A Travellerspoint blog

June 2019

Mexico 2006

Exploring Ancient Ruins (not beaches) in Mexico

sunny 82 °F

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The Pyramid of the Sun, seen from the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico

I've explained before my concept of a Back Pocket Trip. This is a place you've done some research on and picked out to go to when plans for your original destination fall through. As idea after idea was dashed this past March, Jenny and I reached into our pockets and pulled out a gem: The pyramids of Mexico.

As I did even more research in the weeks leading up to the trip, I began to wonder why I hadn't undertaken this one before. The Mexico City area has a wealth of Ancient ruins, pyramids and temples -- way more than I'd thought. Paring the list of ones we'd like to see down to a half dozen or so was difficult. We wanted to minimize the amount of time we'd spend in transit, though, so we decided to base ourselves out of Mexico City. From there, we further narrowed it down to sites within two hours of the city, on its excellent bus network. Everything we'd read steered us away from attempting to rent a car and drive ourselves. Two excellent resources were "Archeological Mexico" by Andrew Coe, and the website of George and Audrey Delange, who in a half dozen trips to Mexico, have managed to see more than 70 different Aztec, Toltec, Mayan, etc., archeological sites, and feature tons of photos and interesting accounts of their visits to each.

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Myself, Audrey, George and Jenny

So compelling is their site that Jenny and I actually began our trip by visiting George and Audrey! They live in Phoenix (where our flight to Mexico City departed from), and we arrived the evening before so we could meet them. George and Audrey were excellent hosts. They drove to our hotel, picked us up, and took us to dinner in their favorite Mexican restaurant. We spent hours talking with them about Mexico, other trips, and our lives in general. The time we spent with them erased the bad start we'd had to the trip (flights were so full out of Columbus, we didn't get out till two days later than we'd planned), and got us off on the right foot for our journey to Mexico.

The omens seemed to improve even more when we were upgraded to first class on our flight from Phoenix to Mexico City (nowadays, a rarely obtained perk for airline employees). To save money, Jenny and I had planned on extensive use of the city's subway system. The price of less than 20 cents a ride is hard to argue with, and Jenny and I pretty much used it -- and walking -- as our exclusive means of transportation within the city. We took the subway from the airport to Hotel Roble, in the historic center (which required three connections, but taxis are about $25 there: "Hmmm...$25 or 20 cents...which one...?).

After checking in, we decided to visit one of the many Aztec sites within the city, itself. We headed north to the Tlatelolco, or the Plaza of Three Cultures. It is named that for the Aztec ruins, Spanish church and modern apartment buildings which are all essentially in the same plaza. George and Audrey recommended it, and we figured it was close enough to get to before closing time. A gentle drizzle fell while we slowly paced around the ruins, which prompted me to tease "Jamaica Jenny" -- who claims an amazing ability to draw rain to her wherever she goes for vacation. I'd seen it firsthand last year in Jamaica, thus the nickname. Tlatelolco was an interesting primer for our upcoming overload of ancient Mexican sites, and the attendants were gracious and let us stay nearly a half hour past closing time to take it all in.

That night, we discussed how to rearrange our sightseeing schedule, since we'd lost the two days getting out of Columbus. Monday (the next day -- our first full one in Mexico), was a bit of a problem. Many archeological sites in Mexico are closed on Monday. Our guidebooks (in addition the Coe book, we also took Joyce Kelly's "An Archeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico") listed the times for each site, and it seemed only two were open tomorrow: Tula, an hour and a half north of Mexico City, and Teotihuacan -- a world class site only about 45 minutes from town. We thought it'd be a good idea to save Teotihuacan for last -- build to a climax -- and do Tula on Monday. That plan was dashed when we arrived at Mexico City's "North" bus station, and were told Tula is also closed on Monday. So, Teotihuacan it was! Start at the top!

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Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon, seen from the Pyramid of the Sun Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon

Teotihuacan is dominated by the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun (which is the third largest in the world). It is a huge site, the main street along which most of the temples, plazas and pyramids are located is more than a mile long. The street is atmospherically called the Avenue of the Dead. That name, though, along with the Sun and the Moon are not necessarily what the builders called them, though, because Teotihuacan is a bit of mystery. With many ancient Mexican sites, archeologists know who built them, i.e., Tula is Toltec, Cacaxtla was likely Olmec, and so on. They have little clue as to the identity of the original builders of Teotihuacan. Later cultures like the Toltecs and Aztecs knew about the place, and some even used the buildings for sacred ceremonies. However, who the Teotihuacanos were is still a mystery.

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Carved column at the Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly

What is certain, though, is that Teotihuacan is one of the most amazing places in Mexico. Jenny and I spent an entire day tramping around the ruins, climbing temples and pyramids, and marveling over murals that have survived more than a thousand years to today. And somehow, Jenny's jinx made for only about 10 minutes of rain sprinkles -- the rest of the day was gorgeous, sunny and warm! Our guidebooks were great, and we were able to follow our progress on the maps, read about the various buildings, and experience it fully as if we had an English-speaking guide. More importantly, we could take our time visiting the site, and not be hurried through it like tour guides often do. The view from atop the pyramids of the Moon and Sun was panoramic. Teotihuacan was the only site we visited that was thronged with tour groups -- mostly Mexican school children (dressed in identical athletic apparel). There was a constant line ascending the towering Pyramid of the Sun, despite its breathtaking steepness. Nevertheless, Teotihuacan is such an overpowering place that its appeal wore through the crowds, and we had a magnificent day.

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Under the covered roof at Cacaxtla

In our original trip plans, Jenny and I had planned on staying two days in Puebla -- a city two hours east of the capital. There were three distinctly different sites in the Puebla area that we wanted to see, and we figured it would take about that long, including travel time. I proposed that we still try to do all three, but as a day trip from Mexico City. I suggested that, upon arrival at the bus station in Puebla, we hire a taxi to shuttle us to all three sites (and leave us at the third, Cholula, where we would take a bus back to the capital). Jenny agreed, and we got started early Tuesday morning to give us the maximum amount of time that day. In Puebla, we quickly found a couple of the independent taxi drivers and began our bargaining. We must have negotiated a good price (300 pesos -- little less than $30), because one of them absolutely refused to do it for that amount, while the other accepted.

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Two Mayan-looking Jaguar knights kill an Eagle knight (Battle Mural)

The first site on our list was Cacaxtla, which is a palace complex located atop a hill covered by a 459 foot by 230 foot metal roof. The roof is to protect the amazing murals that Cacaxtla is known for. The most famous is called the Battle Mural. This six foot high mural is 72 feet long, and its bright blue and red colors are still vibrant today. Archeologists have had long discussions over the POINT of this mural, why it was painted, and what are the politics behind it. It depicts Jaguar Knight warriors slaughtering Eagle Knights. The ancient peoples of Mexico had military "orders," or associations, named after certain animals -- jaguars and eagles being most popular. Their colorful uniforms were even made to resemble that animal. The mural is done in a very southern, Mayan style, and the faces of the victorious Jaguar knights look very Mayan, while the defeated Eagle Knights look more Aztec (and this in the heart of Aztec country, so to speak). Whatever the truth behind the mystery of the mural, it is an exciting and interesting place to visit.

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At Xochitecatl, view from the Serpent House to the Pyramid of the Flowers

Next on our itinerary was Xochitecatl, which is also built atop a hill, and is visible from Cacaxtla. Xochitecatl is one of those small to medium sized archeological sites that I simply love. They are off the beaten track enough that you often have them to yourself (we did, other than two couples that had left by the time we finished). They are reconstructed enough so that you can climb around on them, admire the view, and imagine what it was like in its heyday. Plus, there are no distractions to jolt you back to the present -- no chattering tour groups, no vendors hawking wares and no waiting for half a dozen folks to get their pictures taken standing in front of something. As Jenny and I explored Xochitecatl, we enjoyed the magnificent weather -- the sky was so blue and the weather so comfortable that Jamaica Jenny was in danger of losing her nickname. Xochitecatl has several interesting features, including a spiral pyramid. There is no grand staircase ascending the face, instead, archeologists think that celebrants (or victims) wound their way around and around the circular base till they reached the top of the conical building. Across from the spiral pyramid, the Pyramid of the Flowers actually had a row of stone columns at its top, surmounted by "Stonehenge-like" lintels (one of which survives today). The view from its summit is incredible, the countryside stretching out green and inviting beneath you. Jenny and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

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Round n' Round, Xochitecatl's Spiral Pyramid

Our final stop on our taxi-aided schedule was Cholula, perhaps the most unusual one we would visit in Mexico. The archeological site of Cholula is dead center in the town, and when you pull up to it, looks like nothing more than a natural hill. Beneath that hill, though, is the unexcavated base and sides of what would be the largest pyramid in the American continent. Archeologists have dug tunnels through the "hillside" (which is the accumulation of earth over the top of the pyramid in the intervening centuries).

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Cholula's tunnels

You can access these tunnels burrowing into the side of Cholula, and you come to various points where archeologists have widened it so you can see the sides of the pyramids, its staircases and sloped sides. This was one place where I wish we HAD hired a guide, as I found out later that they will open some of the locked gates we encountered and explore even more underground.

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Model of Cholula's Pyramid beneath a hill with church on top

After about ten minutes of creeping through the tunnels, you come out on the western face of the hillside where most of the excavations have been done. There you get your first look at one of the most interesting aspects of Cholula -- the Spanish church built atop the hill! This gorgeous, tile-domed yellow church soars overhead and has dramatic views of the ruins, town and countryside. Since the church is atop the hill (essentially the pyramid itself), the only actual excavations and reconstructions archeologists can do is on the hillsides. They can't very well knock down the beautiful church, so Cholula is an interesting place to visit for that duality alone.

After our explorations, Jenny and I plopped down in a colorful local restaurant for a late lunch of Mexican tortas, or sandwiches. We then climbed the hillside to the church and admired the view for miles, watching the approach of a storm and wondering if it had heard "Jamaica Jenny" was in town and was rushing to its appointment with her. The storm missed us, though, and we then toured the site's museum, found the bus station, and waited for our ride back to Mexico City. That night, while we were heading to an internet cafe to check in with folks back home, the rains came down in earnest, perhaps angry that it has missed us in Cholula.

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Tula's magnificent Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli

Our final site to visit was the Toltec site of Tula, which is known for its "Atlantean" statues atop its main pyramid temple. My guess is a clever archeologist came up with that name because the statues were once the carved stone columns supporting the wooden temple that was built atop the pyramid. The wooden building is gone and all that remains are the free standing columns, shaped like Toltec warriors. Like mythical Atlas, they once supported the roof on their backs (or heads in this case). Anyway, the pyramid with the statues atop is the main draw of Tula and is an amazing sight. It has a suitably amazing name, too, the tongue twisting Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. I always make it a point to learn how to correctly pronounce the various Mayan/Aztec/etc. sites I visit, but I didn't even TRY that one!

The 'Atlantean' statues of Toltec warriors at Tula Anyway, Tula is a one of those medium sized sites, like Xochitecatl, that I adored. After about an hour's exploring, Jenny and I looked around and noticed that we had the place to ourselves. I dashed back up the steep steps of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, to take some pictures without a crowd of folks jostling for position or milling amongst the statues. Jenny was visiting the restroom, so I had my moments alone atop the pyramid, communing with the 1000 year old Toltec warriors. The blue sky and sweeping views, made for a special moment, and I once again wondered why I had not taken this trip sooner.

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1,000 year old statues of Toltec warriors at Tula

Since our flight did not leave till about 4 pm Thursday, we took the morning of the next day to visit Mexico City's awesome National Museum of Anthropology. It is truly a world class museum, with amazing displays of Olmec, Aztec, Toltec and other cultures that have blended to create the people of modern Mexico. I was able to see a couple of the giant Olmec heads that I wanted to see, as well as massive Aztec calendars, statues, reconstructions of temples alive with colorful paint as they would have been in their heyday, and so on. In 3 1/2 hours, we barely scratched the surface of the museum. Too soon, it was time to hurry back to the hotel, grab our bags, and head to the airport.

All in all, it was a gem of a trip that contained many sparkling memories -- the view of the soaring Pyramid of the Sun from atop the nearby Pyramid of the Moon, the whisper of the wind while admiring the panorama of the countryside atop the Pyramid of the Flowers, and quiet moments under blue sky in the presence of 1000 year old statues of Toltec warriors. Mexico's wealth of ancients sites offers up many memories like these for those who will come and take them.

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:27 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Syria - Ancient Wonders and Welcoming People

One of my most amazing trips ever, with sights I will always remember

sunny 82 °F

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The Valley of Tombs, near Palmyra, Syria

There are moments when traveling, I feel, that what you are experiencing is so dramatic, so inspiring, that you know their memory is being seared onto your brain.

One of those moments came on my second day in Syria, at the Ancient ruins of Palmyra. I was exploring an area called the Valley of the Tombs. Dozens of "Tower Tombs" are scattered throughout the dusty orange valley and up its rocky slopes. The towers are blocky, three to four story mausoleums built by families to house generations of Palmyrene burials. They range in state from perfectly restored to crumbling piles of rough, stone blocks. In my brown leather jacket, I was playing Indiana Jones, clambering up the towers, sometimes even lowering myself down inside to explore their deteriorating stairwells and creepy shelves, where bodies were long ago stacked up by the hundreds. I was resting atop a tower for a moment, admiring the gorgeous, otherworldly view. Not another soul could be seen for miles. That's when the haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer drifted into the valley. The music fit the mood perfectly, and I felt my soul rise. I thanked God that I'd once again been led to one of the world's wonderful places.

Earlier this year, when I'd confided to one or two that I was planning on visiting Syria, they thought I was tempting my fate. Too dangerous, they claimed, believing our 21st century media's labeling and packaging of other countries and cultures, and the subsequent distortions of reality. Even a cursory reading of first hand accounts of travelers would reveal that Syria was anything but crawling with terrorists and fanatics waiting to pounce upon Westerners. All who'd really been there agreed how friendly and welcoming the people of that country truly are. Sure, our governments may disagree, but what does that really have to do with the people in the street, and how they welcome a visitor?

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The inner cella of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra was the number one reason I'd been yearning to go to Syria for years. A once powerful oasis trading city that challenged the might of the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century A.D., its ruins sprout romantically from the desert and are wonderfully preserved. So intent upon visiting Palmyra was I that, upon landing in Damascus, the first thing I did was find a bus to there. Three hours across the sun-drenched, rocky desert, and I was amongst the ruins.

