October  10, 2002:  Greetings from Urumqi

Howdy,

I’ve just splurged and gorged myself at a western buffet at the Holiday Inn in Urumqi (yes, you read it right – owned by a Chinese outfit and managed by Holiday Inn). Include some red wine (local stuff – red, nice ‘n dry) and I feel quite comfortable! I thought I’d get this off to you guys ’cause I’ve got a stretch of travelling ahead of me and I don’t know what the odds are of finding a place to send you messages. Once again, though, thanks for your notes – I really appreciate them.

I ended up my stay in Kashgar by making a deal with Mechmet, a local taxi driver, to drive me out to the dunes and the day with him. It was fun although quite far -the Taklamakan Desert isn’t simply as close as Brentwood Mall. This particular piece of dunes stretch for about 40 km. and it was … well, sand. One forgets that it isn’t often that you get those beautiful huge pristine dunes like one sees in brochures – these were certainly shaped like that, but they had quite a bit of scrub grass growing out of them. And, of course, there were the inevitable camels available with their jockeys (or, at best, their handlers -old buggers looking to make a buck). I declined to take a ride – I ceased to imagine myself as Lawrence of Arabia a long time ago. But it was fun walking on top of the dunes – even took a picture of a tiny sand lizard who was rather quizzical and, of course, the inevitable camel.

Greeters at Taklamakan Desert

I came back from the dunes to find that Mechmet and his buddies were sitting on some mats on a raised platform eating melons – honeydew, water and a papaya-type of melon.

Repast - Oasis

They invited me to join them: Mechmet (sitting at the right hand corner), the local police guy (he looked the part – burly), the local water district manager and his visiting counterpart from Sichuan province plus a couple of other guys. The melons were followed by corn on the cob (yes – there’s a lot of corn grown in that part of the province as well as cotton) and then we had what looked like burnt corn on the cob. You pick it up, bang it on the mat a couple of times to get the ashes off and eat it! By the time I finished one cob, these guys had finished two or three – not chewing their food 28 times as I was taught. I think they’d give some of you a run for your money in eating quickly. There was also some baked squash which I kindly declined – not one of my favourite dishes. However, that lunch bit was a nice touch.

We then drove into Yarkand (another city on the Silk Road with its shades of the Great Game and former sultans and such) and went to the local mosque. It was prayer time and it was interesting to watch the men washing their feet, hands and face prior to entering the mosque.

Ablutions

Oh yes, I was taking a picture of the entrance to the mosque and I heard the muezzin calling out the prayer-time bit and I looked more closely and here’s this guy on the top doing his thing. I thought that was cool ….

Call to Prayer - Altyn Mosque - Yarkand

On the way back we passed a huge army truck convoy – Mechmet said they were coming back from Tibet. That could be so because on the plane to Urumqi last night, there was a pile of them and by the way they were acting, it seemed they were on leave. I asked Mechmet whether or not he liked the Chinese and he said No. I followed that up by asking whether it was because the Uyghurs wanted their freedom but he said no – it was because of the Uyghurs simply wanting to be left alone. I had been speaking with a fellow from Oregon who runs a local trekking outfit about this same issue (because at one point I was speaking with a local Uyghur and said the Chinese pronunciation of Kashgar – Kashi. He said, “No” in no uncertain terms and then followed up by saying, “The Chinese…” and he clenched his fist – implying, presumably, that they were in control, etc.) – anyway, this American, who’s been here for several years, said that the Uyghur are really a peace-loving people. Yes, they resent the Chinese (I must call them the Han Chinese as they are all, technically, Chinese) but at the same time welcome them because of the economic opportunities that have arisen because of their influx. I guess that must be a bind for them – on the one hand, wanting to feel independent and, on the other, being dependent. And there hasn’t been any overt trouble for the past several years – mostly noises from exiles in other countries. I’ve had a couple of Chinese people say to me that the minority groups are lazy, etc., – but, haven’t we heard that elsewhere? Our own indigenous people, the American black, etc. From the little I’ve seen, however, the Uyghurs and other groups in the Kashgar area are just as hard working as anyone else I’ve seen – and just as entrepreneurial as well. Just ask me as I’ve tried to cut deals with some of them! Oh yes, bargaining ….

(Since this writing, the political and social situation has changed considerably [one could even say drastically] as the government continues to assert their control over ethnic groups in China, e.g., the Uyghurs as well as the Hui population, another Muslim group. Edited June 7, 2021)

As I was checking out of the hotel in Kashgar yesterday, the housekeeper checked the room and said that there was a hanger missing. Well, they didn’t know the word for hanger; I kept saying that I didn’t steal any towels…No, not towels and finally one of them took his jacket off, put a broom handle across the top through the shoulders and showed me what they meant! I said, show me – we walked back to the room and there were only two pant hangers there whereas their inventory stated there should be three. Well, with the kind of pants I wear while travelling I certainly don’t have any need for those kinds of pants hangers let alone wanting to take one with me! The desk clerk was sympathetic and apologized smilingly. A three star hotel and yet I had to run the water for about fifteen minutes in the morning before getting any hot water as well as being accused of stealing a pants hanger!

Qini Bagh Hotel

Their hotel business will die right down at the end of this month for about four months while winter sets in. Their busiest time is during the weekend when all the tour groups come in for the Sunday Market and the week I was there was their busiest ever as the Chinese National Day holiday was winding down. Oh yes, there’s a building at the back of the hotel which used to be the British consulate back in the early 1900s. It’s now a restaurant of some sort. It was interesting to see the English style however.

Former British Consulate

I guess I’ve been lucky in not having witnessed any major accidents in all my visits to China but yesterday’s made up for it. A truck and the bus to Yarkand collided and they both were smashed to hell on the highway and lying on their sides. Fortunately it occurred some time before we got there – at least the human toll had been cleared away. What a shame but I don’t wonder that it happened, the way these drivers go at it. Both my drivers (the guy to Tashkurgan and yesterday to Yarkand) have this habit of speeding up like hell then shifting into neutral and coasting until it seemed they were coasting almost to a stop. Then they’d go at it again! They didn’t do this all the time but quite a bit – after a while I simply gave up being frustrated. What can you do? My guy Mechmet yesterday was really enjoyable – he’d sing along in his high pitched voice as we listened to the blaring Uyghur music – to my ears a cross between Pakistani or Indian music and disco rock. Hmmmm…. That’s almost as bad as having to hear the ubiquitous cell phones here with their Tchaikovsky ringtones – my travel agent today had Jingle Bells on hers! Grrrr…

