A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: world_wide_mike

Malta's Millenia of History

Medieval Fortress Harbor is the perfect spot for a winter getaway

sunny 55 °F

Another view of Fort St. Angelo across the harbor from Valletta, Malta

I couldn't sleep anymore. Despite the hour, it was time to get out of bed and explore the city. So, at 5 am on my first morning in Valletta, Malta, I left my hotel to wander the medieval fortifications of the crusader Knights of St. John. Malta is a tiny group of islands just south of Sicily, and was the stronghold for three centuries of one of medieval Europe's religious orders of knighthood. It is famous for having withstood two great sieges. It was besieged first was by the Ottoman Turks in the 1565, and the second time much later, during World War II, by the Germans and Italians. Each time the Maltese people and their foreign rulers heroically fought off much larger armies.

Malta's medieval harbor

It wasn't as cold as I thought it'd be. Malta's Winters feature temperatures in the 50-60s during daytime, but dropping into the 40s at night. The wind whipped whenever I peered over edges of walls at the harbor and opposite shoreline. Malta is windy in Winter, though, and I would feel its tug and sometimes battering nearly the entire week I was to spend on its islands. Predawn Valletta was magical. There were enough lights in the streets to navigate by, and many of the towers, walls and churches were illuminated by golden spotlights. Other than the occasional person out walking their dog, it seemed I had the city to myself. Valletta is built on one peninsula among half a dozen that jut out into a great, natural harbor. All these spits of land were heavily fortified by the Knights, with Valletta the strongest of them all.

I made a circuit, following the outer walls for the most part. The views across the dark water to the other peninsulas were great, and I snapped a few timed, night shots with my mini-tripod. Just as I wound around the tip of the peninsula, towards its eastern facing side, the sky began to glow with the rising sun. It was a gorgeous sunrise, and a wonderful way to start my trip.

After breakfast, I visited the city's tourist information office. I had a number of questions since my research for this trip had been rushed (I was originally planning on going somewhere else, so Malta was one of my signature "back pocket" trips!). To my dismay, I found out my planned destination for the day -- the neolithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra -- are closed for renovation. Malta is rich with temples built by Stone Age settlers more than 5,000 years ago.

Scenery from my Marfa Ridge hike along Malta's northwest coast

Since the clear blue sky promised a beautiful day, I decided to do one of the hikes I'd planned instead. I took a bus to the extreme northwest of the island, known as the Marfa Ridge. Although this is where some of Malta's best beaches are located, December is bit cool for swimming. Many of the beachfront communities and their rental properties that line the shore were closed. However, that ensured I had the coastal scenery pretty much to myself. It turned out to be a long walk, and though the scenery was nice, it was not nearly as dramatic as I'd expected. There were a number of medieval watchtowers spaced out across the area, but all were closed. There were great views of the cliffs of Gozo and Comino -- the other two of the three major islands that make up Malta. The weather held true, too, and it was a wonderful, though windswept day of hiking.

I was particularly excited about my destination for the next morning. Having been cheated of two of Malta's stone age temples, I was looking forward all the more to my visit to the Hypogeum. This UNESCO world heritage site is an underground temple built beginning around 3600 BC on three levels. It was used for nearly a thousand years both a burial chamber and a place to conduct sacred rites. Painted spiral or hexagonal designs can still be seen on the walls, which has led Malta to protect the site by limiting the number of visitors. Tickets must be bought in advance (I'd purchased mine on the internet before leaving the U.S.), and only groups of 10 at a time are led through it at set times during the day. The contrast between one of man's earliest religious structures -- the Hypogeum is older than the pyramids and Stonehenge -- and the ultra modern facility the Maltese have built to preserve, yet showcase it for visitors, is striking. The lighting was moody and dramatic, the narration in the hand-held audio device was well done. The guide would point out the portions of each cave or room that was being discussed, and answered questions readily. I have never been to those caves painted by early man in the Dordogne valley in France, but the Hypogeum evoked that "Clan of the Cave Bear" feeling. It was amazing to see the skill of these early architects -- including the bowing out of vertical lines to give an impression of greater size (the same trick the Ancient Greeks used on their temples like the Parthenon). What was life like for them, more than 5,000 years ago? It was fun imagining what the Hypogeum long ago when it was in use by the earliest Maltese.

Neolithic temple of Tarxien on Malta

Next, I walked a few hundred yards to the Neolithic temple of Tarxien. Researchers say that the Hypogeum mirrors the cloverleaf form of these above ground Stone Age temples. Most are symmetrical with an equal number of oval caverns branching off from the entrance. The difference being that these temples are one story (their wooden or stone roofs long vanished), while the Hypogeum was carved into three descending levels underground. Tarxien's temples are supposed to be the most reconstructed of the ones in Malta, but I could easily see a cynic calling them a "rockpile." Other than a couple of the oval chambers which had clearly delineated altars and Stonghenge-like vertical stone uprights capped by horizontal lintels, much of the site is hard to decipher. One cool thing, though: In a few of the chambers, you can still see animals and geometric patterns carved into the stones.

I returned to Valletta, and since it was another gorgeous day, decided to wander the fortifications and take pictures of the city in the daylight. I essentially followed my early morning path from the day before, but the views were that much more spectacular under the bright blue skies. I found a couple more great vantage points to take pictures of the city and its neighboring peninsulas. Most of the buildings were built with local limestone in the 1500-1700s, and glowed brightly in the sunlight. The architectural flourishes and details were great to look for, too: Stone lions with paws resting on a coat of arms, statues of early saints, leering mythological figures on fountains and rich scrollwork. The most striking feature are the balconies that are on nearly every building. These are usually made of painted wood with glass windows and project a couple feet out from the buildings, overhanging the street from the second and higher levels. On narrow streets, the long line of balconies gleaming in the sun can make for quite a sight.

I finished the day with a visit to the Grand Palace's Armoury Museum. This featured yet another hand-held audio device, like an oversized cell phone, which you punched in the number of the display you were looking at and listened to the description. It was an impressive, though relatively small museum. Hundreds of suits of armor from the warrior monks, the Knights of St. John, lined the polished glass display cases, and the information on the them was informative and accurate. Another room held every type of medieval and renaissance weapon, from swords, pole arms and crossbows, all the way up to hand guns and huge cannons. Being military buff, it was great to wander and see examples of some of the things I've read about for years up close. The rich, inlaid armor of the Grand Masters of the Order were probably the most impressive pieces in the museum.

Detail on armor from the Palace Armoury Museum

Before dinner, I stopped by "The Pub," a small bar that is famous for being the favorite haunt of English actor Oliver Reed. The heavy drinker died in Malta during the filming of the movie "Gladiator" (he was Proximo, if you remember, the owner of the Gladiator school). They even have newspaper clippings on the walls of the pub detailing "Oliver Reed's Last Order." It was a quiet spot when I was there, with only six tourists including myself and two locals (including the bartender). Actually, I was surprised to discover lots of movies are filmed in Malta, including "Troy," "Munich" and the "Da Vinci Code." Malta has two huge water tanks on the shore that many films use to shoot their ocean scenes, such as "The Spy who Loved Me" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman." One film that has left its mark on the landscape is the 1980 Robin Williams version of "Popeye." The village of Sweethaven was left intact and is now an amusement park on Malta.

It was to the water I was headed the next day, too, as I took the ferry over to the island of Gozo. Onboard, I had an incredible stroke of luck (and a chance to witness the friendliness of the Maltese). I ran into two of the people from my tour of the Hypogeum: Vince, a Maltese dentist in his 50s, and his niece Johanna, visiting from San Francisco. They offered to give me a lift to my hotel, and ended up basically adopting me for my two days on Gozo. Vince owns an apartment there, in the seaside town of Marsalforn, and convinced me to pick a guest house in there so we could meet up easier. Gozo is so small and is basically walkable, he said, so it didn't matter much where on the island I stayed. I had dinner with them both nights on the island, and they were incredibly friendly and welcoming.

After checking in to my guest house, I tried to rent a bicycle for the two days, but all the shops were closed for the lunch hour. Since I was only headed to the neighboring village of Xaghra, I decided to hoof it, and within an hour was there. Once again, the day was sunny and this time quite warm -- easily in the 70s, I guessed. My goal was to see the neolithic temple of Ggantija. Much like the one at Tarxien, this consists of two temple complexes side by side, and here enclosed by an intact outer wall of massive stones -- some weighing 57 tons! They were neat to visit, though unfortunately big portions of them were roped off. Also, much like Tarxien, someone who isn't a history buff may go away decrying them as just another "pile of rocks." The Ggantija temples were perched on a hilltop with a lovely view to the south.

Since it was still early in the afternoon, I picked out the nearby town of Xewkija for my next stop. The town is famous for the Rotunda, a cathedral with what is said to be the third largest dome in all of Europe. This honor is debated by the inhabitants of the town of Mosta on Malta, who say theirs is larger. Both are amazing sights in such tiny places, though, and are a testament to the religious devotion of its inhabitants. Unlike much of Western Europe, Malta's citizens are staunchly religious and conservative. The tradition is that the island was converted to Christianity in 60 A.D. by St. Paul, who was shipwrecked on the island on his way to being taken to Rome for trial. The people look like most southern Europeans, olive skinned with black hair. Although most speak English, they do have their own language of Malti, which is essentially Arabic heavily spiced with Italian. Listening to them, I finally hit upon what it sounded like: Arabic spoken with an Italian cadence and rhythm. Vince showed me one evening over dinner that even the Malti word for God is "Alla." After visiting the Rotunda, which was bright and airy inside, I wound my way southward for awhile longer, but the lengthening late afternoon shadows forced me to turn homeward. Cutting through Gozo's capital of Victoria, I saw a square setting up huge, brightly colored banners for a religious festival.

My Maltese friends, Vince and Johannna

When I was perhaps a mile from my guest house, a car honked and pulled over: It was Vince and Johanna. They drove me the rest of the way, and told me what time to come over for dinner. We had a pleasant meal (Vince cooked spaghetti), and had a particularly interesting discussion on religion. In that theme, we jumped in the car and headed to Victoria to see the "Festa." It was great. A marching band led the image of the Virgin Mary through the streets, followed by fireworks in the church square. The Maltese love their fireworks, and these aren't just the usual U.S. style shoot into the air and watch explode in colors. They construct elaborate banners festooned with rockets and fireworks that spin, revolve and detonate. Even model airplanes zipped on lines overhead the square powered by huge bottle rockets. Vince had seen a couple friends in the crowd, and after the show was over, the five of us retired to an indoor/outdoor bar. We drank until 1 am, and had a blast discussing topics as various as the Maltese love of karaoke (which I was spared a demonstration of, thankfully!). As we headed back to the car, a light mist began to fall.

That mist presaged the first rain since my plane had landed. It was cloudy and looked threatening when Vince and Johanna picked me up the next morning. They were going shopping for lace, a Maltese specialty, and had offered to drop me off at my destination for that day, coastal Dwerja. It is the site of Gozo's most spectacular natural scenery and I wanted to hike up the coastline. The rain continued to hold off as I checked out the Inland Sea, a circular pool perhaps 100 yards away from the shore and connected to the waters by a narrow tunnel. In calm weather, I'd read boats will go through the tunnel, but today's weather was anything but. I then leaned into wind and tromped back out to the shore to see the Azure Window, as the natural rock arch is called. In the other direction was a narrow bay protected by the limestone plug of Fungus Rock. It was called that for a rare medicinal plant that the Knights of St. John harvested there to use in their hospitals (they were noted healers in addition to warriors, and were also called the Hospitallers).

The fantastic coastal scenery of Dwerja on Gozo, Malta

I hiked along the shoreline towards the bay, and to my pleasure, saw patches of blue sky begin to appear in the cloud. Maybe I'd get lucky after all! The wind continued to buffet me, nearly tossing me to the ground a couple times. Thankfully, as I was not far from the edge at times, it was blowing from the sea, and would shove me away -- not towards -- the drop off. I gained height as I worked my way around the bay, admiring the view. I tried to snap pictures in the patches of sunshine, but I also had to time it against the strongest of the wind's gusts -- which had to be peak in the 30-40 mph range. After more than an hour of hiking, I reached the headland and clifftop overlooking the bay from other side. The panorama beneath me was splendid. Fungus Rock in the mouth of the bay, the Azure Window, and a watchtower built by the Knights all lined up dramatically. It was truly spectacular. I admired the view for a few moments, than glancing at my watch, saw I needed to hurry back down to the parking lot, as Vince and Johanna would be returning shortly.

When they pulled up, I discovered their first foray had been unsuccessful, and they had more shopping to do. Vince offered to drop me off at the citadel in Victoria, to explore there. I jumped at the chance, despite the worsening look to the sky. Built in the 1500s, the castle dominated the town from a hill in its center. It is also built entirely of local limestone. I'd read that limestone "mellows" with age -- turns a rich gold color from its original bright tan. This walls, towers and cathedral of the castle were all of this warm color, and gave it a stunningly photogenic look even under gray skies. I wandered the walls and towers, taking pictures and enjoying the views. Gozo stretched away beneath me in a 360 degree tableau. I could see hilltop Xaghra, where I'd visited the temples yesterday, the massive dome of Xewkija looming in the distance, and even the sparkle of the Dwerja coastline to the west. The wind continued to batter me when not blocked by castle walls, but it was magnificent nonetheless. Although there are half a dozen museums and other sights within the citadel, I didn't stop in any. It was simply just too romantic wandering the pathways of the windy, golden castle atop the hill to take time to stop! When the hour was up, and I had to meet my friends back down at the entrance, the first thick rain drops began to fall. I found a cavelike niche along the street and ducked in out of the wind and rain to waited till Vince arrived. I chuckled and wondered how miserable I'd have been if I HAD rented a bicycle yesterday! The rain, driven by awesome wind gusts, was coming down in earnest. The day's sightseeing was officially over!

I enjoyed dinner with Vince and Johanna one last time, and said goodbye to them, as they were returning to Malta that evening. It was a low key evening afterwards, as I visited an internet cafe, read my book for awhile, then planned out my sightseeing for the rest of the week on Malta. It wasn't until about noon that I arrived back in Valletta the next day, and since the day was still threatening rain, I decided it was time to do visit the city's indoor attractions. I began at the Archeological Museum, which housed many of the best relics from the neolithic temples I'd visited. I saw the 5,000 year old statues of Magna Mater, or "the Fat Lady," as the fertility goddess was nicknamed. The carvings of deer or spiral designs on the altar tops looked way too crisp to be four or five millennia old. It was nice that the museum allowed photographs, as so many prohibit them anymore. After the Archeological Museum, I visited the Sacra Infirmia, which was the Knight's hospital in Valletta. The only way to visit it is to buy a ticket to the Knights of St. John "audio-visual" show. My guidebook had warned it was hokey and not worth it, and it was they right! I thought being a history buff I might get a tad bit more out of it, but I was wrong. The only saving grace was the exhibit allowed me to visit the cool old building and some of the passageways beneath it.

Architectural details in old town of Mdina, Malta

The next day, the weather dawned bright and sunny, which was good, since I was headed to the old capital of Mdina, about a 45 minute bus ride away. I'd been told by Vince and others that Mdina is a highlight of Malta. It is an old, walled town that nowadays houses only a few hundred inhabitants. In the old days, though, it was the home of the island's nobility. I was actually somewhat disappointed. Mdina was nice. It was quaint. However, I enjoyed wandering Valletta and the citadel in Gozo much more. One big strike against Mdina is you can't climb the town walls, except for a small portion, so you miss out on that view from above. The cathedral of St. Paul was definitely the highlight. Inside, its color was lavish from the painted frescoes on the ceiling down to the richly colored marble slabs that made up the floor. The slabs were actually the tombstones of various nobles and clergy that are buried inside the church. So, as you walked across the marble floor of the cathedral, you were in effect, walking atop the dead.

That seemed to be the theme of the day. My next stop was a museum atop the excavated remains of a 2nd Century A.D. Roman Domus, or town house, just outside Mdina's walls. I like just about any kind of Roman ruins, but this museum was extremely well done and was an excellent surprise. It displayed statues, Roman tools, etc., in the upper levels, then as you descended to the basement, it showcased its highlight: The mosaic floors of the domus. These had been cleaned and restored to excellent shape. The walkways above and around the floor allowed you to get a great look at them, and some fragments were in display cases for an even closer view. A short stop, but well worthwhile.

The same was true of my next stop, in the town of Rabat that spreads beyond Mdina's walls: St. Agatha's Catacombs. These medieval crypts sprawl beneath the church and were one of the burying places of Mdina's dead in the Middle Ages. Some religious frescoes painted on the cavern walls are bright and lifelike to this day. As your roam the passageways beneath, you encounter skulls, bones and the sprawl of cavern after cavern. Definitely a bit spooky, but the atmospheric lighting and deep shadows make you forget about the morbid nature of your sightseeing, and instead enjoy the exploration. It helped that there was only one other traveler in the catacombs while I visited. I wondered just how ominous it might have seemed if I'd been down there alone! Unfortunately, no photos were allowed, which was a bummer, as it was a truly unique and exhilarating experience.

Fantastic views of Malta's fortified harbor from the vedette on Senglea

I hiked back out to the main road next, and headed towards Malta' Aviation Museum. I ended up taking a wrong turn and going the long way, but found it, all the while glancing nervously at the dark clouds gathering above me. They unleashed their torrents just moments after I stepped in the first of the two aircraft hangers that compose the museum. It was cool to look at the World War II aircraft, like British Spitfires and Hurricanes, and even the semi-skeletal remains of their obsolete biplane torpedo bomber, the Swordfish. As the rain hammered the metal roof, I sat down and watched a videotape that was playing about an anti-aircraft gunner in the British army who fought in Malta and endured the siege and aerial blitz by Axis Germany and Italy. After the rain stopped, and I'd seen most of the show, I hiked back out to the main road and caught the bus back into Valletta.

My final day of sightseeing began with an early morning bus trip around the harbor to the "Three Cities." These are three peninsulas the jut out into the harbor across from Valletta. It dawned another bright and sunny day, and I took full advantage of that to take lots of photos of the brightly colored boats bobbing on the water, the fortified walls looming overhead, and the church domes and bell towers peeking even higher above them. It was a beautiful morning, and I explored the "cities" of Sliema and Vittoriosa, wandering their streets and alleys. Maltese towns are simply exquisite. The balconies, winding narrow streets, stone steps of alley ways, all combine to make just walking around an enjoyable experience. I would have to say that I did more of that than anything else in my entire stay, and where elsewhere that might have gotten old or tiresome, in Malta it never did.