I was first struck by how massive they are. Their centerpiece, the Temple of Bel, covers the area of a football field, its buildings, walls and columns soaring skyward. Although most of today's ruins at Palmyra are Roman, the temple shows its Semitic origins. Three storey walls surround the complex, just inside of which were giant rows of columns on all four sides. The central temple building stands slightly off center within the rows, its shrine devoted actually to a trio of Gods: Bel, a supreme god who controls the movement of the heavens; Yarhibol, a solar god; and Aglibol, a lunar one. The Romans, who were always quick to equate the local pantheon to their own Jupiter, Artemis and so on, expanded and enlarged this temple. The Bel complex is the only place in the ruins which you have to pay a (small) entrance fee, and is definitely worth it.

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The 'Decumanus,' or main colonaded street in Palmyra, Syria

As I ventured outside the temple, down the main street, I was also struck by how immense an area Palmyra's ruins cover -- more than six square miles. The decumanus -- as the Romans called the main street -- is lined on either side for about a mile and a half by elegant, decorative columns -- with a local adaptation. About halfway up each column, a short shelf juts towards the street. Statues were placed upon these shelves (sadly, none remain), to honor local nobility, wealthy merchants and the like who'd funded civic improvements. This feature is repeated on columns throughout the city, and in its day, must have made an amazing sight -- rows of columns stretching into the distance, each adorned with painted statuary. Even without the statues, the sight is impressive.

Palmyra also has standard Roman city features, including an atmospheric theater, sprawling agora, temples, and the like. I spent half a day exploring them, sharing the site with an occasional tour group or locals selling souvenirs or camel rides. However, Palmyra is vast enough to swallow its sparse crowds, and much of the time I paced beneath the columns by myself. I read my guidebook's description of the various sections of the city and pictured Palmyra's past glories. Later in the afternoon, my hotel had arranged a driver to take me to the Arab castle, Qalat ibn Maan, to watch the sunset perched on a hill overlooking the ruins. It was a bit of a disappointment, though, as the castle itself was closed and the view is too far from the ruins to really experience much of it. Returning to town, I wandered around a bit before turning in for the night. I was exhausted from my full day of sightseeing and the two plus days of travel to get there.

The next morning, though, I was up early, walking through the brisk cold to the ruins to watch the sunrise. The wind whistled across the sands, driving ice into the veins of my exposed fingers. I found a viewing point and hunkered down behind the stones. Soon, the rising sun brought forth a palette of pale pinks, oranges and purples, and the view was worth the shivers. As the sun climbed higher, I turned around and photographed the effects of its rich orange light on the ruins. I dashed back to the hotel for a quick breakfast, then devoted the rest of the day to the Valley of the Tombs.

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The Tower Tomb of Iambliku in the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra, Syria

Travel is a curious thing. Years ago, when I'd first read about Palmyra, I immediately wanted to visit it. While researching the trip, though, nothing about the Valley of the Tombs caught my fancy. However, when I SAW them the day before, looming somewhat sinisterly in the distance, I was instantly afire to walk amongst them. Only two of the tombs are "officially" open to the public (and that only three times a day at prescribed times). So, when you visit them, you are shoved in amongst virtually all of that day's tourists. I find tour groups the single most irritating thing when traveling. I know its selfish (and unrealistic) of me to expect to enjoy historical monuments alone. However, the feeling of walking in History's footsteps is so powerful when it is just you and the site, that I seek to time my visits in off times to minimize crowds whenever possible. So, after a cursory visit to the two officially opened tombs, rubbing shoulders with German and Spanish tour groups, I had the driver drop me off at the far end of the valley.

As the vehicle receded, and the visiting hour ended, the crowds disappeared. I sighed in relief as quiet returned to the valley, and then began a slow and thorough exploration of the tombs. I poked inside open doorways, clambered up to the top of more accessible towers, and even found a way to lower myself down inside officially "closed" tombs. My flashlight illuminated the dark passageways and I had to fight down the urge to mutter the Indiana Jones line, "Fortune and Glory, kid, fortune and glory..." After several hours of exploration, I felt I had truly absorbed the Valley of the Tombs. The experience was complete atop the Tower Tomb, listening the muezzin's holy call. I basked in the warmth of afternoon sun, wanting to soak up as much of the moment as I could. After the music faded in the distance, I walked slowly eastward. As I drifted near the Roman ruins, I saw the sun's rays struck a peach-colored glow from the columns and stones. Entering the site at the Roman Agora, I gasped in pleasure as the area gleamed with reflected golden light. I had come full circle, I realized. I'd begun the day 11 hours earlier, shivering, but admiring the play of light on the ruined city, and I was ending it the same way, enjoying the ruddy glow. I'd come a long way and waited a long time to see Palmyra, but it had repaid every minute, with interest.

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The view of the Tower Tombs stretches away across the valley, Palmyra, Syria

The next morning, the time came to leave Palmyra, and take a bus west to my next stop. Not being able to read Arabic, and able to say and understand only half a dozen phrases, made bus stations in Syria VERY interesting. My first leg, from Palmyra to Homs, was easy: Mine was the only bus at the stop. I paid my fare (75 Syrian pounds for the 2 hour ride, or about $1.50). However, it was a tad overwhelming when I got to the bus station in Homs, Syria's second largest city. I asked a couple folks in the teeming, sprawling, chaotic station, "Wayn al-bus lil Qalat al-Hosn?" I followed their pointing until one older Arab gentleman tucked my arm under his and walked me directly to the minibus that was going to Kerak des Chevaliers, my destination.

Minibuses ply the smaller routes and supplement the larger buses, which go between major towns. The minibuses usually have 14 seats and leave, not on a time schedule, but when full. This one had two decidedly Western-looking guys in it, and one Arab man. I said hello. The Australian and a New Zealander informed me that they'd been waiting for a half hour, and I was the first new passenger to show up in that time. I suggested we bargain a rate for us to leave right away -- "buying" the other seats, so to speak. After about 15 minutes of back and forth, and a heated dispute between our driver and another that wanted to steal away our business, we finally departed. Final price: 75 Syrian pounds -- three times what the individual 25 pound (fifty cent) fare was. In my opinion, it was well worth it, although the Kiwi was balking at paying what amounted to a buck more!

Once in Krak des Chevaliers (Arabic: Qalat al-Hosn), I asked directions to Hotel Beibars, where I'd planned to spend the night. Since most people visit Krak -- the largest crusader castle in the Middle East -- as a day trip or as part of a tour, there aren't a lot of places to stay, and I'd heard they were a tad more expensive than the $8 a night I paid in Palmyra. I followed the road that looped around the castle and spotted a building that I hoped would be my hotel. It was gorgeously sited across a deep valley with what would be a stunning view of the castle. Sure enough, it was the right building, and I bargained the rate down to $20 a night. Hotel Beibars is probably a four star hotel in Syria, although in the U.S., it would be equivalent to a Holiday Inn. I'd paid for the room with a balcony and the view was every bit as spectacular as I'd guessed. I quickly unpacked and headed back out the door to go explore the castle.

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Magnificent Krak des Chevaliers, Syria

Krak was the number two reason I came to Syria. Lawrence of Arabia visited the castle in the last century and called it the "perfect castle." For more than three hours, I explored every room, tower, battlement and cavern in the castle. Liability lawyers in the States would swoon at the lack of guardrails, but I eagerly admired the view over the edges of the battlements and towers. A couple times, I sat down and shimmied myself out onto a ledge of stone -- my feet dangling over the abyss -- to get a better angle on a photograph. I'm not scared of heights, but my heart was definitely in my throat as I scooted slowly and methodically into position to snap the picture.

The Arab enemies of the Crusaders called Krak "the mountain," because of its distinctive inner fortifications. The Knights of St. John, the religious order of knighthood that built and controlled the castle, used a feature called a glacis on the inner walls. A steep, triangular slope, smoothed and paved with stone, led up to the inner towers and battlements, making Krak loom indeed like a mountain over its lower outer walls. The castle is in near-perfect condition, although some restoration work was going on while I was there.

The sun was slipping into the West as I finished my exploration. I hurried back around the loop and towards my hotel, eagerly anticipating the photogenic effects of the late afternoon sun on the castle's stone walls. The view, as I edged around the valley towards my hotel, could be summed up as "poetic." Once at the hotel, I hurried to the balcony and propped my feet up on the rail. As the colors deepened, and the orange shimmer on the walls was replaced by a pink blush, I wrote out my postcards. I paused to "ooh" and "aah" when the moon rose from behind the castle. Afterwards, I enjoyed the luxury of the hot shower, centrally heated room and Western-style amenities. Since the sun sets early in Syria in November (4:30 pm or so), I had some time to relax before heading out for dinner. I ate that night at The Round Table, being the only diner in the place. Krak's tour bus and day tripper crowds mean lunch is the big meal for restaurants. The chef/waiter Mohammed sat down after I ate and we talked for nearly two hours. Like everyone else I met in Syria, he emphasized that though they may dislike George Bush, they love Americans. I told him that I agreed: Just because our governments and politicians don't get along is no reason for he and I not to become friends. Mohammed was typical of the Syrians I met -- friendly, and more than happy to welcome an American to his country.

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From my hotel balcony, the crusader castle at sunset

When I returned to the hotel, I met two Londoners who had just arrived. Boldly (I thought), they were renting a car and driving about the country -- despite neither of them being able to read or speak Arabic. I told Steve and James about the car tour that I'd arranged earlier with the hotel owner for the next day (I gave him my list of historic sights I wanted to visit and he'd picked out four he said were possible to see in one day). I offered to Steve and James to join me -- if we split the $70 price I'd negotiated, it'd be a bargain. Plus, with driver and vehicle provided, they wouldn't have to worry about using their gas or getting lost. Steve jumped at it, and convinced a more reluctant (and less of a castle enthusiast) James to go along.

The next morning, we cut a deal to add in the town of Hama, which was famous for its agricultural water wheels which James wanted to see, for $20 more. We set off shortly after 8 am, headed towards our first sight: Qalat Marqab, a crusader castle built of black volcanic basalt. We detoured through the town of Tartus for reasons we never really were sure (the driver -- who spoke almost no English -- insisted he needed to talk to the police). After 20 minutes of threading through the town, we headed back out on the highway. We arrived a short time later at Castle Marqab, climbing the hills and finding it...closed. Now, my guidebook said that most historical sights in Syria are closed on Tuesday. I'd pointed that out to the hotel owner the day before, but he said that there would be no problem: The sights he'd picked out were all open.

As we pounded on the castle door, I surveyed the walls. I noticed once section where they had crumbled down a bit, and the grass and dirt rose to meet that section. "Hmmm..." I thought, purposefully securing my camera bag, and climbing towards the spot. Steve and James watched as I scrambled up and over the walls. Once inside, I retraced my steps towards the entrance, slid the bolt aside, and boomed out, "Enter the castle!" My friends cheered my exploits, and we embarked on our own private, self-guided tour of Castle Marqab. To deflect any unlikely problems with the police, we left the posted entrance fee at the ticket booth window. The castle's black stone did give it a brooding, somber appearance, as my guidebook said. The white mortar between the stones also lent it a dramatic, clearly accentuated look. We clambered up stairways, through rooms, atop towers and walls, and enjoyed our private visit for just under an hour. James suggested we "lock back up" when we left, so I ushered them out the front door and repeated my scaling of the walls. As we were leaving, an Arab couple was just arriving, and we giggled at their ensuing baffled expression at the closed castle, and how we could possibly have visited it.

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Qalat Marqab and its somber black basalt stones

The drive to our next stop, Qalat Saladin (supposed to be the number two most romantic castle in Syria after Krak), dragged on and on, as we wound our way along tiny, mountain roads. It quickly became obvious our driver had no clue where he was going, and had never been to the castle before. It took nearly two hours to get there...only to find it...closed. Again. Once again, I surveyed the walls, joined this time by Steve and James. However, the crusader builders and Arab renovators had done too good of a job with this one. I could see no way of getting inside without taking foolish risks. We tried to get our driver to scout around for the caretaker and see if it could be opened up, but he was useless. The men working at the adjacent snack bar (which, strangely WAS open) merely echoed that it was closed. We had to be content to walk around it a bit, and back in the van, drive around for a scenic overlook. Checking the time, we began to feel we'd been sold ocean-front property in the desert. There was simply no way we were going to be able to get in all the sights we'd been promised. So, we decided to snip the Bronze Age town of Ugarit (1.5 hours back the way we'd came) off our schedule, and head south and east towards the castle of Masyaf and Hama with James' water wheels.

This led us to driving up and over Syria's coastal mountain range, the Jebel Ansariye. It was a gorgeous drive, with immense panoramas of mountain and valley. It was spoiled only by our growing realization our driver's incompetence. First, he had to detour 20 minutes or so to hunt fuel (since he'd neglected to begin the day with more than a half tank). Then, he stopped nearly every 10 minutes to reconfirm directions (WE could have done as poorly in Steve and James' car, we groused). Eventually, at a crossroads, we looked at the time and failing light of day and realized we also had to cut from our itinerary Qalat Masyaf -- the stronghold of the cult of the Ismailis, or the Assassins, as the Crusaders called them. All that remained was Hama, and our driver, realizing perhaps what his inability had caused, had us humming along at high speeds towards it. We arrived at dark, and only just persuaded an attendant to let us past closed gates for a quick photograph of two of its famous water wheels.

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Hama's famous agricultural water wheels

By the time we made it back to the hotel, it'd been dark for hours. We dropped our things in our rooms and headed out for dinner at the Round Table again, which was enjoyable. We talked about travel, music, politics and so on. We agreed upon a maximum price we should pay the hotel owner for our truncated and misguided trip, although we agreed it was best to save the argument for the morning after check out. It was a gorgeous, clear night as we walked back to the hotel, and the lights of the surrounding villages down below shone brightly, as if mirroring the stars and moon overhead. It is a shame that more people do not stay overnight in the Krak des Chevaliers area because it is a beautiful hilltop setting, with a pleasant view around for miles.