And I’m pissed off by airport bureaucracy. I had bought a couple of really small lovely knives as souvenirs, with their sheaves – all the local Uyghurs wear them and this city is famous for them – and had packed them in my bag to be checked through. Well, they wouldn’t allow it – I had to open my bag, show them and then not be permitted to check them through (even though they weren’t in my carry-on). Well, no amount of my “persuasion” was going to change this guy’s mind and, after swearing at him in both English and in the only Chinese word I know – he was Uyghur, he didn’t understand what I was saying, I hope! – I handed them over to my driver Mechmet with some money for postage and he promised he would send them on to me. While I was waiting to board he came back and said that he’d checked with the post office and it would take about twenty days to get back to Canada – so it’s something to look forward to. That was nice of him to go to that extra trouble. I trust this guy (how else can you operate with people?) ’cause we’d spent the day together and seemed to have established a good relationship. If they don’t arrive… well, don’t buy knives in Kashgar and expect to get on a plane with them even though they’re in your checked luggage. (Note: the knives arrived safely. Edited June 7, 2021) Oh yes, I might also be persona non grata in China: after that incident, I was waiting to check through security when some guy with a huge video camera started to take pictures of the guy in front of me – sure he was. I turned my back on him and then he appeared again taking pictures of people going through the security check. I was tempted to give him the finger but I thought better of it. So perhaps now I’m considered a terrorist by the Chinese authorities and they’re following me wherever I go. Oooooh, I should be so infamous! I wonder how long I’ll remain on their files!

I’ve had a full day’s rest today in Urumqi – never even left the hotel to go outside. However, I spent most of the day making arrangements with a local travel agent who had helped me before. So now my plans are made straight through back to Beijing – I’ll arrive there on the 19th. I’m going to spend several days in Xiahe, the second largest lamasery in the world after the one in Lhasa, Tibet (and, no, for you wags it is not a place where they raise lamas as one American I spoke to thought!). I’m looking forward to simply hanging out there for a while.


So I’ll now head back into China – it really has felt as if I’ve been away from it for a while and I’m glad of the experience for the past while. I bus to Turpan tomorrow for a couple of days, then the night train to Dunhuang, then fly to Lanzhou and bus to Xiahe, then onto Beijing. A few days there where I’ll once again take in the Great Wall and Forbidden City and visit with Lucy’s friends and family (in fact, one of her friends’ husband heads up the National Center for Science and Technology Evaluation and he’d like me to speak to his group on Technology Management, which I think I’ll do, of course). So I hope my time there will be relaxing.

Until then, all the best. I’ve got loads of pictures to show you and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.

Take care of yourselves.

Love, Dad, Grampa, Lu.

On Parade

View from my hotel room in Urumqi – girls from local high school exercising

Dispatches from China

October 8, 2002:  Greetings from Xinjiang

Hi there,

What a wonderful surprise to receive your notes and your news from home. Believe me, it gets pretty lonely out here sometimes and I really appreciate hearing from all of you – keep it up! One thing that I would ask, however, is that when you reply, don’t include my original message to you as it makes for a long download time at this end. (Hell, why should I bitch – at 6 Yuan an hour, it’s not bad. One Canadian dollar is worth about 5.30 Yuan.) But your news HAS been wonderful – from expecting children to successful surgery to the good old Vancouver weather! I’ll try and reply to each of you individually.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Tashkurgan, elevation at about 3200 metres (10,499′) – where the mountains are fantastic but bloody cold at night (yet beautifully warm during the day). On the way we saw a couple of monstrous mountains (well, at least they were to me!): Konger Mountain at about 27,000 feet and Mustagh Ata (Ice Mountain) at 7546 m. (24,757′).

Konger Mountains
Mustagh-Ata Mountain –

Where I took pictures from (Karakul Lake) the elevation was 3645 (11,959). Good night, that’s almost as high as Mt. Robson! I could tell that we were climbing as it became an effort even to get out of the car and walk around doing that most vigorous of all activities, taking photographs! Talk about trying to access the unused parts of your lungs!

Lake Karakul - Elevation 3962m.
Karakul Lake with Konger Peak in background
Kumtagh - Sand Mountains
Kumtagh – Sand Mpuntains

And when I went for a walk in the Tajik village of Tashkurgan later on in the day, I found myself walking really slowly. And, wouldn’t you know it, even after my training of climbing 14 flights of stairs daily for the past two months while at home, I came down with altitude sickness – a headache (not badly though), a spiked temp at night and diarrhea in the morning. Fortunately all the symptoms have left now that I’m down at a reasonable altitude of 1354 m. (4442′). I guess I wasn’t acclimated to the elevation. And it was cold … I don’t know what the temp was but I haven’t experienced that kind of cold in a long while. Of course, it didn’t help that the hotel had no heat but huge quilts under which I snuggled wearing my pile wool jacket, long johns and socks! Hey, if I wanted to go camping I would have made arrangements for that! However, the trip was worth it and it was interesting seeing a whole group of Tajiks in one place at one time. In fact, where we were on the highway was only about 7-8 km from Tajikistan and sort drive to the Kunjerab Pass leading into Pakistan.

It was interesting to see the different terrain as we drove along. These mountains are part of the Pamirs, with the Konger being a huge range (and tall). Interesting thing is that they get most of their snow in the summer rather than in the winter as we’d expect. They get the currents from the Indian subcontinent monsoons and they get their dump then.

Konger Range - The Pamirs
Konger Range

Many of these mountains have huge glaciers and you can see the fingers of these glaciers coming down the valleys in huge chunks. Well, they’re not moving as in an avalanche as they are probably receding now; certainly the valley floor is proof of the glacier being present. If you want to start a quarry business, this is the place! I’ve never seen so much rock. However, they’re put to good use – there was quite a bit of road construction on the highway as it keeps getting washed out by floods and such.

Tashkurgan sits in a very wide valley which is a large green plain; one can see all kinds of shepherds out there with their flocks (when they’re not on the road!) – flocks of sheep, goats, yaks and some camels (although I wasn’t able to get close enough to get some decent shots). I really wish I could get a shot of everything I’ve seen – there’s so much variety: in people, countryside, methods of transportation ….

Pamir Plateau at Tashkurgan
Pamir Plateau
Tashkurgan Village - Elevation 3200m.
Tashkurgan Village
On the Road to Tashkurgan
Karakoram Highway
On the Road
On the Road

Back in Kashgar, Sunday Market day was quite an interesting and fun experience. The vegetable and other things’ market was okay – just bigger and more interesting than others I’ve seen. Vegetables, pots and pans (even a farrier which I failed to take a photograph of, darn it), and, you name it, they had it.

Hardware Plus
Hardware Plus
Knife Sharpening
Knife Sharpening

Oh yes, there was also a dog market! A place where you could buy and sell your dog – some of them looked pretty vicious to me (looked like German shepherds) and most of them weren’t taking kindly to being tied to a post. Presumably they’ll be used as guard dogs or shepherd dogs. Others I wouldn’t hold much hope for – smaller dogs whom I’m sure will end up in a pot somewhere.

The highlight of the day was the animal market. I can now say that I’ve stepped in a real variety of dung – goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, cows, yaks and camels! What a hoot.