I capped my visit across the harbor with the Malta at War Museum, which is built atop a World War II bomb shelter. After watching a wartime film produced in Britain lauding Malta's efforts, they give you a hard hat and let you explore the maze of passageways carved into the rock beneath the museum. Many of the rooms had been refurnished to show what they looked like during the Blitz, and the ways the Maltese tried to make them homelike during the large amounts of time they huddled in them. It was definitely worthwhile, especially the occasional displays that explained construction techniques best protect people, or make their time inside more bearable and healthy.

Valletta's magnificent Co-Cathedral

As interesting as the museum was, it couldn't compare with St. John's Co-Cathedral, my next to last stop. It's called a co-cathedral because, along with the cathedral in Mdina, it was named the seat of the island's archbishop. The colors, gilt-encrusted walls and columns, the decorations -- all were simply spectacular. The long church has a number of small chapels tucked away on either side. The Knights of St. John were divided into "langues" (languages), by which European areas the knight came from. Each langue has a chapel in the cathedral, and they vied historically with one another to see who could decorate theirs more lavishly. Once again, the audio guide proved handy here. Each section was labeled with a number to key into your cell phone like device to hear a recorded description. These were informative and added immensely to the visit. Plus, it allowed you to conduct your circuit in whatever order you wish, which I used to dodge the other tourists and groups in the cathedral. Vince had told me on Gozo that I HAD to visit the co-cathderal, and he was right. It was gorgeous and magnificent at the same time.

It'd be nice to say that I ended my day's sightseeing there, an appropriate climax. However, with a bit of time left, I succumbed and went to another of Malta's horrid "Audio-Visual Experiences." This cellar full of cheese was called the Great Siege of Malta exhibit. I can honestly say I did not learn a single thing from it, nor even once nodded and thought, "that was kind of cool." My guidebook had warned that it was bad. And once again, I figured the military history buff in me would make it at least palatable. Nope. Wrong. It was not just bad, but very, very bad.

However, no matter how rank and cheesy that exhibit was, it could not spoil my week in Malta. From my predawn ramblings in a darkened Valletta on the first morning, to my hikes on the raging coastline of Gozo, through the wonderful castles and fortifications that drew me to the island, Malta was an excellent trip. The relics of its history were impressive, its coastal beauty was inspiring, and its people -- those staunch defenders that withstood two of history's greater sieges -- were welcoming and friendly. For such small islands, Malta showcased the many reasons to go explore them.

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:22 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

Slovenia - Gorgeous Gem of the Balkans

Can you pronounce Ljubljana?

semi-overcast 60 °F

Gorgeeous Lake Bled with its clifftop castle, churches, mountains and Gondola boats

To be honest, I knew almost nothing about Slovenia when I decided to go there. All I knew was that it appeared that I could get there and back during my week's vacation in April. As an airline employee, I'm often at the mercy of where the open seats are, so am used to last minute destination changes. This trip was scheduled to be to Cyprus...or Croatia. Those flights all looked full, though, so Slovenia it was! I hurriedly read a couple guidebooks, which made the small, mountainous country -- which was formerly the northernmost part of Yugoslavia -- sound incredibly scenic.

After connecting in Frankfurt, I landed in the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. It is actually easier to pronounce than it looks: Just imagine those "j's" are actually "y's." That would make it Lyublyana, or Loob-lee-ana. Simple! Anyway, I caught a bus from there to my first destination, the gorgeous lakeside town of Bled. The guidebooks had raved about its beauty and they were not mistaken. Bled is on the eastern shore of a small, Alpine lake, completely surrounded by thickly forested green hills. And ringing the hills, on every horizon, are massive snow capped mountain peaks. So, everywhere you look, there is a panorama of lake, hill and mountain. The church spires peaking up from the town of Bled add to the atmosphere. And looming above the lake, perfect as a postcard, is a castle built on a cliff 100 yards above the water. Still not enough for you? Well, at the western end of the lake is a tiny island. A medieval church slumbers there, and small gondola like boats ferry visitors out to it where they pull on the bell rope to ring it for good luck. There is a path that encircles the lake, allowing you to admire ever-changing combinations of castle and church, lake and hill.

The castle looming on its cliff 100 meters above the waters of Lake Bled

After waiting out a brief rainstorm in my hotel room, I spent the rest of the afternoon hiking around the path, taking photographs. Each view I lined up in my camera seemed to surpass the next. As it began to get dark, I returned to the hotel, which was very pleasant. The owners were friendly, the room was clean and well equipped, and there was even a computer with free internet downstairs in a common room. Guests were free to help themselves to beers or soda from the hotel restaurant's refrigerator -- you simply note what you took and your room number on a slip of paper. A wonderful buffet breakfast was also included, and I gorged myself on its fresh fruit, cereal and bread every morning. As a matter of fact, I extended my stay in Bled from two to three nights, partially because the Hotel Berc was so nice!

The next morning, I knew I would need the hearty breakfast as I'd labeled Day 2 "Hiking Day." It began with an hour long walk north of town through quaint Alpine villages towards the Vintgar Gorge. The gorge is a narrow, wooded cleft which the Vintgar River rushes through. Wooden walkways have been anchored to the rocks walls of the gorge, with bridges criss-crossing the foaming river a dozen times. The forest that cloaks the gorge intensifies the green, and is reflected in pools that form where the river slows. During the nearly hour's walk along the path, I saw only two other people. Nature's beauty was enhanced by the sound of water and the solitude. The gorge hike ends with a nice waterfall that is framed by a high, arched stone bridge that passes overhead.

The Vintgar Gorge hike and its idyllic scenery

The villages I hiked through on the return trip were even more quaint and scenic, if possible. Slovenians seem to share the love of tidiness and order of their Austrian neighbors. At times, it felt like I was hiking along an Austrian road, or perhaps a Bavarian or Swiss one. The homes were fairly large and well kept. Nearly all seemed to have a spacious balcony for sitting and soaking up the gorgeous mountain views in all directions. My guess is that the Slovenians are fairly wealthy, as far as Eastern Europeans go, probably sharing more in culture and standard of living with Western Europe than its former Yugoslav compatriots.

Next, I hiked up to the clifftop castle, which unfortunately was rather overrun with tour groups. Most seemed to be from Italy, and they clustered on every wall, posing for the camera in front of the gorgeous views of the lake below. The displays inside the castle were somewhat lackluster, and were it not for its dramatic position overlooking the lake, the castle itself would be a disappointment. I lingered for awhile, but as the steady stream of tourists showed no sign of letting up, I finally gave up and hiked down the path which led through the forest to the town below. After a short stop at the hotel, I was back outside, soaking up more of the sparkling sunshine and stunning scenery. I followed the path around the lake until I found the trail that led up to the Osojnica viewpoint. This towering, forested hill has a great scenic overlook of the Bled area. The hike was steep, but the panorama well worth it. The map that the hotel had lent me showed another trail leading to another hilltop vantage point, so I decided to try to find it, as well.

A Slovenian "hayrack," horse corral and typical village scenery

Most footpaths in Slovenia are extremely well marked, usually with a symbol or number painted on the occasional tree trunk in red. However, this one joined up with a dirt road at one point, and from there, I never seemed to regain the path. I ended up clambering up a steep hillside only to find out it wasn't "the one." Eventually, I gave up, but not before I twice encountered a chamois -- a wild, goat-like animal native to Slovenia (and incidentally, featured on the label of one its main beers). I heard its weird shriek -- more birdlike than goat-like -- and spotted one, perhaps 20 yards away. A short time later, I saw another one. Seeing some native wildlife more than made up for never finding the other viewpoint.

As I trudged back down the hillside, somewhat footsore by this point, I decided that it was time to visit the island church. There are two ways to get there...well, I guess it would be three, if you count swimming! You can either pay 10-12 Euros for one of the gondolas to take you out there (usually done with a group). Or you can rent your own rowboat, which is what I did. The lake is only slightly more than a mile long, and very calm, so rowboats are a common sight on its waters. It took me a while to get the hang of it, though. My right arm seemed to do such a better job of rowing than my left arm! This tended to take me in a long, curling path, until I would realign myself, only to veer off again. Eventually, I made it to the island. The steep stone staircase leading to the church emphasizes the height of its tower. It was less ornate than other Slovenian churches inside, but its austerity seemed appropriate on the island. I secretly made a wish and rang the bell, hearing the sound roll back towards me from the open doors as it echoed off the forested hillsides, outside.

The island church as seen from Osojnica viewing point

It was late afternoon by this point, and I had one more hike to complete that day. The next day I was catching a train that left at 8:30 am from a village at the western end of the lake. I wanted to time how long it would take me to walk there, so I hiked up the hill until I was at the station, set my watch, and began walking determinedly back to the hotel. I didn't want to miss breakfast, if I could avoid it, which doesn't start until 7:30 am. My feet were NOT happy with me by the time I reached my hotel room. A power walk at the end of the day along an asphalt path is probably not the best way to treat blistered feet that have carried you up and down hillsides all day long!

The next morning, after breakfast, I retraced my steps around the lake and made it to the train station in plenty of time. I was headed to Kobarid, a town that is the site of a famous World War I battle between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. The lady at the Bled tourist information office said it would be possible to zip south on the train to the village of Most na soci, where I could catch a bus to Kobarid. The return trains ran regularly until 8:16 pm that night, so it sounded like a great day trip. From my window, I watched as we passed through a series of tunnels through hill and mountain. After the darkness of each tunnel, I would be rewarded with a pristine view of a new mountain valley. A little more than an hour later, I got off at the tiny town of Most na soci. I asked the station conductor where I could catch the bus to Kobarid, and he said there were no buses to Kobarid on Sunday. Looking at the schedule, he said there were pretty much no buses at all from Most na soci today! I wandered out of the train station towards the center of town. Maybe I could find a bicycle to rent -- it was only about 16 miles to Kobarid. Along the way, a cab driver stopped and offered to take me to Kobarid. I bargained the price down to a still too expensive 20 Euros, but what else could I do?

The turquoise-blue Soca River

The gorgeous, turquoise blue Soca River The taxi dropped me off right outside my destination: Kobarid's famous museum detailing the WW I battle (in 1993, it won an award for the best museum in Europe). I noticed the tourist information office next door was open, so ducked inside to find out the scoop on buses. The lady there told me there was only one bus to Most na soci on Sunday, at 1:45 pm, but another at 5:50 pm to the nearby town of Tolmin, which looked about 5 miles from it on the map. She said I should be able to get a taxi or even hitch a ride for the final part to the train station. That would get me there in time for the 6:50 pm train. Satisfied, I ventured next door to the museum. Unfortunately, it too was overrun with Italian tour groups. It seems Slovenia is a favorite destination of the neighboring Italians, and I would run into tour groups of them throughout my trip. There were so many people in the little museum that I gave up after seeing only about three quarters of it. Instead, I skipped to the 5 kilometer Historical Trail that led up into the hills where the Battle of Kobarid was fought.

The hike was great, leading higher and higher along a shady forest path. It was steep going, which meant the tour groups were nowhere in sight: I had it to myself! The first stop on the hike was at the ruins of Tonocov Castle, which though not much to look at, had a romantic quality about them. They buildings and walls were constructed immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire. Romanized locals, sought out a hilltop defense, trying to withstand the barbarian invasions that wracked the Balkans. The foundations and walls of a couple buildings were all that was left to show of their 200-year struggle to hold on to their lifestyle. The view was nice from atop the hill, and since there aren't a lot of Dark Age ruins from this period, I spent a few moments savoring the atmosphere.

The path began to wind down towards the Soca River, at that point. A favorite of kayakers, the Soca is known for its intense blue color. Think milky, liquid turquoise, and then imagine a river that is uniformly that color in both the deep and shallow spots. It is really an amazing sight, and in all the countries I've been to, I've never seen a river that color. The closest water to that shade is the bright ultramarine blue you sometimes see in the Caribbean Sea near coral reefs. I crossed the river on a cool, "Indiana Jones" type swinging wooden bridge. With perfect timing, a group of kayakers spun past beneath me while I stood on the bridge. I followed a side trail to an interesting waterfall half enclosed inside a cool cavern.

Then I came upon the main course of the Kobarid Historical Walk: The Italian fortifications used almost a century ago in the famous battle. I clambered through gun emplacements, bunkers and pillboxes. It was cool to picture the battlelines along the steep slopes, and imagine how difficult fighting in such rocky terrain must have been. The local historical society has done a great job at setting up the historical trail and maintaining and renovating some of the fortifications. A couple bunkers looked like they were being outfitted with beds for hikers to sleep in! Once again, I had much of this area to myself, being a steep walk from the nearest roads. I've always felt that solitude enhances the experience of communing with history, and seek out off-peak times, doing my best to maximize my chances of missing crowds.

With most of my sightseeing done, and the day the sunniest and warmest yet, I had little premonition that things were going to begin unraveling. My pleasant little day trip to Kobarid was about to become a "Caporetto." The Italians call any disaster a Caporetto, after their name for the town of Kobarid (and for the WW I battle fought there). The eventual Italian defeat in the mountains surrounding the town was so complete and the rout so total that it erased all the territorial gains the Italian army had achieved and ended with them streaming into Italy with the Austro-Hungarians in hot pursuit.

The main square and Triple Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia

As I stood waiting in the town square for the 5:50 pm bus to Tolmin, my own personal Caporetto unfolded. First, the 5:50 bus did not arrive. I asked some folks at a nearby cafe, and they said there should be another bus at 6:30. Since it was less than a half hour away, at that point, I simply waited. 6:30 pm came and went with no bus. I looked around for a taxi, but Sunday evening must be their time off. None were to be found. With little choice, I tore a square off a poster and wrote in big letters, "MOST NA SOCI." I began walking, holding out the sign to passing cars. It had been awhile since I hitchhiked, but what choice did I have? After about 15 minutes of walking, a young man pulled over and gave me a ride to Tolmin. I tried to talk him into taking me the last few miles to the train station at Most na Soci, but he had a hot date with an ex-girlfriend. When I got to Tolmin, I looked around for taxis. Again, none were to be found on a Sunday night. I'd definitely missed the 6:50 pm train back to Bled, leaving me with only the 8:16 pm one to catch.

With no rides in the offing, I began walking, once again holding out my sign to passing cars. I was still walking at 7:45, and no cars were stopping to pick me up. Since my map really didn't show how far it was from Tolmin to Most na soci, I had no idea how much further I had to go. The valley seemed to wind on and on between the hills, with no village in sight. At 8 pm, and still no sign of the Most na Soci, I started jogging. I knew with only 16 minutes to go, the chances of me getting there in time were slim. Finally, two men pulled over and gave me a ride. They figured I was trying to catch the train, and sped me there with perhaps five minutes to spare. I thanked them profusely, took a few deep breaths, and chugged the rest of my water bottle. It had been an adventure. And it was almost a Caporetto. Right on time, the train arrived and whisked me back through the darkening evening towards Bled, and my waiting hotel room. I hadn't relished the thought of spending the evening on a bench in the train station...my comfy bed at Hotel Berc seemed much more welcoming!

A dragon from Ljubljana's Dragon Bridge

A dragon from Ljubljana's Dragon Bridge The next morning, I enjoyed the leisurely pace that I could begin my day with. I lingered over the excellent breakfast, took my time packing, and still had plenty of time to catch the 9:30 bus to Ljubljana. Of course, I still had no idea where I would be staying in the capital. My attempts to find a reasonably priced hotel room had failed. The alternative was hostels -- with their dormitory sleeping -- or a private room in a home. I planned on using the Tourist Information Office at the station to help me find one or the other. The logical thing, with hotel rooms too expensive in the capital, would be to enjoy the company of fellow travelers and stay in a hostel. I did some soul searching as to why I wasn't thrilled with the idea. I think it boils down to the fact that I spend very little time in a hotel room on trips. I use them as a chance to unpack and spread my stuff out, and to sleep. Some hostels are known as party places, and the idea of folks coming in at all hours of the night after their revels, or worse yet, a loud snorer keeping me from sleeping, seemed to defeat the purpose of a room. Silly, I know. Yet, when the Tourist Information Office offered what was supposed to be a private room in a hostel for only 40 Euros, I took it. The hostel owner was even coming down to the office to pick me up. As it turns out, the "hostel" was actually a student dormitory that was open because the students were on spring break. So, I was essentially staying alone in the building, and in someone else's room -- their clothes were still in the closet, their toothbrush in the holder in the bathroom. Weird.

Nevertheless, it was a place to stay only a little ways out of the center of town. I did quite a bit of walking, going from the sights of Ljubljana to the room, but hadn't I done a lot of walking already? Plus, Ljubljana is a cool town, with plenty of cafes, rows of medieval and Renaissance era buildings, churches and a hilltop castle. The wide, green Drava river flows through the center of town, which has led to the creation of the unique "triple bridge," as well as the city's trademark Dragon Bridge, with four bronze dragons guarding each corner. The buzz among travelers is that Ljubljana could be the "next Prague" -- the Czech Republic's scenic and pleasant city that has become so beloved by Western tourists. I think they're right. Ljubljana is a nice place to spend a few days. And like Prague, the historical sights aren't bad, but it is the atmosphere that is its selling point. This was a place that I wished I had someone else along to indulge in a few beers in a cafe with. I always feel awkward hitting up a drinking spot by myself, so on solo trips like this one, usually call it an early evening.

The next morning, I hiked the 45 minutes back to the train station (which is conveniently next to the bus station, but inconveniently far from where my room was) for my day trip to the Skocjan Caves. These are a UNESCO world heritage site, and the description of them in my guidebook sounded wonderful. So far, I'd had four days of incredibly sunny weather -- so much so that the locals had commented upon my good fortune. As the train began to glide out of the station, the first rain drops hit the wide windows. It was still raining almost two hours later when I got off the train in Dravaca, the closest stop to the caves. I could tell things weren't going to go so smoothly when I saw the information office was closed. There was no sign of the shuttle buses that were supposed to run the 5 kilometers to the caves. Equally, there was nowhere to rent a bicycle (another option mentioned by my guidebook). Left with the final choice, I hunched my shoulders against the now steady rain and began walking. There were occasional signs marking the way, which meant I only took one wrong turn and had to backtrack a few hundred yards. The rain alternated between steady and driving, and I was soon thoroughly soaked. Since it had worked so well in Kobarid (ha!), I began sticking out my thumb, hoping for a ride. After a wet 45 minutes, one of the workers on his way to his job at the caves pulled over and gave me a ride. The bad news, though, was it was 10:30 am, and the next tour didn't start until 1 pm.