After breakfast, the three of us confronted the hotel owner, who was adamant that he'd done nothing wrong, and that our trip was a success. He blamed any missed sights on US changing the schedule he'd given the driver. We brushed his irritating position aside, and stuck to our point. I realized that the whole charade was simply how his culture does business -- argument, negotiation, and compromise are part of the Arab way. Was I angry? No (but James was!). Sure, I was disappointed that I didn't see those really cool sights I'd picked out, but I HAD enjoyed seeing a side of Syria I might not have otherwise. I'd seen tiny villages, Bedouin tents in the fields, dusty provincial towns and crowded, modern cities. I'd seen flocks of sheep spreading across a tiny mountain lane, caught the eye of shepherds whose rhythm of life beat at such a different pace from mine that I probably couldn't begin to understand their lifestyle, and they mine. The tour wasn't what I signed on for, admittedly, but it had been an education and a glimpse at Syria's sights, nonetheless.

My final day in Syria would prove to be somewhat of an anticlimax. After saying goodbye to Steve and James, I negotiated a minibus to Homs, then caught a bus to Damascus. I'd planned a full day of sightseeing in Syria's capital, but transportation proved much slower than I'd figured. It was after 3 pm by the time I was walking towards the Old City, hunting my way through its labyrinth for the Ummayad Mosque. I'd been assured by other travelers that it was the premier sight in the city, but I found myself vaguely disappointed. It is crammed claustrophobically inside the walled Old City, making it next to impossible to step back and take it all in. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant, sprawling building to explore, and I took my time, following along with my guidebook's description. It is interesting how informal a gathering place the mosque is, with people napping, children chasing each other around, kids playing with radio controlled cars -- a far cry from a Catholic mass!

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Me at the ruins of Palmyra, Syria

Afterwards, I found the tomb of the Kurdish general and Crusader nemesis Saladin and paid my respects. I tried to get in the building housing the remains of the Mameluke general Baibars (who my hotel had been named after, and a rather more wicked thorn in the Crusader's side), but the building was closed. I wandered through the souk, or bazaar, and enjoyed its color for awhile. I paced along the city walls in the deepening dusk, knowing I had hours and hours before my flight departed (2 am!). When I grew tired of the weight of my backpack, I found a restaurant, enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and finally took a cab to the airport. The long road back home was beginning. However much my body dreaded the two days of travel that lay ahead, inside I could reflect back if I wanted, and summon up a more pleasant memory...of sitting in the desert atop a stone tower, the afternoon light beginning to redden the hills...and that eerie sound beginning to wash over me...

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:55 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Easter Island - to the Ends of the Earth

Walking Amidst the Silent Statues of a Vanished Civilization

sunny 69 °F

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The magnificent Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island

It's quiet here on Easter Island in the off season. The whisper of wind across the hills and hiss of surf against the rocks are often the only sounds. Even the rain, when it appears, is a gentle mist that comes and goes almost without a sound. So, when you come upon the statues -- the Moai for which Easter Island is famous -- there is no fanfare, no chatter of crowds, no hawkers pushing T-shirts. Only a sudden awareness of their presence looming solid and unmistakable: A visual shout that startles in this quiet, barren landscape.

Easter Island wasn't always quiet like this. Centuries ago, it was an overpopulated island whose inhabitant's needs denuded the once-forested island, impoverished its soils and sparked raging civil war. The statues themselves are thought to have played a heavy hand in Easter Island's ecological catastrophe. Quarried from stone in one volcanic crater in the southeast, they were likely moved on log rollers to their sacred locations throughout the 64 square mile island. The moai's thirst for wood to ease their passage is thought to have turned the island into a nearly treeless landscape.

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Ahu Tahai - the closest site to the main village of Hanga Roa, Easter Island

The hardships suffered by the Polynesian inhabitants -- the Rapa Nui, as they call themselves -- is our gain, now. More than 300 moai are scattered across Easter Island in every state from perfectly restored and re-erected on their Ahus (sacred platforms), to lying toppled and broken into pieces, barely discernible on the rocky ground. To see them, choose the method that strikes your comfort or adventure level best -- on a guided tour in a vehicle, by renting your own jeep, motorbike, ATV, bicycle, or even on horseback. To see the island's gorgeous landscape best, though, you can simply hike from site to site, enjoying the conical green hills, deep blue seascapes and pleasant South Pacific weather along the way.

I arrived on Easter Island at the end of August, on a flight from Santiago, Chile (which owns the island). The five hours by air makes you appreciate the amazing ability of the Ancient Polynesians as mariners. The world's most remote inhabited island, it is more than 2000 miles from South America, and 1,400 miles from its closest inhabited neighbor -- tiny Pitcairn Island (which was uninhabited when the Rapa Nui arrived). When you get here, you are truly out in the middle of nowhere!

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The face of a fallen moai

Myself, and two other travelers I met at my hotel -- Bo, an airline worker from San Diego, and Taka, a Honda employee from Tokyo -- pooled our resources to rent a jeep for two days. We bargained them down to $35 a day, though most were asking $40-50. And as a gentle rain greeted us on our first day of sightseeing, I was glad we did. Hiking that day would have been a wet slog. Elected driver, I also quickly learned why a four wheel drive vehicle is recommended. The rutted dirt or mud roads make driving a challenge, at times.

Taka, Bo and I began our exploration at Ahu Tahai, the closest major site to the island's main village of Hanga Roa. Tahai is actually three separate ahus. Two have one moai each standing, and a third has five statues. As we parked, Taka and Bo let out whoops of joy. There they were -- our first moai -- looming through a fine mist of rain, with their backs to the sea. I breathed a silent "Wow." We had the bonus of of having the site to ourselves, which would happen over and over during the next four days. The tallest moai at the Tahai complex, Kote Riku, is quite striking as it is the only one on the island with its coral eyes still intact. We lingered for quite awhile at Tahai despite the light rain, not wanting our first contact with Easter Island's wonders to end.

Finally, we drove north along the coast, stopping at several other sites. At Ahu Te Peu, the moai are tumbled down from their platform, and only one of the heads is easily visible. It lies among the rocks, its red stone top piece broken into shards beside it. Amidst the rubble, I found a weathered, round piece of white coral, likely the moai's long-lost eye. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, I plucked it from the grass and placed it back in the empty eye socket. The moai seemed to wink its thanks.

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Seven moai stare skyward at Ahu Akivi, Easter Island

Next, we visited Ahu Akivi, where seven moai stand in a valley. Most sites on Easter Island are along the coast, but this is one of the few inland ones. The statues' thin angular faces give them an alien quality -- doubtless what has fueled UFO fanatics to seize upon them as evidence of visitors from space. Historians are fairly certain, though, that they were constructed as a spiritual offering/commemoration of religious or clan leaders.

From Akivi, we bucked along the stony mud road to the small volcanic cone of Puna Pau, whose red stone was used to carve the top pieces of the moai. Some assert the two-level, cylindrical forms represent ceremonial headdresses, while others say they are stylized representations of hair "top knots." The view from atop the hill was fine, though most come to see the two dozen finished but unused pukao, as the top pieces were called, strewn along the slopes or in the ancient volcano's crater.

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Marshy lake in the middle of the crater of the volcano of Ranu Kau

After lunch, we drove just south of Hanga Roa to the massive volcanic crater of Ranu Kau. The wind screamed at us as we parked and walked to the edge of the rim. Inside, was another world. A small lake filled the crater, its blue water speckled with patches of green grass, reeds and peat bog. Descending the path towards it, the wind died slowly, and crickets could be heard chirping in the marsh. It was like a little bit of Louisiana plopped down inside a South Pacific volcano.

The main draw of Ranu Kau, though, is not the spectacular scenery, but the fairly intact ruins of the ceremonial village of Orongo on its slopes. This was the center of the Birdman ritual of the Rapa Nui. Each year, the island's clans sent a champion to compete in the Birdman race. The contestants would clamber down the treacherous slopes of the volcano's rim to the sea, then swim to the tiny islets of Motu Iti and Moto Nui, just under a mile offshore. Once ashore, they would search for the egg of the migratory seabird, the Sooty Tern. The first to find an egg and race back to Orongo (handing it to their clan chief) would be Birdman for the year. As the center of the ritual, many of the stones of Orongo are carved with petroglyphs. Most are pictures of a humanoid shape with a bird head. It took us awhile, but Bo finally spotted one and pointed it out. Once we knew what we were looking for, we suddenly could see them everywhere in Orongo. Some stones were bedecked with multiple petroglyphs.

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The tiny islets of Moto Iti, Motu Nui and the spike of Moto Kau Kau

We closed the day with a return to Tahai to watch the sunset. One of the few intact moai on the west coast, and close to Hanga Roa, it is a popular place for travelers to congregate and shoot for that special Easter Island sunset photo.

I was hoping for sunshine our second day, as we'd be driving along the island's southern coast, which has the highest concentration of sites. At Ahu Vinapu, we saw the tightly fitting stones of the platform whose uncanny similarity to Incan architecture has spurred academic debate. The moai themselves lie face down behind the platform. It is thought this (seen at most ahu across the island) is a result of clan warfare -- the ultimate humiliation of a rival clan's venerated leaders. Sometimes rocks were strategically placed so that the tumbling moai would be decapitated as it fell.

As we drove along the much nicer southern road (in sunshine!), we also stopped to photograph the excellent coastal scenery. Booming waves plowed into the jagged black rocks of the undulating shoreline, eliciting "oohs" and "ahhs." Nearly all the moai we passed were face down. Historians think most of the destruction occurred during a forty year span in the late 1600s or early 1700s, when the island's resources were dwindling. We saw more travelers that day, of course, as the south coast contains the top two sights on the island.

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Ranu Raraku, the quarry of the moai, is one of the Easter Island's highlights

One of those is Ranu Raraku -- "the quarry of the Moai." Nothing on Easter Island caused me to pause longer, trying to drink in as much of the sight as possible, nor tugged at my soul harder, than this massive volcanic cone. It was here that Rapa Nui craftsmen carved the moai out of the rock rim of the crater. Two sections stand exposed by the carvers. As you stare at what looks at first like jumbled rock face, the outlines of moai under construction take shape before your eyes. Here you may discern a nose and eye sockets, there the smooth rectangular length of a body. As interesting as this is, though, it pales before the collection of the completed but undelivered moai that cluster on Ranu Raraku's slopes. Historians think that as the carvings were completed, they were placed in shallow pits. These have since filled up, leaving only the heads poking through the grass, tilted this way and that by the pressure of soil and settling. What the visitor sees is a field of dozens of moai heads, looking up, down and virtually every direction. The effect is truly otherworldly. It is as if a community of semi-human giants were frozen in stone while stopping to ponder some wonder in the skies above. Over time, all except the heads were slowly buried by earth and dust. Some of the faces still gaze inscrutably skywards, while others bow in mute acceptance of their fate.

The fate of the 15 moai that stand with their backs to the sea at Ahu Tongariki was much kinder. Restored in the 1990s (after a tidal wave 30 years earlier scattered them), they are the greatest collection of moai re-erected on a platform. Where Ranu Raraku mystifies visitors, Ahu Tongariki impresses them. The effect of the 15 statues in a row is majestic, evoking images of Ancient Egyptian temples. The gorgeous deep blue bay at Tongariki -- with its nearby cliffs and towering stone stack not far offshore -- would be much-photographed anywhere else on the island. Here, it is hard to tear your eyes off of the line of moai. Awed, the three of us vowed to get up early the next morning and drive here to watch the sunrise in Tongariki's splendor.

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Anakena Beach, lovely, but with chilly waters!

From there, the excellent southern road quickly gave out and as we looped northwards. We were back to bucking along rutted, rocky dirt roads. We stopped at one or two sights before finishing at Anakena Beach, where the Rapa Nui first came ashore around 800 A.D. The palm-fringed beach is pretty, but the water is quite chilly due to the Humboldt current, which brings cold waters up from the south pole. At the edge of the beach is Ahu Nau Nau, excellently preserved due to be buried in sand till restored in 1978. You can see the finely carved lines detailing clothing, jewelry, lips, etc. Overlooking it from a slight hillock is the first ever moai to be erected, Ahu Ature Huki, which was done by Norwegian anthropologist of "Kon-Tiki" fame, Thor Heyerdahl. The drive back to Hanga Roa on the wonderful, paved interior road zipped by, and we returned in plenty of time to close the day with another shot at sunset pictures at Ahu Tahai.

We did make it to Tongariki for sunrise, but to tell you the truth, that about sated me for sunsets and sunrises for the trip. Afterwards, we turned in our rental jeep and bade goodbye to Bo, who was returning to San Diego that day. After a short nap, I decided since it was a lovely, sunny day, hiking was in order. I found a coastal path north of the village that begins at the museum and runs south to the volcano's rim at Orongo. I wasn't sure how much I'd do that day, but set off with my map and a compliment of water and "energy bars."

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Looking to Hanga Roa, Easter Island, from across the rocky bay

Along the way, I visited several moai, the colorful, local cemetery and the picturesque, rocky harbor from where the local fishing boats and scuba diving boats launch. Trekking south, I found Ana Kai Tangata, a cave whose ceiling is still covered with Rapa Nui paintings. Next to it was gorgeous Baquedano Point, whose long, black, rocky arm churned the sea. At that moment, the sun blazed out from behind a cloud, turning the sea into a stunning turquoise blue. I sat down on the rocks and watched for awhile, duly remembering not to forget to seek out nature's beauty while pursuing man-made wonders.

When I reached the foot of Ranu Kau, I checked my watch. Since it was still early in the afternoon, decided to climb the volcano to Orongo, again. The footpath to the top took less than an hour, and was much easier hiking than walking along the road would have been. I photographed the crater, the lake, Orongo, and the Bird Man islets again, happy to have sunshine this time. At the rim, I'd encountered another hiker -- Bif, from Dallas -- and showed him the petroglyphs and explained the Birdman story. We had a pleasant hike back down, although I was fairly footsore by the time I reached the hotel. I skipped out on the Tahai sunset trip that evening to rest up for the big hike I was to take the next day.

After breakfast that morning, Taka and I took a taxi to Anakena Beach. From there, we set out for a daylong hike across the roadless northern coast of the island. The footpath along its length ends at Ahu Te Peu (where I'd replaced the coral eye of the fallen moai). From there, I told Taka the day before, we'd see how we felt, and maybe squeeze in a hike to see inland Ahu Akivi, again. That day, the weather was simply the best during out entire stay. We passed scattered fallen moai, the Easter Island's gorgeous seascapes, foundations of the early "boat-shaped houses" of the Rapa Nui, and even petroglyphs carved on the rocks. Out to sea, nature seemed to compete against the man-made sights, crying "Look at me!" with numerous panoramas of coves, bays and points. The clear blue sea dashed itself against the rocky coastline in an endless stream of encore performances. The animal kingdom, too, seemed to put on a show for us, with hawks, horses with baby foals, the free-ranging cows (and calves) of an isolated farm, and countless tiny lizards scurrying for cover at our approach.