Intestines and Lung Snack
Intestines and Lung Snack
Sunday Market
Vegetable Market
Goat Market
Goat Market
Sheep Market
Sheep Market
Donkey Market
Donkey Market
Yaks
Yak Market
Camel Market
Camel Market
Cattle Market
Cattle Market

And it’s amazing to watch these guys bargain – they even have a third person to act as intermediary and when the deal is cut, they grab their hands in a handshake and yell at each other! They also try the donkeys out – they get on one and make this poor sucker go like a bat out of hell and if it’s okay, I guess the guy buys it.

Trying It Out
Trying It Out

Or they’ll test the animal by running alongside it – presumably to see if he can go pretty fast pulling a cart. These donkey carts are ubiquitous all over this part of the world – they really seem to do the trick. The animal market is now held out of town. Apparently when it was held alongside the regular market, real chaos ensued. So they moved it out of town. Too bad, I would have liked to have seen that kind of chaos – more than what I saw. I rode in the back of a motorcycle taxi – pulled by a horse but with an affair at the back to carry about six passengers. But the driver wants to get as many passengers as possible to make a buck, so there were sure more than six of us in the back. A hoot – but tough on the back going over potholes and such. Sometimes I think I’m getting too old for this kind pf travel – maybe I should stick to the comfortable ways of travelling, like in a ‘proper’ taxi!

All Spiffed Up
Taxi
Apartment Building
Typical Apartment Building in the Old Town of Kashgar

(You won’t see this ever again. Most of the Old Town has been demolished under the latest attempt by the government to ‘assimilate’ the Uyghurs. Edited May 13, 2021))

I’m going into the Taklamakan Desert tomorrow – at least to experience walking on the sand (or in it!) and then back up to Urumqi (pronounced Urumchee). From there on to an oasis called Turpan and then who knows where. I might go to Dunhuang to view the Moggao Caves with Buddhist paintings in them and then start heading east and back to Beijing and on to Hangzhou and Shanghai – back to civilization! There’s a lamasery in Xiahe which I’d like to see but perhaps I won’t have time. Never mind, there’s always a next time!

The shish kebabs here are great – cooked right in front of you. There’s also a dish called lomien – noodles with spices and vegetables and pieces of mutton in it. Very good There is also intestines and lungs which you can get cheap down at the food market …. But I’m not that adventurous when it comes to food.

When making arrangements in Xinjiang province, you always have to determine whether it’s local time or Beijing time. For example, it is now 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening – Beijing time. Local time it’s 6:30 p.m. I don’t blame the locals for thumbing their nose at the capital with regard to time – more at a number of other things too I expect. It would be like everyone being on Ottawa time – horrors, what a thought!

So with those thoughts I’ll close. Once again, thanks for your messages – I really enjoyed reading them. Take care of yourselves and I’ll send something off in a few more days. I’m off to find something to eat.
Love – Dad, Grandpa, Lu

We’ve all been stuck inside so long that our personal worlds have got smaller and smaller by the day. So when we turn to the web, we want to be transported to wider, louder and more colourful places… even if only virtually.
This is an attempt to accomplish this – by offering past emails sharing some adventures in my travels accompanied by appropriate images.
Enjoy – and transport yourself away for a while.

Dispatches from China 2002

October 4th:  Greetings from Kashgar

Yakshimisis (Hello!)

When in Rome … so I’ve been picking up some Uyghur words and phrases here and there to help me along. People really appreciate it when you do and if you attach a smile with the probably terribly mispronounced words, you get a long way.

I spent over an hour this morning composing a message to you and when I pushed the send button, yup, you guessed it, the system crashed! So I’ll try again from another internet place and, hopefully, get through. So, you’ll probably be missing some of the more enchanting and witty bon mots from the first message but what the hell, it’s the thought isn’t it?

There ARE birds in Beijing – first time I’ve seen any in the ten years I’ve been travelling here. I was awakened by their singing so that was a pleasant  surprise. I decided I would be ‘patriotic’ and get up early to see the flag raising  ceremony at Tiananmen Square. Well, about 250,000 other people thought they  would do the same thing as well (it was October 1st, their national day).  Now I know what it’s like to be in the type of crush of people that one  associates with gatherings in the square – man, what a bunch of people. Talked with a couple of students from Beijing University of Aeronautics – so many people want to practice their English with you. I was being looked after by Lucy’s parents’ former housekeeper (they are away in Kunming working) and she looked after me well and I had the apartment all to myself.

Monument to the Peoples Heroes - Tiananmen Square
Monument to the Peoples’ Heroes – Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Had dinner with a couple of Lucy’s friends as well – Beijing duck, beer and laughter. A delightful time. Beijing has changed sufficiently that I certainly noticed the difference – many new buildings and new roads all over the place. Quite a bustling and sophisticated city now.

Flew off to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in western China and got my first exposure to the various nationalities in this province. Another bustling and growing city with lots of new buildings going up. Then off the next day to Kashgar where I wanted to be all the time.

Well, this is certainly a melting pot of central Asia – you wouldn’t even know you were in China any longer. Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgis, Chinese, Uzbeks, Muslims -you name it, you’ve got it. And they all wear their distinct national clothing (both men and women) with different hats and all. Such a variety – it’s amazing, and wonderful! I spent yesterday afternoon at the Id Kah Mosque – not terribly impressive but an important place nevertheless, and then wandered through the old city.

Id Kah Mosque

Well, this is where one’s imaginings of this part of the world come to realization – the food, the people, the stores selling everything from hats (really cool fur ones to Muslim type beanies) to food stuffs, to spices to whatever. I ate a bun filled with mutton (baked in an oven) – quite tasty but it was really half and half: half mutton and half fat! The stuff was dripping down my hands by the end. I think I’ll pass on that next time although today I had a mutton shish kebab and it was delicious – there are many street vendors selling everything. Also bought a bagel – the toughest one I’ve ever had – gave my teeth and jaws a good workout but it was good and fulfilling.

Bakery
Bakery
Lunchstand
Preparing Lunch - Lamb Shishkebabs
Preparing mutton shish kebab


Tomorrow I’m off to the famed Kashgar Sunday market – both the livestock market and the other one in which everything is sold. They say that the population of the city swells by over 50,000 more people from the surrounding region on market days. So it should be fun. Then on Monday and Tuesday I’ll be taking a journey to Tashkurgan along the Karakoram Highway but I won’t be able to make it to the Kunjerab Pass unfortunately. It’s been closed to day trippers for quite some time now because of the relations with Pakistan. That’s a disappointment but at least I’ll be able to see the Pamirs and some of the highest mountains in the world. The silly thing about it is that I could easily cross over into Gilgit in Pakistan and then come back but then I’d have to go through the hassle of getting another entry visa back into China. I don’t think it’s worth it.

After the Tashkurgan trip I’m planning on taking the bus to Yarkand, another Silk Road city on the Taklamakan Desert and on to Hotan. From there I’ll head north through the middle of the desert (Taklamakan means “Once you go in, you don’t come out”. I hope they’ll be proven otherwise, at least in my case. I want to see you guys again!) The highway, apparently, is raised up in order to prevent the sand from forming dunes on the highway. It should be an interesting trip.

