Tuesday, November 19, 2013

GARP 2013 or two weeks of November digging in the sand!

GARP13-At the border, getting into the Dig ssite..jpg
GARP13=South Jordan landscape jpg.jpg
GARP13-Jo @Old Ottoman Fort.jpg
GARP12 - The site.jpg

This was my sixth time volunteering with the Great Arab Revolt Project,  conceived as a ten year plan, which meant  two more years to go.  I missed the first two years but have  tagged along with this WW1 conflict archaeology  dig for the past six years. 

I  learned of this program at a TE Lawrence Symposium; Lawrence  was instrumental in the Arab-Hasamite-involvment and his Seven Pillars left a guide to WW1 activity in the area.   My contribution is in scraping, digging, toting and sieving - looking for artifacts to verify the written record.  Scut work.  Though this year, I did get  a day  learning  GPS operation. 

In past years, work had been  along various spots of the Hejaz Railroad including Batn Al-Ghoul station and Fassu-ah Ridge, and  Wuheida where both Ottoman and  Arab had been based .  This year we moved closer to the Saudi border at Mudawarra.  At one site, we had several Jordanian  military minders hanging out with us.  At another, a gaggle of Bedouin kids cheering us on.

This  year’s crew had ten professionals supervising  sixteen volunteers, many of whom  veterans  of  other digs; at least  three  professionals in  real life. Six were Americans; two were former military; four were women.Some had a primary interest in archaeology and while the area’s history was the focus for others.  Several  missed this year’s  season, fearful of the unrest in the Middle East. 

Per usual, we stayed  in Wadi Musa and commuted up to two hours to work, in a small bus and two pickups., which also carried equipment and supplies for the day.  With the change in time- day light saving - it was often dark by the time we returned to the hotel for supper.  Midterm, there was a day off for Petra-viewing and the last day was free- a staff member took the “newbies” to Wadi Rum for exploration. 

My evening routine has been to check Emails at the local pizza shop and treat myself to an ice cream at the nearby Movenpick Hotel.  Others go up the main street to an establishment where they can have a beer.  And others work in the hotel lobby with the day’s “finds” and recording  I head to my room, read a bit and sleep until  six AM breakfast call. 

This year, there were two discussion sessions:  the first to explain and review the program; the second to review the progress and “finds” - ranging from munitions to minutia of material.  The directors announced  they should have enough information to complete the project next year.

Looking at what I’ve written, it sounds pretty drab!  It isn’t.  There is an energy and vitality underlying the work.  Participants tacked assignments with enthusiasm, even “tent rings”.  Everyone worked with purpose.  We did visit some of our past efforts.  One morning time was spent   wandering about an old Ottoman Fort, used very briefly by the Brits as a hospital.

Lunch was simple:  bread, hummus, cheese.“mystery meat”(an evolution of Spam?), dates, bananas and tea.   Only one day was seriously hot.  But early on, I had neglected  regularly drinking water, got up suddenly and was dizzy - a  lay down in the back of the bus for a bit helped..

I missed out on Petra this year:  Had a massage and wandered about Wadi Musa instead.    I talked with shop owners who bemoaned the lack of business.  November isn’t the biggest tourist time but even earlier, the  trade was down - they blamed it on the general unrest in the Middle East.   

Project charge: $3500.  Hotel was the Edom, a comfortable three star, conveniently located with buffet breakfasts and dinners.

Transportation:   $1887.93 via United & British Air ff miles which included Royal Jordianian from LHR- Amman.  So SF-Phoenix-LHR-Amman  outbound., rather straightforward.  Returning,  Amman-LHR-JFK-SFO.    Eight plus hours on hard chairs in terminal 7 at JFK.  The positive was I found myself  in Business class with  Royal Jordanian  and, United upgraded me to First Class from JFK to SFO.  Whee!

The bummer:  I arrived home to find my AOL account hacked!  Oh well, there are times it has to rain on my parade!


Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303


Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Balkans Sep-Oct 2013: David, the Unknown

  7 Attached Images

I  take  few photos when I travel.  Not that everything is a photo-op, but I do like some momentos  of trips. The problem  is  that I can’t always remember which picture was of what.  Was it Belgrade or Prishtina?

For there is some similarity between one part of the Balkans and another.  Ancient buildings, conflict-damaged structures, from WW1 and 2, plus more recent intramural  difficulties, and then the  more modern structures which have little relationship  to past architecture.  I try to catch the contrasts.  The frustrations occur when I can’t figure out exactly  what was where.  I’m lucky if I can get the country, much less the city.

For I don’t note the specifics.  I have before me some fifty shots - I use throwaway cameras -  that I’m trying to identify.  I’m successful with some but others, it’s simply Lake here and Mosque there.  Sometimes, the order helps.  I do use both memory and the  itinerary to help.

This trip completed my visits to all of the former Republics of the old Yugoslavia.  In 1998, it was Bosnia and Croatia; in 1999  Slovenia;  in 2005 Macedonia, and in 2013,  Kosovo, Serbia (including Vojvodina), and Montenegro.