As the coastline eventually began to turn south, we crested a hill and caught sight of Hanga Roa in the distance. Both of us felt game for an extension of the hike to Ahu Akivi, and after a bit of trouble finding the road, we made it. It was a perfect end to a gorgeous day of hiking, contemplating the seven huge moai on their platform. Once again, I was happy for a chance to photograph Akivi in the sunshine this time, instead of the rain of our first day. As we turned to go, I bid silent goodbye to the moai, knowing not whether my travels would take me here, again. Taka was beginning to tire as we trudged south towards the main road. Once on it, I flagged down a passing pickup truck. It proved to be a Rapa Nui family who invited us to clamber into the back and we breezed the last four miles into Hanga Roa, enjoying the wind in our face and the relief to our feet.

To celebrate an amazing four days of sightseeing on Easter Island, we joined Andes, a Chilean electrical engineer and his two friends, flight attendants on Lan Chile Airlines, for drinks at a local pub. We laughed and took turns ribbing each other. I gave Taka grief for his love of American pop music (Brittany Spears...?!), and then Andes for his choice of screwdrivers for a "manly" drink (as opposed to the Chilean specialty, Pisco Sours, which he derided as a "woman's" drink). After more beers and staying out later than I should have had, I reluctantly left the others to their revels, and headed to the hotel. I'd yet to pack, and it was a long way home, the next day.

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Sunset at Ahu Tahai

I knew that as time went by, and I thought back to my time here, I would fondly remember all the friendly faces I'd encountered there: Taka, Bo, Andes, and the silent, mysterious faces of Easter Island's moai...

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:16 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Montego Bay, Jamaica -- will it turn to monsoon?

Finding things to do beside the beach

rain 82 °F

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Montego Bay coastline in Jamaica

Since our plans to go to Iceland in February had fallen through, I'd promised my girlfriend Jenny that we'd go somewhere during my vacation in April. Since she is not an airline employee, this meant I was scouring the net for airfare or vacation packages that wouldn't set us back a lot of money. Jamaica had been one of my early ideas for a destination, and in the end we bought a package from Apple Vacations. It included airfare from Columbus and five nights in Montego Bay at the Doctors Cave Beach Hotel.

Both of us checked out guidebooks and read up on interesting things to do while in Jamaica. I had no desire to be a "never leave the resort" type of traveler here (nor anywhere, for that matter). Both of us were intrigued by the idea of hiking in the nearby Cockpit Country -- a wild, hilly area with unique topography. The limestone has sunk down in pockets throughout the area, leaving a land dimpled with rounded little hillocks. The soil from the hills has eroded down into the valleys, leaving the tops with less vegetation than the thickly forested depressions. I heard a number of reasons why it was called "cockpit," but none of them adequately explained it. My guess is it is a descriptive term that would have made more sense a few centuries ago.

The Cockpit Country is sparsely settled. The only inhabitants are the Maroons, who are the descendants of slaves freed by the Spanish when the English seized Jamaica. The slaves were told to take to the hills, and that the English would want to re-enslave them. Understandably, the Maroons fought fiercely against the English, and even today, are semi-autonomous and pay no taxes to the Jamaican central government.

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Cockpit Country, Jamaica

At the last second, we found out that Jenny's sore knee of the last couple weeks turned out to be a stress fracture, so plans of the wild and wooly parts of Jamaica had to be scrapped. When we landed in Montego Bay on a sunny April Monday, we were still scrambling to figure out what to do. We spent the first afternoon getting our bearings, walking around the "Hip Strip," as main drag Gloucester Avenue is called. Our hotel was across the street from Doctors Cave Beach, a small but gorgeous fan of soft sand with incredibly clear water. It is privately maintained, which meant that most people pay admission to enter (it was free with our hotel), and that hucksters and peddlers were kept out.

We'd read a lot of the "MoBay Hustle," as the sales pitch of the aggressive vendors, taxi drivers, hair braiders and panhandlers was called. As a matter of fact, I think harping on it is what keeps many guests of all inclusive resorts sheltering behind the fences of their five star idylls. Personally, I found the Jamaican hustlers to be tame compared to those in Bali, and a good bit less crafty with their scams. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be no scam with the hustlers at all. If you didn't want to take a taxi or get your hair braided or buy their crafts, it was "No problem, mon." They left you alone (as opposed to the Balinese, who think of more and more clever ways to TRICK you into owing them money). And the "danger" of walking around the streets of Montego Bay was -- once again, my opinion -- exaggerated. Jenny and I walked all around the Hip Strip and Downtown and never encountered anything remotely threatening. Trust me, I've seen a lot seedier and more dangerous places in my travels!

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Square honoring Slave Rebellion hero Sam Sharpe, Montego Bay, Jamaica

We spent early Tuesday scouting out the sightseeing trips we wanted to take, and arranging for the packages. That is one unfortunate thing about Jamaica. It is very difficult to see on the shoestring or "backpacker" level. Bus service is -- according to the guidebooks -- infrequent and unreliable, and the shared taxis (which would be the other way of getting around cheaply from town to town) are notoriously slow and hard to depend upon since they often will not depart till their car is full. So, seeing how we only had till Friday evening to do all our sightseeing, we were forced to rely on packages and excursions. Those arrangements completed, we hit the beach, only to see the sky cloud up a short time later. Within a hour of our arrival at the beach, the rain began to fall, and we packed up and headed back to the hotel.

This proved to be a theme for our trip: Sunny mornings followed by rainy afternoons and evenings. On the shuttle ride in from the airport, the driver had bewailed the drought Jamaica had been suffering. Monday night, we'd watched from our balcony as the skies unloaded a torrent of rain onto the streets. We'd smiled and said, well, as long as it waited till 8-9 pm every night to begin raining, that was fine with us. Starting Tuesday, the rains began to come earlier. Every day, it would cloud up shortly after noon and begin to rain by 2-3 pm. And this was no "gone in 20 minutes" tropical thunderstorm, either. These settled in for the duration, and were still spitting at us in the evening when we'd go out for dinner. Confused, we re-consulted our guidebooks, which insisted that Jamaica averages only 1.4" of rain in April. In our five days, we easily saw triple that. Some drought!

On Wednesday morning, we hoofed it downtown and saw the historic sights of Montego Bay, including the cathedral, town square honor slave rebellion leader Sam Sharpe, and Georgian style buildings. The rain caught us again, forcing us to wait under a sidewalk overhang for it to slow down a bit. When it slacked, we dashed back up Gloucester to our lunchtime haunt, The Pork Pit. Excellent (and cheap) Jamaican jerk pork and a Red Stripe beer lifted our spirits a bit. If you go to Montego Bay, you MUST eat lunch here. For a couple bucks you get more than a pound of jerk pork, and can add in baked yams, sweet potatoes or "rice and peas (kidney beans)", the national side dishes.

We'd heard the nightlife in Montego Bay was nothing special (at least post-Spring Break -- not sure what it is like with hordes of crazy college students here!). We tried a number of the bars and hangouts, and really the only fun we had with fellow patrons was at our own hotel bar on "Rum Punch Night." The bartender kept the free rum punch flowing and the 10 or so of us had a lively time. Before I'd arrived, I'd envisioned beach parties with reggae music, but no dice. Speaking of dice, avoid the Coral Cliff Casino and its jungle-themed bar. Imagine a cross between Hooters and a bachelor party style "dance bar," with a bit of Vegas sleaziness (but none of its fun) thrown in. Yeee-uck!

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Guide Kenneth and Maroon assistant provide samples of Jamaican food

Thursday proved to be a special day. We'd booked a "Maroon Tour" which went up into the Cockpit Country where we'd wanted to go hiking. Since no one else had signed up, we were to have a private tour...that is, WHEN our tour showed up. After about an hour of waiting in the lobby, I made some phone calls, discovering a "miscommunication." Our tour guide, Kenneth, showed up a short time later, apologizing on behalf of Maroon Country Tours. We told him that we definitely still wanted to go and were soon off, driving south out of Montego Bay. Honestly, Kenneth was the sole difference between a disappointing day and a great day. He was full of information on the local customs, people, schools, agriculture, history -- you name it. There wasn't a subject he didn't possess fascination tidbits of information on. He had us visit a local school, taste Jamaican food and stopped the car wherever we wanted to get out and take pictures.

Although we only skirted the edge of the Cockpit Country itself, we did get a taste of its scenery. Unfortunately, the skies opened up on us again as Kenneth's scheduled itinerary wound to a close in Maroon Town. So, though he'd said he was willing to add anything we wished onto the end of the tour, there seemed little point in driving through the mountains looking for scenic views in a rainstorm. Once again, we'd been cheated by Jamaica's "drought." I'd highly recommend anyone coming to Jamaica to contact Kenneth and set up your own tour with him, though. Bypass the travel agencies and tour companies and set it up with him yourself. He is in the process of setting up a website, and I will post his contact information shortly.

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Rain and mist descend onto the hills of Cockpit Country

As enjoyable as Thursday was, our last full day in Jamaica proved to be the highlight. We'd scheduled a snorkeling excursion on Calico Day Cruises -- fortunately, in the morning. We were feeling a bit "snakebit" when we woke up to the first overcast morning of our entire trip. Every other one had been startlingly blue and clear. Our tour picked us up anyway, and it proved to be just us and a Californian man and his son. The haze was beginning to break up as our boat cast off from the pier. Originally, we were scheduled to have just a half hour of snorkeling. With such a small group, though, the crew said we could stay out longer if we wished.

Me -- Mr. Scared of Sharks -- was the first to jump overboard into the clear blue waters of the Montego Bay Marine Sanctuary. Immediately, my mask began to leak and I fought back a rising panic. I remembered a U.S. Army technique for clearing a gas mask and tried it. It worked, blowing the water out of the mask and sealing it tight to my face. Everyone was in the water, by now, and I followed the string of snorkelers away from the boat into the coral reef. It was like floating through blue canyons filled with aquariums full of tropical fish. I saw every type of coral I'd heard of, and more colors and types of fish than I could ever hope to the know the names. The longer I was out, the more my confidence grew. I was soon gliding across the top of coral in less than two feet of water, at times, startling the fish nibbling at the reef. If I saw a particularly colorful one, I'd follow him around for a few minutes, which doubtless made him wonder what the big hairy fish behind him was up to.

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Doctors Cave Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica

The boat's crew let us stay out for at least an hour, probably more. When we returned to the boat, all of us were pumped up. I took advantage of the free bar and downed a couple quick Red Stripes before we anchored off of Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. I guess, for the sheltered vacationers in their all-inclusive resorts, this stop on the itinerary is popular. Since the restaurant/bar (with the water play area of trampolines and such) is only a couple hundred yards from our hotel, it was no big deal. Even the 100 foot water slide was closed temporarily (probably due to the drought), but we had a good time bouncing around on the water trampolines for a half hour, and making our decision to NOT put on sunscreen before snorkeling that much worse of one.

Our final excursion for our trip was to be a night time boat ride through a phosperescent lagoon. The microorganisms in the water glow when it is agitated, so that boats, fish and even swimmers leaving a glowing path. This sounded really cool, since we'd be given a chance to jump in the water and try it out for ourselves. I was really looking forward to it, and was debating whether to risk taking my new digital camera along or not. Of course, I should have remembered that Jamaica was suffering a severe drought this week. Later that afternoon at the beach, the skies had opened up and the rain had driven us back to the hotel. A couple hours later, the phone in our hotel was rang to tell us the trip was canceled. I guess I have more in common with microorganisms than I thought, as they do not like the rain either.

As we left for the airport the next morning, I was almost daring our driver to bemoan the drought. Jenny and I reflected that somewhere in Jamaica, there are some really happy farmers. And the next time they have a drought, they should pay good money to bring her and I back to Jamaica...a LOT of money...

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:37 Archived in Jamaica Comments (0)

El Salvador - Friendly People Helping Me Find My Way

Navigating the gamut of public transportation to see El Salvador's sights

sunny 75 °F

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Volcan Izalco not far from Santa Ana, El Salvador

Never before, had I been so un-alone on a solo trip. I knew I'd be spending a few days with Wayne -- a friend working with America West in San Salvador. The rest of the week, though, I figured I'd be pretty much by myself.

My first indication that this would not be the case was on the "collectivo" bus ride from the airport. The Salvadoran man next to me asked where I was from and why I'd come to his country. He seemed surprised to see a traveler wedged in amongst the locals on the minibus plying the 44 kilometer route from the airport to downtown. Nelson spoke good English and told me he was a security guard at the airport. As it turned out, he was from the town I was heading to that day -- Santa Ana, El Salvador's "second city."

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Church in Santa Ana, El Salvador

He took me under his wing and guided me from our minibus onto a city bus to the terminal on the western side of town, where we'd catch the 2-hour bus ride to Santa Ana. He also recommended a hotel from my guidebook's list, then offered to show me the town's sights that evening. We ended up having a blast, meeting up that night with his friends for beers at their favorite bar (24 beers, 4 guys, $12 tab, total), then to a party till 3 am. We talked about music, politics and life all night.

The late evening meant a late start the next morning, as I eventually found the bus to Cerro Verde -- a jungle-clad, extinct volcano next to two more active ones. It was my plan to climb them: Volcan Santa Ana -- the tallest in the country, with a still steaming sulfurous lake inside; And Volcan Izalco, a classic, stark volcanic cone, and the newest volcano in the country. I arrived too late that day to do either, but instead took the nature trail on Cerro Verde and snapped pictures from scenic lookouts of the volcanoes, as well as gorgeous, nearby Lake Coatepeque.

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"Chicken Bus" plying the streets of Santa Ana, El Salvador

El Salvador's countryside is simply gorgeous -- rippling with green hills, mountains and volcanoes, interspersed with circular mountain lakes of clear blue water shaped in rough circles from ancient craters of a volcanic past. Every day was warm and virtually cloudless, with brilliant blue skies. I'd expected sticky, tropical heat, but was pleasantly surprised by temperatures in the 70-80s, with little humidity.

