal at an nearby elegant hotel - and I was more impressed by the price than the meal. But the hotel was worth a walk through. The next morning was spent at the Jain Temple complex. with their erotic sculptures and distinctive architecture.

Then to Ranthamblore, with the rainy New Year’s Eve and unsuccessful tiger hunt. However, the Park was beautiful and birds and beasts were about - just not the elusive tiger. .

Agra is in Utter Pradesh but a sight of the Taj Mahal is mandatory for a traveler in India - and two of our group hadn’t been before. We spent time at the imposing, red sandstone Fort where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son for seven years, the Itimad-ud-daulah (aka “baby Taj”) and the Taj Mahal and its adjacent structures and gardens. It was foggy/smoggy but the Taj’s beauty shown through.

This was the end of the line: three of us back to Delhi and one off to Birder’s Inn.

Throughout the journey, we experienced the generosity and kindness of Indians, even when I impolitely waved off a man only trying to keep me from getting totally lost. People made room for us when we were dumped on a train without seat assignments. Strangers were happy to help us find ourselves.

India is a vast country of differences. I had been in some of the cities - Jaipur and Agra - ten years ago; they seemed even nosier and more crowded than I remembered. But earlier this year, I was in NE India which has a different atmosphere than Ladakh, where I traveled last year - both less frenetic. And all varied from Rajasthan. There is a vibrancy and energy which contrasts with the grubbiness and poverty.

Ladies beat the wash to death on one ghat while the trash lies up on another. Proprietors sweep litter before their shops into the open gutters.

There were a large number of Indian tourists - one can only conclude Indians are becoming more affluent and able to travel. One Indian though, said Indians are getting more aware of a larger world than just their families and are now exploring their country. They were surely on the go over the holidays.

Hot water was unpredictable: sometimes, yes but often, no. The trains, though a bit old and grimy, did work: clean sheets and pillow covers were handed out on the sleepers. Hot food was hawked. The only scary time was trying to board in Delhi, when several carloads just debarked and were in a rush to get up and over the stairs and overpass - we were going against the tide and were close to being trampled down.

We ate Indian vegetarian, which was cheap and good. Most places where we stayed included breakfast which often meant corn flakes - either that or chocolate flavored cereal though occasionally, muesli) and omelets, along with Indian items.

I paid roughly $1000 for accommodations and train fares. I spent less than $500 for food, admission tickets, extra transportation and purchases. Airfare with Cathy Pacific cost $1843.20 roundtrip San Francisco to Delhi (and assigned me a bulkhead aisle seat on the Hong Kong-San Francisco segment home).