The travelers are four  women  who had previously  traveled together in one combination or another.: Mali, Oman, Rajasthan, Copper Canyon and Italy.  Two retired and two still  employed.  Often  we take off at Christmas but,  unanimously, we decided not the Balkans, not then!   Weather!

We enlisted the help of a British agency, Man, the Unknown to help with the nuts and bolts. . And they patiently worked through various modifications and changes.  Only two serious glitches - they forgot to pick me at the airport and book me for the first night’s lodging - I was arriving a day early.  Miscommunication between  London and the Belgrade  agent, Balkan  Express.

The second problem was the inability to use my Debit card, at least in Serbia.  After six tries, I  gave up:  suspected scams. in the Serbian system. (One of the  fellow travelers had no problems with her debit card once her PIN had been confirmed.)  I made no effort to use mine until Sarajevo, where it worked.  Fortunately, I had  some Euros which I could exchange.

We were five nights in Belgrade:  on our own for two days and with car and driver for two days.  A long, lovely   day was spent in  Vojvodina, a “protectorate” of  Serbia and its major city, Novi Sad; this province has the same relationship to Belgrade that Kosovo did before its bloody independence.  Active capital city, beautiful countryside, medieval  towns, and an Austrian  fortress built on earlier settlements.  Huge Hungarian influence.  

We did a day tour of Belgrade, which took us to the New City, out to Tito’s grave site (the Hall of Flowers) and various churches/mosques.  T he final day we split pp::  Two to Museums and the Citadel while  others  walked along the river Sava’s bank to Zeum, a  picturesque outskirt of Belgrade.  Interestingly, the Military Museum had artifacts from early times to  Yugoslavia's Days of Glory when troops were provided  for UN Forces; little about recent conflicts within Yugoslavia.

Belgrade is, like most of the Balkan cities, is  active and vibrant, a mixture of old and new.  I found a internet shop, crowded with all of sort of equipment and customers busy with the latest online games,  a good public transportation system with cafes and restaurants all about the old city.  And as throughout the Balkans, a combination of old and new, ruins and modern buildings,  And graffiti? Oh yes!  Unavoidable!

Moving  along:  an early morning start to  a round trip narrow gauge  railroad ride on the Serbian-Bosnian border, with several stops up and down the mountains.  Then into Bosnia  and Visegrad (part of the sub-Bosnian state of Republika Srpska).  On  Mt. Ziatibor  we spent the night in the Ethno Village, a living museum of the traditional life.  Unique.  Food was outstanding - most wonderful breads!

Next was Novi Pazar and Prishtina.  Novi Pazar is one of the few  majority Muslim places in Serbia as the recent conflicts cleansed many of the multi ethnic places.  And thus,  a change of vehicles and drivers:  Our Serb driver and auto transposed  into a Macedonian driver (ex-Journalist) and auto during the time  in Kosovo. .  Security concerns as some  Kosovars  might  vent their hostility against  us,  making  no exceptions for two Americans and Two Brits driven by a Serb.

I had been in Kosovo earlier this year so had visited the Field of Blackbirds, the Serb-Ottoman battlefield so dear to Serbian hearts. They lost!!  But hadn’t gotten to the Patriarchate of Pec, important to Orthodox history.  We had a quick drive and walk about in Prishtina,. Downtown has  pedestarian only streets; but with a surprising amount of activity  for a  Sunday evening..  But then, most residents are Muslims.

Having collected our original car and driver, we had  a long wet drive to Lake Skader,  shared between Montenegro and  Albania. We had  half a day on the lake; then a walk out to a nearby ruined fortress in process of restoration and  onto a nearby village. where several were in hopes of wine tasting - as a non drinker, I headed back and then wandered down  a side road,  out of curiosity. Again, memorized by   scenery.

Onto Mt. Dormitor and the national Park. I managed half the walk about Black Lake lake - over paths strewn with rocks and tree roots.  Did well - for me.  The number one walker missed the final path  so led me out of the morass.  Everyone else,, including our mountain goat driver/cum guide, could make it all around. I ended back in town while the others returned to the wilds for more walking as they call  it;.  From my point of view, it’s trekking at most and hiking at least.  I am not a rock/root scrambler!

We drove to  the famed Monastery Ostraog via Tara River Canyon road, well worth a wait for road crews to clear the way. Fantastic drive.  The Monastery itself reminded me of a Bhutanese monastery I stopped at the final coffee shop.   The Monastery was on several levels.  You could hike it  - climb, puff, puff - or drive.  We drove.  Reminded  me of the Bhutanese monastery where  I stopped at the final coffee shop. Ostrog has reported  spiritual powers for the believers.  The Tara River  Road was fantastic and well worth a wait for the road crews to clear the way.