On the two-hour ride back to Santa Ana (85 cents), I met Henning, a young German traveler. We hit it off well, exchanging travel stories. He was taking a year off before entering college to travel in Central America and perhaps do some volunteer work. That day, he'd climbed Izalco, doing Volcan Santa Ana the day before. Since now I'd have to skip one, I prodded him for details, which led me to decide upon Santa Ana for tomorrow. That evening, Henning and I went to dinner at a local restaurant he'd discovered and talked more about travel, Central America, the United States (he'd been an exchange student) and more.

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Lake Coatepeque, western El Salvador

Henning's restaurant was not in the nicest area of town, so I did my best Richard Pryor imitation ("We bad...yeah, uh hunh...we bad!") on the walk back to the much nicer area of my hotel, near the town square. El Salvador has a reputation for crime and the guidebooks go out of their way to warn travelers to be careful. It HAD made me consider coming here, carefully, when Wayne invited me to visit. Everyone has their own level of what they consider safe. I am not foolhardy, nor am I timid. I realize there are likely parts of my own hometown of Columbus, Ohio, that would not be safe for me to walk at night. I would hardly discourage anyone from coming to Columbus, though. The same applies to my decision on countries: If there is not an active, shooting insurgency, nor a criminal or terrorist group targeting tourists, then I feel a reasonably cautious person can go there.

The next morning I took an earlier bus to Cerro Verde, in time to reach the guided and security escorted hike up the volcano. While waiting at the terminal, I met Vaughn, who was taking a year off college in Wisconsin to see Central America. Like with Nelson and Henning, I hit it off well with Vaughn, who is an avid photographer and works full time while in school to fund his traveling. We talked while admiring El Salvador's stunning scenery through the windows of our "chicken bus" to Cerro Verde.

Vaughn decided to accompany me on the Santa Ana hike. With the 30-odd folks on the hike, it proved to be the largest gathering of tourists I'd see in El Salvador. Even so, more than two-thirds of the folks were Salvadorans. One group of Americans were pilots on their two-week reserve duty, squeezing in a little sightseeing on their day off from flying.

The hike up the volcano was "uphill both ways" (doubtless, like your parents' walk to school). First, we threaded our way down the tree-covered slopes of Cerro Verde, then uphill through gradually thinning vegetation. About midway up the slope, clouds of sulfurous steam began to drift down towards us. Coughing broke out up and down the line of hikers. I tried breathing through my nose to protect my throat, and that seemed to help. As we neared the top, we passed through an exotic "forest" of agave plants. The views of the surrounding mountains, Volcan Izalco and the farmer's fields cut into neat rectangular shapes was breathtaking. I stopped to take photos frequently, losing track of Vaughn and the airmen.

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Up on the rim of Volcan Santa Ana, western El Salvador In San Salvador

At the summit, we scrambled across bare rock onto the volcano's rim. A surreal, top-of-the-world scene greeted us. Bank after bank of clouds rolled up out of the volcano's cone, then whipped across the narrow rim we stood upon, the winds tugging at us with what felt like hurricane force. The clouds then sped down the mountainside, alternately obscuring or parting to reveal the view, far below. We crouched down upon the rocks, trying to shelter from the damp, chilling wind or dealing with momentary vertigo. My fingers numbed quickly at the 2,300 meter altitude. Unfortunately, the clouds parted only a few times to give us views of either the brownish-green sulfur lake inside the cone, or the gorgeous blue waters of Coatepeque. Eventually, the cold and wind forced us to begin our trek back down the volcano's sides. Once down, we had to hike back up Cerro Verde, the rim's cold forgotten as we sweated uphill.

That evening, Vaughn and I joined Henning for dinner at his favorite restaurant. We ate pupusas -- the national dish of El Salvador. It is a thick, corn tortilla filled with either cheese, beans or sausage (or all three) in "stuffed crust pizza" fashion. They were excellent, and would prove to be my favorite food during my stay. Over beers and pupusas, we traded travel stories. We met again the next morning for breakfast before Vaughn headed off to Sonsonate, and Henning and I to San Salvador. Henning had been raving about a place he'd been eating breakfast, inside the noisy, crowded Central Market. As I looked around at the dirty aisleways and tried to ignore the unsavory smells, I hoped for the best. As I sawed away vainly at the tough meat, though, I began to get an idea WHY Henning had been having stomach problems his entire time in Central America! This was definitely a meal to forget.

Henning and I bounced from city bus to city bus (like my breakfast was doing in my stomach), trying to find one that would take us near the Guest House he'd picked out. After three tries, we were successful, and stowed our backpacks in his room (I would be staying with Wayne at his hotel, that night). We headed back to the center of town to catch the bus to the scenic overlook of Puerta del Diablo. This trip went more smoothly, although today had reminded me of why I detest city buses. The view from atop the giant rock outcroppings, though, more than made up for the hassles. Looking West, we could see all the way back to Santa Ana and our volcanoes of the days before. To the north and east, San Salvador sprawled out before us, and beyond, the massive outline of gorgeous Lake Ilopango. When we turned south, we make out El Salvador's fertile coastal plain stretching to the sea. The waves of the distant Pacific were murky and indistinct in the coastal haze. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the view, as afternoon was waning and I had to find my way to Wayne's hotel, near the airport.

That evening, Wayne and I caught up news about each other over a beer or two, and he said he'd likely be able to take a half day off on Wednesday to sightsee with me. Tomorrow, though, I was on my own (which was fine, as I'd planned on visiting the Mayan ruins of Joya de Ceren and San Andres). As it turned out, I met up with Henning, again, on the bus to the ruins. The first, Joya de Ceren, is often called the Mayan Pompeii, as it is an ordinary village that was buried by lava. Visually unspectacular, it is neat to know that you are looking at the only preserved dwellings of the day-to-day life of the Maya, though. Next, we took the short jaunt up the road to San Andres, a more traditional Mayan ruin of temples, pyramids and plazas. Though not as tall and lacking the grandeur of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala, it was nevertheless atmospheric to wander amongst the low buildings, climb the green mounds beneath which unexcavated pyramids lurk, and look out over the lookout over the grassy expanse that was once an impressive ceremonial center. On another flawless day beneath clear blue skies, it was hard not to be thrilled by the physical touch of history at San Andres.

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Mayan ruins of San Andres, El Salvador

For dinner, Wayne and I took the hotel's shuttle into town and ate at a local restaurant, relaxing on their breezy rear balcony. The lights of San Salvador spread out beneath us, along with the modest fireworks of a local fiesta. We finalized our plans for the next day. Wayne would work till 11 am, then grab the car he had access to and meet me at the hotel. We would drive around scenic Lake Ilopango to the village of Ilobasco, which was famous for its ceramic craft industry. Earlier in the morning, I would take public transport for a quick visit to the village Panchimalco, which I thought was closer than it turned out.

As the saying goes in the movie, "BIG mistake, Indy!" Public transport in El Salvador comes in all shapes and sizes. The smallest are simple pickup trucks with railings that people ride in standing up. A typical fare on these runs 12-25 cents. Then there are the minivans squashed full of people, followed by shuttle bus type vehicles, usually equally full. This was the type of collectivo I'd ridden when I arrived at the airport, almost a week ago. Then, there are the infamous (among schoolchildren in the U.S.) "short buses." Following those, are full sized ones, usually brightly painted with their routes and nicknamed "chicken buses." In my time in El Salvador, so far, I had ridden all except the short buses. It took two that morning to quickly get me to the turnoff for the road that led up in the hills to Panchimalco. I waited for almost an hour before the bus to the village arrived, and as it crawled its way along, I realized that -- for me to be back to the hotel by 11 am -- I should probably NOT have hopped on the bus, and instead turned back. Once in Panchimalco, I hurried along the main street, vainly hoping to find a taxi to expedite my return. Nope. I was "in the sticks," and even pickups and buses seemed to have disappeared.

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My savior and way back to the hotel - four men in a truck hauling chickens

I raced back through town to where I'd been dropped off, and waited for something going downhill. I hopped in the first minivan, wedged myself into a seat, and hoped its route went all the way back to the highway. No such luck. As I stood alongside the road, waiting for another bus, the silence of El Salvador's pastoral countryside descended. Short Round was right: "BIG mistake, Indy!" I set off downhill, walking quickly, resolving to flag down any passing vehicles -- whether public transport or not. A private pickup truck stopped, and gave me a ride of a couple kilometers or so. As he parked, I began walking, again. Next, I flagged down a delivery truck, telling them where I was headed. There were already four guys in the cab, but two hopped out and climbed atop the white crates the truck was stacked with, leaving me inside with the cheerful driver and shotgun-toting guard. We stopped three times before reaching the main highway, and I laughed when I saw what was in the crates: Chickens! I had gone from a chicken bus to a chicken truck! Thanks to these four, friendly Salvadorans, though, I was only about a half hour late getting back to the hotel to meet Wayne and his coworker, Rory, for our drive to Ilopango.

After my morning's misadventures, I was a little leery of three gringos heading off in a car to parts unknown with only a tourist map -- no road map. We did an excellent job of navigating and asking questions on the way to Ilobasco, though, with only two wrong turns that cost us no more than 20 minutes drive time. The "panoramic route" alongside Lake Ilobango was aptly named, and we stopped to photograph the brilliant blue waters, village churches and rural buildings. Once in Ilobasco, we found a street full of ceramic artisans and their shops and parked. I have always enjoyed ceramics as souvenirs, but Wayne and Rory's purchasing spree put me to shame. Wayne got the hang of bartering in El Salvador quickly, and Rory proved a natural at it. Myself, I failed miserably to get them to come down one cent on anything except a nice T-shirt, which I got for $9 when she started at $14. I ended up buying no ceramics, as nothing really caught my eye as a "must-have."

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Lake Ilopango, near San Salvador, El Salvador

As the sun began to lean westwards, we knew we'd better head back if we wanted to be at the hotel before dark. None of us looked forward to being lost, looking for street signs in the dark. Wayne wanted to try a different way home, and as navigator, I picked out a route. For the third time in one day, I should have heard Short Round's admonishment: "BIG mistake, Indy!" Suffice to say, we got hopelessly lost in San Salvador, winding our way through a never-ending procession of streets. Wayne was having a heck of a time, though. Back home, he enjoys going on drives just to get lost. Rory was calm and patient, sure we were headed in the right direction, while I -- Navigator Presumptuous -- threw up my hands in surrender. Eventually, we lucked into a sign directing us to the airport, and we found our way back to the hotel.

All in all, I found nothing but friendly people everywhere I went in El Salvador. Their reputed reserve "until you get to know them" was non-existent. Constantly, at every turn, Salvadorans were eager to help out, to make my travel experience smoother and more enjoyable. In fact, their kindness -- along with that of the other travelers I met during my week -- made me feel like I was on a group tour, not solo one. El Salvador's gorgeous, green countryside and blue skies were certainly memorable, but the smiles and the people I met there were equally so.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:25 Archived in El Salvador Comments (0)

Barcelona, Spain, and its amazing History

Antonia Gaudi makes a trip to this Catalan city fascinating

sunny 81 °F

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La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished masterpiece of Catalan architect Antonia Gaudi

So, what is it about a place that first sparked our interest? Was it a photograph, a book or article, or even a friend's account? Well, for me, it was an album. Ever since I first heard "Gaudi," by the Alan Parson Project, I wanted to go to Barcelona. I was intrigued by the voiceover: "In recent times, there is no one at all who can approach Antonio Gaudi. He started a new cathedral, in Barcelona, it is called La Sagrada Familia...The sad thing is they could try to finish it, but I don't think they will do it."

So, when my plans to see Malta this Spring fell through, I leapt at the chance to finally visit Barcelona. I arrived on a bus from Andorra, and quickly found that Barcelona's metro is quite easy to navigate. I bought a 3-day Pass and would use it often -- the first time to find my hostel on the Rambla de Catalunya. I hadn't stayed in a hostel in years, but accommodations are so expensive in Barcelona, I felt it was the only option, as I was trying to save money. Once checked in, I grabbed my camera bag and headed out to see the sights.

One neat feature of Barcelona's streets are its "Ramblas." These are wide, tree-lined boulevards with the biggest part, in the center, reserved for pedestrians. Two narrow lanes on either side of the Rambla are for vehicles and run one way in opposite directions. The most famous Rambla runs from the central transport hub at Placa de Catalunya -- not far from my hostel -- to the harbor. I strolled down it, stopping for lunch at a local pizzeria.

My sightseeing began with the Museo d'Historia de la Ciutat, which takes you down into the city's subterranean Carthaginian (the famous general, Hannibal Barca = Barcelonia), Roman and Visigothic roots. There are also numerous stretches of its Roman walls still extant, and it was an interesting cruise through underground passages. From there, I walked down to the harbor, then along the bustling harborfront to the Christoper Columbus monument. This tower, with a statue of the mariner pointing out to sea, has an elevator that whisks you up for a grand view of the city.

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Barcelona's famous Rambla walk

As dusk was falling, I headed back to my hostel for a break before venturing out for dinner. That evening, I thought it would be fun to check out the Travel Bar, which bills itself as a place to meet other travelers. It was enjoyable, but I'd say the bar pushes its Pub Crawl and getting smashed a little too hard for my tastes.

The next day was my Antonio Gaudi day, when I would visit his numerous buildings, including the signature cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. Although I am normally not a fan of Modern Art, I loved Gaudi's architecture. His outlandish use of curves and weird shapes and textures somehow worked for me in a buiding, where it doesn't on canvas. Plus, despite his odd designs, his work is immensely practical, I feel. He would do ingenius things, like freeing a building's facade from holding the weight so that he could make immense windows to bring in more light. The mixture of oddities and practicalities kept me fascinated all day long. I started with Casa Battlo, then moved onto La Pedrera -- which I highly recommend. If you visit one museum or building of his BESIDES the must-see La Sagrada Familia, make it La Pedrera. Nowhere in Barcelona did I find exhibits that did a better job of bringing the early 20th century ascetic architect and his work to life.

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The bizarre rooftop of La Pedrera

From there, I headed to the madhouse of crowds that is La Sagrada Familia. As advertised, it IS still a construction site, and it is still many, many years from being finished. However, what is done is very interesting. I was particularly enthralled by the pillars which are formed vaguely like trees with a main trunk and branching out progressively with more limbs to support the weight of the ceiling. I waited nearly an hour for the elevator ride up one of the towers, but it was worth it. You get a close up view of the colorful ceramic decorations on the towers. The museum in the crypt didn't hold a candle to La Pedrera, so I breezed through that.