The exit from the Skocjan Caves - a UNESCO world heritage site

Resigned to a difficult day, I set up camp in the visitor center restaurant, ordered a beer (hey, I deserved it...!), and eventually a hot tea and lunch. I spread my wet coat and hat out on various chairs at my table, and tried unsuccessfully to dry out. The bright side was that I finally got a chance to order some Slovenian food. The trip had been jinxed so far on my attempts to try the local cuisine (the kitchen had always just closed, there were no tables available or I needed reservations). If you can believe it, I was actually tired of my steady diet of pizza for supper! The soup and tea tried to warm me up, but when it was time to head back outside for the tour, I was still quite damp. The whipping wind made me look forward to the caves, which though cool, would at least be out of the wind! Worse, though, the crowd that had gathered for the 1 pm tour was so massive they had to split us into two groups. When someone I know had taken this tour a couple months ago, it had been only him and one other person on the tour. I estimated our group at 150!

I chuckled as I saw that the poor German-speaking tourists got saddled with the chattering Italian school kids, while they paired us English speakers up with the Slovenians. The caves were incredible, and stretched on for miles. As we moved from cavern to cavern, it was often like passing through giant jaws as huge stalagmites and stalactites seemed to be clamping down on the openings. The scale of the place was tremendous, including one cavern where the ceiling was lost in the darkness 100 yards above. In another, there was a massive stalagmite that geologists estimated to be a quarter of a million years old. The Slovenian parks service did a great job with "mood lighting" of the Skocjan Caves. My only complaint was the "no photographs" policy, which they explained was to keep algae from growing from the light of the flashbulbs. I thought their science a little suspect, and most people seemed to sneak in a few pictures when the guide was around a corner. So, I did as well. The highlight of the cave is when you cross a narrow bridge over a chasm. Perhaps 50 yards beneath you, a river churns though the cave, filling the air with a foggy mist that turned the beams of our flashlights into spectral searchlights. If it weren't for the horde of other tourists, exploring the Skocjan Caves would be like hitching a ride on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even with them along, it was a great experience and worthy day trip.

The train ride back to Ljubljana went faster, as I caught an "Intercity" rather than the plodding "local." The rain finally eased up when we entered the capital. I spent the rest of the evening purchasing some last minute souvenirs, and finding a great restaurant to enjoy some more Slovenian cuisine. It seemed to have been a quick five days, but now that I had some idea what Slovenia was all about, I could certainly recommend it to others, and perhaps would dash back again sometime to see more of this green jewel of a nation.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:09 Archived in Slovenia Comments (0)

Hiking the Inca Trail

First to the Sun Gate


Machu Picchu as seen from the Watchman's Hut after hiking the Inca Trail

"Nukan chayani lluypa naupaq Ninta Intipunkuman." That is a Quecha, or Incan, phrase that I learned in Peru. I'll come back to its meaning later.

I had finally arrived in Peru. My previous three attempts to visit had all been cancelled for one reason or the other. Now, though, I was in Cuzco -- the ancient capital of the Incan Empire and the gateway to the world famous Machu Picchu. Jenny and I were going to hike the Inca Trail, a four day, three night trek through the Andes Mountains that ends at the Sun Gate -- the mountain pass that opens onto Machu Picchu. It is a difficult hike, sometimes nicknamed the Inca "trial." We'd been instructed by our trekking company, Llama Path, to arrive at least two days early to acclimate to the altitude. The highest pass we would climb to would be 13,779 feet above sea level, and hikers had been known to suffer severe altitude sickness on the trail.

Cathedral in Cuzco's main plaza

So, our first order of business in Cuzco was to check in with Llama Path and let them know we'd arrived, and to pay for the balance of our trip. They told us there would be a briefing with our guide at 6pm the next day. As we'd planned to book a Sacred Valley tour that day, we immediately began making the rounds of the various tour companies that line virtually every street in Cuzco, looking for one that would get us back in town in time. Walking up and down the steep, cobblestone streets of the Andean town, I could feel the effects of the altitude. It wasn't just an out of breath feeling. There was a tightness in your gut that came along with it, a feeling much worse than you'd get from running up several flights of stairs quickly. I seemed to feel it most on the uphill slog to our hotel, a couple hundred yards north of the main square.

Eventually, we located and booked a tour that was scheduled to end at 5pm. So, it was finally time to begin our first day's sightseeing. We climbed back up the punishing stone streets out of town into the hills overlooking Cuzco. There, on a hilltop, sprawled the Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman. The Spanish conquerors thought it was a fortress, but it is actually a ceremonial center with such massive walls that it could be used for defense. The zig-zag walls are an excellent example of Incan stonework, which is smooth and whose blocks are tightly joined without mortar or cement. The blocks are all of different sizes and hand carved to interlock so well that Incan engineering withstands earthquakes that topple colonial and modern buildings to this day. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and we wandered among the ruins which sprawled all around us. The views of Cuzco in the valley below were wonderful, as well as the sight of the white "Christ the Redeemer" statue on the opposite hillock.

After an hour or so of exploration, we hiked back down into town to check out Cuzco's sights. Our first stop was a Spanish Dominican convent which had been built atop the huge Incan Temple of the Sun. The Incan foundations were clearly visible and contrasted sharply with the colonial building materials. Next, we checked out a couple of churches on the main plaza. The cathedral provided an audio device for visitors which explained various chapels, altars and artwork within the cathedral. Its commentary was fascinating. We followed the discussion from point to point within the cathedral, and spent more than an hour there. The fusion of native artistic concepts with European religious ones was particularly interesting, and we admired the paintings, carvings and gold and silverwork all the more for knowing its story.

Gluttons for punishment, we then headed to the Inka Museum, as darkness began to fall. It had an excellent collection of ceramic and textile artifacts from not just the Incas, but the various Andean cultures that preceded them. I particularly enjoyed the Nazca artifacts, with their exotic and imaginative imagery. Nazca artwork depicts great, winged beings with feline faces and human heads which sprout from their tails, claws and even tongues. These creatures are the gods for whom they carved their lines and images in the desert -- but then I'm getting ahead of myself. Nazca came later in our trip.

Inca Villa at Pisca in the Sacred ValleyAfter the museum, I was starving, and felt I could eat a llama. We picked a restaurant recommended by our guidebooks and did the next closest thing -- ordering dishes with alpaca meat (the smaller, furry cousin of the llama). Both of us enjoyed it. I thought it tasted like a cross between beef and pork. There was even a good, dark Peruvian dark beer to wash down the meal. We then called it an evening, to rest up for our busy schedule over the next several days.

Terraced hillside in Pisac

The Sacred Valley

A van picked us up the next morning for our Sacred Valley tour. The valley was the Incan heartland and featured a number of agricultural and religious sites. It is extremely narrow and bordered by huge mountains that seem to rear up directly from the valley floor with no intermediate foothills. On the mountain slopes, you can see lighter colored foot trails, many of which were made by the Incas and are still used by villagers today. Centuries old Incan ruins can be spotted by their accompanying stone terracing of nearby slopes. The terracing gives the hills a stepped rather than smooth appearance, and demonstrates the Incan understanding of engineering fundamentals combined with aesthetics. The terraces were used either to augment agricultural space or to reinforce hillsides against the weight of stone buildings further upslope.

Our first stop was the Incan site of Pisac, which is spread out on a series of neighboring hilltops. Some of the scattered collections of buildings have been identified as temples, while others are thought to be villas for the elite. We followed the pathway that wound along the hillsides, sometimes climbing, sometimes dropping, until we came to the highest point in Pisac. The final ascent had been a stiff 15 minutes of exertion that left us all panting. Our guide joked that we should imagine four days of that, if we wondered what the Inca trail was like. He pointed out the Temple of the Sun, a feature of nearly every Incan settlement, it seemed. From its rounded walls, we had an amazing view over the valley plunging away on all sides. As we caught our breath, we enjoyed Pisac's panorama and listened to the guide's explanation of the site.

Incan site of Ollantaytambo

After a tasty and somewhat ritzy lunch, we were off to Ollantaytambo, which incidentally is the closest town to the Inca Trail's starting point. It is mostly made up of Incan buildings, which are still in use by Quecha speaking inhabitants. The town is dominated by a massive collection of walls and terraces that spans the saddle between two steep hillsides. The rebel Manco Inca holed up here in 1537 for months. The walls helped him defeat two Spanish armies sent to capture him. So much of Incan architecture is so strongly built, and positioned on such steep slopes, that you can see why temples were easily converted into fortifications in times of war. We climbed the stone steps and visited temples perched among the upper reaches of the ruins. Gray skies threatened rain, and perhaps that is what caused our guide to cut short our visit (way too soon for my liking). We were soon bouncing along rough roads towards our final stop of the day. The colonial church of Chinchero was built by the Spanish in the 1600s. Inside, every inch of the attractive building's walls and ceiling is painted with centuries old, brightly colored frescoes. After yesterday's visit to Cuzco's cathedral, we were able to pick out decorative fusions of Andean and European religious art. For example, the bare breasted women repeated all over the walls would probably scandalize a European monk, but to an Incan villager, represented the providence of Mother Earth.

Incan ruins at OllantaytamboThe sun was leaning low in the sky as we tardily made our way back towards Cuzco. There was no way we'd be back by 5pm, and Jenny and I worried if we'd miss our 6pm briefing. As we drove, the setting sun illuminated a gorgeous landscape of snow capped mountains, stark brown hills and golden plateaus with widely spaced farms, fields and corrals. Traditionally dressed villagers went about their daily routine, often trailed by dogs, llamas, pigs or alpacas. Although this part of the day wasn't listed among our tour's sights, it was a special treat to see the beating agricultural heart of the highlands of Peru.

The Inca Trail: Day One

Our alarm was set for early, early the next morning. Llama Path would be picking us up by 5am, our guide had said the night before. A knock on the hotel door meant the moment had finally arrived. I have planned, waited and been frustrated in my desire to hike the Inca Trail for more than a decade. Now, as we followed two of our "Red Army" porters down the cobblestone streets toward the main plaza, it sunk in. I would finally hike the Inca Trail, and see its highlight, Machu Picchu.

Llama Path's porters are nicknamed the Red Army for their company supplied jumpsuits, vests, hats and rucksacks -- all sporting the company logo and trademark bright red color. I'd chosen Llama Path to be my trekking company (one is required to hike the Inca Trail) partly due to its reputation for treating its porters the best. Park rules limit porter loads to about 60 pounds, but Llama Path reduces this further to 44. The Red Army also hikes together as a group and their enthusiasm and upbeat attitude as they trek by you, laughing and joking, is a stark contrast to some other companies' porters who you pass up alone, grunting and struggling uphill, often overloaded with a rustic, jerrry-rigged sack tied around their necks.

As we were lead onto the company bus, our 13 porters broke out into applause as Jenny and I took out seats. The other five hikers were already there, so the bus was soon rolling forward. The applause would become a standard greeting between us hikers and the Red Army. They would cheer us as we started off each morning. We would return the favor when they invariably passed us up within an hour or so. And they would come rushing to greet us with more cheers and high fives when we struggled into the camp they'd set up for lunch or the evening. Prior to starting off that day down the Inca Trail, our guide Casiano had each porter step forward and introduce themselves. He then had us do likewise, translating between Quecha or Spanish and English. Our fellow hikers were a fun and young group. Jenny and I were easily the oldest at 45. There were three Aussies: Doug and Monique, from Brisbane, were in their late 20s/early 30s; Monica was the youngest of our group, in her mid-20s. An English couple of Indian descent, Jay and Dee, rounded out the group. We all hit it off immediately and spent the first morning's relatively easy hiking laughing and joking, trading travel stories and filling each other in on our backgrounds.

Incan ruins of Patallacta

When we came to a scenic overlook around noon, we spotted our first Incan ruin on the trail, Patallacta. In the distance behind it, a column of dense smoke rose into the sky. Casiano said it was likely a villager's fire that had gotten out of control with the day's high winds. As we admired Patallacta's terracing and buildings below us, the smoke began to slither into our valley. As we continued hiking, it followed us, masking the sky with its smoky haze. Flecks of black ash began to rain down upon us. Casiano said there was nothing to worry about. We would soon be going uphill and leave the smoke settling in the valley behind us. He was soon proven correct on both points. We did begin to climb, and our easy morning's hiking turned into a difficult afternoon. We began to sweat freely as we ascended more than 1,000 feet in altitude, and rest stops became more frequent. Casiano had nicknamed today's stretch of the trail "Inca Flats." That became our group's running joke for any stiff uphill section that he hadn't warned us about.

Dinner and our camp were great. The porters had set up five, four-person tents (one for each couple, another for Monica and a final one for Casiano). The meal they prepared in camp conditions, backpacking in all stoves, gas and supplies, was simply amazing. There were heaps and heaps of tasty food. There was so much that a standard problem at lunch or dinner time was finding room on our folding tables for the platters of food. We all joked that we'd end up putting on weight rather than burn it off during the hike. I was reminded repeatedly of the food you'd find on a Caribbean cruise -- particularly the small touches like napkins folded into flowers and vegetables carved into ornamental shapes like birds or roses. Another regular feature of camp was the 4pm "Happy Hour." The table would be loaded down with tea, hot chocolate, popcorn and crackers (or "biscuits," as the Brits and Aussies say). On our first night, the stars shone down brightly on us. I could see the Milky Way easily, and could even pick out the dark patches in it which feature prominently in Incan astronomy. Nevertheless, Casiano predicted rain for that evening. After we'd gone to bed, he was proven right as we heard it pattering against the nylon walls of our tents. By trip's end, I would be convinced he was part Incan shaman, able to control the weather at his whim.

The Inca Trail: Day Two

Day Two on the Inca Trail began early, and we all knew it would be the longest and most difficult. We would begin the day at 10,829 feet in altitude, and climb to 13,779 -- Dead Woman's Pass. It would be a punishing two hours of straight ascent to the highest point on the Inca Trail. We knew it would be our toughest challenge. Afterwards, we would descend for 2,000 feet where we would break for lunch. After lunch, it would be back straight up again for a little less than 2,000 feet, followed by a long, long stretch of downhill. We would camp that night in a cloud forest at 11,800 feet about sea level.

Clouds greeted us as we emerged from our tents on that chilly morning. They would remain with us throughout the day, though the rain had stopped. As we set off uphill, Casiano did his best to inspire us, referring to us as "Super Hikers" and pronounced himself convinced that we would "break the record." We quickly fell into an order of march that remained fairly constant over the four days on the Inca Trail. Casiano would take the lead, soon outstripping us. Jay would be next, gamely trying to keep up with our guide. Doug was our next strongest hiker. Following him would be a group whose order would shuffle, but was invariably composed of Dee, Monique and I. Jenny would be next, just ahead of Monica, who cheerfully brought up the rear on our climbs.

The first hour uphill was tough. My breath soon came in gasps, and I fell back on a trick I use in my running. I counted each exhalation so that it would hopefully focus me on the numbers rather than the exhaustion. Unlike the others, I had chosen to hike without a walking stick, and I soon learned why the others had rented one. Walking sticks allow you to push off and use your arms to help climb. The best I could do was place my hands on my knees and force my legs downward like pistons. It wasn't 15 minutes, though, before the engine would run out of gas. Casiano selected a rest stop every 20 minutes or so. We could hear him as we approached -- first, by the sound of his flute, then his voice calling out (as he caught sight of us), "You can do it!" He would high five each of us as we gasped and wheezed up alongside him on the path. During the ascent, we would have stripped down to t-shirts. However, we would cool off quickly during the breaks and pull our jackets out of our packs. The air was cold in addition to being thin. The wind, which felt great cooling our brows as we struggled upwards, was ice as we panted and caught our breath.

The Group and Red Army porters atop Dead Woman's Pass

Slowly, we neared the top of our climb. On the last leg to Dead Woman's Pass, it seemed I needed to stop every five minutes. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. No matter how long I rested, seconds after I started upwards again I was gasping. Behind me, I heard the steady "tick, tick" of Dee's walking stick. Foundering, I leaned up against the rock wall of the mountain and waved her past. I had honestly hoped to be third in our group, but my strength was spent. Hanging my head, I put my hands on my thighs and forced the legs downward with each step. I wheezed as if I were the most out of shape person on the planet -- not someone who runs regularly. Up, up, up. Every time I looked up to see how much further I had left to go, my spirits sank. The fog continued to shroud my destination. Would it never end? I resolved not to look up anymore. I focussed on the trail immediately in front of me and kept plowing uphill.

Then, I heard it: Casiano's flute! I kept climbing and climbing the steep stone stairs, telling myself, "Don't look up, don't look up." I heard a burst of applause and Casiano shouting Dee's name. Then, I heard him calling mine, along with his trademark, "You can do it!" I staggered the final steps, nearly crying out in relief and joy and appreciation as the Red Army clapped in approval. I wobbled towards a wall and set my pack down. I had done it! The hardest part of the Inca Trail was conquered! I tore into my pack and devoured the apple the porters had given me for a snack. Atop that misty mountain pass, its taste was as sweet as the feeling of my triumph. As each remaining member of our group staggered in, we cheered them: Monique; Jenny; Monica. We took a group photo with the porters, as the wind chased a succession of clouds past us and up and over the mountainside. We savored our success as Casiano pronounced himself amazed with our time: Llama Path's brochure details four hours for the stretch that we'd just completed in two. Casiano assured us we were going to "break the record."

Next came a jarring descent for more than an hour. The Inca Trail consists of various types of surfaces. The most complete sections are stone steps that are spaced higher than a normal stairway. I'd read that was to focus the pilgrim on his sacrifice of sweat and toil. Other sections were composed of irregularly shaped and pitched stones that form more of a ramp than a stairway. These are the most difficult to pick your footing on. The best method is to zig-zag, taking the trail whether going up or down in a slalom like fashion. And finally, there are the most worn sections of the trail which are nothing more than a dirt patch with occasional stones. These sections are the easiest on your feet. My toes were soon hurting during the descent to our lunch spot. Uphill is harder on lungs and legs, but downhill is tougher on the feet and toes.

Way Station of Runcu Raccay

We actually accomplished this section of the trail so quickly that the porters were still a half hour away from serving lunch. They improvised by spreading out a tarp and placing the foam cushions we used for our sleeping bags upon it, so that we could stretch out and rest. We dropped off one by one for a nap, despite the chill of our sweat-soaked clothes. I pulled out both my fleece hooded sweatshirt and my windbreaker and huddled beneath them on my pad.