Then I’ll end up in Turpan – the lowest depression in the world after the Dead Sea. It’s an oasis in which lots of grapes and fruit are grown. Then if I have time, I’ll try to make it to a place called Xiahe where the largest lamasery outside of Tibet exists. Then back to Beijing, Hangzhou and ending my trip with a couple of days in Shanghai.

The weather’s been sunny and warm and cool at night. Very nice. The people are friendly – I’ve never found them to be otherwise in China other than the old bag in Urumqi who thought I was taking her picture (I wasn’t) and she began yelling at me! However, other than her, it must be the adage by which I live when in these places: wander aimlessly and grin like a dog.

I’ll close this off for now and hopefully, it’ll get to you. I’ll try and get to another internet place after a few more experiences and travelling. Until then, don’t hesitate to drop me a note – you know I enjoy hearing from you.

Look after yourselves.

Love – Dad, Grandpa, Lu.

July 2018

When one thinks about Brazil the first image that usually comes to mind is the Amazon – that long, winding, brooding but powerful river that flows from west to east through seven countries (Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean 6,437 kilometres [4,000 miles] from the Amazon’s headwaters high in the Andes mountains of Peru). One also thinks about the lovely beaches of Rio de Janeiro and, of course, the throng-draped beauties therein! However, one tends to forget about the other parts of the huge country of 8.5 million square kilometres (the world’s fifth largest country by area) comprised of six major ecosystems which together sustain some of the world’s greatest biodiversity.

One of these ecosystems is the Pantanal – the world’s largest tropical wetland area – 195,000 square kilometres. It lies in the Amazon Basin, a large concave depression of the earth’s crust south of the Amazon River, lying pretty much in the centre of the country. 80% of it is submerged during the rainy season; in the dry season, when we visited, the water recedes resulting in a large number of lagoons and forested areas hosting an even larger number of waterfowl, birds and wild animals: 1,000 bird species, 400 fish species, 300 mammalian species, 480 reptile species, and over 9000 different subspecies of invertebrates. These include jaguars, giant river otters, caimans, giant anteaters, capybaras, hyacinth macaws, jabiru storks and a host of other birds – all in abundance.

Wetlands

[Click on image to enlarge]

Our flight from Vancouver to Chicago was delayed by two hours which resulted in missing our overnight flight to São Paulo. We overnighted in Chicago and eventually reached our destination, a lodge west of the city of Cuiabá in central Brazil. Fortunately we only lost a half day of the trip and, according to the other participants (four other photographers), we didn’t miss much.

We finally reached our final destination, Porto Joffre, where we spent five glorious days ‘hunting’ jaguars on the Rio Cuiabá and its tributaries Rio Negro, Los Hermanos and other lesser river systems. It is a fisherman’s paradise with a variety of fish being caught. We had lots of catfish to eat in various forms – and all very good.

Sunrise

I now can understand (I think) the mentality of the big game hunter as he seeks to find the majesty of the wild animals he’s hunting. There is the seeking and stalking of the animal, the thrill of the chase and the final denouement of the shoot – in our case, with our cameras. Good heavens, am I that close to the heart and mentality of a big game killer?! Can the same be said of the birder, that seemingly mild and milquetoastian individual depicted in so many ways? Hesitatingly I would say yes, having experienced the response of a birder who has been interrupted while bird watching! The ire can be just as bad as anyone’s when interrupted in something in which he or she is deeply engrossed!

Chestnut-eared Aracari

 

Black-Collared Hawk

The jaguar is an imposing and wonderful animal to behold. It is the biggest cat species in North and South America, followed by the cougar and is very similar to the African leopard. This spotted cat closely resembles it, but is usually larger and sturdier. It ranges across a variety of forested and open terrains, but its preferred habitat is tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forest, swamps and wooded regions. The jaguar enjoys swimming and is largely a solitary, opportunistic, stalk-and-ambush predator at the top of the food chain. As a keystone species it plays an important role in stabilizing ecosystems and regulating prey populations.[Wikipedia notes]

They come down to the river to keep cool, bathe, copulate on the beach and hunt. We experienced several attempts, some of them successful, of the jaguar hunting its prey – caimans primarily (slower to reach than, say, a capybara, the largest of the rodent family) or a bird. The patience, the stealth, the quickness of its pounce and lunge are something to see. Fortunately we were able to see all of this from the safety of our boats floating out on the river with our cameras and telephoto  lenses pointing and waiting for something to happen.

Jaguar

While looking for and waiting for the jaguar we were entertained by the plethora of birds in the area. In fact, so many that I’ll need help in identifying most of those shot. I’m not a very good bird photographer – it’s easy to capture the large birds (especially when they’re perching) but for the little ones … give me a break. And I’m useless when they’re flying! I certainly need more practice. Anyone willing to sponsor me on a birding trip somewhere exotic such as Costa Rica would certainly be appreciated! Use it or lose it, as they say.

Jabiru Stork

All in all, this portion of the trip was an exciting adventure and one not to be forgotten.

Iguassu Falls

Magnificent. That one word captures it all. More impressive than both Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls in Africa without question.

Since we had travelled all the way to South America (travelling distances always look so easy on a map but when reality sets in ….!) we decided to travel a bit further south to the border between Brazil and Argentina to view this wonderful scenario. Nature has provided us with a marvellous work of art.

Located in Iguassu National Park and staying in a hotel within the park boundaries we enjoyed the luxury of viewing the falls before the park opening to outside visitors. This gave us an opportunity of taking our time with our shots without being jostled or bothered by others. I know, I know, this sounds elitist but there are times when one appreciates taking advantage of such an opportunity (particularly when one sees the hordes of people coming in buses at nine o’clock in the morning in a steady stream and continuing until five in the afternoon. Over one million people visit Iguassu Falls each year).

A few specifications on the falls: there are 275 waterfalls (stacked up one against the other) along a stretch of 2 kilometres; the falls are three times as wide as Niagara Falls and wider still than Victoria Falls and measure 82 metres in height.

The hotel discourages anyone from going beyond the well-lit grounds at night for fear of wild animals (what other kind are there in that part of the world?). Lucy wished to go out early in the morning one day to catch the sunrise but was prevented from doing so by the closed front doors of the hotel. She was told that a jaguar had been seen lurking about so going outside was forbidden. Having seen them in the north she did not readily dispute their decision!

But we did see another rare animal – the coati. It looks like a cross between a raccoon and a weasel. And it’s rather obnoxious due to its being habituated to humans. We had been warned about its obtrusiveness and so we simply kept out of their way (they seem to travel in family packs) but the hordes of visitors were unaware of their behaviour. So these animals would brazenly climb up on the railing of the fence and, should anyone with a backpack or handbag or anything within it smell of anything like food, the coati would begin to try and get into it – and quite often successfully. Off it would run down the hill with other coatis following in the hopes of getting part of the prize. It reminded me of monkeys in parts of the world who do the same thing (I had a sandwich stolen out of my hand in Kuala Lumpur many years ago by a monkey. It scared the hell out of me!). To many, of course, this was hilarious; to the victim, not so much.