Afterwards, it was time for lunch, and I jumped at the chance to "bag" a Pizza Hut in another country. I know, but hey, the pope kisses the ground when he gets off a plane, I can have my own traditions, right? After lunch, I took the subway up to Gaudi's foray into garden design at Parc Guell. If you're into gardens, I imagine it would be worthwhile. I thought it was kind of overrated, and wouldn't say it was a highlight. Then again, I'm not really into gardens (and I like Pizza Huts!), so who am I to say?

I finished up the afternoon with Barcelona's Arc de Triomf, its main cathedral and another modern art building or two. For dinner, I stopped in a local bar and had real live Catalan cuisine to make up for my Pizza Hut faux pas (white sausage sandwich, which sounds like a euphemism for...well, never mind). I finished the evening using my hostel's free internet to catch up on e-mail and read some posts on my favorite travel site, Travelpunk.com.

My final day of sightseeing saw me taking a cable car up the Montjuic Hill, that overlooks the center of the city, to Barcelona's castle. The views from up top were gorgeous because -- of course -- it was another warm, sunny day. Counting my trip to Spain with my brother years ago, this made something on the order of a dozen days in Spain with nothing but warmth and sunshine. This country has the best weather I've ever seen in all my travels! Anyway, after pacing around the Late Renaissance era fort, I headed below to its Museo Militar. As a military history buff, I couldn't resist. After an hour-plus of looking at swords, armor, etc., I was ready for a little outdoor hiking. It was a good thing, because my sense of direction failed me utterly at this point. I took the L-O-N-G way down the hill. I still did see what I wanted to -- the sporting facilities from Barcelona's hosting of the 1992 Olympics, and the Vatican lookalike outside of the Museum of Art -- I just took quite a looping path to do it all.

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Barcelona's caste and its view

After a late lunch at a cafe, I decided to try one more museum -- Barcelona's Maritime Museum. It was the best in the city, I felt. The funky little headset they give you to walk around the museum with was great, with incredibly atmospheric music and good narration. The highlight was the full size reconstruction of the flagship galley from the famous Medieval sea Battle of Lepanto. The Catalan people (NE Spain, basically) have a rich seafaring tradition, and the museum did a wonderful job of personalizing its subject and bringing history to life.

As darkness was falling, I knew my time in Barcelona was drawing to an end. After dinner, I wandered over to take one last look at La Sagrada Familia, lit up at night. I lingered for a few minutes, the tune and words to a decades old Alan Parsons Project song in my head. "Especially the dosing lyrics, "Until the next time, until the next time..."

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Antonio Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:59 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

A Short Trip to Andorra -- "Postage Stamp" Kingdom

Mountains and Spring-like weather make for a pleasant stay

sunny 66 °F

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Scenic pathway above Andorra's capital, La Vella, Andorra

I'd figured Andorra -- tucked between Spain and France up in the Pyrennees -- would be freezing in mid-March. I knew it was still ski season, so it had to be snowy, right? Thank goodness I'd checked the weather online before leaving. I was able to leave the thermal underwear and winter coat at home and enjoy the sun and warmth without them.

Since I'm not a snow skier, I was out to sample the mountain scenery. I flew into Barcelona and took a Novatel shuttle bus up the winding roads into the Pyrenees. The scenery as it whipped by the windows (and I mean really whipped -- Andorrans drive like they're one car length ahead of a landslide) was great. And it just got better as we climbed. Medieval churches, towers and castles presided over an undulating landscape. It made me wish I could take a week lingering at the hilltop villages on my way up here, instead of a couple hours. Their brickwork gleaming in the westering sun cried out for a camera or sketchbook.

Before I knew it, we were stuck in Andorra's legendary traffic jam. A "duty free" country, it is packed with day trippers, shoppers and bargain hunters -- along with busloads of bright cheeked skiers. Luckily, my shuttle drove right by the Pyrenees Hotel where I was staying, so I was able to easily retrace my way through town to it. It was a pleasant hotel, clean, bright and comfortable. The next morning I would discover its paper thin walls, but hey! For a three-star hotel, it was more than sufficient at 35 euros, including breakfast.

For dinner, I followed the advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook to a restaurant and had a decent salad and pasta meal. I wandered the quiet city streets a bit afterwards, and stopped by an internet cafe. It was getting late on Tuesday evening, though, and I hadn't been to bed since Sunday night. So, I turned in early. I really only had one full day for my Andorran sightseeing, and wanted to make the most of tomorrow.

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Shady river walk by the cherry blossoms in Andorra La Vella

After breakfast at the hotel, I headed down to the Old Quarter of Andorra La Vella, the capital city. Casa de la Vall, the 16th century combination Parliament, Justice and Town Hall is the city's main sight. I was the first to arrive, but since you can see it only by appointment on a (free) guided tour, they couldn't squeeze me in till 11 am. So, I tramped off to the municipal tourist office to get information on hiking in the hills. They were helpful, and with a better map in hand, decided to wander La Vella a bit. The weather was warm and Springlike. I found a shady river walk lined with cherry blossom trees in bloom. It was a pleasant stroll, looking up at the town rising up the steel slopes on either side of the valley, and above that, the pine trees where the buildings gave out, and finally, the snow-capped peaks where the pines faltered. There were many others out taking their leisure on that warm morning, as well. Andorrans seem to love to walk their dogs, but they don't apparently enjoy bringing along a baggie or scooper!

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16th century Casa La Vell

It was time for my tour, so I headed back to the Old Quarter. Casa de la Vall is small as European Parliaments or Town Halls go, but then again, Andorra is pretty tiny itself. There are only about 30,000 actual citizens -- the rest of the nearly a million people must live there for 25 years before they can become one. My guide, a pleasant young Catalan woman, told me many other interesting tidbits about Andorra during the half hour tour. The building still functions as the country's seat of government, and I was shown the small room with its various size chairs where the ministers, cabinet and council meet. Had they been in session, I wouldn't have been allowed in. The citizens are, though, and there are four benches in a mini gallery for them to observe (or they could tune in on radio, as all meetings are broadcast live). Andorra is a "Co-Principality," which means there are two (figure) heads of state: The Bishop of Le Seu and the reigning President of France. So, church and state share leadership. My guidebook explained that was part of the reason this "postage stamp kingdom" has survived to the present day without being absorbed, but it still seemed a little unclear to me.

After my tour, I followed the tourist office's map up through the streets into the hills overlooking La Vella. There is a cobblestone path called the Passeig Rec de la Sol (I think...) that runs for kilometers above the the sprawling valley settlement. It is fairly level, so the walking isn't strenuous, and has a wooden guard rail and is spaced generously with wooden benches. Having just come from Winter in flat, cold Ohio, it was a treat for my senses it sit and let the sun warm my skin while taking in the gorgeous view. Bilbo's line from The Lord of the Rings kept popping into my head: "I want to see mountains again, Gandalf. MOUNTAINS." And here I was, hiking in the Pyrenees in shirt sleeve weather. I said "Hola" to the retired folks taking their daily constitutional, befriended a dog who seemed to want some company, and even used my camera's timer to pose a shot of me overlooking the valley.

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Andorran mountain and valley scenery

I walked for more than three hours, then returned to town for a late lunch. I'd spotted a Pizza Hut in my earlier wanderings, so couldn't resist adding another country to my Pizza Hut total! Then I took a bus to the nearby village of La Massana (hmm, come to think of it, EVERYTHING is nearby in Andorra!). I hiked around town, climbing streets for good lookout points for more pictures. After more than an hour of that, my feet were beginning to protest. So, I trudged back to the La Massana's main drag and waited for the bus back.

After a short rest in my hotel room, I decided to pick out a restaurant for dinner. Catalan cuisine is supposed to be different than the rest of Spain -- more hearty and meaty. I picked out an authentic sounding one, and armed myself with the guidebook's section on food, ready to interpret the menu. One problem, though. There wasn't a menu! The staff was kind and patient, and helped interpret words for me, since my Spanish is nearly nonexistent. The onion soup was a bit odd tasting, and the steak was fatty and rare (I prefer it more well done). The high point was the plate of olives they set out as an appetizer. I've never been a fan of olives, but I found a type I really liked. All in all, though, it was the least enjoyable meal I had in Andorra. I've proved to myself many times in many countries before that I am NOT a gourmet. I guess I must subconciously feel, that to be a "serious cultural traveler," I must try the local food. Ah, well, every once in awhile, I DO find something that strikes a spark, like I did with Thai food.

I ended the evening in the internet cafe again, catching up on e-mail and letting my buddies from Travelpunk.com know how things were going. I'd had a full day, though, and was tiring quickly. I was footsore, but felt sated. And even if I hadn't gorged myself on Andorra's food, I'd had a full taste of its sights. The next morning, I mailed my postcards, found the bus back to Barcelona, and enjoyed the mountain scenery once again on the ride down through the Pyrenees. Still no snow or cold, just warm sunshine to match the warm feeling inside.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:36 Archived in Andorra Comments (0)

Finding the Real Bali Takes a Lot of Digging

Scammers and aggressive tricksters almost ruin Indonesian experience

semi-overcast 92 °F

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Rice paddies in Bali, Indonesia

I had heard many good things about the people of Bali. They were kind-hearted, spiritual and gentle. So, when a coworker and I flew to this tropical, Indonesian island (just as Winter's cold descended on Ohio), I warmed to the idea of a trip that was more than just sun and fun. I hoped to connect with a culture said to be welcoming and different. In the end, it finally happened. The journey to connect was long and at times unpleasant, much like my 24-plus of flight time to get there.

The unpleasantness in Bali began in Denpassar airport, when porters snatched our bags unasked, and then tried to milk us for more than a fair tip. They knew we'd just withdrawn cash from the ATM and would have large denominations only. However, I had ignored their urgent pointing and marched straight from the ATM to the moneychangers to get smaller notes. Thus, I was only moderately conned.

Scott and I had booked our first four nights on the internet, so a driver was there to whisk us to our hotel about one hour north in the hills of central Bali. Exotic views of rice fields and elaborately carved stone temples flashed by. I saw farmers, calf deep in flooded rice paddies, working on terrace walls or tossing grains of rice into the air with a bowl-like sieve. Women placed offerings of colorful flowers atop roadside shrines. Sputtering past us on the road were squadrons of motorbikes, each carrying from one to four people each. Colorfully dressed women often clung to the driver, riding "side-saddle." And, seemingly oblivious to it all, scruffy dogs only grudgingly moved out of our way as we sped past. Some even slept nonchalantly on the asphalt.

Speaking of dogs, we'd chosen the Pringga Juwita Water Garden Hotel in Ubud, Bali, because of its enticing description in the guidebooks and websites. With its traditional Balinese architecture, all but the sleeping room were open to the outside. That, and the moat and trees and plants that encircled the complex, made the hotel unique looking. Perhaps, years ago, it was charming and worth the $75 a night we were paying. We'd splurged because Bali was reputed to be a bargain, otherwise. Hard times had struck this hotel, though. What remained was a dirty, unkempt shell of its former self.

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Stone demon statue at a Balinese temple

Since we'd already paid an internet company for it, we figured it'd be an incredible hassle to demand a refund and move elsewhere. Scott was more taken by the "charm" of our outdoor experience than I. Architecture had nothing to do with the dirt and dinginess, I argued. The same cobwebs and grime in our two-story cottage stood untouched during our four-day stay -- despite the fact that we were pretty much the only guests. Later, Scott admitted the Pringga Juwita was "a hole."

After unpacking, we strolled into town. Ubud's streets are crammed with restaurants, hotels, tour services and shops selling locally made crafts. It was impossible to walk far without a hawker offering his wares. If I had the proverbial dollar for every time we were offered transport alone in Bali, my proverbial butt could have been sitting in first class sipping proverbial champagne! The spiritual Balinese were proving quite mercenary.

We ate a tasty dinner at the Restaurant Dian (yes, normally unadventurous eater me ate Balinese food most of the trip). We then grabbed a couple beers and retired to our second floor deck to listen to the geckos and frogs. It wasn't long before we dozed off. Sleep came easily after flying for two days.

After a cold shower in the morning (the hotel advertised HOT ones), we set out for a hike to explore the neighboring villages and their temples. Either my map failed me or my sense of direction took its own hike, because locals had to steer us back on course a couple times before we arrived in Pejeng. Our first temple was Pura Penataran Sasih, the "Moon Temple," known for its 1000-year old bronze kettledrum.

We signed the Visitors Book (which seemed to be a Pejeng innovation), duly noting the spot to write down our "donation." We each tossed in 20,000 rupiah (about $2), which seemed to be the going rate with other travelers. The attendants handed us sashes to tie around our waist (separates the Bad lower half of your body from the Good upper half). One of the attendants attached himself to us and began a detailed explanation of the temple. His account was fascinating and I was thinking, "Hey, we should really tip this guy --he's great!" After much more time and detail than I'd expected, we thanked him, returned the sashes, and tried to hand him a tip. I'd pulled out a 50,000 note -- his talk was worth the five bucks. He shook his head and demanded 100,000. Each. I was still thinking warm, mushy thoughts about the Balinese, so after a weak dispute, we gave in.

Walking to the next temple on Mike's Excursion List, we resolved to clarify guide issues beforehand in the future. At Pura Pusering Jagat, "Navel of the World, "we were presented with another Visitors Book to sign and not our respective, individual donation. I rolled my eyes and wrapped the "complimentary" sash around me. Since we refused a guide this time, we were left to wander through the semi-ruined temple on our own. Balinese temples are quite interesting with their walls, intricate stone carvings, statues, altars and bas reliefs encrusting every surface. Afterwards, we stopped at a roadside warung (cafe) and cooled off with a drink. Hiking in the humid, near 90-degree heat was definitely taking its toll.

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Elephant-headed demon at entrance of Goa Gajah

My sense of direction had returned and I navigated us to Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave. First, we had to run a gauntlet of souvenir shops and hawkers, though. Once inside, it took a half dozen increasingly forceful refusals to free ourselves of prospective guides. The leering, elephant-like demon head carved around the cave entrance WAS cool, but the stuffy passages inside were a let down. I wanted to go further south to Yeh Pelu to see its carved rock reliefs, but our map had proven useless and I knew we'd never find it. This set us up for our next scam artist.