Then to   Cetinje, the  former capital of Montenegro. which is being restored.  Then Kotor, the Riviera of the Adriatic and a World Heritage Site.  The Old City reminded me St Paul de Vence on the French Rivera. Practically, was able to find a watch store and renew my wristwatch battery.  Harbor had huge cruise ship anchored behind a personal yacht of some size and equipment, but not in the running with the cruiser. 

The next day, we drove around the coast - again, breath taking scenery - and on into Sarajevo.  Enroute, we stopped at Mostar - we found it a disappointment.  The famed bridge has been rebuilt but shlock shops abound, well patronized by touristy types.  There wasn’t a lot of time, so really didn’t explore other parts of the town.

Sarajevo was a delight, though changed.  I had been there in the winter just after the conflict ended  and  with evidences of  all about.  The city has grown.  Restaurants required reservations.  The Holiday Inn was rebuilt.   There were the cemeteries - with  lots of graves, both Christian  and Muslim  - along the street as we walked up to the the fortress viewpoint -. which was underwhelming, what with a stack of trash.

Two of us went to the Gallery 11/07/95:, with its  films  and photos from the genocide at Srebrebica. over 8000 identified dead,  A avoidable tragedy. 

NB: :Lonely Planet and Brandt Travel guides were invaluable along with the Serbian driver, Dejan.  He was a jewel.  The way it works with this four: one of our group tends to come up with ideas, another fine tunes the itinerary, another does on site guiding and the fourth keeps us honest..

Driving was tough at times.  Not only the weather, but the trucks.  Lots of logging trucks for firewood is the source of warmth come winter.   There are lot of trees but there are also lots of people.  Hope there is some plan for regrowth.

Accommodations:  Uniformly excellent. and varied.  Ranging from 3* to 4* hotels, to the unique Sorgojno Ethno Village to the elegant Asta next to the Latin  Bridge in Sarajevo  I was especially glad we were in The Royal Hotel in Belgrade:  a place with character and well located.  The Pelican at Lake Skadar was small  and  cozy - more of a guesthouse.

Food:  Other than at the Ethno Village, only breakfast was included.  Local restaurants were good; used Lonely Planet some,  recommendations from our driver some, and what looked  good as we wandered by some.  Prices were reasonable for we often shared portions. 

Costs::  Basic tour:  $2599.64.  Airfare:$1654.  (My portion of the trip ended with the two nights at Sarajevo.  One participant left at Kotor and two others went on to Dubrovnick)

Conclusion:  Got to places and  saw things, not expected.  Between the London and Serbian agencies plus our own fine tuner, it was a superb tour.  There were some editing problems in the written material that needed to be cleaned up, but that certainly didn’t affect
the tour itself.  Would travel - and may - with Man, the Unknown again. 

NB:  Just received an Email from Peregrine re: tour to Mostar and  Bosnia.

Friday, September 13, 2013

            Off the Dime and into East Africa: Aug-Sep 2013

After a move and the summer home, I took off for East Africa and the wildlife of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda in August-September 2013. I was   with my sometime travel companion, Suzanne,on an Exodus tour, one of my favorite British budget travel groups.  The group was full up, eighteen of us, mostly Brits with a  smattering of others, eg: Irish, Americans and a Canadian.

After a missed connecting flight and resultant rescheduling, I still arrived in Nairobi several days early. A large circus tent substituted for the International Terminal, which had burned to ground a week or so prior. Interesting structure, perhaps better than the original building. 
I wasn’t   terribly impressed with Nairobi, per se.  Through traffic and thick  carbon monoxide, walked down to the city center -  I felt overwhelmed with the crowding.  Fortunately, got out of immediate chaos the second day to the outskirts where Suzanne and I spent time  with  Michael and Marionetta Asher - I have traveled several times with Michael, a writer and explorer, who  is  planning  a Chad camel trek in January - I’ll be there! They live near the Giraffe Center  -  away from the hurly-burly of civilization. 

The final pre tour day was spent on an arranged City tour and drive into the Nairobi National Park.  The  City tour included  the American Embassy Memorial Garden, the site destroyed by bombing in 1998. The Park gave us a preview of what we could expect in the tour. We lasted half way through the Bombas performances - a series of traditional  dances and songs - fascinating but tedious.

First stop on the tour was Lake Naivasha where we camped lakeside and visited Elsamere, Joy Adamson’s home, now a conservation center.  The resident monkeys introduced us to local wildlife. From there we headed into the Masai Mara, packed with wildlife.  I was most taken by the lions, who sprawled out under trees and in roadways - totally in command.  Saw a Cheetah and herds of Zebras, among others..

The tour crossed Kenya, into Uganda and finishing in Rwanda.  For me, the exciting time was  boating up the White Nile and Lake Victoria.  Seeing the Africa of Burton, Livingston and Spekes.  The landscape is awesome - all  inspiring.    The three countries have enough sense to leave well enough alone - the natural state being the draw for visitors.  