Coati

This was a relaxing and pleasant three day stay and a good ending to our trip. It’s always nice to end such a trip – in spite of its 4:30 a.m. rises every day and going to bed at around 8:00 pm. Funnily enough, we got more sleep on that portion of the trip than we usually do at home! As I said, ending the trip on a relaxing note which prepares us for the sometimes hectic pace after arriving home and getting ready for the next stage of life.

I believe that the most important phrase in any language is “Thank you”. Whenever I travel I make it a point to learn that phrase in the language of the country I am visiting. And so I say “Obrigado” to those in Brazil who helped make our trip a wonderful and enjoyable success.

 

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An implausibility of gnus (wildebeest)

[Click image to enlarge]

A pride of lions
A fight of goshawks
A confusion of guinea fowl
A kettle of hawks
A sedge of herons
A bloat of hippopotamuses
A cackle of hyenas
A herd of impalas
A deceit of lapwings
A leap of leopards
A brace of mallards
A scourge of mosquitoes
A romp of otters
A parliament of owls
A colony of termites
A troop of baboons
A wake of buzzards
A coalition of cheetahs
A gulp of cormorants
A band of coyotes
A bask of crocodiles
A murder of crows
A pack of dogs
A raft of ducks
A convocation of eagles
A memory of elephants
A cast of falcons
A stand of flamingoes
A tower of giraffes
An implausibility of gnus (wildebeest)
A herd of ostriches
A covey of partridges
A pod of pelicans
A nest of pheasants
A singular of wart hogs
A warren of rabbits
A crash of rhinos
A herd of springbok
A murmuration of starlings
A mustering of storks
A flight of swallows
A streak of tigers
A venue of vultures
A dazzle of zebras

and…WE SAW THEM ALL!

… on our recent safari trip to Tanzania and South Africa.

Rysard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer, in his travel book The Shadow of the Sun, wrote “The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

And so the continent keeps beckoning to us – six trips in all covering nine countries (see my profile page at http://www.pbase.com/lcurran/profile for a map of the countries we have visited). This year we decided to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and sign up for two safaris thus saving us the sometimes arduous and long flying time between Vancouver and the African continent  and also blowing our budget for the next couple of years! Somehow, however, with the travel bug deeply embedded in us, I don’t think that will be a long-lasting problem….

Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika before its independence from Britain and subsequent unification with Zanzibar) was our first venture. (Our companion venture, South Africa – Tigers and Leopards – is described in the next blog.) We wanted to see the great migration of wildebeests and zebras as they traveled north for a season before turning around and heading south again. And we saw lots of them although not as many as we had anticipated. Because of the rains the grass was simply too delicious for the wildebeest to want to move north as there was plenty to eat where they were. They were about a month late in their migration pattern (thus lending further credence to the issue of climate change) so we were only able to catch ‘patches’ of them coming through – but huge patches they were! At several sightings there would be two to three thousand animals at a time trekking along, sometimes simply following each other, at other times thundering along in a gallop. And, inevitably, the laggards behind tempting the predators which would be close by.

XIMG_4581There were many more animals, of course – the usual lions, giraffes, elephants, ostriches, birds of all kinds (eagles, hawks, secretary birds, egrets, herons, and on and on. See the bird list on my website – http://www.pbase.com/lcurran/birds_new). Good heavens, I sound so blasé about it – far from it. It is only in viewing these animals in their habitat that one experiences the sense of wonder and awe coupled with the sense of being privileged to be in their presence.

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Not only are the animals a wonder to see, but also the country itself – Ngorogoro Crater housing almost 100,000 animals, the Serengeti Plain (where I’m sure we’ve been marked for life by the number of Tse-Tse fly bites we got!) – nature in all its glory including chunks of our skin. I wonder how long the marks will stay with us. But at least they’ll serve as ‘reminders’ of our trip!

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Ngorogoro Crater

XDSCF0746The Serengeti Plain

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Time Out!

As usual, more images will be posted on my website soon.

In India the cow is king – or queen whichever the gender may be. Wherever it goes, it reigns supreme – along roads (usually in the middle!), in busy shop areas (sometimes even inside the shop), in alleyways, grazing in garbage at the side of a street… in other words,  anywhere it likes and no one is going to interfere with it. In Ethiopia, much the same can be said about cows as well as goats – but they don’t reign supreme. If you kill a cow or a goat along the road with your vehicle, you have to pay for it. And they don’t travel alone but in groups or in herds – the more difficult to avoid but at the same time, easier. In Ethiopia cows and goats mean money, livelihood – the more you have, the better off you are. In India, cows are just there – important but in a different way. And, of course, in Ethiopia, there are camels and donkeys – but very few dogs. Cats? What are they?

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[Click on the image to enlarge it]

Much of Ethiopia is contained within the Great Rift Valley which runs from north to south for around 6400 kilometres from northern Syria to central Mozambique in southern East Africa. In British Columbia, when we think of valleys, the images of steep, narrow gorge-like terrain come easily to mind whereas in Africa the opposite is true. The Great Rift Valley varies in width from thirty to one hundred kilometres and in depth from a few hundred to several thousand metres. So one doesn’t  think of it as a valley at all.

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But that isn’t the valley’s only distinction: there is a continuing debate whether the area was indeed the cradle of humanity (I like to think so with my romantic and limited knowledge of anthropology!). Some of the oldest evidence for modern humans is found in Ethiopia and it has been suggested by many scientists that the Rift’s trough is widely considered the region from which Homo Sapiens (that’s us, folks) first set out for the Middle East and points beyond in an important route for human dispersal. When one contemplates on these things, one is left in wonderment and awe. At least I am. Amazement is my Holy Grail…. Ethiopia is also the origin of the coffee bean!

Ethiopia is a diversified country with varied terrain and a land of natural contrasts, from Africa’s largest continuous mountain ranges, to deserts, jungles, different cultures (with at least 80 different ethnic groups within the country) and changes in climate. Never have I experienced such distinctive differences in any of the places I have travelled (over fifty countries at last count). In the north the people are lighter-skinned from what you might expect of Africans. They are also more finely-boned than those in the south and east, giving credence to their affinity with North Africans. (It’s obvious that my bias and ignorance are showing. It’s obvious also that I am generalizing in regard to these characteristics; in my limited time there I am forced to generalize, unfortunately.)