As we ate lunch, all of us dreaded the next uphill portion. Casiano pointed out an Incan ruin we could see from our lunch table, informing us that it was the halfway point in our climb. We would take a long break there for sightseeing. And though the climb was brutal at times, it did seem easier than Dead Woman's Pass. Perhaps it was the confidence we'd gained that made it seem less difficult. Or maybe it was the other hiking group that became intermingled with ours on the ascent -- "Super Hikers" couldn't show weakness in front of the others! The excitement of touring the Incan ruin, Runcu Raccay, made us forget our weary legs for awhile. Casiano explained that it was a combination watch tower for defense -- guarding this side of Dead Woman's Pass -- and a way station for Incan pilgrims on the trail to Machu Picchu, who could sleep within its walls. The view was impressive, despite the clouds which hung close, masking every summit, it seemed. Casiano was disappointed that they hid what is normally an excellent view of Dead Woman's Pass, a place where you can actually see that it is named for being shaped like a woman lying down.

We completed our climb and began an even longer descent than the previous one. I lagged behind, partially to watch and see if Jenny's knees were giving her trouble with the constant jarring, and partially because it was easier to zig-zag my path when no others were close by. We came upon another ruin, Sayac Marca, which Casiano explained as a combination of fortress and ceremonial center. Sayac Marca was much larger than the way station had been, and we dispersed to explore its castle-like passage ways, walls and rooms. The view of another Inca ruin in the valley below was sometimes cut off by the mist and at other times opened for us as it momentarily cleared. As Casiano pointed out details of our castle, darkness began to fall. Though I wanted to explore more, we knew it was time to leave our perch and trudge down the trail to our campsite.

Walking by the ruins of Concha Marca at end of Day 2

The Inca Trail: Day Three

One of my first memories of Day 3 was the sound of Monica unzipping her tent behind where Jenny and I lay inside ours, and exclaiming, "Oh my god! It's so beautiful!" Day 3 had dawned crystal clear. Yesterday's clouds were gone, and formerly fog-shrouded mountains stood out in sharp, green relief. I had read that the scenery of this day on the trail was the best, and our group was blessed by the most pleasant weather we'd had yet. I took more pictures of the ever-changing panorama of trail, mountain and valley that the previous two days combined. That, plus the fact it was mostly downhill (with only the occasional "Inca Flats"), meant I usually brought up the rear of the group. I did come to appreciate the photographic eyes of my companions. I already knew Jenny was a good photographer, but both Monique and Monica impressed me with their skill, as well. I'd see them pause on the trail and snap a picture. Invariably, when I came upon their location I was greeted by a postcard view.

The mists clear and the view opens up at Phuyu Pata Marca

My favorite moment of Day 3, though, was at the ruins of Phuyu Pata Marca, which means "Cloud Level Town" in Quecha. A rare (for that day) patch of mist cloaked the valley below the ruin, and obscured the mountains beyond it. Casiano sat us down and explained more about the Incan town. He said that normally you can see another ruin in the valley below, and what's more, Machu Picchu mountain beyond it. He bowed his head over his flute and said if we wait two minutes, it would clear up. He began to play. The haunting sound, the Incan walls and towers around us, the mist shrouded valley and the hidden mountains created a magical moment. Suddenly, I sprang up and pointed, "Terraces!" Beneath us, the mist was clearing. Slowly, the terraced slopes of the other Incan settlement sharpened before our eyes. The sky's gray was flooded with blue. And there, opposite us, stood an impressive ring of mountains. All the while, Casiano continued playing his flute as if stopping would cause the mist to return.

If we had thought we had taken a lot of pictures earlier in that day, our cameras whirred, clicked and beeped as we descended into that magical valley. Although I never grew tired of looking out over the ring of mountains, the same could not be said of the constant downhill slog. I almost found myself wishing for an uphill stretch to break the monotony! My toes throbbed as the momentum constantly squashed them into the tips of my hiking shoes. Civilization, of sorts, greeted us at our final campsite, Winay Huayna: Electricity! That meant two things for us hikers -- beer and showers. We soon congregated in the local pub/restaurant and cracked open a mildly chilled Cuzquerna beer. The dramatic setting inside Winay Huayna's towering ring of mountains doubtless enhanced the taste!

After Happy Hour, Casiano took us to visit the ruins of Huinay Huayna. They are perched atop a long, terraced hillside, their gray buildings running up its slope and crowning its summit with sprawling walls and towers. Casiano sat us down and broke into a fervent discussion of Incan history and the town's origins. His love of Incan culture and history cast a spell upon us as we looked out over the most dramatic scenery we'd seen yet on the trail. Then he turned us loose to explore Huinay Huayna in the fading late afternoon light. Casiano said he prefers to visit it late in the day, when the crowds of other hikers have dispersed to their camps (or the bar). Our group nearly had the site to itself. The atmosphere of solitude and quiet sharpened the experience. I have always preferred ancient ruins without crowds. It seems you can commune with the site better and listen for echoes of its vanished people that way. We were all deeply moved by the ruins and their storybook setting.

The Inca Trail: Day Four

We all knew our final wake up call would be early. For the first time in our trip, though, we'd actually urged Casiano for an earlier departure. You see, for whatever reason, there is a drive to be first when it comes to seeing Machu Picchu. Our group wanted to be the first to the gate of the dozen or so hiking groups in camp. From there, we could scamper the last several kilometers to Machu Picchu's Sun Gate, Intipata. I don't know why this drive to be the first to lay eyes on Machu Picchu exists, but it does. And we felt it strongly.

So, our group let out a quiet whoop when we arrived at the camp gate at 4:30 am and found ourselves first. We had an hour to sit and wait, while other groups shuffled up behind us in the dark. We laughed about the previous evening's ceremony with the porters. They had sung a song for us and we had returned the favor. My companions had composed "Go Red Army" to the tune of "Greased Lightning" from the musical, Grease. As the light slowly brightened, we chuckled about the various lines in our version.

And then, the moment arrived. The park ranger arrived to unlock the gate. As Casiano went over the list of our group's names and passport numbers with him, he motioned us on. If he had shouted, "Go!" at the top of his lungs, I doubt the effect would have been greater. The seven of us hustled forward at an urgent pace. We had a head start on the other groups and were determined to make the most of it. From the beginning, I did not intend to run. I would walk quickly like we were, sure, but running...well, that seemed a bit over the top, didn't it? We soon heard footsteps behind us and Casiano appeared with a cheery, "Super Hikers, you can do it!" He made his way up our line at a trot. When he reached the front, he accelerated, and Jay took off after him. Later, Jay related that he had tried to keep up with Casiano. However, our guide had once run the full 27 miles of the Inca Trail in just over five hours during the trail marathon, and he soon left Jay behind. The rest of us fell into our usual order, but with Doug joining Dee, Monique and I in the middle group. At one point, Doug caught sight of Casiano and Jay and shouted, "Let's catch them!" We broke into a run as one. I was at the back, right on Dee's tail. Eventually, she waved me forward and I darted up behind Monique and Doug, all of us still trotting. Doug slowed and slipped off his backpack, handing it to Monique so he could strip off his jacket. I slipped past them. Jogging along, I fully expected them to catch up and overtake me. Instead, I caught up with Jay as he was taking a breather. We ran together for awhile and he told me how Casiano had seemed to vanish in thin air in front of him. At one point, Jay stopped for a drink of water, and I kept going.

The view from the Sun Gate

I was no longer running, but surging forward at a half walk, half jog. It dawned on me that I was in the lead -- the first hiker down the path to the Sun Date and Machu Picchu, that morning. I resolved to maintain my lead. After all, at home, I run 4 miles every other day...it was time to use that conditioning! I decided not to stop no matter how badly I thought I needed a break. I would also try not give the appearance that I was flagging. The wolves would sense weakness, overtake me, and seize my win! Rounding a corner, I came to an incredibly steep, stone staircase that I guessed was what Casiano had called the "Monkey Steps." I clambered up them on all fours, gasping for air. When I made it to the top, though, I did not see the end of the trail as I'd expected. I saw only more inclining pathway and stairs ahead. I shouted back to Jay, who I could hear climbing behind me, "Aren't these the monkey stairs? I thought they were supposed to be at the end!" He agreed in wonderment, and I'm sure both of us were worried that if these weren't the Monkey Stairs, just how brutal would the real ones be?

I tried not to show it, but those stairs took a deep gouge out of my energy level. I stumbled along, doing my best to maintain my surge. My pace definitely wasn't a run, couldn't be qualified as a jog, and it would be generous indeed to call it a fast walk. My breath came in deep wheezes. I gave up on zig-zagging and merely plodded straight up the stairs. My backpack threatened to pull me off balance. Up, around curves, up some more, and still the path went on. Then, as I turned the corner, I caught sight of Casiano's red vest. Sweat poured down my face and back as I surged up that last set of stairs. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen. Casiano played a burst on his flute and shouted my name, "You can do it!" I burst up the last steps and stumbled as my wildly aimed high five nearly missed his outstretched hands. I continued past him exhaustedly and saw the panorama, that living, breathing postcard that is Machu Picchu. I stripped off my backpack and let if fall to the ground, and drank in that magical air: Nukan chayani lluypa naupaq Ninta Intipunkuman -- which in Quecha means "First to the Sun Gate."

All around me, other hikers...Hell, sprinters, appeared. There was plenty of Machu Picchu for us all, and the joy of the shared moment erased all competition that had existed before. We were the few -- sweat dripping from our faces onto that sacred ground -- that had labored a long, tiring path on a four day journey to one of the Wonders of the World. Our group gathered for photos -- individuals, couples and the entire group. All wanted to remember that pristine moment. Casiano marveled at our luck with the day's startlingly clear skies. He said his groups normally must wait 20-30 minutes at the Sun Gate for the clouds to clear and the world-famous view to appear. Today, the sky was cloudless and the air as fresh as if the world had just been created.

The Watchman's Hut at Machu PicchuMachu Picchu

We finished with our photos and collected our backpacks, starting down the path which wound along the mountain to Machu Picchu. The sun rose, its rays fully illuminating ruins of the city. I could hear Casiano moving further ahead by the notes of his flute, but I couldn't seem to tear my eyes from the view. Eventually, we came to the Watchman's Hut, which marks the entrance to the site itself. Even the burgeoning crowd of day-trippers, who had arrived by train from Cuzco and ridden the bus up from Aguas Calientes far below, couldn't spoil my euphoria at finally being at Machu Picchu.

We took more group photos from the excellent vantage point of the Watchman's Hut, chuckling at the German yoga group posing in their skimpy lavender outfits, as if energized by the "nexus points" of the site. Of course, we probably looked a little odd ourselves -- grubby from four days on the trail and shouting weird slogans like "Super Hikers!" as pictures were snapped. Soon, it was time for Casiano to lead us on a tour through the ancient Incan site. He sat us down along one of the terraces, and spent 20 minutes or so explaining various aspects of Machu Picchu. Our eyes wandered over the site while he spoke and the warm sun beat down on us. We sat back and listened, drowsy from the sun and long trail. Then he lead us forward on our tour, which though scheduled to last only two hours, stretched much further than that. He certainly didn't shortchange us, not stopping till we had seen all the main temples and buildings of the site. Then he turned us loose to explore further, giving us our bus tickets down to town, and telling us which restaurant to meet him at before the train ride back.

Machu Picchu in its glory

Jenny and I spent another hour or more circling the site, mainly looking for atmospheric photographic shots. It was hard to go wrong with your camera in Machu Picchu, though. Its mountain stands alone, nearly encircled by the Urubamba river. Across the steep valley, sheer mountain peaks rose all around us, creating the effect of a bowl. The enormous green fangs of these mountains were covered by tropical vegetation, giving a "lost world" appearance. The sight of a dinosaur prowling along the slopes would not have seemed out of place. Beyond our jagged green bowl, further rings of mountains faded into the distance, some of them with snow capped peaks. We meandered slowly through the site, the crowds seeming to swell then disperse. Machu Picchu is a big place, and despite the thousands who visit every day, it is possible to find yourself alone in an ancient Incan room, or along a wall contemplating the incredible scenery around you.

Finally, the day's heat began to wear on us, and we made our way slowly towards the exit. The 25-minute bus ride to town was a dizzying series of switchbacks and loops. It makes you realize the enormous a feat it must have been to build a city so high on a mountain top. Occasionally, I'd catch sight of the Sun Gate, perched on the rim of the mountains, and marvel at the heights we'd climbed on our trek. We found the restaurant, and Casiano, and were happy to have a chance to thank him for all that he had done for us on the trail. I made him write out the Quecha phrase "First to the Sun Gate" for me, and took his e-mail address, promising to send him a link to this page when it was up. During lunch, our weary crew knew it was likely the last meal we'd eat together, and with beers we toasted the wonderful four days we spent together. Most of us dozed later on the train back to Ollantaytambo, and the van ride back to Cuzco. We'd all exchanged e-mails and Facebook addresses, and promised to keep in touch. One thing was for sure, though, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail would always be with us, and the memories of those we spent it with would surely remain dear.

So, after six days of steep climbs and rocky pathways, Jenny and I needed a rest. And that is precisely what we got -- though, I can think of more enjoyable ways to do it. First, we took an early flight back to Lima, then an eight hour bus ride from Lima to Nazca, which is in a desolate, coastal region in the south of Peru. We had the front seats on the second level of a double-decker bus, so we had a good view of the scenery and the driver's somewhat suspect skills behind the wheel. He didn't stop at the usual "pass going uphill on a blind curve" that you find in your travels. After dark, he also blazed away at other cars with his high beams -- no matter how many times they flicked theirs at him. All in all, though, I'd been on more dangerous rides, and we came through safely.

Nazca is famous for the lines and pictures that were drawn on the pampas -- the searing, featureless desert north of town -- between 300 BC and 700 AD. The indigenous Nazcan people created drawings that can be recognized only from the air. They are of animals, people, geometric shapes and other things that are hard to identify. They weren't discovered until the 20th century, when aircraft began flying over this region of Peru. This has spawned numerous theories about why the lines were created, including the obligatory "as landing strips for alien spacecraft." Some have even theorized that the Nazcans had invented hot air balloons so that they could go aloft and view their creations. The most likely hypothesis, though, is that the lines and figures were created for religious ceremonies. The Nazcans would dance along the paths of the lines to honor their gods. The gods, looking down from the heavens, could see the figures and be pleased with their devotion. Researchers have determined that the lines were relatively easy to create. All that was required was to remove the rocks and surface level of the desert, revealing lighter colored earth beneath. The extremely arid climate of the pampas has preserved them for centuries.

View of Nazcan desert out the window from our Cessna

The only way to view them is from the air, and that is the main business of the Nazca tourist industry. There are a number of companies conducting aerial tours, so we booked spots on a 6-seater Cessna aircraft for a 30-minute flight over the lines. The very next morning, Jenny and I were at the aerodrome waiting for our flight. They plopped us down first to watch a Josh Bernstein "Digging for the Truth" episode from the History Channel about the lines. This was good because I had been wanting to see his show, as I recognize in him a fellow Indiana Jones wannabee (he even wears Indy's trademark brown hat). A short time later, we were buckling ourselves into our seats, ready to be launched into the clear blue skies above. I attached the map they'd given me, illustrating our route and the 13 pictograms we would fly over, to the seatback in front of me.

As we took off, I eagerly scanned the ground below, straining for my first glimpse of the lines. We flew northward, and after a few minutes, all traces of vegetation vanished and the ground below turned various shades of brown. I could see the wavy tracks of what little rainfall Nazca received, along with curving roads and pathways. As we climbed, I spotted a long straight line pointing towards distant hills in the east. This was an example of the lines that are thought to have astronomical purpose, marking perhaps the rising or setting of a particular star on the winter or summer solstice. I saw the cleared triangular areas that the loonies called landing strips for spacecraft. Then the captain called over our headsets "Whale, whale, whale." We banked to the right and I looked down, searching desperately until I made out the figure that is called the whale. We then banked to the left, so those on that side of the plane could have a good view, as well. After the whale, were more triangles and trapezoids, then the "Astronaut," "Monkey" (my favorite), "Dog," and so on. I kept had my telephoto attachment in one hand, and the camera in the other, ready to screw it on or off as needed. Some of the designs were much larger than I expected, and some were smaller. Generally, it took only a few seconds of looking to spot the design, though for really large ones needed you to visually "step back" and widen your focus. The small craft was buffeted by the light winds, and the constant banking back and forth might have made me reconsider my breakfast, were I not so busy spotting and photographing the designs. They were really cool to see after reading so much about them.

The Hummingbird

After we were finished, there was a feeling of anti-climax. We still had a day and a half left in Nazca, and we'd just completed the main reason for going there! We decided to scout out other local tours and book a couple for the next day. We ended up reserving one to the ceremonial capital of the Nazca people, Cahuachi, for tomorrow morning, and another to a mummy-strewn cemetery built by the people who supplanted the Nazcans. After lunch, we visited the local museum which features artifacts from Cahuachi and the nearby archeological site of Pueblo Viejo. The day was warm and sunny, which I guess is what you'd expect from a desert. We shopped, hit up the internet cafes, and generally enjoyed taking it easy after the go-go-go of the Inca Trail.

The next morning, we were the only two on our tour to Cahuachi. It is an active archeological excavation, headed up by an Italian team. They've reconstructed about a third of the central, stepped pyramid, which dominates the site. It'll be another couple of years, our guide guessed, before it is actually open for the public to tramp around on. So, we had to stay about 50 yards away from it, but we could get closer to some of the other store rooms and mud brick walls that the Italians had uncovered. It was hot, windy and dusty, and the weather stayed pretty much during our late afternoon trip to Chauachilla cemetery. An Australian couple joined us on this tour.

If you are the type of person who is bothered by skulls or dead bodies, then this would NOT be the tour for you. The cemetery was discovered by grave robbers about a generation ago, and they have wreaked havoc on the site. Strewn all across the surface are bits of bone, fabric from burial wraps, skulls and even random teeth and bones. The Peruvian government has taken over the site now, so it is more protected. They have excavated a number of graves and placed mummies in them as they would have been at the time of their burial. The grave pits are covered with a wooden roof, but the mummies are otherwise in the open air and unprotected. They are of all ages -- from babies to elderly. You can see tattoes on their exposed, withered skin, checkered headbands are wrapped around skulls, and even the remains of their long hair wrapped around their shoulders. Truly, Chauachilla is a grisly sight, at times.