I missed out on the gorillas of Dian Fossey.  I had mixed feelings about viewing them, feeling as did Fossey, they should not be on show.  Yet, the moneys obtained from tourists  sustain and protect them from poachers.  A reoccurance of UTI sapped any strength I might have had for the climb into   Parc National des Volcans, so the decision was made for me.

At Kiglii, some of us spent the morning at the Kigali Memorial Center which honored those killed in the genocide.  One could not help but be moved by the extensive presentation.  

Security was a big thing, particularly in Kenya.  Purse and body checks before entering grocery stores.   

We traveled mostly by Safari bus, excepting two days in 4x4s in the Masai.   Meals were prepared by the crew: - and they were good.  A tour leader, cook, driver and general dog-body were responsible for the lot of us. 

Accommodations ranged from two person tents to covered tent sites to several hotel stays.  In most places, hot water and showers were provided.    The facilities   at Lake Bunyonyi were exceptional - the setting overlooking the lake was awesome. 

Cost for the sixteen days, inclusive of meals:  $3420.  Well worth it. 

Coincidentally, the current NY Times Magazine had an article on Kagame of Rwanda, which I read when I returned.  Very interesting in view of my several days in the country. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2013

I checked out back programs and figured out my first attendance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was in 1952 - in the days of student actors and uncomfortable wooden planks to sit on.  We - my husband an I - stayed in Jackson Hot Springs cabins those first years.  We brought his mother down one summer - I don't know how she felt about it though  she certainly took it all in stride. 

We probably missed out for ten years and then, rebooted.  Regular attendance for a good forty.  And then I've been going up on my own for close to ten years now:  Have flown in from San Jose via Portland, direct flight from San Francisco, Amtrak and Greyhound. 

This year I traveled via Shawns' RideShare, the best and least expensive of the lot.  Bay area to Southern Oregon via van:  going up, thirteen of us, two cats and a dog.  Coming back, fourteen of us.  Good group and good driving.  Sixty bucks for  nine hours, including pit stops enroute.  Twenty dollars extra  for individual pick-ups/drop-offs.  Otherwise, it is one of the preselected meeting points from Santa Cruz,San Jose, Mountain View,  San Francisco, San Rafael, ElCerrito, onto to Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass.

It all started with Navy vet Shawn's personal commute from his home in Ashland to his employment in San Jose.  Others heard of his regular road trip and joined him.  Then the light blub went off and it became the Employment.  And it seems to be damned successful.  He is now expending to Portland.

Anyway, onto to Plays!  Arrived Monday afternoon, the day OSF is dark but found, to my delight, there was a benefit  reading of August Wilson's Radio Golf, whch was an unexpected pleasure.  .  The other plays I saw was Wilson's Two Trains Running,the precusor to Radio Golf;  Robin Hood, a wild frothy bit of stage craft  in the outdoor theatre,  sans Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn;  Taming of the Shrew set in Italian country western style and a two piano version of My Fair Lady, a marvelous way to end my series.  As always, all the productions were superb. 

In between, I went to whatever lectures and discussions were available, including one on MidSummer Night's Dream, which I didn't see.  Barely found time to shower and eat.  As usual, I stayed at The Columbia Hotel, several blocks from the theatres and my rideshare pickup. It is  decorated  in a homey  Victorian manner; I stay in a facilities-down- the-hall-room though they did have ensuite rooms. 

I ate at several  usuals:  Greenleaf, Brothers and Martino's.  Not fancy but quick and good.  No shopping:  no time and after a recent move, found I have more than enough stuff.  The two mornings were spent at the library's internet.  The library is going through fiscal problems and likely cutbacks. Bummer.

Ashland continues to be one of my favorites places, one I've often considered moving to.  There is a charm abut the place, despite the influx of Californians and tourists.  Had I I been there for the Shakespeare before May's Great Move , I could have foresworn Palo Alto for Southern Oregon.  But didn't happen. 

But now  there is the RideShare which could see me visiting up north more frequently. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kosovo with Political Tours

In Kosovo with Political Tours: Mar-Apr 2013

Originally, this was to be a several week trip and include Serbia-Bosnia as well as Kosovo.  But the Serbia-Bosnia segment was canceled  so it was eight days in Kosovo.  Which worked  for  I will return this Fall to the Balkans with  three  compadres, with whom I have wandered about Oman, Rajasthan  and the Copper Canyon.  While It was a long way to come for eight days - San Francisco-Washington DC-Vienna-Pristina - it was  well worth it.

How do I start to  describe this rather unique tour? 

First,  there’s the Who? Four  interested travelers and five professional  journalist/photographers,   two of whom had been in Kosovo, early on, during time of strife.  Guiding us about was the owner-operator of Political Tours, who had lived in the Balkans during assignments as a journalist, a British diplomat and author and the ever patient and all around good guy, a Kosovo political affairs and foreign policy expert.

What? Political Tours study group into Kosovo, the step child of the Balkans.  Political Tours provides an opportunity to take a serious look into the inner workings of a country’s political and cultural life. 