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In the south, the people are completely different.XDSCF5916

(Thinking about how I am writing this reminds me of the philosopher Édouard Glissant, who was born in Martinique, educated at the Sorbonne and profoundly involved in anti-colonial movements of the ’50s and ’60s. One of Glissant’s main projects was an exploration of the word “opacity.” Glissant defined it as a right to not have to be understood on others’ terms, a right to be misunderstood if need be. (Italics mine) The argument was rooted in linguistic considerations: It was a stance against certain expectations of transparency embedded in the French language. Glissant sought to defend the opacity, obscurity and inscrutability of Caribbean blacks and other marginalized peoples. External pressures insisted on everything being illuminated, simplified and explained. Glissant’s response: No. And this gentle refusal, this suggestion that there is another way, a deeper way, holds true for me, too.)

But why Ethiopia? Two principal reasons. When I was a young teenager I read a book about a British officer who was assisting the Ethiopians in their resistance against the Italians during World War II, Orde Wingate. It was an interesting ‘war’ story but what was fascinating to me was the light it shone on the people, particularly the country’s emperor, Haile Selassie. He is still very much in the minds, if not hearts, of the people as he wasn’t deposed until 1974. To me he was a fascinating figure as was the country.

The second reason is the people and tribes of the Omo Valley in the south. Like so many peoples throughout the world they are being displaced and relocated by the vicissitudes of their own government. There are about eight main tribes in this area; we visited at least three  of them: the Mursi, the Karo, and the Hamer although in many of the villages there was a mix of other tribes as well. In the case of these tribes they are literally being kicked off their traditional lands so that multinationals can come in and establish large non-indigenous plantations – eg., palm oil, cotton and maize. As well, the government is building another dam on the Omo River which will displace a number of tribes and end their pastoralist way of life. Some peoples have already been forced to move into tenements in places far from their homelands and contrary to their former way of life. It’s a familiar, sad story which is taking place throughout the world. I urge you to read about this situation here:

http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/omovalley

And so in my own small way I want to document their story and help in any way I can.

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But there is so much more: the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant, a Christian nation in the midst of Islam (Eliza Griswold, in her book ‘The Tenth Parallel’, illustrates how much of the world is divided between Muslims who live north of the tenth parallel – about 120 miles north of the Equator – and Christians living south of it in countries such as Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and the continuing [and often] conflicts they experience. However, Ethiopia is Christian with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church displaying a strong presence), churches hewn out of the rock, wildlife, birds…. and, again, the people.

I was very fortunate to arrive in Addis Ababa, the capital, a few days before their Christmas, January 6. After having paid homage to the capital with the expected tour of the university and museum, we travelled to Axum in the north, the former capital. The great mystery of Axum is its claim to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. This claim is connected to the legend of the Queen of Sheba (and, yes, we saw what is believed to be the ruins of her palace) and King Solomon, whose son Menelik is said to have brought the Ark to Axum some 3000 years ago (Menelik founded the Solomonic dynasty, of which Haile Selassie was the last emperor).

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Ark of the Covenant Chapel

I was still waiting for things to happen and my holy grail began to be filled to overflowing. It began in Lalibela whom many of you will recognize as the place where a number of churches are hewn out of the rock and lie below ground level. It’s quite a sacred place for the Christians of Ethiopia and even more so on Christmas Eve where many were camped out waiting for the all-night services to begin. Lots of people!

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These monolithic churches are majestic – the term “monolithic church” is most often used to refer to the complex of 11 churches in Lalibela, believed to have been created in the 12th century. A monolithic church or rock-hewn church is a church made from a single block of stone. Because freestanding rocks of sufficient size are rare, such churches are usually hewn into the ground or into the side of a hill or mountain. It is said that the then emperor had these churches constructed in such a way so as to escape the gaze of the invading Muslims. However, the Muslim conquest of North Africa and surrounding regions took place in the 7th Century and, again, an attempt was made in the 16th Century. It is more likely that the emperor wished to construct the New Jerusalem, having made a pilgrimage to that city and in his zeal to promulgate the Christian faith.

From Bahar Dar and Lake Tana (which is the source of the Blue Nile and is the largest lake in Ethiopia) with its nearby ancient round monastery well preserved with rich religious paintings and illuminated manuscripts and other treasures, to Harar with its 1,000-year old city walls and the former residence of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, to flamingos along the way and Marabu storks and ostriches and baboons and women at a well, a tribal kaleidoscope of communities …. and, of course, cattle and goats along the road. And here is where my Holy Grail began to be filled to the brim!

In the bushy savanna of the Omo River Valley live a fascinating mix of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, from the Mursi and Karo to the Bume and Harar, co-existing in a harsh land that is all but forgotten by the rest of the world – except the government and greedy multi-nationals, of course (see above). For the most part the tribes have separate languages and they mainly interact at markets. The lower valley of the Omo is currently believed by some to have been a crossroads for thousands of years as various cultures and ethnic groups migrated around the region. They depend on the river to practice ‘flood retreat cultivation’ using the rich silt left along the river banks by the slowly receding waters in September and October. Huge tracts of sorghum can be seen along the river’s edge. Chewing on a stalk of sorghum is much like chewing on a stalk of sugar cane although not as sweet. I never did like chewing on a stalk of sugar cane…. The sorghum wasn’t much different!

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As an added bonus we were privileged to view a Bull Jumping Ceremony at a small Hamar village. When a man is ready for marriage he must prove his worthiness not only to the village members but also to his intended bride’s family by jumping over the backs of a bunch of bulls (horns bristling and all). It’s quite a ceremony with the women of the tribe dancing and being whipped by the groom’s best man (yes, whipped!) and ending up with the man running up and over the bulls’ backs.

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Back to Addis Ababa the capital to witness another Christian celebration – the Timkat Festival in commemoration of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist at the River Jordan. Once again, hordes of people but in a more orderly fashion, i.e., processions of choristers and priests and acolytes and crucifers and who knows what, all being led by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I thought my life had come full circle!

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It was a long ceremony, from early morning to night. Fortunately we didn’t stay for the whole thing but much preferred to go and have a cold beer! Which was an apt way to end a wonderful trip.

http://www.pbase.com/lcurran

It is generally agreed that to drive in India one needs three things: good horn, good brakes, and good luck.

India is among the most difficult – and most rewarding – of places to travel. Some have said India stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again.” Many more are drawn back time after time because India is the best show on earth, the best bazaar of human experiences that can be visited in a lifetime. India dissolves ideas about what it means to be alive, and its people give new meaning to compassion, perseverance, ingenuity, and friendship. India – monsoon and marigold, dung and dust, colours and corpses, smoke and ash, endless myth – can be a cruel, unrelenting place of ineffable sweetness. What a paradox. Much like life itself. Incredible India!

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And so I call it a ‘Swirling Experience’ – a swirl of colours, tastes, smells, sounds and touch, often experienced all at once, in one fell gigantic swoop. Or, in smaller doses. Walk along a street in Varanasi leading to the Mother Ganga (Ganges River) at sunrise and again at sunset and you experience this vitality; visit the Pushgar Fair and swelter in the heat of the noonday sun; stroll along Mansingh Road in Delhi and feel the coolness of the shade trees; visit the many forts built by the great Mughals in Rajasthan state and become overwhelmed by the opulence of their reign…. Every place gives you a bit of everything but some places more than others. Or, to put it another way – chaos which works!

