Mary Clark, Traveler

MEDINAS of MOROCCO– FULL OF LIFE

Betty Swasko, Tina Smith, Mary Grace West and Mary Clark in the smallest of the lanes in the Fez Medina

I admit to being partial to medinas – those cloistered markets and neighborhoods encircled by old city walls in Northern Africa.  Some, as in Tunisia and Egypt, have become centered around tourists, but in Morocco, many generations continue to call the medina home and there’s much to explore.

An immediate challenge upon entering through an ancient gate of a medina is orientation.  Some roads have been enlarged to accommodate small cars or delivery trucks, but most are walking lanes to allow easy movement from side to side to shop.  The main hazards are donkeys laden with goods that can fill a path and motorcycles, which I consider the flies of the market – loud, persistent, and fast.  Some forward- thinking medina managers prohibit motorcycles on certain roads but in Marrakech, we were on constant alert for their approaching sounds, occasionally even being grazed by a leather jacket as it passed.

I learned to note landmarks or signs to remember the many turns to return to our hotels. Large squares such as Jeema el Fna in Marrakech with its snake charmers are helpful for orientation.  Names of hotels with arrows pointing down a lane are notable.  An unusual store or restaurant helps.  I had studied a map of the Marrakech Medina before traveling there, mentally marking our hotel location close to a major gate. This preparation was made easier by Google maps.  But a map on the screen is different than on the ground when your phone doesn’t work in the middle of a large Medina.

One of my traveling companions to Morocco had discovered the app “map my walk” that marks wherever you walk and then theoretically you can simply return the same way.  But in a medina, we were often sidetracked by shops and sights.  The resulting map from one day in the Chefchouen Medina looked like a game of Life with intersecting circles, ovals, and an occasional detour.

The world’s largest medina is in Fez, established in 789 CE, also location of the world’s oldest university and where 149,000 still live within the stucco walls.  At the gate, the hotel’s porter loaded our luggage on a wooden cart. He led, we followed. It was late at night, and I didn’t have the energy to make necessary mental notes of location. And, even with a good sense of direction, I couldn’t identify north or south or anything in between.

The next morning our guide met us at the Riad hotel, a beautifully repurposed home, and soon we were off through the narrow ways.  He explained the large doors to a home were for guests and the small door for family.  Slatted windows above the door protected a woman’s face but allowed her to watch the scene below.  A small cemetery provided instructions on how Muslims are buried on their sides facing Mecca so that in the next life they will have the Koran in the right hand.  The Jewish quarters were moved outside the original medinas and now most of its residents have immigrated to Israel, Europe, or the United States.

 

The Fez medina is known for its tanneries which we chose to miss but its meat market included heads of goats, donkeys, and cows, clearly marking what was sold at each store. The souks or specialized market areas provided almost overwhelming choices of shoes, leather good, herbs, candies with live bees on them, dried fruits, olives, jewelry, antiques, and copper, silver, and woven goods. Numerous madrasa schools and mosques dotted the inner city.  We were reminded that Morocco is a kingdom as one of the king’s 26 palaces is in the Fez Medina.

One of the gates to the royal palace in Fez 

A late typical lunch greeted us as we detoured down a non-descript hallway and into a stunning dining room of a hidden restaurant. The three courses began with four to seven small dishes – often potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, cauliflower, and okra.  Then a tagine or couscous dish.  Fresh fruit rounded out the meal as the dessert.  Until we arrived in Marrakesh with its more creative cuisine, this was our meal almost every day.

 

 

 

 

Noura, our guide in Marrakech

Our Fez guide made the tour all about history which I loved and wouldn’t allow even a short detour into a booth.   But in Marrakech, we had one of very few women guides in Morocco and she understood the need for a balance.

Noura asked about our shopping goals and took us to appropriate locations all over the medina with good quality and prices. We needed her guidance toward authentic Moroccan products rather than Chinese imitations.