When?:  28 Mar-6 Apr 2013. 

Where?  Based in Pristina all but one night; drove to Kacanik and then stayed over at Brezonica (the country’s ski center) in the Shar Mountains,  to Prizren, then on to Decani (magnificent monastery).  Then day trips: Gazimestan (Memorial of the Battle of Kosovo claimed as the Serbs' spiritual home), Metrovica (where the Serb and Albanian communities are separated by a blocked bridge with the Bosniacs as Mr.  Inbetween), and Gracanica (a Serb community with another impressive monastery).  

Why?  My long time interest in the Balkans, begun in  folk dancing days.  Subsequently,   was the breakup of  Yugoslavia and then, Serbian efforts at Ethnic Cleansing.  I had been to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia - I wanted to see the remaining parts of the pinochle of which Kosovo was an important  piece.  And I wanted to understand what was really going on. 

Even after years of bitter conflict, stopped only by the  intervention of the international community, Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence.    For the ethnic Serb minority living in Kosovo, there are parallel governments - Serbia claims jurisdiction, particularly with those living close to the border.  While  I was in Kosovo, the two Prime Ministers,  both strong nationalists,  were meeting in Brussels, to deal with their   differences, a necessity for Serbia to be considered for European Union membership. 

Arrangements had been made for us to meet with a cross section of interested parties:  from  political to  religious to  returnees;   representatives and ambassadors  from Britain, Norway, Germany  and Russia, the later a supporter of Serbia;    members of the Kosovo Assembly;  a EULEX representative; people from the opposition party; think tank and independent production staff.    The most moving experience was listening to  a survivor of the 1999 Kacanik massacre, now a nurse at a rural  medical center.  The most positive experience was with   young Kosovo entrepreneurs, choosing   an investment in their country’s future rather than remaining in the West  The most interesting experience was with a Serbian Orthodox priest who took a moderate stance and likely, was not typical  of the other priests.

At Metrovica - the hot spot, the City of the bridge -  Kosovo maintains an office for the northern sector, the ethnic Serb enclave.  The woman who heads it is the best example of  a non political, reality based civil servant.  Because of her approach, she is trusted and used by the locals in their efforts to navigate the dual Serb-Kosovo administration.  She was superb.

Among other experiences, we spent time at the Roma community, dirt poor. but with hope for the young  eg: there was  a young man wanting to  become part of the Kosovo police.  Also, briefly sat  in on a War Crimes trial, later  meeting with the local police official; Kosovo police   are considered to be relatively free of  corruption, often  a problem for the country.

Besides the local police, there are Eulex officers (European supported) and  KFOR troops (NATO provided)  as backup. At the two monasteries were KFOR forces.  At one, Italians managed a check point, holding passports  during your visit.  At the other, two unarmed Swedes, strolled about.  At the  Battle of Kosovo Polje Memorial site, two Kosovo police manned the entrance.  
There is a lot of good stuff going on:   Documentary film festival. in Prizren.  A vibrant night life in Pristina.    Skateboarders, including a girl,  happily performing for the photographer.  We did a bit of sightseeing:  the Bill Clinton statue with the Hillary clothing shop nearby, the Rugova Memorial and  the Ethnological Museum.  Just walking about this slap dash city with its diverse architecture, from Ottoman to Austrian-Hungarian to Communist concrete to glass and steel modern was fun.

Despite the Muslim ethnic Albanian majority, there were very few outward semblances  of the religion other than mosques - I saw few head scarves excepting the Roma community,  and only one abaya.  (Same was true in Albania when I was there  eight years ago.).  But, unless there are more employment opportunities for the many young people, that could change.  We were reminded several times that 50% of the population was under 25 years old.    

I was reminded of other schism, particularly  the Palestine-Isreali conflict.  The Kosovo Serbs tend to identify with Serbia, not with Kosovo.  And that is certainly isn’t encouraged by  Serbia., who keeps stirring up the pot.  And until that gets settled, there won’t be the investment necessary to keep Kosovo alive as part of the Western community.  . 

As a country, it is beautiful.  Near Gazimestan, most of us clambered up a hillside with a fantastic view, despite the pollution from coal    plants.  The people were uniformly friendly to strangers - though admittedly they have had experience with the internationals that have flooded the country in the past fourteen years.   

Conclusions:  The relations between  Kosovo and Serbia need to be resolved.  And the economy needs a boost - foreign investment is desperately needed, but first, the Serb-Kosovo relationship needs be regularized.   And that isn’t happening,  for  as I write this, the AP reports failure of the Brussels conference.  So no EU for Serbia and no foreign investment for Kosovo. 

Accommodation:  Couldn’t have been better.  A 6* hotel in the midst of  central Pristina.     And in the mountains, a very comfortable lodge.  Much nicer than my usual.