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Main ghat (steps) leading down to the Ganges – Pushgar Camel Fair

I never thought I would ever go to India. It was one of those places that I had no desire to visit (much like I have no desire to visit either Japan or Australia today). But something must have turned me on to wanting to go. Perhaps it was a desire to travel by train; perhaps it was a desire to see the holy river Ganges, perhaps it was the desire to see the fabled Taj Mahal – but perhaps it was something else or a combination of things. However that change of mind came about, I had to go.

How does one begin to write about this country with so many facets to it? Do I start with the people and it’s diversity (that would be interesting)? Do I start with the crazy quilt that is Hinduism? I’ll start and stop with the concept of Brahman (what we in the West would term as God) – one can then add Shiva and Vishnu and Ganesh and the other 33 million or so gods from which one can choose (!) and to whom for everyday needs the people pray and worship. These are the less remote, less awesome figures of their god-kings and heroes who know and understand the intimacies of the daily lives of the people in a way that the Great Gods cannot, like the needs of the cattle in the village. It is these local gods who are believed to guard and regulate the daily lives of the people. Not that the other gods are far away. Gods are gods, I suppose – whatever god you worship, he is close to you. I’ll let you decide whether you, on your own, want to tackle that one.

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Ganesh
Remover of Obstacles

I arrived in Delhi in the dead of night. One-fifteen in the morning to be precise. Because of its location, arrivals in India often seem to arrive at this unearthly hour. However, I’ve never seen such bustling at an airport at that hour. You’d think it was JFK at two in the afternoon. Was this the way it was going to be for the next two-and-a-half weeks, day and night?

Traffic

After a day or so in Delhi – both old and new – we travelled to Jaipur to begin the train journey to the other cities in Rajasthan, the fabled state of the 300 plus years of the Mughal Empire – from Babur and Humayun to Shah Jahan, the builder of the famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal, and beyond. I’ve referred to other trips as the ABC tour in Europe (Another Bloody Cathedral), the ABT tour in Egypt (Another Bloody Temple) and this tour in India can be called the ABF tour (Another Bloody Fort). From Jaipur, the Pink City to Jaisalmer, the Golden Fortress to Jodhpur, the Blue City to Chittargarh to Udaipur to Bharatpur to the monumental beauty of the Taj Mahal in Agra and finally ending up in Varanasi on the Ganges River. What a swirl, what a whirlwind, what an experience of being ‘whelmed’, in the words of our leader David Silverberg, an excellent and knowledgeable geographer, conservationist and earth scientist.

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Amber Fort, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

Along the way there were visits to the tiger sanctuary at Ranthanbore National Park, (unfortunately no tigers were sighted on our game drive), the Pushgar Camel and Horse Fair, the Indian Thar Desert (where I kept to my vow of never again riding a camel!), and ending this part of the journey in Agra, the site of the magnificent Taj Mahal.

XDSCF2480And so we travelled from the sublime to the ,,, well. not exactly the ridiculous but certainly the chaotic. Varanasi has to be the epicentre of controlled chaos; the hub around which revolves the surge of pilgrims, hawkers, bathers, cripples, the faithful, the fakers (not to be confused with fakirs) – all focused on the mythic Ganges River.

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Bathers in the Ganges at sunrise

Twice a day this ebb and flow occurs: down to the river and back again. Bathing in the river, swimming in the river, drinking the water of the river, washing clothes in the river, being cremated at the edge of the river – everything that water, the aqua vitae, provides the people of India and more.

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Cremation fires on the Ganges

Ah yes, the people of India – all 1.27 billion. And sometimes it seemed that I was in the middle of them! And it also seemed like they were speaking all 21 languages of that country – all at once. I always thought that I had a pretty good ear for languages but I was defeated in India.

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And I can rest contentedly knowing that the cow is sacred, king of the road, untouchable, sublimely wandering wherever he or she wants. Perhaps subliminally the cow has influenced the drivers of India for I saw no road rage nor any accidents!

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India – ‘I’ll Never Do It Again’? On the contrary – I would return again, probably to the south which I understand is completely different; more agrarian than the north.

Regardless of where I go, I go keeping in mind my own mantra when traveling: Have no expectations, but live in expectancy. There will always be new experiences, new sights, sounds and smells. Where else but In India!

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The Treasury – Petra

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Jordan is a small country but occupying a strategic location in the Middle East. It’s not rich like other countries in the area – no oil but lots of concrete and phosphate. Given the aridity of the country one doesn’t wonder why or how! King Abdullah isn’t as popular as his father Hussein but then he isn’t as profligate as the old man was. Besides, as they say, he’s young, he’s idealistic – he’ll learn…. and trying hard to raise his country out of the economic mediocrity in which it finds itself.

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Amman from Citadel Hill

But it has an ace in the hole – tourism with several of the biggest attractions in the Middle East: Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea.

We arrived in Amman, Jordan in time for a traditional Jordanian lunch. As a typical hors d’oeuvre we began with mezze, a Middle Eastern selection of small dishes of various sorts, both hot and cold – all very tasty: babaghanoush (eggplant mashed and mixed with seasonings. I usually dislike eggplant having had, to me, bad experiences with it when much younger but this was quite enjoyable especially when dipped with pita bread which is served with all meals); hummus (one of my favourites with chickpeas or garbanzos); falafel (another favourite); kofte (meat balls consisting of ground lamb, mashed onions, spices and a small amount of ground veal and bread softened in raki); cacik (dip made from plain yogurt, chopped cucumber with finely chopped garlic and mint leaf); tabbouleh (bulgur, finely chopped parsley, mint, tomato, spring onion, with lemon juice, olive oil and seasonings); salads and olives, olives, olives – I love olives. It’s lunchtime while I’m writing this so you can tell where my mind (and stomach) is! The mezze was more than enough for lunch. However….

Mezze (from Wikipedia. Unfortunately my iPod image didn’t turn out well)

… following this we had another traditional Jordanian and Palestinian dish called mansaf, made of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice or bulgur. It is the national dish of Jordan. To a lesser degree it is also found in parts of Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The name of the dish comes from the term “large tray” or “large dish”. It was very good and went well with a cool beer on a hot day.

I was hoping for a little nap time but off we went to the Amman Citadel sitting atop a high hill. Amman is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world dating back 3,000 years. It was once the capital of the Ammonites (if you’re into the Biblical thing) and it was here that David met Bathsheba (or so they say!).

The Amman Citadel’s history represents significant civilizations that stretched across continents and prospered for centuries, as one empire gave rise to the next, including the Romans and the Umayyad dynasty. Monuments to these still stand, of course.