In my 22 years and 50-plus countries, I'd found I could usually trust adolescent local girls. They seemed more honest and less aggressive than the young men, more apt to use their charm rather than trickery. So, when a young girl offered to show us the way, I was ready to accept a guide, again. We grilled her on a price, but she said it would be free (even insisting SHE should pay us the chance to practice her English). She said we could tip her at the end, but only if we wanted. "See?" I thought. "You have to love those girls!"

Chatting away merrily, she led us down slippery forest paths and through a gate where an old man demanded a 1,000 rupiah toll. Then it was out of the trees onto the streets of her home village, our young guide pointing out her house. At last, we came to the reliefs. They were less impressive than I'd hoped, but I took some photos. We headed back to the main road, and Scott handed our young guide a 50,000 rupiah note. She refused, and insisted we pay her 100,000. It was that or nothing at all, she said. We argued, but she acted insulted by our offer, saying she was "usually" paid 100,000. I know, I know. We should have told her to suit herself and let her stomp off. Instead, we paid her, knowing full well we'd been scammed, again. Walking back to the road, she could read my expression. "Are you unhappy?" she asked. I said I was. I told her I'd read that the Balinese were good people. Today, we had met little but liars and tricksters. I told her that, so far, I was deeply disappointed in the people of Bali. "Let her chew on that," I thought!

After 15 minutes of hiking along the road in the rising afternoon heat, I flagged down a bemo (shared taxi), and we paid the equivalent of 50 cents for a ride back to Ubud. There, we cooled off our heads and bodies in a cafe with lunch and a couple beers. We nixed the last sight on my list in favor of a swim in the hotel pool.

Our first day of sightseeing had been an experiment to see whether hiking was a viable way to get around. We agreed walking or bicycling in the heat on these hills was out. Scott felt a motorbike was too risky, so we decided to hire a car and driver. The next day's plan was to visit the neighboring craft villages (each specialized in one skill, like wood or stone carving, silver jewelry, painting, etc.).

Our hotel receptionist had a buddy who could do it, he said. We negotiated a fair price and set out for a day of shopping. Our driver, Made, was patient and even turned into an impromptu guide when I twisted his arm into adding a temple I wanted to see onto our itinerary. Scott found the wooden Ganesh (elephant-headed Hindu god) he was looking for, and I found the silver jewelry on my Christmas list. The day was a success. Made was appreciative when we tipped him, so we contracted him for our sightseeing the next day. That night, we once again attended a traditional Balinese dance performance (a half dozen are held nightly in Ubud).

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Carved outside wall of a Balinese temple

The next day Made drove us east to the highest mountain in Bali -- Gunung Agung. Partway up the slopes of this semi-active volcano is Pura Besakih, Bali's holiest temple complex. Made warned us the guides were known to screw people over ("Oh, really?" I thought). Refusing a guide, though, proved to be a daunting task. We were continually badgered for the quarter mile walk uphill. At the entrance, the pissed off guides wouldn't let us enter the approved walkway. Tourists are not allowed actually inside the various temples, but may walk on a paved pathway that winds among them up the hillside. They directed us instead to an access road, which luckily joined up with the walkway, eventually. So, we did get to see Besakih. However, the experience of the island's holiest sight was spoiled by more of its despicable predators.

Finished, we drove north through forest and intermittent rain showers to Gunung Batur. This volcanic caldera holds some of Bali's loveliest views from the road that runs along the rim. It was striking looking at Lake Batur glistening far below, while two volcanic cones towered overhead.

I'd urged Made to stop at Pura Ulun Danu Batur, a temple on the rim of the caldera. As we stepped out of his van, we were swarmed by hawkers and beggars. Postcards, souvenirs and various items of temple clothing were shoved in our faces. I looked to Made for help, but he wimped out and just watched. To his credit, he had brought along a sarong for me to wear inside the temple precints (Scott had bought his own in Ubud). Made said nothing as a particularly unpleasant old woman tried to fleece me for a sash (this temple had complimentary ones only for guides, I was told). I paid a fraction of what she first wanted and slowly made my way through crowd like a bear encircled by hunting dogs. When the old woman then tried to place a temple headband on my head -- lying, and saying renting it was mandatory -- I'd had enough. "Go AWAY!" I yelled into her face, and broke away from the swarm. I stalked into the temple, not in the mood to appreciate anything.

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Volcanic scenery of Ganung Batur

The mood was slow in leaving the rest of the day. I made only feeble attempts to get Made to pull off the road so I could photograph scenic views. I was in the "Don't Give A Shit" stage. I've found when you get to that stage in a foreign country, the best cure is meeting a fellow English speaking traveler. Comparing experiences and hearing about their journey recharges my travel batteries. Vishnu must have smiled as we bumped into Merle, from California, later in Ubud. He was on a three week swing through Asia and I think was desperate for some American company. We drank and ate at a cafe, having a blast. Afterwards, we swung by his $25 a night hotel to compare it to ours. His proved to be a gorgeous, four star resort, which finally torpedoed the Pringga Juwita in Scott's eyes.

For the final three days of our trip, Scott and I headed south to the famous (and touristy) beaches of Kuta. We imitated Merle's walkup strategy and scored a pleasant one for $25 a night, too (I'd insisted: "No traditional Balinese architecture"). We checked out the shops and peeked at the beach the first day, reserving Day Two in Kuta for our sun and sand experience. The waves were incredible. I battered myself silly diving, somersaulting and bodysurfing them. Drying out in the sun on our $1 a day lounge chairs, it was fun just to watch the waves rise up and pound the sand with the sound of a tropical thunderstorm. Most of the other beachgoers were cheerful Aussies. There was only a minimum of the "I'll go naked anywhere I please (no matter what the local custom)" Europeans strutting around.

That night, we met Nick from Baliblog.com, an Englishman whose spent the past year here writing a web page on his experiences. We'd read and enjoyed his daily updates while planning our trip. The tons of pictures and the descriptions he posted prepared us for how Bali would look, feel and smell. I'm a fervent reader of guidebooks to figure out what I want to see, but Nick's site let you experience life in Bali alongside of him.

With Nick, were Sean (from Oregon) and Chris (Australia). Shortly afterwards, Juliana joined us. She is a cute, 19-year-old Balinese girl studying in Australia. The six of us had an incredible time, swapping stories and sharing experiences. I've found some of my most enjoyable evenings overseas are spent in the company of fellow travelers. Their insights on the world are unique and fascinating. For Nick's account of our evening, check out his blog.

During the evening, Juliana insisted we should all come see her village of Baturiti while in Bali. I was the only taker, as the others had plans. And here was where the connection with the kind-hearted and welcoming Balinese occurred. Juliana is a wonderful ambassador for her country. Despite going to school full time, she also squeezes in at least five hours of part-time work each night in various jobs in Australia. A kind heart, she has built a house for her parents, bought them their first refrigerator and other appliances. An only child, she embraces the fact that it will be her duty to support her parent's old age -- accepting it may impair her dreams of seeing the world. She is paying for the schooling of four of her young cousins, and confessed her dream is to build and run an orphanage so that poor Balinese kids have a chance in life.

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Lakeside temple of Pura Danu Bratan

I had a wonderful day with her and her family. Her mother Loh De fixed a Balinese lunch for us, including...gulp...two bowls of snails. They laughed at my expression as I overcame my reluctance and sucked down a few of the slimy-looking things. Juliana had hired a car for us, which her father Landuh drove. They took me to Mt. Bratan, with its volcanic lake and gorgeous shoreside temple. We picked up her mother on the way south to stunningly sited Tanah Lot temple. Her mother was from the local village and wanted to place offerings at the family temples. At Tanah Lot itself, we ran into the largest crowd of tourists I'd seen yet in Bali. The temple is set on a rocky islet on the coast amidst crashing waves. It was charming to see Juliana's Mom poke about the tidal pools, looking for crabs and reliving her childhood experiences.

Even more heartwarming was Juliana watching the local urchins trying to sell knick-knacks to tourists. That was how she got her start, she said, doing the same thing. She confessed she always buys something from one when she comes here, hoping that it will help that child have the good fortune she has. As she reached for her money, I asked her to let me pay for the little seashell souvenir. She had refused to let me pay for the car or gas. I told her this would be my way of thanking her, in the hopes that it might create a future Juliana.

This day, spent with a fun-loving and kind-hearted Balinese family, is when I finally connected with the true spirit of the island's people. Tourism has brought many changes to Bali over the years -- not all of them not good, I'd seen. I'd begun to doubt the positive things I'd heard about the Balinese. Juliana and her family showed me that the traditional spirit of her people still lives on in Bali.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:29 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Myanmar's Medieval Ruins of Bagan are a History Buff's Dream

Bicycling from temple to temple in tropical heat is sweet, sweaty pleasure

sunny 92 °F

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13th century Htilominlo temple rises above Bagan panorama

My skin was gritty with dust and dried sweat, my clothes damp and dirty. Matching blisters gnawed at each heel. As I climbed the last steps, though, I was in Heaven, as from on high, the ancient temple city spread out beneath me.

This was why I'd come to Myanmar, or Burma, as it is also known. The nearly thousand year old ruins of Bagan were worth the three days of travel and six legs of flights to get here. They made my two days of pedaling a bicycle from temple to temple across a hot, dusty plain a joy -- not a chore. Moments like these atop the temple-- when you can mutter only an inadequate "Wow" -- were worth feeling tired and dirty.

Besides not being easy to get to, Myanmar is a bit of a Forbidden Fruit for travelers. There is a controversy on whether travelers should even go there. It is a military dictatorship that annulled the free elections it allowed in 1990, when its pet party candidates lost overwhelmingly. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been in jail or under house arrest for a decade. She has urged tourists to boycott her country to starve the regime of foreign currency.

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Yangon's awesome Shwedagon Pagoda

So, why was I going? Not everyone marches to Suu Kyi's drum beat. I am more in step with that of Lonely Planet guidebooks that say foreign visitors have a positive effect, rather than a negative one. My own feeling is that the more outside influences the Burmese are exposed to -- travelers, foreign broadcasts, publications and internet , the more difficult it will be to repress them. Travelers can be the soap that makes the grip of the Iron Fist slippery.

My nod to Suu Kyi was to let my dollars go to the ordinary Burmese as much as possible, rather than to government-owned business or organizations. Over the internet, I hired an independent Myanmar travel agency, Golden Rock Travel and Tours, to arrange an individual "guided" tour. I am normally not the tour type. I did this because, when I began my planning, independent travelers were forced to purchase $200 of government Foreign Exchange Certificates (which went directly to their coffers). Those on guided tours did not have to purchase them. A couple months later, this changed, and now no one is required to purchase them, but Golden Rock had already arranged my hotel rooms, flights to and from Bagan and airport transfers.

Golden Rock met me when I landed in Yangon and took me to my hotel. Looking around the Summit Parkview's ritzy interior, I felt guiltily like a rich, package tourist. Well, at least all my days on my itinerary were listed by Golden Rock as "Free Days." This would truly be a self-guided, Guided Tour.

My hotel was within walking distance of Yangon's number one attraction, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This gorgeous, gold-plated, gem-encrusted temple is Myanmar's holiest spot. As I walked up the entrance way, I slipped off my sandals in accordance with Burmese custom. I was approached by a Burmese man wearing a tag identifying him as a guide. On reflex, I began to shoo him away, when the price he quoted sunk in. Three dollars. I had flown to the opposite side of the world and I was hedging on $3? Sure, my guidebook had an excellent section on Shwedagon, but what about my pledge to see my dollars go to ordinary Burmese? I gave in.

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Bogyoke Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi, Yangon

As it turned out, not only did John give me a thorough tour at my own pace, we ended up hanging out together the rest of the day. He said business was slow and I could pay him whatever I wanted beyond the $3 for the rest of the afternoon. I figured that, if nothing else, his sharpness at negotiating cab fares around spread out, sticky, humid Yangon (average taxi fare = 1,000 kyat = $1) would pay for itself. John showed me around the Aung San Market (negotiating the price down on the souvenir I bought), walked me to central Yangon's colonial section and even took me on a cram packed city bus to let me see how the ordinary Burmese got around. He showed me the football field long Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple and pointed out scenic spots to take photos. We capped the afternoon off with a Myanmar Beer at a local spot, where he explained his ambition to start his own guide service and agency. He has a degree in English and speaks it quite well. I would recommend travelers to Yangon contact him.

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Two Burmese, father and son, model longyis

Early the next morning, I flew to Bagan, where the staff of the Arthawka Hotel (owned by Golden Rock) met me. I checked in, unpacked and changed into my "bicycling clothes." Back home, I'd pondered over what to wear while biking in Bagan's heat and humidity. Shorts were a no-no in Buddhist temples I'd read, and the weather made jeans doubly so. I didn't have the guts to buy a longyi -- the national dress of Burmese men. It is basically a skirt, knotted at the front, which falls below the knees. Many also carry a shoulder bag, but you won't find me joking about Burmese men wearing skirts and carrying purses, no sirree! Besides, a longyi didn't seem practical for straddling a bicycle. I ended up buying a pair of "hospital scrubs" back home and packing the thinnest shirts I owned. Since I would be repeatedly taking off my shoes to enter the temples, I wore my sandals, which I felt would also be cooler. My heels protested this last choice, as it turned out. By the end of my first day in Myanmar, I was sporting blistered heels. I also discovered that wearing a longish pair of shorts (like Bermudas?) would have been fine, too.

All fashion tips aside, Bagan was the heart of my trip. There are more than 4,000 temples of various sizes and states of ruin in a 25 square mile area. I'd studied my Lonely Planet guidebook, which has an excellent section on Bagan, and made my plan of attack. On the first day, though, the plan went out the window. Bagan was too overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, gorgeous red brick ruins rose up against the blue sky. How to organize them? How to order them when they were all so scenic and so dramatic looking? I ended up pedaling around in a daze, not knowing which temple was which, until I noticed one that had a sign: Thatbinnyu Temple, the tallest in Bagan. Its whitewashed silhouette was unmistakable, and I finally parked the bike and wandered through it.