As we were walking along, our guide would spot a random tooth or bone protruding from the ground, and hold it up for us to examine. The mummies were wrapped in layers of colorful textiles or bundled in cotton before being buried. The colorful textiles and valuable grave goods like jewelry were what the grave robbers were after. After they'd exhumed a mummy and rifled it for valuables, they would toss it aside, leaving it exposed on the surface. There were moments when I felt awful for touring such a macabre place. However, tourist dollars help, our guide assured us. She has worked at Chauachilla for more than a decade, and each year sees the facilities get better, the mummies are more carefully preserved, and the government doing a better job protecting the site. Nevertheless, it seemed an ominous way to end to our sightseeing in Peru.

However, all trips must end eventually, and all that remained of ours was the return bus trip to Lima and a flight out. The 10 days in Peru had seemed to blow by, like the clouds scudding over Dead Woman's Pass. We had seen some amazing sights, though, and met wonderful people. I had been challenged on the mountain paths of the Inca Trail and triumphed. I had seen Machu Picchu, a wonder of the world, and will always know that, for one day, I was first to the Sun Gate... Nukan chayani lluypa naupaq Ninta Intipunkuman.

YouTube videos I took in Peru:

Casiano playing his flute

Video flying over the Nazca Lines

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:40 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Visiting Friends in Copehagen

Viking History & More


Castle Elsinor in Helsingor, the site of Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

November, known for gray skies and damp cold, is not the time most would pick to visit Scandinavia. However, I had friends in Copenhagen, Denmark, which supposedly has milder weather than is usual for this far north. Also, when you can fly free to Europe as an airline employee, you go when there will be open seats. And this usually translates to off season -- November in Europe is certainly that, if nothing else!

View from the Rundetarn

I had not seen Casper and Ulla in three years -- since we hung out together in a national park in Swaziland, in southern Africa. We'd hit it off well and kept in touch via e-mail. Luckily, they were available during the time I had for this quick visit. So I set off, and it was a partly cloudy afternoon in Copenhagen when Casper picked me up at the airport. We headed downtown to start the sightseeing right away. After a short driving tour, we parked and began exploring the city's pedestrian-friendly streets on foot. Bicyclists whizzed by regularly, most fairly well bundled up against the chill air. The Danes are avid cyclists, and Casper explained many commute back and forth to work on their bikes. I imagined it'd be a bit rough in the winter, but Casper assured me it's a year-round thing.

We started on the Strøget, a busy, pedestrian only street in the "Old Town" part of Copenhagen. It was lined with shops and hopping with activity this afternoon. Buskers played their guitars and high school groups sang songs or sold baked goods to raise funds for overseas charities. Our destination was the Rundetårn -- a round, brick tower built in 1642 by King Christian IV. You climb it by an internal ramp rather than stairs. The ramp spirals round and round for 209 meters until coming out on top of a wonderful view of downtown Copenhagen. The red tile roofs stretch out on all sides, broken here and there by the weathered green of copper church spires. The sun broke through the clouds as we looked out over the scene, illuminating the autumn foliage with a blaze of reds, yellows and oranges. Casper pointed out the sights as I took photos.

Houses in downtown Copenhagen

Next, we stolled towards the central square, dominated by the Rådhus, the 19th century town hall. We slipped inside the dark, Traditional buildings in Copenhagenbrick building,which serves as the mayor's office, and wandered its corridors and stairs. Casper got a kick out of the mayor's aid mistaking him for someone who was submitting an official petition. I told him it was his long, forked beard which made her think he was a radical! Darkness comes early to these northern climes, so Casper and I headed back to the car. We detoured by the school where he teaches for a brief visit, before heading to his apartment. Ulla owns a hand-made clothing shop, which is downstairs, attached to their second floor apartment. She was just closing up when we arrived. We got a chance to catch up for awhile, before heading back out to the local shopping mall, where Ulla had to run some errands. While she shopped, Casper led me to the electronics stores where he oggled big screen televisions. Then they took me to Casper's favorite restaurant downtown, and treated me to a steak dinner. We told stories about our travels over the intervening years. I was particularly interested in their journey up the coast from South Africa to Tanzania. They had been heading to Mozambique when I left them in South Africa, and their trip proved to be quite an adventure. After dinner, we returned to their apartment where they helped me plan out my own travels for the next day. They explained the public transportation system, which seamlessly blends metro, light rail, buses and intercity trains. We checked websites to verify opening hours and they gave me one of their trip passes to get me started on my journey the next day.

One thing I learned quickly the next day: Visitors should not even THINK about scamming Denmark's public transport system. Before you board a train (or metro or whatever), you punch your ticket the required number of times at an automated machine. This put a location and date/time stamp on it. Conductors come by and check tickets repeatedly. So, if someone thought to save "ticks" on their trip pass by not punching it at the station, they'd be caught and fined in short order. Not that I tried that, of course. I was a good little traveller and enjoyed the comfort and efficiency of the transportation. I think the only confusing part for a visitor would be deciphering how many zones a trip crossed, which decides the number of times you punch your ticket. I simply asked my friends in advance and remembered what they told me.

Excavated Viking longship, in Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde

From light rail to train, my journey time from my friends' apartment to Roskilde, my first destination, was less than an hour. The nearby town was a capital of Denmark back in the Viking days. It sits on the edge of a long fjord that cuts through Zealand island, leading out to sea. Doubtless, the Vikings chose it for its excellent communication routes with both the sea and the farmland of the interior. And it was Vikings that I'd come to see in Roskilde -- or more specifically, Viking longships. An early Viking king had sunk five ships to block a channel that could be used as an invasion route to his capital. A couple decades ago, archeologists found those five ships and excavated them. The wood has been treated and re-assembled into five Viking age ships in the (aptly-named) Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.

Walking alongside an actual Viking longship is an amazing experience. You peer down their length and see how long they actually were. Then you look inside, though, and imagine how cold, cramped and wet an overseas voyage in one of them would be. The museum also has two very interesting films shown in several languages, including English (nearly everyone in Denmark speaks English fluently). The first film details the finding, excavation and rebuilding of the five ships. Another covers the voyage of the Sea Stallion -- a modern longship reconstructed using techniques discovered during the excavation at Roskilde. In 2007-2008, the Sea Stallion sailed from Denmark to Ireland and back. You can go online and watch video clips covering the voyage at www.seastallion.dk. I highly recommend checking them out as they are excellently done.

Besides the Sea Stallion, nearly a dozen other modern reconstructions of Scandinavian vessesls are lined up outside the museum. These run the gamut from small fishing craft through larger medieval trading vessels to the 30 meter long Sea Stallion. During the summer, you can clamber around on them, or even pay for rides around the harbor. Sadly, in November, they were landbound and their tops covered with tarps. The museum was excellent, though, and a couple hours there sails by.

Denmark's magnificent Domkirke in Roskilde

Next, I retraced my steps back to the town square to visit the Domkirke, Denmark's most magnificent cathedral. Its twin brick towers loom over the pretty town. They rise above the quaint, richly-colored homes and trees which line Roskilde's leafy side streets. A nice surpise was that photography (even with a flash) is freely allowed inside the cathedral. This seems to be the case for most attractions in Denmark. It is a welcome change from some European sites that prohibit photography for no apparent reason (other than to maybe sell more postcards?).

Most of Denmark's past royalty are buried in the cathedral, going all the way back to King Harald Bluetooth more than 1,000 years ago. I'd asked Casper at what point did Danes see themselves as no longer Vikings but merely Danish people. He pointed to the reign of Bluetooth as the turning point. It was also when the Danes become at least nominally Christian. Six centuries after that, Denmark's most prolific builder-king, Christian IV, dug up Bluetooth and moved him inside the newly-built Domkirke. From that point on, most royals are buried here, including Christian IV, who lies in a stylish silver and black casket in a side chapel. The renaissance era church is quite ornate, and features a number of different styles of chapels, from light and airy, to colorfully bedecked with frescoes and multi-colored marble. I wandered around it, examining the chapels, the intricately carved wooden choir seats, the gilded, gold altar screen, and more.

I spent so much time in Roskilde that I suddenly realized I was shorting my next destination. I zipped back to Copenhagen and changed trains for Helsingor, another oceanside town. This one lies on the northern tip of Zealand island. Helsingor has three main claims to fame. It is a ferry port to Sweden, where hordes of commuters or day trippers cross. Casper said most are Swedes, coming to Denmark to buy its lower priced alcohol. He joked that if I ran into a group of Swedes in town, chances are they'd be drunk! Helsingor is also known for its medieval streets. Many are pedestrian only, and are lined with churches, monasteries and other centuries old buildings.

I had come for the town's third claim to fame, though: Elsinore Castle. This massive, brick-walled fortification had been built and enlarged by a succession of Danish kings, chiefly to levy tolls on passing ships. It had been fought over and sacked more than once, but still stands impressively today, on a spit of land jutting out into the sea. Elsinore Castle is encircld by a network of moats, earth embankments and brick walls, as it was constructed during the gunpowder age. Many attractions close early in Denmark in November, so I had only an abbreviated visit within the castle itself. However, two concentric pathways ring the castle, and these are open all day long. So, I was able to trace the castle's wind-swept outer fortifications at my lesiure, and admire its commanding position. Placards every 50 yards or so doled out tidbits of history about Elsinore in both Danish and English. Elsinore has also become a pilgrimage of sorts for fans of William Shakespeare. The bard used Elsinore as the setting for Hamlet. His account of Danish prince Amlud is fictional, of course. However, that doesn't keep fans from flocking there to gaze at its walls and ask the eternal question: "To be, not to be?"

Castle Elsinor in Helsingor, Denmark

After my visit, I wandered Helsingor's scenic streets, ducking into an attractive, red brick monastery. Eventually, it grew dark, though. I bundled up against the evening's chill and hurried to the train station. Service to Copenhagen runs several times an hour, and I caught the next one. I arrived back at my friends' apartment just as Ulla was closing up shop, again. They were eager to here about my sightseeing. We enjoyed a some Tuborg beers as we talked about the day's events.

I awoke to the sound of rain on the windows the next morning. I hadn't been 100% sure to do that morning, but the rain decided it: My last day would be a "museum day." I was meeting Casper at 1 pm at Christianborg Palace. There were a couple museums I'd considered squeezing in before that, but when I walked through the doors of the National Museum, I realized it would be only one. The collections were simply too sprawling and too extensive and interesting to cut short. I chose to concentrate on the Danish Prehistory and Medieval Denmark wings. The exhibits have descriptions in Danish and English, and are often wonderfully atmospheric in their use of lighting, music and sound effects. My favorite single piece was a massive silver bowl, carved and stamped inside and out with intricate figures of animals, men and gods. The detail was tremendous. I recognzied definite Celtic influence, and the placard indicated there were Thracian (an ancient Balkan people) artistry, as well. More Celtic design was on display in the form of thick gold neck rings called torcs, and bronze helmets with large spiraling horns sprouting from their sides. Note that the Vikings did NOT wear horned helmets (sorry, Hagar the Horrible), but the Gauls did -- at least for ceremonial occaisons.

Silver Bowl in the National Museum in Copenhagen

The bog burials were evocative, too. One moodily lit room contained the wooden skeleton of a 30 foot long boat that had been used by a Danish chieftain to raid a neighbor's territory. Archeologists had pieced together the story of the battle, as victorious warlords often dumped spoils of battle in nearby bogs as a thanks to the gods. The shields, weapons and broken up longboat attested to a victory by the defenders. It was amazing looking at the invaders' equipment and realizing the defenders' devotion would make them throw valuable swords into the waters. Bodies were sometimes sacrificed in bogs, as well. The museum displayed the grisly relics of men and women ceremonially killed to please Wotan or Thor. Like at Roskilde, photography is allowed in the National Museum, and I took quite a few photographys of its amazing relics from Denmark's viking days and before.

Checking my watch, I hurried through rainy streets to meet Casper. He had wanted to join me when I visted the Ruins Under Christianborg -- a relatively new attraction in Copenhagen. It delves underground and explores the foundations of the castles and palaces that have been built upon this central site. I was surprised to find how much of the earlier fortifications were still in existance. Christianborg Palace is the official seat of the Danish government, but surely must be an unlucky spot for a building. The first two castles built here were stormed and sacked by enemies. After the third was torn down during the renaissance era to be replaced by a more opulent palace, the misfortune continued. The first two palaces burnt down when fires started inside and raged out of control. Each time, the plucky Danes have rebuilt on the spot. The exhibits underneath the palace feature relics of all the previous buildings and accounts of their history. Although not visually spectacular, the ruins were interesting and well worth the hour or so we spent below ground exploring its caverns.

Misty view of downtown Copenhagen

It was still raining when Casper and I emerged above ground. We decided to stroll through Christianshaven, a commune of sorts in dowtown Copenhagen. An abandoned military base during the "Hippie era," squatters moved in and began living in huts and setting up their own communal government. Through the years, the Danish government has cracked down on the oasis of drugs and free love (and rent!), which Casper said usually leads to riots and the government backing down. Some of the homes are little more than shacks, with no heat, running water or electricity. Others are amazingly designed with skylights and all the amenities. Nearly every wall surface, though, is plastered with colorful graffiti -- usually including a "No Photography" symbol. Casper surreptitiously pointed out the Hash dealers and the equally undercover watchmen who would sound the alarm if police began nosing around. For an experiement in freedom, it seemed a place with a remarkable degree of fear or complusion in the air: Casper said that people are pressured not to shout or make loud noises in Christianshaven. He did so once by mistake when he saw a friend from afar and was chewed out for it by those nearby. He also said that some of the dogs that roam the community have been trained to attack anyone who yells, under the thinking that it would be police who would do that during a raid, not the residents who know better. As for me, give me our western rules, culture and amenities over this type of "freedom" any day!

As the rain had finally let up, we walked around a bit more, getting a chance to photography a misty and moody Copenhagen. We ducked inside a cafe for a beer when we got tired of wandering. More beer was in the offing later that evening, though, as Casper had promised to take me to his favorite bar. The occaison was the countrywide release of the seasonal "Christmas beer" by various Danish breweries and microbreweries. Much to my relief, the winter ale at Casper's bar was not a spiced ale, though many Christmas beers often are. Ulla couldn't join us, though, as she had sewing to do for the shop. So, Casper and I wound up my trip swapping stories and sampling good beer. We didn't have to worry about drinking and driving, either. We'd utilized the metro to get home, which is another nice thing about Copenhagen.

All in all, Denmark is an extremely convenient place to visit. The people are attractive, friendly and speak English to a nearly uniform degree. There are lots of interesting things to see, even if you visit during the windswept, chilly days of November.

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:18 Archived in Denmark Comments (0)

Three Day Break in Aruba

Beats scraping snow off my car windshield...!

sunny 90 °F

My rented mountain bike and a beautiful cove in Aruba

I remember scraping snow off the windshield of my car, yesterday evening in Columbus. My shoulders hunched involuntarily at the memory. As I stepped outside the airport, the golden afternoon sunlight and Aruba's 90 degree heat washed over me. My shoulders uncoiled like a sigh. Unfortunately, there wouldn't be much time to relax: I was in Aruba for only two days. Two days! Who goes to Aruba for only two days? Well, the answer was really quite simple. My airline job meant the flights were free. I had to be back at work in three days. And there were interesting things I could squeeze in during a short time in Aruba.

First, I needed a place to stay. My trip was so last minute that I had made no reservations. I asked another employee which Aruban hotels offered us discounts, and she gave me a couple names. I was directed across the street to DePalma tours, where two men graciously called around and found me the cheapest room. I'd read the hotels on the island were notoriously expensive, but at $85, my room at The Mill Resort and Suites was a relative steal. It had its own balcony and jacuzzi, and was much nicer than places I usually end up staying.

Young girls in traditional dress performing Aruban dances

After unpacking, I caught the bus which runs from the hotel districts on Eagle and Palm beaches into downtown Oranjestad. The Fort Zoutman cultural show was scheduled to start shortly. It is held every Tuesday evening inside the walls of the 19th century Dutch fort near the center of downtown. Conveniently enough, I'd arrived on a Tuesday! The show began with the harsh jangling music of a "Tingilingi Box," or crank organ. Made locally of brass cylinders and nails, these organs are cranked by the musician and create a musically frightful racket that apparently is enjoyed by the islanders. The show's emcee ran through his recycled jokes before introducing several troupes of traditional dancers -- various ages of children from very young to teenagers. Their costumes and dances were enjoyable, at first, but the show started to drag towards the end of its two hours. I skipped out early to wander the waterfront, checking out the anchored cruise ships which were lit up like Christmas trees.

View of Hooiberg, or Haystack Hill, in Aruba

I nosed around, looking for a likely restaurant for dinner. I settled on Iguana Joe's, and had a Caribbean Jerk Chicken sandwich while I watched the strollers and traffic on the main street below me. I toyed with the idea of playing some blackjack at one of the casinos. Aruba is best known for its beaches, and second best known for its casinos. With only two days, though, I didn't plan on sampling either. So, I headed back to the hotel, snagged a beer at the bar, and took it up to my room. I eased myself into the steamy water of my jacuzzi and read my book. I was to be up before daylight to maximize my sightseeing the next day. So, I made sure I was good and relaxed, so that I could fall right to sleep.

While it was dark and quiet outside, I woke up, showered, and checked out of my hotel, leaving my backpack for them to hold for my return. I took the early bus into Oranjestad and transferred to one headed to inland Santa Cruz. I asked the driver to drop me off at the closest point to the Hooiberg, or "Haytack Hill," the second highest point on the island. Naturally, the pathway up the hill ended up being on the opposite side from the main road. I found my way to it, though, with only one wrong turn and two barking dogs. It was getting lighter as I approached the hill. The terrain looked quite a bit like the Arizona desert -- lots of cacti and large boulders. Aruba is an arid island, so don't expect jungle when you come here! I found the path leading up Hooiberg, and its nearly 600 concrete steps. I'd timed my visit perfectly. The sun was just breaking free of the clouds that hung low on the horizon. Even though it was morning, the humid air and steep climb soon had me dripping with sweat. My "Travelpunk.com" T-shirt was soaked by the time I made it to the top. The view was great. You could see both the north and south coasts of Aruba from Hooiberg's summit. I took some photos, drank some water, and caught my breath, enjoying the panorama.