Food:  Almost always, only the best of local and international restaurants, including lunch at a kula, an old Albanian home, and a private residence. There was a conscious effort for us to experience Kosovo cuisine. 

Cost:  Given the exchange rate, the tour was expensive but was inclusive of everything.  It  cost $4100 but was well worth it - this was my second outing with Political Tours  (I  was with them in Libya) and I will return.  Airfare:  $1283.

NB:  if you want to see us live, we were on Al Jazeera:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5vcXoXQU2g

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Horn of Africa Feb 2013

The portents were stormy, starting with the flight to  Eritrea.  The day before I was to leave San Francisco, the flight to JFK-Cairo-Asmara was canceled - storms on the East Coast.  So it was SFO-Chicago-Paris-Cairo-Asmara.  Long tiring flights. 

And throughout the trip, it seemed bits and pieces didn’t fall into place as hoped/expected.  The tour was set to include Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland and Ethiopia (Harare, the ancient walled Moslem city I had missed on previous trips into Ethiopia).  Yemen had been knocked out at the start, remaining only as a means to transfer from Eritrea and Djibouti.  Sharing borders does not mean you can get from A to B without diverting to C.  Excepting Somaliland, there is a history of conflict between the three neighbors.  Somaliland just deals with Somalia.

Five days in Eritrea, both in the two main cities, Asmara and Massawa, plus the countryside, Keren and Adi Keyh.   Several days in, I had developed the Mother of all Colds and spent one day sleeping in the back of the bus, missing  the rock paintings.  However, I was alert enough to appreciate time spent at a local wedding. and enjoy the barren Afar region but didn’t make the climb up to a mountain church.   Rather, I had to deal with several hooligans- they come in all nationalities.   Did manage the British War Cemetery, assorted  stele and an old underground tunnel to Ethiopia.

Eritrea has been described as the North Korea of Africa.  I did find the people friendly and activities were not curtailed..  There was no trash, there or in Djibouti  - it was pointed out that baskets were used rather than plastic bags for toting purpose. (There was trash in Harare!) Not a lot of traffic and what there was, was a mix of the old - donkey carts - and the new - autos.   I found similarities with Ethiopians though the Eritreans would dispute that, after years spent establishing their own identity.  But it is a poor country, with little industry - mainly subsistence farming.  It lost its seagoing trade to Djibouti - the docks at Massawa  are ghostly remembrances of days of yore.

The local guide wa a sweet man but not very effective when it came to herding the ten of us, plus the tour company’s director, a charming   Egyptian, who accompanied us for the first leg of the tour.  The group,  all Americans, were  widely traveled.  Ages ranged from    mid fifties into the eighties.  As with other American groups I’ve traveled with, they were compulsive picture takers - life seemed to be  a series of photo opportunities.

Interestingly, one of the big tourist  sights are the trashed tanks and other armament  from their last war.  Per our guide, they are used for spare parts in repairing current equipment.  Reminded me of  Kabul where they  have a museum of  land mines and graveyard of crashed airplanes.  

One of the experiences I most enjoyed was simply walking about Asmara and Massawa, feeling a part of the landscape.  I ran into four members of a British tour group, on a similar itinerary but  less upscale.

Then there was the flight on Yemeni Airlines  to Sanaa so we could visit Djibouti. And that was something that went really well.  Boarding passes were issued to Sanaa but not the connecting flight- I had visions of a third-world snafu at the Sanaa Airport.  I was wrong!  As we arrived, a Yemeni Air representative met us with our Djibouti boarding passes and escorted us to the waiting area.  I should also mention, that even on short,  hour long  flights, food is served, albeit only a sandwich and juice.  Which is more than I can say for the US airlines which passes out  juice, if you’re lucky,  on the cross country flight.

Djibouti City was noisy, crowded, busy in contrast to the slower pace of life in Eritrea.   The US has a base  and trains Special Forces (SEALS?) there.  Until recently, it was home to the French Foreign Legion. The Port is active, bringing in goods for Ethiopia, trying to be the Dubai of  the region -i t  has a long ways to go.

For a small bit of geography, there was enough for  three days of exploration, eg,Lake Abbe and Lake Assal plus the Rift Valley area.  Again, we were in Afar country.  But before all this, things were a-changin’

After Djibouti, we were to fly to Somaliland and see rock  paintings at Laas Geel, sure!

First, in a Chinese restaurant, we casually met  a Navy rating, a twenty year vet from Oregon,  working in Intelligence who advised - no, pleaded with - us not to go.  Four of our group heeded his comments and backed off.  Next, the flight into Somaliland was canceled - an alternate plan was suggested:  fly in on the next flight, drive around and fly out that evening to Addis.  While that made the country-counters happy, it didn’t show me much.  If I’m going to endanger myself, I want to it to be worthwhile.  So I backed off.  Finally, the director, now in the US, wisely  called Somaliland off and extra excursions were arranged for Ethiopia. 

(Several days later, in Hargeisa there was activity involving a number of the “bad” guys; two German tourist were stuck in the hotel with nine security people!)