I'd made photocopies of Lonely Planet's maps and I got them back out and looked around. With Thatbinnyu as my landmark, I was able to locate Ananda Temple, said to be Bagan's most beautiful and graceful. I was particularly struck by the richness of the decorations on the outside -- the half-lion, half-dragon statues guarding its corners, the nats or spirits carved on its walls, and the golden spire gleaming in the sun atop the temple. Inside, four golden Buddhas gazed placidly down at worshipers and sightseers alike.

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12th century Ananda Temple, Bagan

It was at the next temple, Shwegugyi, that I happened upon the best way to orient yourself in Bagan. It was one of the temples that you are permitted to climb to the roof platform, an unforgettable panorama. I was shown the way by one of the ever-present, souvenir-selling Burmese kids. She pointed out each of the neighboring temples, along with their accolade, "Thatbinnyu -- the tallest...Ananda -- most beautiful." I dug out my map, looked around, and began to pointed to the other ones visible, guessing each's name. She corrected any mistakes. The map and the landscape fell into place in my head, almost with an audible click. From that point on, I was able to visit the temples I'd picked out in my notes beforehand. It was a blast, reading the guidebook's descriptions, examining the temples and beginning to recognized the Early Period ones from the Later ones.

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Young Burmese are eager guides (and souvenir sellers) at the temples

It is atop the temples, though, that the landscape of Bagan really shines. From the ground, scrub brush and slight hills hide many of the temples, and you can see perhaps three or four at once. From the rooftops, though, row upon row of temples rise up, their silhouettes looking for all the world like giant red tea bells. Some are small, brick shrines. Others are massive, sprawling temple complexes with walls and multiple towers. Most are made of brick or sandstone, while others are covered in whitewashed stucco. Here and there, a gold leaf spire reflects the sun. Late that afternoon, I followed my book's advice and climbed Mingalazedi Temple to enjoy the colors evoked by the sinking sun. Its warm red glow was thrown back by hundreds of temples all across the landscape. It was a stunning sight whose beauty caused a hush among those of us atop Mingalazedi. The occasional click of a camera seemed to be the only sound besides our peaceful, contented breathing.

It got a bit noisier at my last stop of the day, Shwesandaw Temple, to watch the actual sunset. In a more accessible country, Bagan would likely be crawling with tour buses. I saw a few, but most travelers to Bagan get around either like me by bicycle or by hiring out one of the colorful, horse-drawn carriages. A few are shuttled to the major temples by car and guide, but tour groups are a rare sight here. It is easy to lose the crowd, too, in the 4,000 plus temples. Most of the time, it seemed the only ones I saw along the road or pathways were the ordinary Burmese, walking, bicycling or riding a moped. You begin to recognize the handful of visitors you do see -- the half dozen French on bicycles, the Italians in their tour bus, or the English couple in the horse cart. Of course, it seemed like ALL of the travelers to Bagan were atop Shwesandaw Temple that evening, angling for a good view of the sunset. It was the most bustling I'd seen Bagan. We were all disappointed by the clouds which marred the sunset, but in a landscape so amazing, it is hard to be TOO let down.

My luck with sunsets and sunrises has never been particularly good. I've gotten up extra early all over the world to see clouds hide a sunrise, but I never seem to give up. So, naturally, I was pedaling through the predawn gloom the next morning back towards Mingalazedi. I clambered back up the rough, stone steps, turned around, to see...clouds. Of course. I'd been foiled, again, but it was peaceful and thrilling to watch the light come up and the temples transform from black silhouettes against a dark indigo sky to pale fingers of rock and brick stretching towards the gray of the morning haze. I returned to my hotel for a shower, breakfast and to get ready for the day.

Armed with yesterday's knowledge, I would be able to do a much more thorough exploration of Bagan. While writing post cards and enjoying a couple Myanmar beers the night before, I'd made a list of the temples I wanted to visit that day. And what a day it was! I went out early and stayed out all day long (my first day I had returned to the hotel for a mid-day break). I paced myself, pedaled slowly, stopped often to take photos or visit temples. It was glorious. The sun had burst out, the views were spectacular, and I was definitely in my element. It is strange, but when I am at an incredible historic sight, I enjoy being alone. I feel like a I can lose myself in the enchantment of the place much easier. Guides are a distraction. Companions bring me back to "reality." And Bagan is a wonderful place to escape from reality.

I felt much closer to the Burmese people that day, too. I ate both lunch and dinner at local "dives," enjoying the feeling of connecting with a different culture. I talked to them often throughout the day (thankfully, most speak some English) -- souvenir sellers, restaurant owners, policemen, monks, farmers and curious children. They are all very friendly, and happy to talk. I took pictures of them doing their daily activities -- pulling weeds out of garden plots, carrying bowls of supplies atop their heads, piling aboard their pickup truck "buses" or working on restoration of the temples. It was a wonderful day, memories of it will warm my heart for years to come.

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Nameless temples and shrines dot Bagan's landscape

The rest of the trip would be unable to compare with those days in Bagan. I flew back to Yangon the next day, and basically just nosed around, exploring the city. I found a street of booksellers and dug up a rare history of Burma, that doubtless I'd be unable to find back home. I browsed through the market, again, but had bought my souvenirs in Bagan, so nothing enticed me. I even checked out the Defense Services Museum (being a military history buff), but it seemed to concentrate on recent events and propaganda more than, say, the Bagan (Medieval) time period, which is what I'm interested in. At Golden Rock's urging, that evening I took in a Dinner Show and watched traditional dances and performances aboard a giant replica of a royal Burmese barge. Later, I found this to be one of the "official government businesses" I'd pledged to avoid -- oops!

A small slip like that was unable to spoil anything, though. And though the next day I began the arduous, multi-day journey back home, I did it in fresh and invigorated. Part of seeing Myanmar is sweat, struggle and fatigue, but the rewards resonate inside like the pleasant, tingly glow as you relax after a hard work out.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:58 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

My Beach Resort in the Philippines?

Snorkeling & beach Idyll starts this summer’s adventures

sunny 89 °F

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Sun sets on another beautiful, relaxing day at Mike’s Dauin Beach Resort

A place named Mike’s Dauin Beach Resort in the Philippines? That sounded like a perfect way to unwind from a stressful 2019, and lead into this summer’s adventure. The fact that the owner was an American originally from Ohio only made it seem even more fitting. I would need some rest and recuperation after my 17 hour flight from Singapore, and overnight flight to Dumaguete City through Manila. When I landed on Thursday morning, I had not actually spent a night in bed since Sunday night/Monday morning. I was able to get a decent amount of sleep on the flights, but my first day I crashed and slept much of the afternoon away.

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A cluster of beach huts on Apo Island

The resort manager, a friendly Englishman named Nick, had booked me on a snorkeling trip the next day to Apo Island, whose waters surrounding it were protected as a nature reserve. Mike’s is really a dive resort, and runs two dive boats, with excursions leaving on a daily basis. Snorkelers can go along, but pay less because we don’t require the oxygen tanks, dive equipment, or underwater guides. It also means that the trips caters more to divers - not snorkelers. The water was really choppy at two of the three places the divers went in. Only one of them featured calm waters, but it had a fast current that meant I was huffing and puffing to paddle my way back to the boat. There was lots of beautiful coral, though, and I even saw a sea turtle in my short amount of time in the water. The divers said the waters were amazing, though, and nearly all of them carried GoPro cameras with an underwater case, good to 60 meters depth.

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The pool, where I spent more than a few hours relaxing in my short stay at Mike’s

I sheepishly told them about my fear of sharks keeping me from get scuba qualified. They laughed and of course told me how sharks are friendly and more scared of us than we are of them. They also proceeded to tell me about their dives with sharks, convincing me more of their insanity than my safety. Still, it was cool to see them gear up, and then return a half hour or so later excited about what they’d seen. Maybe one day I will work up the nerve to get scuba qualified. I am sure that is precisely what Mr. Jaws is waiting for, though!

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Outrigger dive boats and local craft anchored near Apo Island

I made up for the lack of snorkeling time by taking lots of pictures of the island, dive boats, the fishermen on their small outriggers, and the sea and sky. While snapping pictures, I either had one arm wrapped around a pole or my feet bracing my weight against a wall to compensate for the boat’s rocking motion. For being rainy season, we had a gorgeous day. In the morning on the way to Apo Island, we did motor through one rain squall. But otherwise, it was a perfect day on the water. They provided chicken and rice for lunch, and fresh cut slices of watermelon at the end of each dive. A nice crisp lager would have complemented the spread, but maybe that is a no-go for diving, because it was only water or coffee.

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The divers did three dives each, and said the fish and coral were magnificent

The resort itself has a very nice pool, which I took advantage of a number of times during my stay. The pool is surrounded by shaded, padded lounge chairs. There are more chairs just a few yards away on the resort’s slice of beachfront. The beach in Dauin is used by locals for fishing as well as by occasional small resorts like Mike’s. The fishermen’s colorful outriggers are pulled up on the beach, while the larger diving outriggers are anchored just a short distance out in the water. While walking along the beach you see the mix of locals and resorts, which preserves some of an unspoiled aspect. We have all been to beaches where the hotels are chock-a-block, one after another, giving it a commercial and almost artificial feel. Here, it was much more unsullied - just boats, palm trees, and sand. The sand in Dauin is dark — a mix of brown and volcanic black sand.

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The rocky shores of Apo Island

About 10 minutes walk down the beach is a great snorkeling spot right off the beach, too. I made up for my limited snorkeling at Apo Island there, exploring first along the line of buoys which mark where swimmers are allowed, and ducking under the rope where snorkelers and divers can swim. As you first snorkel out from the beach, you see only brown sand and various dead vegetation and even refuse covered in the brown sand. Then, you begin to see movement and spot fish nibbling at plants. Next, you seen an occasional outcrop of coral, some colorful, some blanched or covered in the brown silt. Finally, you come to the huge outcroppings of coral, sea fans, anemones, and other more colorful sea life. As you venture further out, you find yourself floating between canyons of coral. It actually becomes tricky navigating a path through it at low tide, because you don’t want to accidentally damage the coral near the surface.

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Dive boats come in all shapes and sizes, but are the most common sight in the waters around Dauin

It was simply amazing gliding along and seeing the sea life all around me. I mentioned my fear of sharks before, so doing this by myself was a huge leap of bravery. I have to admit that my eyes kept scanning out towards the deep water to make sure no sharks were silently tracking me on my path through the canyons of coral. No sharks, but I did see some amazing fish. I saw a speckled gray and black rockfish, lurking on the sea bottom, eyeing the schools of smaller fish passing overhead. I saw colorful yellow and black angelfish, and the famous orange and white clownfish (Finding Nemo). Every shade of the rainbow fed around the coral - deep purple fish, red, brilliant blue, and vibrant yellows - like tiny specks of sunshine darting beneath the waves.

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A10-minute walk along this beach brings you to amazing snorkeling

The coral was equally colorful. At one point I felt I was swimming through a novelty store lit by black light — so vivid were the fluorescent reds, yellows, and blues of the branches of coral. I floated over brain coral, marveling out how much it did indeed look like a massive, exposed brain poking through the sandy ocean floor. I never did find out what my favorite was, but it was curved with ridges like some melted clamshell. Its entire tan surface, though, was covered with tiny white cilia - hair-like projections that were gleaming white in the sunshine. As the current caused the cilia to ripple, it seemed to glow iridescently as if covered by a million fiber optic cables lit with white light. I floated above it for a couple minutes, spellbound by its beauty.

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Beautiful tropical scenery and idyllic beach huts in the Philippines

Other guests at the resort had snorkeled there during my short stay at the resort. A Norwegian couple said they saw three turtles in there exploration of the coral reef. I didn’t see any turtles at this spot, though I had seen one at Apo Island. On my last snorkel at the reef, I had one hilarious but alarming incident. I was just getting out of the shallow areas at low tide and venturing into the deeper sections, when I felt something grab my right fin. I spun around to see one of the stray dogs that roam the beach had accompanied me out. He darted back to the beach, having played his practical joke and given a snorkeler a heart attack.

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Sporting my Worldwidemike gear and sampling the local brew at Mike’s

Speaking of dogs, Mike’s has a resident black lab who was a sweet presence. Lacy is older, and obviously partially blind. She spends her days napping in the sun and soaking up all the petting and love guests are willing to hand out. She is not averse to being snuck some table scraps either and will gingerly waddle up when she smells food at your table. The food at Mike’s is incredible. Everything is made with fresh ingredients, and they have a fairly varied menu. The portions are Cheesecake Factory enormous, and there was only one dinner that I believe I finished during my stay. Breakfasts were amazing, too. I began every day with a mango shake, and alternated between fresh fruit or the best banana pancakes I have eaten in my life. If you’re a foodie, you will love your stay at Mike’s Dauin Beach Resort.

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An upscale beach home on the shores of Apo Island

Another reason I would highly recommend this resort to divers, especially, are the staff and owner’s family. The manager Nick has the perfect personality for his job, always cheerful, chatting up the guests, seeing what they need and arranging anything that needs to be done. After Apo Island and the problems I had with mask leakage, he gave me a little class in how to avoid that, showing me what I had been doing wrong. Nick has an easy relationship with the Filipino staff working there. He cajoles them and they tease back and forth. It is obvious the staff is very happy to be working at such a pleasant place like Mike’s. Everyone was invariably cheerful and helpful, happy to be able to cater to any need.

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Local fishermen in their tiny outriggers struggle against the strong current rounding Apo Island

I struck up a good relationship with Mike, who was staying there for a couple weeks (he normally lives in Florida). He talked to me about his career arc that took him from the Sandusky area to owning a dive resort in the Philippines. He invited me to join the party they were throwing one night in celebration of two of his children’s birthday, and partake of the free food and beer he had lined up for the 50-plus guests. I also struck up a good relationship with his oldest son, Keith, who is in his mid-30’s, and lives in Northern California. He is a history buff like myself. He loves to collect arrowheads and spear points in the plowed fields around his home. He is even trying his hand at napping his own points with local stones that catch his eye. He told me about exploring a WW II Japanese bunker in town that I would have visited with him if I had one more day.

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By afternoon, the waters can get crowded around Apo Island

It was a short stay on the island of Negros Oriental, but the staff and fellow guests made me feel at home. Most who know me understand that I am not a “veg out on the beach” type of person. However, my time at Mike’s was just the tonic I needed to unwind from the stresses of school and family. It is almost like the place had my name on it!

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Local fishermen reel in their nets at the end of the day - a common sight at Mike’s Beach Resort

Posted by world_wide_mike 01:07 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

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