View from atop Hooiberg Hill, second highest point in Aruba

I then broke out my maps (neither of which were very good) and tried to decipher the spiderwork of roads I could see spread out beneath me. There had to be a quicker way to the town of Santa Cruz than walking back the way I'd came and waiting for another bus. By matching the shapes of the roadways on my maps with what I saw below me, I thought I could identify Santa Cruz -- not far away at all. I could see a church with a bell tower, and my map showed a church in Santa Cruz. I picked out landmarks, and started down the hill. I hadn't gone very far when I heard some movement in the underbrush to my left. I peered through the foliage and saw a strange little herd of mountain goats. Instead of being conical, their horns curled downwards and flattened out like tortillas. I took some pictures, but the lighting was still pretty dim, and they were skittish. My presence must have spooked them.

I continued on down, meeting two Jamaican guys at the bottom, who were getting ready to climb up. They were stretching out, as if they were getting ready for a run. So, I asked them, incredulously, if they ran up the hill. "Yah, mon," one replied, "Tis good for de body." I was impressed. I run 4 miles every other day, but couldn't imagine hoofing it up that hill! Five minutes later, though, when I turned around to take a picture of the hill, I saw them walking up its steps -- not running. Must have been the language barrier!

As it turned out, the church wasn't Santa Cruz, but that of a much smaller village. So, I had to keep walking down the road for another half hour till I found the town. Along the way, I befriended a dog, who I shared my breakfast with. Luckily, he didn't follow me all the way to Santa Cruz, giving up when the food supply seemed to run low. Despite its small town status on a small island, Santa Cruz is in the big leagues when it comes to fast food. It had a McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and a Subway. This would prove vitally important later in the day! I found the place that rented bicycles, Tri Bike Santa Cruz, arriving 15 minutes before they opened. More good timing!

Scenery from my bike ride to Arikok National Park

A short time later, I was heading off on two wheels towards Arikok National Park. I really wasn't sure how long it would take to get to Fontein Cave, which was my main destination for the day. More than 600 years ago, indigenous Arawak Indians had created paintings on the cave's ceiling and walls. They in are plainly visible today, and you can walk around the bat-haunted cave and view them at your leisure. I tried to follow the bike shop owner's directions, but made a mess of it, I think. Nevertheless, after about 20 minutes of pedaling, I arrived at the main entrance to the park. I stopped at the booth manned by an old Dutch guy, thinking there'd be an entrance fee. He told me that the road was closed, and I'd have to take an alternative trail there. He gave me directions, and soon the blacktop ended and I was on a mountain bike trail. I guess that wasn't all bad, as I had rented a mountain bike. And I'd always wanted to try mountain biking. However, riding over a rocky, dirt and gravel path is a lot slower -- and more importantly for my novice buns -- bumpier than going over blacktop! The pounding of the trail on my butt steadily got worse. The road climbed higher and higher. A couple of times, I admit I had to get off and walk the bike up the steepest portions. Eventually, I reached the turnoff which would take me to Mt. Jamanota, the highest point on the island. I stayed left and began to head downhill towards the sea and the cave. When the road bounced through an old quarry, I felt I'd been strapped to a jackhammer. People do this for pleasure...?

Fontein Cave, decorated with paintings made by Arawak Indians

Finally, after an hour of exhausting pedaling, I reached the sea. The sand which began to show up in the pathway made it much smoother and I zipped along until I came to a snack bar just before the cave. I got off my medeival torture device and waddled up for a cold drink. I overpaid for a Gatoraid (on ice!), but my body told my head is well worth it. After ducking into the souvenir shop and finding nothing of interest, I saddled back up and rode another few hundred yards to Fontein Cave. Although there were three attendants, nobody approached me to solicit their services as a guide (which suprised me). However, one peaked in after I'd been inside a few minutes and pointed out I'd gone past the paintings. Sure enough, my guidebook's description had been a bit off. The paintings were only about 10 yards inside the entrance to the cave -- not 50, like it said! It was humid inside, and stalagtites and stalagmites divided the cave into a number of chambers. Bats fluttered past me as I explored the dim interior. Interestingly, the sign Interior of Fontein Caveat the entrance said "No flashlights," but you were able to take flash photographs. Hmmn. After I'd poked around in the recesses with my contraband flashlight, I returned to examine the Indian paintings. They reminded me a lot of what I'd seen in Sedona, Arizona, awhile back. They were mostly of various abstract symbols and designs, painted in a deep red color. Once your eyes got used to the lighting, you saw them on most of the ceiling surfaces in that chamber. I took a number of pictures, feeling guilty the times I used the flash (but the attendant had told me it was okay!).

Paintings, 600 years old, on the ceiling and walls of the cave

As I was leaving, three jeeps bounced up the road to the cave, and a few loads of tourists poured out. My timing again had been good. I'd had the cave to myself during my visit. I saw them look at me, as I put my helmet and gear back on. I could see them thinking, "He's biking...in this heat...and in this terrain?" As I rode off, I was thinking, "I'm biking in this heat, and in this terrain...?" I pedaled over to the ocean shore, where steps led down to a really cool cove. If I'd brought my bathing suit on the bike ride, I'd have been seriously tempted by the beautiful, blue water -- despite the "No Swimming -- Undertow" sign. Aruba's sand is amazingly white, and its water crystal clear. One day, it might be a good idea to come back here to actually go to the beach like a normal person!

The ride back was a notch above grueling, and one beneath torture. Okay, maybe TWO notches below torture. I did finally figure out the gear system on the bike, though. The 1-2-3 on my left handlebar combined with the 1-8 on the right to create 24 gears (or something like that). Clicking it down to the lowest settings, I was actually able to pedal uphill most of the way, stopping only a couple times. On the trip out, I'd had the left gear set on "2," which meant I had been using the middle gears. I think. As I neared the end of the trail back to Santa Cruz, any thoughts of going on to check out other sights had been bounced out of my system. I'd thought about visiting Ayo or Casibari Rocks after the cave. They supposedly were very scenic and unusual rock formations with an 600 year old paintings on ceiling of Fontein Cave in Arikok National Park, Arubaexcellent view of the countryside. I'd figured since it felt like I'd sat on a rock for the last two hours, I didn't need to go look at one. As I pedaled into town, I was just one notch below whining. I was happy to see the "Tri Bike" sign and be able to turn in my metal monster.

Honestly, the scenery had been wonderful, and it was great to be out enjoying it (especially considering there was snow on the ground back home!). I simply have a new respect for mountain bikers after the experience. The cave paintings were cool, like I'd expected, and the cove had been a nice little bonus. It was time for food, though, and I limped down Santa Cruz's main street. I picked Subway from among the American fast food joints for its free refills on drinks. I figure I needed all the rehydration I could get after the ride. Then I caught the bus back to town and the hotel strip. The Mill Suites and Resort had very kindly said I could use a courtesy room to shower up and change after my day of sightseeing, at no charge. I did that, and as I was dressing, the phone in the room rang. The shuttle bus to the airport was there -- more good timing! I hurriedly tossed things into my backpack and was soon on my way to the airport.

Aruba had been a pleasant two day idyll. I'd seen some nice scenery, enjoyed some warm weather, and learned to avoid mountain bikes like a Hammerhead shark. My body was sore, but I figured it was better than scraping ice of windows back in Columbus!

Posted by world_wide_mike 18:06 Archived in Aruba Comments (0)

To Timbuktu and Back

Adventures in Mali

sunny 90 °F

Ancient Tellem cliff dwellings in Dogon Country, Mali

The discomfort of long miles on rutted dirt roads persists in my memories of Mali, much as its fine red dust colors my shoes and clothes. As we drove for hours in our rented Toyota Land Cruiser, my legs would begin to stiffen. Sitting in the cramped back seat, my knees would throb as the journeys stretched to six hours. We left long plumes of that red dust in our wake, during our week in Mali: East from the capital, Bamako, to the river town of Mopti; North into the Sahara, to historic Timbuktu; South to the pink cliffs of Dogon country; Finally, retracing our trail back westward, past Djenne's beautiful, mud brick mosque.

Tombori Mountains along road to Timbuktu

My friend Steve and I had hired a car, guide and driver for our sightseeing. It cost us way more than I'd guessed it would. Though poor, Mali is a relatively expensive country to visit. Rental car companies, for example, insist you hire a driver as well -- especially when undertaking the grueling trek to Timbuktu. Neither of us wanted a guide, but since drivers as a rule don't speak English in Mali (they'd "move up" to being guides if they did) -- and neither of us were comfortable with our limited French -- we gave in. We ended up arranging our "program," as Malians like to call it, at our hotel in Bamako on the night we arrived. The Tamana Hotel has an inhouse tour company, Tamana Adventures, that set it all up for us, costing each of us over $1,000, including most of our lodging, meals and bottled water. There was a chance that Steve might be able to get the car rental portion reimbursed through work, so it might end up being a tad cheaper for us in the long run.

In our pre-trip research we'd agreed there were three sights we couldn't miss in Mali:

· Timbuktu
· Dogon country
· Djenne

Unfortunately, all three of these are miles and miles from the unexciting Bamako, where international flights arrive. We'd lose pretty much a whole day on each end of our journey, going to and from Bamako. What's more, Timbuktu is yet another full day's drive north. With only six days of actual sightseeing, that meant four would feature long travel days. Normally, I balk at spending so much time in transit. However, there really didn't seem to be another way to see all three, and we couldn't imagine missing any of them.

Donkeys laying in the road to Timbuktu

So, Steve and I "sucked it up" both monetarily and physically, and became road warriors in Mali. We lost a good bit of time on our first morning at the banks obtaining local currency. Tamana Adventures did not take credit cards. In fact, we never encountered a single place that did in the entire country. I'd brought along $500 cash, since I'd heard ATMs there can be tricky. Steve had no problem with his cards, but I couldn't get the machines to take either of my three. I had to physically go into a bank and get them to give me a cash advance using my card. The moral here: Bring whatever cash you may need for Mali -- don't depend on getting it from ATMs!

Our plan had been to stop off in Djenne on that first day, ending the night in Mopti. It quickly became apparent, though, that we'd lost too much time in the capital that morning. Our driver, Samba, tried to make up time -- putting the pedal to the metal as often as possible. The constant stream of people, goats, donkeys and cows crossing the road slowed our pace. Goats seem to be Mali's answer to our deer in the Midwest. They will leap out in front of your car from the safety of bushes along the roadside. You can almost see it in their baffled expressions: "My friends are on the other side -- I HAVE to get over there!" Samba had to stop time and again to avoid hitting stupid goats, otherwise meat would have been on the village menu that evening!

Postponing Djenne for the return trip, we made it to Mopti as darkness fell. There was no time for sightseeing. Instead, we grabbed dinner and spent some time at the hotel's internet cafe. This would end up being the last internet we found until our final night of the trip. Over beers, Steve and I sat out in the hotel's courtyard, catching up on each other's travels. We hadn't seen each other since meeting in Syria in 2005, but had kept in touch by e-mail -- always swearing we'd do a trip together one of these days. His posting to Nigeria in the British foreign service made Africa an obvious choice. Mali was high on both of our lists of places we wanted to see, and since his wife isn't thrilled about travel within Africa, we'd finally arranged our trip together.

Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu

Timbuktu was one of the major lures that brought us to Mali. During the medieval era, the Saharan market town became extremely wealthy -- rumored among Europeans to be a city of gold. It cashed in on its location as a meeting point for camel caravans criss-crossing North Africa and the goods of sub-Saharan Africa brought up on the nearby Niger river. Wealth and fame followed, which led to it also becoming a haven for Islamic scholars. Thousands of manuscripts filled its homes and libraries. The town's fame lingered for centuries, long after it fell from actual importance and power. Many 19th century European explorers died trying to be the first to visit and return from Timbuktu. Those who did reach it were disappointed to find the legendary city sunk back into a sleepy desert town, with buildings of crumbling mud brick rather than gold. Its monopoly on trade was long gone, but the mystery of its name continued to draw visitors. In a way, this aura continues to this day. Timbuktu's fame is what had Steve and I rattling around in the back of a 4x4, watching as the road deteriorated from packed dirt to sand. Outside the windows, the vegetation grew sparser as we entered the fringes of the Sahara.

Mali has many ethnic groups, and it is the Tuareg that dominate Timbuktu and the north. Most groups coexist peacefully, each with their own role in the nation: The Bambara are its most numerous, and hold political power; The Fulani herd most of the nation's cattle; The Bozos (I chuckle at the name every time, too) are its best fishermen. However, the desert Tuareg are Mali's problem children. Upon Mali's independence, they felt disenfranchised. This broke into open rebellion in the early 1990s until a peace treaty was signed in 1995. This is observed by most Tuareg, but scattered groups still launch attacks on army bases, raid villages or rob wayfarers to the far north at gunpoint. As recently as a month before our visit, Tuareg "rebels" attacked an army base in the far north. Others kidnapped four Western tourists driving through the Sahara to a music

festival. I asked our guide, Sidibi, about the political situation. His opinion is that much of the dissent is bankrolled by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who profits by northern Mali (and the oil reserves that stretch underneath both countries) being undeveloped. Neither Steve nor I were worried, though. The incidents have all happened in the north of Mali, days away from where we'd be.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally arrived at the ferry across the Niger river. Since Timbuktu was only 10 miles or so beyond the ferry, we should have a few hours of daylight to explore the town. However, the ferry operated on the "leaves when full" principle so common in the Middle East and Africa. So far, it was just our vehicle and one other occupying the four spots on board. After 45 minutes of waiting, I decided to investigate. The cost for each vehicle was 5,000 CFAs -- about $10. This meant only an additional $20 stood between us and our goal of Timbuktu. I told Sidibi to tell the ferry captain that I would pay for the two empty spots, and we were soon moving. It just seemed silly to me to invest all that money to visit Mali, then be stingy on less than what I'd spend on dinner and a movie back home.

Mosque along the road to Dogon Country

Once across, we drove into town and were soon checked into the Hotel Bouctou. We unloaded, then set out on foot to explore Timbuktu. As my sandaled feet felt the dust and sand of the fabled town's streets, I began to feel a bit like Rene Caillie, the Frenchman who was the first Westerner to return alive from Timbuktu. He found the town's glory faded and was depressed by its drab appearance. Steve and I had expected a sleepy town of perhaps crumbling monuments. The squalor and filth that choked the streets repulsed me, though. With only a little bit of effort and civic pride, Timbuktu could be an atmospheric relic of the Middle Ages. However, garbage lay strewn about everywhere, and dead animals rotted untouched for days by the listless inhabitants. Although Tuaregs predominate in Timbuktu, there is a distinct mix of ethnic groups in town. So, perhaps it is too harsh to blame them solely for poor upkeep of what could be an economic and cultural magnet for this part of Mali. The West has poured money into here -- like it has all of Mali. It seems you can't drive 15 minutes on the roads without seeing a sign proclaiming a cooperative between Mali and the European Union, France, Japan, Luxembourg or some other "first world" nation. The West certainly has not turned a blind eye to Mali's -- and Timbuktu's -- poverty. However, it is my opinion that citizens need to put aside nepotism and avarice at a certain point, and pull themselves up. They must sweat now for the future of themselves and their children. Timbuktu shows no signs of that spirit.

The town's grand sight, the Djingareyber Mosque, is mostly encased in scaffolding and off limits to visitors -- though we saw no work being done. The Library housing some of its famous, historic manuscripts showed evidence of foreign dollars, with a half dozen medieval books in a glass display case. Stacks of others moldered in a wooden cabinet running the length of one wall. The western-installed climate control system lay idle -- not running for want of spending money on power. Sidibi and one of his friends guided Steve and I through the streets of Timbuktu. Each dingy alley, each open trash dump of a field -- with children and goats poking through it -- further deflated the image of the fabled market town in our eyes. I left the next morning convinced that only committed history buffs who need to say they've "been to Timbuktu" should visit. Otherwise, travelers should point their caravan elsewhere, as markets have done likewise in the intervening centuries.

Market day in Bamba, Dogon Country[

We were lucky and snagged the last spot on the morning ferry across the Niger. Once across, we drove south, back across the demanding roads until we reached Douentza, where the blacktopped main road meets the dirt and sand one from Timbuktu. We had lunch there while sharp-eyed Samba went to repair a leak he'd spotted on our Land Cruiser. More than two hours later, the gasket replaced, we were bouncing further southward into Dogon country. The road was even worse than the Timbuktu one, and only one lane wide. This vexed Samba, as we met a constant stream of donkey carts heading the other way who didn't want to yield. Steve and I could tell mild-mannered Samba was getting exasperated. The late afternoon sunlight was slanting low from the west when we reached our first Dogon town, Bamba. Built in the plains at the base of the Falaise -- an escarpment or line of cliffs that runs northwest through Dogon country -- Bamba was bursting at the seams with activity. Today was market day.

We followed Sidibi into the colorful crowd of Dogon, Fulani, Songhai and others, as they sat behind wooden stalls or blankets heaped with their fruits, vegetables, dried fish, clothes or other wares. People pressed around us on all sides -- none closer or more persistent than the ever-present Malian children. Some merely wanted to greet us with a cheery "Ca va?" (How's it going?). Others begged for "cadeaux" (tips), water bottles or ball point pens. I would like to swat the idiot traveler who popularized the idea of passing out pens to the children of third world countries. Even if you brought an entire suitcase full of them, they'd be gone in your first or second village. More importantly, you are teaching them to beg (and pester) tourists. More than one Westerner has returned from Africa checking the mirror to see if they really do look like an ATM machine. To me, the children were so cloying and intrusive that I felt it prevented me from fully experiencing the market. On the other hand, Steve (with a family of four kids), was charmed by them. Which was fine and dandy with me, as I did my best to slough them off on him throughout the trip!

Dogon village of Yendouma

Sidibi kept up a running explanation of various goods for sale, all the while handing out kola nut gifts to the village elders he met. Some villagers had no problem with being photographed, while others reacted angrily to the camera. My gaze kept wandering from the colorfully dressed throngs to the Dogon houses that loomed above the market, climbing the slopes of the hillside towards the cliffs. This was my first sight of the photogenic Dogon villages with their mud brick buildings and thatched "witch's hat" roofs. An animist people among Mali's mostly Muslim population, the Dogon were pushed to the cliffs in the 1400s by other groups. The Dogon themselves shouldered aside the Tellem living there, who the Dogon refer to as a "pygmy" people. They had built villages high on the cliffs like the Pueblo buildings in the American southwest. The Dogon culture survived into the modern era partly due to its isolation and inaccessibility of its villages on the cliffs. In the last century, Dogon have begun to build houses further down the slopes or even onto the plains, as slave raiding and other dangers disappeared. The ones highest up on the cliffs are being abandoned or left to the elderly, as the young choose not to haul water and food up the rocky paths so high each day.