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Temple of Hercules on Amman Citadel Hill

It was beginning to look like another ABT tour (Another Bloody Temple) the next day when we took off for Jerash; however, our ABT tour turned out to be different than that in Egypt – more variety. Jerash, an ancient Roman city framed by the hills of Gilead, is located 48 kilometers north of Amman and is considered one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy. To this day, its colonnaded streets, baths, theaters, plazas and arches remain in exceptional condition. Within the remaining city walls, archaeologists have found the ruins of settlements dating back to the Neolithic Age, indicating human occupation at this location for more than 6500 years.

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Hadrian’s Arch, Jerash

The highlight of the day was visiting with a family in their home and being served a home-cooked meal – always the best anywhere you go. It’s like when I come home after a long trip, I always have a plate of macaroni and cheese (good old comfort food!); it was the same here with this family (no, not macaroni and cheese!). Along with the usual mezze with its various dips, there were salads, chicken (delicious and tender), a meat pie, and… olives – all while lying indolently on low mats. I didn’t know what to do with my feet….

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That evening I decided to stay in and refresh myself and had dinner with another of our participants – a former judge in the Supreme Court of Texas – but she wasn’t the hanging kind; she was a Democrat! In Egypt I had indulged in lentil soup at every opportunity I could and so I did that evening – so creamy and smooth. Jeez, it must be lunch time – I’m dwelling on food…. I never thought of myself as a gourmand but one’s taste buds and appetite are often expanded when travelling.

Okay, I’ve had lunch – not lentil soup and pita but peanut butter and bread, raw carrot sticks, cucumber, and … olives. Somewhat of a comedown from Middle Eastern food and not quite as exotic but it’ll do. Milk instead of wine.

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One Thousand-Year-Old Olive Trees

We began to wend our way south of Amman towards Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba, Jordan’s port city in the south. On the way we stopped at Mt. Nebo, the mountain from where Moses purportedly was granted a view of the promised land that he would never enter. Moses wandered off never to be seen again – Deut. 34:1 (purportedly….) You biblical scholars can correct me if anything is amiss here. The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Holy Land and, to the north, a more limited one of the valley of the River Jordan. They say that Jericho is usually visible from the summit, as is Jerusalem on a very clear day. Some of my fellow travellers said they could see them but I never did – but then my eyes aren’t as young as they used to be! It was hazy – the view, not my eyes.

What I found to be of more interest were the mosaic floors which were found on the floor of the Byzantine church on the top of the mountain, first constructed in the second half of the 4th century to commemorate the place of Moses’ death.

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Mosaic Floor, Mt. Nebo

And onward to Petra, passing through Medaba and St. Peter’s Greek Orthodox Church with its 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and Kerak Castle, one of the larger crusader castles in the eastern Mediterranean. Those guys sure knew how to construct castles! Those holes in the ceiling – did they serve as ventilation for the smoke from the fires? No, they used them to pour boiling oil on to their enemies on the floor below. As I said, those guys sure knew how to construct castles.

Deep within the deserts of Jordan lies the ancient city of Petra. Through a narrow gorge it emerges into view, revealing awe-inspiring monuments cut into the surrounding cliffs. Two thousand years ago, Petra stood at a crossroads of the ancient Near East. Camel caravans passed through, loaded with spices, textiles and incense from distant regions–and through such commerce, the city flourished. Its people, the Nabataeans, harnessed precious water, enabling the population to soar to perhaps 20,000.

The Nabataeans also erected monumental tombs, memorializing their kings and leaders. But over time political control changed, and so did trade routes. Eventually the city fell silent, forgotten by the outside world. Another name for Petra is the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved – “a rose-red city half as old as time.” [John Williams Burgon ‘Petra‘]

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The Treasury, as seen from al-Siq (translated: the shaft), entrance to Petra. The walls that enclose the Siq stand between 91–182 m (300–600 feet) in height along its 1200 m (3937 feet) length

The amazing thing about Petra is that only about 5% of the city has been uncovered. This boggles the mind when one sees what already has been discovered. From arenas, to causeways, to royal tombs, to libraries – all carved out of the solid red sandstone, starting at the top and working their way down. As usual there just wasn’t enough time to do this wonder any justice – I’m just thankful I had the opportunity of being able to see it. It was a very pleasant and moving stay at what is said to be the national symbol of Jordan.

And then on to Wadi Rum, massive rock peaks rising out of pink sands (and, yes, I did fill another vial for Lucy with this rose-coloured sand) made famous by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia fame) who operated out of here during the Arab Revolt of 1917-1918 against the Ottoman Empire. He called it the Valley of the Mountains whereas others call it the Valley of the Moon (go figure). In fact that’s what wadi traditionally means: valley. Here is what Lawrence wrote about Wadi Rum in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

“We looked up on the left to a long wall of rock, sheering in like a thousand-foot wave towards the middle of the valley; whose other arc, to the right, was an opposing line of steep, red broken hills….The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward in an avenue for miles.

“They were not unbroken walls of rock, but were built sectionally, in crags like gigantic buildings, along the two sides of their street. Deep alleys, fifty feet across, divided the crags, whose plans were smoothed by the weather into huge apses and bays, and enriched with surface fretting and fracture, like design…. Dark stains ran down the shadowed front for hundreds of feet, like accidents of use. The cliffs were striated vertically, in their granular rock; whose main order stood on two hundred feet of broken stone deeper in colour and harder in texture…. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination…. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.” I couldn’t have said it better myself! Our time there was a simple desert getaway in a superb wilderness setting.

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The Seven Pillars – from which Lawrence got his title

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Our Camp, Wadi Rum

On to the shores of the Red Sea at Aqaba, Jordan’s only port. It was a relaxing and leisurely time at a fancy resort (aren’t all resorts supposed to be fancy?) and then back north to the Dead Sea.

“The water feels rather oily and thick, almost scummy but it’s clean – and you float as if you’re floating on air. I have never been able to float in my life – my bones and I always sank like a stone but on the Dead Sea I finally was able to do it: lie flat on my back, head tilted back with absolutely no effort whatsoever and with no fear of sinking! What a marvellous feeling gazing up at the sky and simply being…. And not even being able to sit up in the water – no treading water here; hell, I could hardly even get my legs down into the water! What an odd feeling.”

Full circle – and, no, I did not ride a camel in Wadi Rum like my fellow travellers. I’ve ridden camels in western China and in Morocco; the latter ride was not a good experience: the camels were … well, camels, but the so-called saddle was simply a bunch of carpets and what seemed like duvets heaped on the back of the camel with a cinch around the belly of the beast. And the ‘saddle’ kept slipping sideways with me hanging on for dear life (there were no stirrups, of course – why would they want to spoil the ride of your life?!). I finally told them to stop and fix the damn thing. I didn’t have any problems after that but I was glad when the ride was ended…. I walked back to camp. I feel I’ve met my obligations of riding a camel quite sufficiently thank you.

And, yes, I did fill another vial, this time with mud from the banks of the Dead Sea.

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Sunset, Wadi Rum

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