Concurrently,  the local Djibouti tour person took off with the hotel payment.  The Ethiopian guide, a capable and delightful guy, now in charge, was stuck dealing with the Djibouti crew and their none too reliable 4x4s.  He managed and the three days in the countryside went off well.

Now to Addis and two days  Improv, which turned out very well.  So far as I could  determine, we were at Negash;  drove down to view a volcanic lake, rowing over to an Island church with its colorful paintings.  Then spent time at a memorial honoring a recently deceased warrior  - marvelous horses and horsemanship.  We were welcomed warmly by all.  Then a day at Tya World Heritage site, Maryan rock-hewn church and Melka Kunture Prehistoric site enroute back to Addis and a flight to  Dire Dawa and then, Harare.

Harare is the old walled Moslem city, once breached by a disguised Richard Burton in the 19th Century, the place I’d missed on two prior trips to Ethiopia.  A friend had been in the Peace Corps there some  years ago; I unsuccessfully tried to locate a woman. he’d known.  Harare is my kind of town: crowded, tacky, loud,  atmospheric .  We did the tourist bit:  Rimbaud House, the Handicraft Museum, the Catholic Church,  Adare Houses and the Hyena feeding.   Unfortunately, there was little time to just wander and absorb the ambiance.  At the minimum I needed another day.

Next back to Dire Dawa, stopping at the Khat market enroute.  Spent time before the flight to Addis, investigating every nook and cranny of the non operative  Addis Abba-Djibouti Railroad.  There was a small bus station in the main building and a number of hangers-on about.  I suspect they were former employees who had no place else to go.

At Addis, some crashed and some continued sight seeing.  I did a combination of wandering about, crashing and making use of the hotel computer - I had some 700 Emails, most to b deleted.  Injera at a local restaurant which featured music and dancing - why does already audible music have to be amplified? Then to another hotel for an hour’s sleep before catching the Four AM flight to Cairo.

Food:  You don’t go to Africa for the food.  Other than several of the better hotels, basic.  I did vegetarian along with some fish and chicken.  Cheese omelets, some better and some worse,  got me through breakfasts. 

Accommodations:  From sleeping out in an Afar hut with facilities down the road to  the four star Asmara Palace and everything in between.  Clean sheets, plumbing  and water, not always hot.  Rarely, more than a night per place.  My favorite was the Negash Lodge at Walisso, Ethiopia - another Afar style unit amidst trees and wildlife, this one with conveniences.

Tour:  Spiekermann Travel Service Inc:  fast paced with little time for wanderings or reflections.  Cost: $8300 inclusive  all meals and in coutry flights -  may get a refund on unused airfare to Somaliland.  I spent little other than about $200 on tips.  Used United frequent flyers miles:  $79.   Cat care: $780.    

Note:  Will be contacting the Ethiopian tour leader re:  a December  Danakil trip - he goes regularly and reports it is now quite safe. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Christmas-New Year’s 24 Dec 2012-8 Jan 2013

Mexico’s Copper Canyon was the third choice for this year’s Holiday trip.  Rejected was Ethiopia’s Afar Region  and the Balkans (too dangerous or too cold!), so I was left scrambling.   In a stack of  possible excursions was a clip from the National Geographic about Mexico's Copper Canyon. 

CalNative had a a ten day independent tour to the bottom of the canyon, including  train ride and accommodations. We paid extra for two  trips into the canyon - one with Don Diego. the colorful American operating a lodge near Cerocahui and  another via cable car from the canyon’s rim at Posada Barrancas.  A  slippery drive on a wet, partially completed road  for a two day stay at Batopilas, a colorful, remote mining town, was included in the tour.

It turned out to be an excellent choice:  a combination of walking and sightseeing in some of the most beautiful country in the world.

There were four of us, two Brits and two Americans, who had traveled together in various combinations over some five years. All ladies of a certain age.   Last year it was Rajasthan and the year before, Oman.  Three of us  did a four day pretour stay in Mexico City - one had been there before and the other was conversant in  Spanish..

Mexico City is a big sprawling City with wall to wall people.  And security throughout the center of the city:  locals and federales. Many with  AKs and protective gear.  Some with black ski masks.  Male and female.  Two small attractive women in uniform were the subject of many photographers.  Mexico was determined the Holidays go peacefully, particularly when there were demonstrations protesting  fourteen imprisoned individuals.  I observed no conflict.

We took trains and buses to the Xochimilco Floating Gardens, sadly neglected,  and the Teotihuacan Pyramids, a day’s excursion.  Visitors were in a festive mood and included a dozen or more  Sisters of Mother Teresa viewing the site.  Otherwise, mostly local families. I did crawl up the first Pyramid but simply viewed the other two.  We had packed some lunch, so ate near the Museum, a nicely designed building with interesting artifacts.