After our sensory rich visit to Bamba's market, we drove to the village of Yendouma, where we'd spend the night. It is another village on the slopes that is gradually creeping down each year. Our "hotel" for the night proved quite a shock to Steve and I. Sidibi said most tourists simply grab a mattress and sleep in the open air on the dusty rooftops. The alternative was an airless, windowless cell with a stone shelf for mattresses. He showed us the shower -- a five gallon bucket of water with a ladle. The bathroom was next door, a room with a hole in the stone floor, swarming with flies. I'd read that accommodations in Dogon were very basic, but I'd pictured more than essentially camping on the roof of a building! Steve and I prevailed upon them to set up tents on the rooftops and sweep a bit of the dust and rocks into one corner. The idea of sacking out in the open, as much as mosquitos love me, was just about unthinkable. I'd wake up as one big "mozzie" bite!

Mollified a bit by the tents, we ate dinner by flashlight on the rooftop. Sidibi asked if we wanted beers, which would be warm since there was no electricity. We said sure, why not? As I took a sip of my beer, looking out at the stars that began to fill the night sky, it suddenly dawned on me: Today was my birthday! We toasted my turning 46 while we looked out over the village campfires, listening to the sounds of the people, their goats and the outrageously loud braying of their donkeys. I mused there were worse ways to spend your 46th birthday than waking up in Timbuktu and going to bed underneath brilliant stars in Dogon country. As it was, those romantic sounding goats and donkeys, combined with the uncomfortable tent, meant it was a mostly sleepless night for me. I've never loved camping, and I certainly hadn't packed (or mentally prepared) for it!

View from cliffs on our first day of hiking in Dogon Country

As much as we hadn't anticipated our Dogon hotel, we were eager for our Dogon hiking. We started early before the heat of the day could catch up with us. Following a path, we criss-crossed back and forth, uphill towards the looming cliffs. Looking back down, the views across the valley were sweeping. The pale red earth shone in the morning sun, contrasting with the yellow-orange gleam of the sandstone cliffs above. Here and there, patches of green vegetation marked the fields and scrub brush. Giant baobob trees stood like gnarled sentinels guarding the path. Sidibi broke open one of the baobob's gourd-like fruits, letting us taste the chalky, white fruit inside. It was surprisingly sweet, the white substance slowly dissolving in your mouth until you had only a dark seed, which you spit out. After days and days in the Land Cruiser, it felt good to exert myself, and I all but bounced up the trail.

Eventually, we rounded a bend and glimpsed the village of Youga Diri just beneath the cliff face. Above the mud brick Dogon buildings, I could see the ancient Tellem dwellings perched precariously in recesses of the peach-colored cliff face. For the most part, the Dogon did not take over the Tellem structures, building their villages beneath them, but still halfway up the slopes to avoid attacks from the plains. Some of the Tellem buildings appear to utilize caves in the sandstone face of the cliff, while others are also made of mud brick, like the Dogon ones. Sidibi pointed out that the oldest buildings were conical in shape, some several stories tall. Newer ones were built in a rectangular style. He explained that narrow pathways along the cliff face led to them -- much more precarious and steep than our trek up to Youga Diri. The Tellem buildings are off limits to visitors, though Dogon elders occasionally ascend to them to perform ancient rituals. The sight of the crumbling buildings along the cliff face, with the Dogon village clustered below, was incredible. As sunlight caught them, their orange-red color reminded me of the cliff temples of Petra, in Jordan.

Dogon huts with characteristic "witch's hat" roofs

We continued upwards, eventually crossing the spine of the Falaise. We were rewarded with a dramatic 360-degree view of the countryside. To one side, was the red earth valley inhabited by the Dogon. On the other, tan desert stretched away to the east and south. Far below, we could make out a single file of hump backed African cattle being driven by their Fulani herders to more fertile patches. The distance faded away into a gray blue haze, beyond which lay the border with the neighboring country of Burkina Faso.

After a short break in our wide eagle's nest atop the cliff, we descended to the other side through two steep gorges. As we walked along a narrow cleft, we came upon the startling sight of Youga Dougaweow. Its ancient Tellem buildings rose underneath a rocky overhang and inside a deep bowl in the cliffs. Sunlight reflected brightly into the bowl, turning the mud brick a deep orange-red color, as if an oven's heat was emanating from within them. All around, the brighter sherbet colored sandstone of the cliffs reflected the sun's rays. Even the very air seemed to glow and dance. We rested awhile, admiring the view of the half dozen buildings -- perfect as museum models. One cone stretched three stories tall, tapering to a flat top and pierced by dark windows.

Continuing on, we came to the inhabited Dogon part of Youga Dougaweow. It seemed noticeably rougher and poorer than Youga Diri, on the other side and part way down the slopes. The inhabitants of this village faced a more grueling uphill walk each day to bring up water and food from the plains. It was a living village, though, and as we poked amongst its buildings we could guess the hardships and struggles that the Dogon put into daily life here on the cliff top. A 20 minute downhill scramble brought us to the much larger village of Youga Natl. Row upon row of mud brick huts, with their distinct "witch's hat" thatch roofs, stood on the plains. It also had a camp with a restaurant where we'd eat our well-earned lunch that day. The owner of the camp had set up his tables on an airy, roofed platform with a fantastic view stretching into the distance. The chairs were comfortable, the drinks cool, and the breeze refreshing after three hours of climbing. I took off my shoes and stretched out. While waiting for lunch, I dozed off several times, waking up refreshed and enchanted by the blissful view.

After lunch, we checked into the Hotel Chameleon in the village of Banani. This was our third night in accommodation paid for by Tamana Adventures, and Steve and I saw a trend. In a word, they were borderline. For the most part, our hotels were dingy and dirty, and in the Chameleon's case, featured the only surly staff we ever encountered in Mali. It had real showers and flush toilets, though. Even the rooms had screened windows on three walls to have a chance at catching a breeze. We checked out the rooms, picked one, and insisted they put up mosquito netting. It would have been nice if they cleaned the layer of dust off the sheets, too, but that was apparently asking for too much. Our reaction to our accommodations sparked an interesting conversation between Steve and I. We marveled at how our minimum acceptable level has changed through our years of traveling. Until Mali, I considered hostels "roughing it." They'd have been a luxury here! Later that night, I met one of our fellow guests at the Chameleon -- the U.S. Vice Consul for Mali. He was staying with his wife and two kids, and all were happily sacking out on the rooftop on mattresses, while grizzled, veteran travelers Steve and I groaned and whinged (a nice English word) about the $%ithole we were staying in! Of course, the vice consul and his family came prepared to camp out, where as we hadn't.

Dogon village of Irelli overlooking the plains

We drove to the Dogon village of Irelli that afternoon, after the heat had died down. We climbed through the village, which sprawled from the plains almost all the way up to the cliffs. Tellem ruins loomed above Irelli, too. Sidibi sought out the village elders and presented them with the customary gift of kola nuts. We were invited to a village celebration a man was throwing in honor of the birth of his sixth child. Several dozen villagers sat in the shade, high above the plains, watching their children dancing to the beat pounded out by two drummers. The beaming father passed out bowls of millet beer. The taste was sweet, but had an mistakable beer-like tang. It was interesting that the villagers segregated themselves by age and sex: The elderly men sat in a shady place of honor; The women clustered together opposite; The young men and older boys gathered around the drummers; The children danced in the center or mingled with all. Steve's video camera was a huge hit, as usual, and the children performed with extra enthusiasm when he brought it out. It was a heartwarming welcome and acceptance we received from the Dogon of Irelli.

We enjoyed the display and pandemonium for awhile, then hiked back down through the village. Dusk was beginning to creep in, and I was looking forward to the Chameleon's shower, as I'd passed up on the bucket that morning. Upon arrival at the hotel, we discovered that the power was turned on only for a few hours in the evening -- even though they have solar panels and a generator. In the evening, Steve and I were forced to once more "rough it" with warm beers!

The next morning we walked through the village and began climbing towards the cliffs. Like so many Dogon villages, Banani stretches in loose clusters of buildings from the plains all the way up the slopes of the hill. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone dazzlingly off the mud huts and cliff face. The colors were breathtaking, and as we rose above the valley, the views were nearly equal of the day before. Sidibi had taught us the sing-song greeting of the Dogon the day before. It features an extended question and answer session, where the first asks, in turn, how the other is, how their father is, their mother, their children, etc. The other answers fine (which sounds like "say-yo") after each inquiry. The role reverses, and the same questions are run through. It is actually pretty easy, since you need only know a half dozen words. My attempts at it produced surprise and chuckles among the Dogon, though, so I don't know if I was doing everything right or not.

Dogon village of Banani shines in morning sun

We rested awhile as we reached the top of the cliff, watching the occasional villagers climbing past us. The two men with the goat were having a difficult time of it, as it must have sensed it was being led somewhere unpleasant, and bucked and struggled. We strode along the cliff top to find another village built there. This cliff actually ended in a plateau, and our driver had taken the road to meet us here after our climb. First we wandered through the empty streets, noticing that many of the buildings were made of concrete and not in the mud brick and thatch of the villages on the slopes below. Sidibi pointed out old niche graves in the rock face, which were then walled up with mud bricks. He said that most had been raided years ago by grave robbers looking for artifacts to sell to collectors. A mosque shown in the sun at the end of the village. In front of it, perhaps two dozen souvenir dealers had set up their wares. Steve and I realized that this might be our last chance to buy something in Dogon country, so ran the gauntlet of their aggressive salesmanship. I picked up a nice wooden mask of a type I'd noticed yesterday. Once the dealers knew what I wanted, they competed with each other for my business. I felt bad for the others who didn't make a sale, but was happy I was able to pay a price I felt was a good deal, but fair.

This was to be the end of our time in Dogon country. Most of the rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent driving towards our next destination: Djenne. We reached the river town of Mopti around lunch time, and Sidibi took us to the Hotel Bozo, which is on a point of land surrounded on three sides by river. There were more tourists here than we'd seen in one place at any other time in Mali. The outdoor cafe was breezy and pleasant, and we enjoyed a relaxing lunch while watching Mopti's busy river traffic bustle along the waterfront. It was at this point that we had the Kola Nut Confrontation. When we'd negotiated our package, Tamana Adventures had told us that they would take care of everything in Dogon country -- accommodations, food and any village fees. However, while I'd been out running around trying to get money off my cards that next morning, one of the workers had told Steve to give him 40,000 CFAs for the kola nuts which the guide would give as presents to the village elders in Dogon country. We assumed that was part of the package, and that they had just been asking for the cash in advance. We'd arranged to pay half that first morning of our tour and the balance here in Mopti. Sidibi insisted that the roughly $80 we'd given them for the kola nuts was outside of the package -- not included in it. We argued back and forth, eventually agreeing that they would pay for our accommodation and meals in Mopti (which originally wasn't part of the agreement) in recompense for the unadvertised $80 expense.

River town of Mopti with its fishing boats

We took another small ferry to arrive at Djenne, which is in an island of sorts between two rivers. Today was also market day in Djenne, and the streets were packed as we drove through town. Most tours try to arrange to be in Djenne on market day because it is a large one and fairly well known. We checked into our hotel (the nicest in town, Sidibi assured us -- where the President stays when he's in Djenne), and shortly afterwards began our exploration on foot. The dusty streets of the old town were a good bit cleaner and more well kept than those of Timbuktu. The later afternoon sunlight gave the maze of tan colored buildings a warm glow. We wound through the back streets until we suddenly arrived in the main square, and the Grand Mosque stood resplendent in front of us.

The largest building constructed of mud bricks in the world, Djenne's mosque is an example of the Sudanic style of architecture in Mali. It's rounded towers and projecting wooden beams are complemented by the smooth coating of mud, or "banco," that is reapplied every year after the rainy season. It gives it a very otherworldly look -- very few sharp lines and a mostly smooth, rounded appearance. If Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi lived in the Middle East, he'd have designed buildings that look like the Grand Mosque. We climbed to the roof of a nearby house to get a chance to step back and appreciate the mosque from above the crowd and congestion of the streets. It is definitely one of the more unique buildings I've seen. Sidibi said he'd look up one of his friends in town and see if maybe he could get us inside. Officially, non-Muslims are prohibited inside -- ever since some idiot European photographer used the inside for a seamy, flesh-bearing fashion shoot. Sometimes, I think Americans have more in common with the Muslim world than we do with our forebears in Europe! Knowing the moral sensibilities of Islam, who -- with even a modicum of common sense -- would use one of a country's holiest sites to photograph a "United Colors of Benetton" style, soft porn advertisement?

Djenne's mosque - largest mud brick building in the world

Sidibi's friend came through, and Steve and I took off our sandals in paced quietly through the interior of the mosque. It was extremely dark inside, and somewhat claustrophobic, with the closely spaced rows of arch-like columns that filled the interior. I guessed the extra support of the numerous columns was probably needed, since mud brick is unable to bear the weight that stone or other materials can. All in all, the interior was somewhat of a disappointment. It was a bit of a thrill to be defying all those "Entree Interdite Aux Non Muselmans" signs posted by every entrance, though. Mali is a country that has one foot in the Muslim world of North Africa, and the other in that of sub-Saharan Africa.

After tip-toeing around the mosque, we rejoined Sidibi outside. He took us on a tour of the rest of the town. The kids were every bit as eager here for our tips (which we didn't give) or to sell souvenirs to us (which we did not buy). They also burst into action every time we raised our cameras, hoping to get in the picture and then rush to see themselves in the LCD screen. We ended up in the main square again, where most of the vendors for the market had packed up and hopped aboard large trucks, piled high with goods. The colorfully dressed people perched atop bags of rice or millet as the trucks belched black diesel smoke. Local merchants loaded up their wares onto donkey carts and headed home, as well.

Before dinner, Sidibi located an internet cafe for us. I was eager to update folks on the fact that, no, I had NOT been taken captive by Tuareg nomads and simply had not been able to find any internet connection since our first night. I alternated struggling to type on the French keyboard (the Q and A switch places, among other changes) and swatting mosquitos darting in at my ankles. Back at our hotel, I got my first look in days at my grizzled appearance (I'd last shaved on the morning of our arrival in Mali). Yikes! The gray in my stubble means I can't pull off that unshaven look as well as I used to in my younger days! We saw another large collection of Westerners at dinner -- mostly French (as in all of Mali) -- at a place Sidibi had picked out. The restaurant was geared towards tourists and featured traditional drummers and the coldest beers we had in Mali.

And for the most part, that ended our sightseeing in Mali. We still had one full day in the Land Cruiser before we reached Bamako. Samba drove at a much slower pace, though, as our flight back to Paris did not leave till 11:45 pm. The extra hours in the back seat brought back the familiar aches in my knees. I watched Mali go by the window, much as I had done on our first afternoon. The donkeys, goats and people all criss-crossed the road in front of us, as they had done before. It all seemed less irksome, though, than it had nearly a week before. Even the vendors did not seem as intrusive and persistent. Perhaps, like the red dust I could see coloring my khaki pants, Mali had worn its way into my skin. The memories were there, of course: Of the glory faded from Timbuktu's streets, of the fantastic cliff villages in Dogon country, and of an exotic mud brick mosque, whose outer layer is reapplied every year after the rains try unsuccessfully to wash it away.

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:48 Archived in Mali Comments (0)

Galling End to My Sri Lankan Journey

Bout of Sun Poisoning Clouds Finale in Galle

sunny 85 °F

Walled city of Galle, Sri Lanka

I have been to Southeast Asia many times, but this was my first foray into what I would term “South Asia.” I don't use sunscreen as a rule on non-beach trips, and it was here that I would pay for that policy. By the end of the safari in Yala, My right arm and knee were fairly reddened by the sun. For some reason, my side of the jeep always seemed to be in the sunlight. Think of the tan you get on a long car trip with one arm hanging out the window, and multiply it with the tropical sun. Still, I awoke the morning after the safari feeling none the worse. I'd arranged a taxi with two sightseeing stops on the way to my final destination in Sri Lanka, the walled, colonial town of

Sri Lanka's tallest sitting Buddha -- 7 stories tall!

The first stop I'd arranged was at an interesting Buddhist temple. Wewurukannala Vihara has the largest seated Buddha statue in Sri Lanka, along with a very interesting building attached to the back that allows you to climb to the top. The view from half a football field high of the surrounding countryside and the temple complex below is nice. However, it is the journey to the top that makes this temple particularly interesting. Spelled out for visitors in cartoon-like paintings with captions on the walls is a theological crime and punishment law book. The top image may show a man telling a lie in life, and the bottom image his tongue burning in Hell. Hundreds of these images are colorfully painted on the walls, along with scenes from Buddha’s life. As if the scenes of sinners being mutilated isn't enough, there are life-sized statues depicting unfortunates being impaled or similarly punished. Next door, there is a less grim temple with statues of Buddha and other of the religion’s deities. I have to confess that I was unaware of the “sinner’s Hell” aspect of Buddhism prior to my visit. I'll have to do some reading up to see how it fits into the whole theology of reincarnation and “life is suffering” belief.

Paintings depicting a sin and the resulting punishment on the interior of the temple

A short stop at the coastal town of Mirissa was next. Since my visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the monsoon hitting the southern coast, I decided not to do a beach idyll during my stay. Yet the south coast’s beaches are one of the island’s highlights to many people. So, I wanted to stop off and see what one of their beach magnets looked like. It was very appealing looking. The smooth sand, swaying palms, and beachside cafes made me wish I had squeezed in a day in Mirissa instead of a short stop. In hindsight, that would have been a poor choice, considering what would happen later that night.

The lovely beach of Mirissa

In mid-afternoon, my taxi finally pulled into Galle. I have come to the conclusion that Sri Lankan drivers don't (or can't) read maps. I had not searched for a phone number for the hotel because its location is unmistakable. There is no way anyone who can read a map couldn't find it, perched at the tip of the old town, overlooking the sea. The driver stared at it blankly and insisted I find a number so he could be talked in. Luckily, my guidebook had Rampart View Guest House’s number, so he could be navigated there verbally. The location was indeed magnificent. I am sitting here looking out at the walls as I type this now, watching the ocean waves swell and crash. A steady parade of holiday makers, Sri Lankan and foreign, parade 20 meters away from me, making a circuit of the town’s walls.