The last day we went about the Templo Major and museum, just back of the Metropolitan Cathedral.  Walking around, one realized  how late in the day the North Americans appeared on the scene and how low we were on the cultural  totem pole compared to the Mexican-Indian culture. 

We met our fourth member at the airport where we all flew to Los Mochis, the jumping off point for the tour.  There it was a night ride to El Fuerte with only a checkpoint stop.  We had arranged for an extra day in El Fuerte before boarding El Chepe, the Copper Canyon Railroad, famed for its twists and turns and tunnels as it winds up into the Sierra Madres.   Our adventure began but without Walter Houston and Humphrey Bogart. 

We were met at the first stop by  Doug (Don Diego) Rhodes who could certainly qualify as a Readers Digest, Most Unforgettable Character.  Ex-Army, ex-NASA, ex-cop, ex-tour guide, he settled in the area twenty-two years ago and now runs a lodge, Paraiso del Oso,  for visitors such as us.  Affable and knowledgeable, he provides social services for many of the local Tarahumara families in the area.  As I found out, he is known from one end of the Canyon to the other.  We stayed two nights, spending a day down the road to Urique. 

On to Posada Barrancas, on the edge of the canyon, every room with a spectacular view.    One of us hiked, two of us did the cable car and adjacent walks and the fourth stayed abed - cold and cough and temperature laid her low.  So from there to Creel where there was a clinic -turned out the ailing one had a cold, a negative reaction to the wood fire smoke - sole source of heat at Paraiso - and a bit of high altitude sickness.  Medication helped but even more so, the descent to Batopilas.

There, as at other stops, the local Indians were selling their handicrafts.  Colorful and peaceful, there was no pressure to buy.  Their work was excellent and we bought bits and pieces.  The hope is they will not be contaminated by  tourists.

Batopilas was the charmer.  A  small, mining town located on what may have been a stream, but now with the rains, was  a full sized river; it was a high point of the trip.  We walked to the Lost Cathedral and to the ruin of Alexander Shepherd’s Hacienda, Shepherd, a runaway from Washington, DC, bought the mine in the eighteen-eighties  and built bridges, viaducts and a hydroelectric plant.  From a look at his crumbling hacienda, he lived high on the hog. All in all, I walked some 15K while the others, who also went along the wet and muddy aqueduct, totaled 20 K. 

The ride between Creel and Batopilas was extraordinary:  partly paved but often wet dirt.   Enroute, we stopped at various scenic spots:  waterfalls, lakes and volcanic eruptions of old.  The Valley of the Monks was high on the outstanding sights of the trip.  Back at Creek for a night, there was time to walk about the small Mexican cow town.  And again, I grabbed onto the slow operating computer - wanted to be updated on the world’s affairs.

The train ride from Creel to Chihuahua was long and less scenic.  We came into Chihuahua late at night where there occurred  only glitch in the well planned program.  No one met us and we were overcharged for the taxi to the hotel.  However, there was prompt reimbursement the next day - a staff change meant  someone just didn’t get the word. 

Two of us took a included tour the next day, in and about Chihuahua while two others went about on their own - we met up for a mid afternoon meal, our final gathering as we all flew out the following morning.  Chihuahua is a good sized city with momentos of both Indian and Spanish heritage.  From the Cathedral to the Capital’s   historical murals to Pancho Villa ‘s residence - I saw it all despite closure of most museums.  Our guide took time and energy to make sure we appreciated Chihuahua’s past and present.

Accommodations:  Ranged from Holiday Inn in Mexico City and Chihuahua  and  Best Western in Creel to the basic  Paraiso del Oso near Bahuichivo and Hotel Juanita in Batopilas with Posada’s Hotel Mirador‘s spectacular views making up for its touristy ambiance.  All different,  a contrast with one another.

Food:  Ah, that’s a different story.   There were several really nice  meals but then, in Mexico City, I had the worst meal of a lifetime at a vegetarian restaurant.  This was not a gourmet's journey - some of the meals were ok, some were suffered.  But then, I avoid the nightshades which limits me.  The cost of nearly half were included. 

The tour:  California Native did an excellent job of preparing and executing the tour.  They rate an A+.

Comment: It is too bad that there were not more visitors.  The local economy is suffering from lack of tourists.   Apparently,  fear of drug traffickers and personal safety issues keep people away.  The Mexicans seem determined to keep the peace -- cops of one kind or another were evident throughout.  One guide said the difficulties developed when the past President decided to make war on the drug cartels while likely, there will be some sort of accommodation with the new regime - thus, less conflict but more drugs.  We certainly didn’t feel unsafe.

N.B: Also trains run on Mexican time:  consistently late up to two hours or more. 

Cost:  $1765 for the California's Native's tour including the extra night at El Fuerte plus 800 Pesos apiece for trip to Urique.  Approximately 1570 Pesos for shared hotel room  in Mexico City.  Air fare San Francisco-Mexico City-Los Mochis; Chihuahua-SF was $856.47.  Cat care:  $650.