Strolling the walls and watching the sea are two favorite activities in Galle

Walking the walls is the number one thing to do in Galle. It is what I set out to do immediately upon unpacking as it was a gorgeous, sunny day. After a march in the sun for about an hour or so, I was thirsty. I stopped in to a breezy restaurant called The Taproom for a Lion Lager - Sri Lanka's number one beer. Just as I was about to finish it, the afternoon monsoon arrived. Those seated outdoors poured into the restaurant as the rain came down hard. I was forced to have another lager, and consider a third before it finally let up. The clouds were still threatening, so I hurried back to my hotel. Galle’s old town is small and easily walkable, so I was safe from further downpours.

Galle's iconic lighthouse

All day long, I had been feeling a sore throat coming on. Now, a headache chimed in. Once I sat down in the restaurant for dinner, nausea made it a trio of maladies. I ate only two bites of my sandwich. I was feeling very ill as I slowly made my way back. As I lay in bed, I began to shiver. Swallowing even water was painful. I took a couple pain relievers that I always carry with me on my travels, but that seemed to do little to help. At one point in the night, I got up and Googled Dengue Fever and Malaria, to see what their symptoms were. I had decided against shots for either because everything I'd read said the risk was extremely low for tourists staying in hotels. There had been no vomiting, and no intense pain behind the eyes, so that seemed to rule out both. When I got up in the morning, I looked up Sun Poisoning. Hmm, all the symptoms fit except for the rash (which appeared later that afternoon). The cool shower I took seemed to help. I had a bit of an appetite at breakfast. I decided to venture out for sightseeing and see how that worked.

Tiled rooftops of the Old City as seen from the walls

I completed my circuit of the walls, taking my pictures of the colonial fortifications. The gunpowder era walls were stone-faced with earth interiors, sloped to deflect cannon balls. They had the small, Portuguese-style sentry posts on the walls’s vantage points. The walls went right up to the sea, and every angle had a great view of the rolling, blue-green waves and white spray as it crashed against rocks. After a few hours of walking, my symptoms returned again and the rash appeared on my exposed hands. I have never gotten sick like this on a trip, and it definitely put a damper on the end of my two week’s here.

Another view of the fortifications

After another cool shower, more pain relievers, and rest, I was refortified to head out again. I seemed to have about a 3 hour span before the symptoms crashed down upon me in full force. It had to be sun poisoning. The more I went out, the more the rash spread on my hands. Even the hotel owner looked at my hands at breakfast the next morning and said it happens to tourists who are not as used to the sun. So, there it ended…on a definite down note. Well, all except for the train ride to Colombo, taxi to the airport, and looong flights home. I would continue to pay for my presumptuousness in not using sun screen over the course of that journey. The only bright side is hopefully the symptoms will be all gone by the time I land, back home in America.

The sun sets on my travels in Sri Lanka
Watching the sunset is another popular activity in Galle, Sri Lanka

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:36 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Close Encounters of the Pachyderm Kind

On Safari in Yala National Park

sunny 89 °F

Up close with one of Yala National Park's male elephants

NEW! Watch these youtube videos from safari in Yala NP

Approach of a male elephant

Nothing beats finding the right tree to sractch that itch!

Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see leopards in the wild. And the best spot here is Yala National Park. I booked a full-day safari through my hotel, trusting them to know a good operator. The way it works here is you show up at the park with your vehicle or tour, and a park ranger hops in and accompanies you. Between the driver and ranger, they pick your route on the numerous, rutted dirt roads through the park. It is up to them — and you — to spot the animals. Some criticize Yala because it does not limit the vehicles per day, which they say could lead to crowds of vehicles around the animals.

Jeeps lined up first thing in the morning, ready to get a jump on a day's safari

This occurred only once during my safari, and it was near the entrance when a leopard was spotted. It was on the main route in, so a backup occurred. Our vehicle ended up perhaps 10th in line, and by the time we got into position to take a photo, the leopard had walked away. I did glimpse his silhouette through the bushes, though, regal and much larger than I imagined, sunning himself on a rock. After that, our vehicle managed to get lost in the wide open spaces of the park. We saw other vehicles, but wouldn't hit another backup until we were on our way out around eight hours later.

Water buffalos enjoying a cool, green watering hole

Along the way, we spotted a wide array of animals. The most abundant were probably water buffalo. We'd come upon groups of them wading in watering holes, sometimes with just their heads and huge, curving horns sticking out of the water. We also saw lots of varieties of deer (favorite prey of the leopards). Unlike most animals in Yala, they were usually shy and would bolt off into the brush if we came too close. Even the bucks, with their large antlers, would eventually scurry off. We also lots of wild boar, wallowing in the mud of the watering holes.

Happy as pigs in...well, you know!

Our ranger pointed out the bewildering variety of bird life, too. We saw eagles, storks, brilliant blue kingfishers, herons, and more. It was kind of humorous how he would get excited about species rare in Sri Lanka, but common back home. I think when I didn't take pictures of the “wild ducks” the first couple of times he pointed them out, he got the idea that I wasn't excited by them. My favorite birds that we saw over and over in the park were the peacocks. None of the males spread their feathers wide for us, but you could see the brilliant colors anyway. Listening to their bizarre calls, I realized that it was the animal that was the giant bird in the animated movie Up was based upon.

Mama Elephant keeping a watchful eye on us as Baby dines

By far, the best close encounters with animals in the park were with elephants. The elephants in Yala are apparently habituated to people, though definitely still wild. The first time was when we were in an elevated road overlooking a muddy watering hole. A male elephant was in the mud, happily spraying himself with mud. He was would use his trunk to alternate between taking drinks of water and using it to splatter his backs with galoopfuls of cooling, mud. The driver and ranger knew what would likely happen next, so we stayed put as the elephant slowly approached, climbed on the roadway, and approached within one car-length of us. But he wasn't interested in us. There was a nice big tree which he proceeded to scratch on side of his body against, then slowly, leisurely the other side, too. I kept alternating between photos and videos, enjoying the show, being so close to such a great beast. In the afternoon, we had a similarly up close encounter with a mother elephant and her baby. They also proceeded to slowly stroll past our jeep, feeding as they went. It was a great experience, but I was still holding out hopes of seeing a leopard!

Highland toque monkey, one of the two species I saw in Yala

What else did we see? We saw mongoose several times — including one climbing trees in search of bird eggs. We saw Gray Langur monkeys, as well as the Highland Toque, which I'd been seeing at temples throughout Sri Lanka. We spotted numerous crocodiles — most partially or nearly all submerged in the brown water of the pools. They looked like logs in perfect camouflage. A couple were seen basking in the sun on the water’s edge, one with his jaws wide open. We saw a few jackals, busily trotting about on some errand.

If I was that bird in the midst of those crocodiles, I'd be a bit more nervous than he appears to be!

The last couple hours I kept scanning the branches of the trees in hopes of spotting a leopard dozing the afternoon away on a branch. When my hotel chose a driver, they chose wisely. Towards the end of he safari, he inexplicably stopped. The driver and range spoke together, then said there was a leopard about 100 meters away in the trees. He slowly pointed out the right tree, then worked his way up to the right branch. I did see a lighter patch in the obscuring foliage. And then I saw the leopard’s tail, which had looked like a branch, slowly curl, then unwind. It baffled me that anyone could spot this while driving the curving, bumpy roads. He had proved himself time and again on the safari to have amazing vision for picking out the animals. I honestly think he spotted more than our ranger, who was in his 30th year with the park service and very experienced.

My blurry, cellphone camera pic of a leopard in Yala NP

Was that to be the closest I got to seeing a leopard? The coyly curving tail and the earlier, briefly glimpsed silhouette? Well, remember that first (and only, to this point) traffic backup, when we were too far in the rear to get a clear view of the leopard. As we approached that spot, w saw another, smaller logjam of perhaps six vehicles? Could it be? Yes! Two leopard basking themselves in the late afternoon sun. Our ranger pointed them out, then hopped out to direct traffic. It wasn't long before I had a great vantage point. Unfortunately, with no telephoto lens on my phone camera, my pictures suffered at Yala. It had done a great job throughout Sri Lanka, but here it's limitations were apparent. I'll remember that next time I take a safari — wherever that may be. Bring a telephoto lens if you want good shots of animals…especially leopards!

In the about 90 degree heat, the water buffaloes have the right idea!

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:45 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

A Spot of Tea Country

Transitting through gorgeous highlands

sunny 72 °F

Sri Lanka's highland "tea country"

NEW! Watch this video clip I shot out the window of the train ride

Beautiful "tea country" in Sri Lanka

The next two days were at least partially “in transit” days. I was finally able to score train tickets on Sri Lanka’s most scenic passage, from Kandy to Ella. It was a 7-hour haul, but most of it was through the mountainous “tea country.” Here is where most of the island’s tea plantations are located. The curving rows of tea plants crowned the slopes, making the landscape look settled and neat, despite the large stretches of forest. The air was cool and fresh blowing in through the windows of my second class reserved car. The view was gorgeous, and most passengers’ eyes were glued to the large windows.

The scenic Kandy to Ella train ride is a beautiful, 7-hour journey

The car emptied out after about an hour or so, and you could stretch out and relax, and enjoy the ride. More than half of the passengers appeared to be Europeans, with most of those British. It was clear everyone was enjoying the ride, despite the side to side jerking of the train, this is definitely not one of those ultra smooth bullet trains, but more of an old school “clickety-clack” choo-choo, its whistle shrieking its warning to those ahead at the road crossings.

Sri Lanka's highlands is where most of its tea plantations and production is located

It was nearly 6 pm when I arrived at Ella. A tuk-tuk whisked me from the train station up and up on twisting roads to my hotel, appropriately named Ella Gap Panorama. The gap being the cleft in the mountain range where the one Road Town is located. This hotel was a slight step down from my previous ones, so far. No AC, and a bathroom that had a waft of sewage odor. I was here for only one night, and the stunning view from my balcony certainly made up for any shortcomings.

More amazing mountain scenery

I had been a good boy on this trip, eating local dishes most of the time. The specialty seems to be rice and curry. However, when they say curry they should pluralize it. Each plateful had of rice comes with 4-5 dishes of various curries — meat, vegetable, grain-based ones…you name it. My favorite so far was Dhal, a mustard colored vegetable curry that I first enjoyed at my hotel in Sigiriya. Anyway, I was curried out, and my guidebook raved a out a local place’s pizza. So, I indulged myself with pizza and beer. Afterwards, I explored the strip a bit, then took a tuk-tuk back to my hilltop perch for an early evening.

The view from my hotel balcony in Ella, Sri Lanka

The next morning, I'd hired a tuk-tuk (same driver) to take me to my next stop, along with a couple sightseeing breaks along the way. Thinking it'd be chilly on the mountain roads, I'd way overdressed in jeans and a cotton t-shirt. It took us only about an hour to descend into the plains south of tea country, and that is with a stop off at a waterfall and a couple scenic overlooks. Once in the plains, the heat rose quickly. The open air tuk-tuk was breezy, though, and plenty comfortable.

Gorgeous waterfalls in the mountainous scenery

My main sight of the day would be the seven standing Buddhas of Bunduruvegala. These are carved out of a 50-foot tall cliff face, and are more than a thousand years old. The tallest one in the center is about 20 meters tall, and still holds traces of paint from centuries ago. The grain of the rock compliments the carvings, which are done in a bas-relief, projecting out about a foot from the natural rock face. To reach them, we bounced along a narrow road that was alternately paved then dirt for about 10 minutes. It was clear my driver had never been here, despite the fact they are only an hour away from Ella. The guidebook went on to say few tourists come here, but I can't imagine why. It was an amazing relic of the medieval world, set in a peaceful forest tableau. One group of Sri Lankan college students were here with their professor, and two Aussies, but other than that, it was deserted.

The 1,000 year old carved Buddhas of Bunduruvegala

Another couple of hours in the tuk-tuk and I finally arrived at my next home for two days: Korovagada Lodge in Tissaharama. I was here for tomorrow's safari in Yala National Park, in the hopes of spotting leopards from among its resident population. I whiled away the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the lodge’s pool, enjoying its rustic (yet air conditioned) amenities. Those who know me may be surprised by such a relaxed schedule. Remember, though, it was a transit day, right?

The Buddhas are carved out of the rock face

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:47 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (1)

Full Pallet of History in Polonnaruwa

Medieval fortress capital full of interesting ruins

sunny 86 °F

Temples, palaces, and more abound at the medieval capital citadel of Polonnaruwa

On my last day of sightseeing in the Cultural Triangle, I had a choice between two major sights: Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. I ended up choosing Polonnaruwa, a medieval capital of Sri Lanka during the 1000s-1200s A.D. Ruins of palaces and temples are scattered across several miles. My guidebook claimed it was the highlight of the Cultural Triangle. It would have to be pretty amazing to beat Sigiriya Rock, by my thinking.

The brick husk of King Parakramahubu's once 7-story palace

The best way to see the ruins is to hire either a tuk-tuk or a taxi for the day, so your driver can drop you off and pick you up at each of the major groupings of buildings. Since the price difference was less than $10, and it was 1-2 hours away, I picked the air conditioned car. My driver, Johann (yeah, I know…odd for a Sri Lankan to have such a German name!), turned out to be the exception when it comes to taxi drivers. He was relaxed, did not accelerate and brake continuously, and instead gave a smooth, comfortable drive.

Border freizes -- especially of lions and dancing dwarves -- are popular on the exteriors of buildings in Polonnaruwa

The ticket counter is attached to Polonnaruwa’s museum, so a visit begins with a tour of ing.its collection of statues and artifacts unearthed at the site. Some of the statues —particularly the Hindu ones — were very nice. Like most Sri Lankan museums, though, no pictures allowed! There are labels in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil, but more information is in Sinhalese. It was a bright, sunny day, but I've learned how easily that can change in Sri Lanka. So, I was eager to get outside and exploring.

The circular Vatadage is the highlight of the Quadrangle group of buildings

My first stop was at a group of buildings called the Royal Palace Group. Much of the brick ramparts survive, as this was the central citadel of the kingdom. King Parakramabuhu’s palace building itself had a brick framed, but much of it was wood. You can see the charred bricks from when it was burnt down in the huge rectangular husk that still stands. The building was seven stories tall, supposedly, but the ruins that remain are perhaps half that height. Next door is the Royal Council Chambers — an elevated platform lined with columns. The walls are lined with horizontal rows of lions, elephants, and dwarves. The dancing, leering dwarves seemed to be a common architectural frieze on the outside of Polonnaruwa’s buildings. The Royal Baths —still filled with water, round out this group. Despite there being a decent amount of visitors at the site, it seemed I had many of the buildings almost to myself. One group that was present, though, were the souvenir vendors. I honestly can't tell how many time I was offered that same stupid wooden elephant with wooden baby inside. Too many times, that's for sure!

Semi-circular moonstones were at the entrance to many of the buildings in Polonnaruwa

The next group was the impressive Quadrangle. The centerpiece is a round building on an elevated platform, with Buddhas facing off in all four directions. The carvings were exquisite, though, with elaborate semi-circular “moonstones” at the entrance to each set of stairs, guarded by deities, lions, and other animals. This was the first of about umpteen million times I would have to take off my shoes to enter. One Buddhist mantra is that “life is suffering” — which I adequately experienced today walking on sharp rocks barefoot, over and over. There were a number of amazing buildings in this group. Some struck me as almost Khmer (think Angkor Wat) in architecture. Soaring, tall, with triangular peaks to their roofs. Some were decorated with Hindu symbols. I saw a number of dancing Shivas and a few apsaras as well. Sri Lanka has always been a battleground of sorts between the two religions — including the Tamil Tiger insurgency/terror threat (depending on your point of view) which ended less than a decade ago. Before coming here, I'd read an excellent, balanced account of Tamil Tiger “troubles,” and it was eye-opening. The dangers of politicians who seek to gain power by stirring fear along racial or religious lines struck home to me. I hope our flirtation with populist, America-first mentality doesn't go as far as it did here, where many are still suffering the effects of a tyranny of the majority.

Similarities in architecture between other Hindu/Buddhist temples, such as Angkor Wat, abound

After a quick stop at a Hindu temple, the Shiva Devale, it was off to the fourth largest brick dagoba in the country, the Rankot Vihara. A dagoba is a squat, half-globe of solid brick. Usually, there are tiny niche buildings attached with Buddhist images inside. Rankot Vihara was massive, standing 50 meters tall and a long way around, filled with sharp pebbles that whispered the Buddha’s mantra to me over and over. I saw bigger monkeys than I'd been seeing — Colobus ones? I will have to Google monkeys of Sri Lanka and see what types I actually saw. It actually made me glad to have other tourists nearby as I rounded the backside of the dagoba. A gang of these big suckers could probably do some damage!

Rankot Vihara is the fourth largest brick dagoba in the country

The next grouping was a widely-scattered collection that featured a colossal standing Buddha. It began with Kiri Vihara, another, slightly smaller dagoba painted blindingly white. The guidebooks talk about how when it was discovered during excavations the white plaster exterior was intact. This led a couple tourists I overheard to suppose that present modern white paint WAS that thousand year old plaster. I stifled any chuckles, wondering if they would notice the paint spattering on the ground near it. Next was Lankatilaka, an incredibly elaborately decorated temple housing a headless, standing Buddha. It was at least 20 feet tall, and dominated the narrow interior of the temple. The outside carvings were in great shape, and you could see animals, dancers, dwarves - you name it! Very impressive! I hobbled around this collection of ruins for awhile as the late afternoon heat rose.

Admiring the standing Buddha at Lankatilaka

On the other side of the parking lot where my driver waited was a collection of four statues of the Buddha carved out of a single piece of granite. Each was in a different pose, including a massive reclining Buddha. This is an active place of worship, and they checked your tickets here, despite my opinions that it pales in impressiveness to other parts of Polonnaruwa. The attendants were aggressive at keeping the troop of monkeys besieging the site a bay.

intricate wall carvings at Polonnaruwa

A short drive led to the final temple of the day, the Tivanka Image House. Like Lankatilaka, this one housed a colossal Buddha statue. It also sported elaborately carved walls, and was a fitting grand finale to Polonnaruwa. Was the historical sight better than Sigiriya? Well, there was certainly way more to see. The temples, statues, and historic buildings are in much better shape than Sigiriya, where they are mostly foundations. I think history buffs will really enjoy Polonnaruwa, but Sigiriya’s geological wow factor will have broader appeal.

After a day at Polonnaruwa, I felt like one of these dancing dwarves...ha, ha!

Posted by world_wide_mike 18:27 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

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