 

 

Our Airbnb in Marakkesh provided a feel for living in the Medina – quiet home behind thick walls and closed doors.  But it was the thriving commerce and humanity in the lanes that I loved – a condensed human buzz that’s impossible to duplicate in American cities.

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A Most Unusual 50th Wedding Anniversary Celebration – Captain Ron’s Swamp Tour

                       Paul and Betty Swasko enjoying their 50th anniversary boat ride

The Fiftieth wedding anniversary is traditionally a golden one.  For many couples, this would mean gifts of gold jewelry, an anniversary party or even a trip of a lifetime.  But for our good friends, Paul and Betty Swasko, theirs was celebrated with Captain Ron and a trip through Caddo Lake, where, according to its website,  it’s “not just a ride but an experience.” Thanks to a long friendship, my husband and I were invited to join in the adventure.

The Swaskos’ daughters are clever and wanted to honor their parents who met during college in Greece on World Campus Afloat, a university on a ship that stopped at countries around the world.  To recreate a water experience in East Texas took some imagination but they tracked down Captain Ron’s Swamp Tours at Caddo Lake and booked a late afternoon cruise through the bayous.  To add a hint of Greece, they ordered food to go at the Austin Street Bistro in Jefferson which included a Greek salad – a bit of a stretch but all delicious at the picnic table next to the lake.

Caddo Lake, named for the Caddo Indians who were early inhabitants, has long been mysterious to me.  It feels more like a swamp that became a lake thanks to a dam.  It is the largest freshwater lake in Texas. Captain Ron pushed our pontoon boat off the dock and we traveled a short distance down the deep Big Cypress Bayou before turning into a shallow lake world.  He explained the geological fault formation below us where a plate pushed up against another plate, forming bluffs on one side of the lake and flat land on the other.

Base of Bald Cypress Trees in Caddo Lake

Moss off of Cypress Trees – appear dead but revives with water

A good guide always makes a scene come alive and Captain Ron had many stories.  Inside the lake, the distinctive bald cypress trees (bald because they shed their leaves in the fall) with their knobby knee base anchored in the water, were indicators of four to six feet of shallow water.  Over 2,000 years ago, Caddo Indian canoes were shaped from these trees. In more recent times, the hanging moss stuffed the seats of Ford Pick-up Trucks and lumber from the harvest of the trees was used for beams in the downtown McKinney, Texas buildings that are still in use.  Best of all, the smell of the sap of the trees keeps mosquitos away.

Captain Ron directs the boat through Caddo Lake

Nonchalant about the possible presence of alligators, our leader assured us they were as scared of us as we are of them.  We should be grateful as they love to eat snakes, keeping that population down.  Turtles are also victims, but Ron convinced us their population needed to be controlled.

My favorite stories centered around the use of the swamp to hide moonshine stills, a busy and lucrative business during Prohibition.  It was so accepted by the local population that Black Tie affairs were held with guests arriving in boats for evening dancing and drinking.  All guests were instructed to listen for approaching boats in case the liquor had to be spilled quickly to avoid discovery by law enforcement.    Owning a moonshine remains illegal under federal law.

 

The strangest scene on the trip was the discovery of a two-man black submarine on the bank in front of Pine Needle Lodge, recently purchased and scheduled to be renovated.  It must have been a deal as navigating a submarine in such shallow water seemed unlikely. The lodge hopes to be a launching spot for canoes and kayaks.

Captain Ron wanted to be certain we appreciated the stillness, even shutting off the boat for a few moments of uninterrupted quiet, noting there was no freeway noise anywhere near, an observation more appropriate for his city clients than us.

Because our trip was late afternoon, sun rays separated as they passed through the trees and into the water.  The soft light allowed perfectly composed photos with the water providing mirror images of the trees.  Captain Ron continually exclaimed, “Ya’ll.  Isn’t this beautiful?”  His excitement reminded me of the biblical injunction, “Behold”, meaning look again, really see, take it all in, pay attention. Even after five tours a day on weekends, he had not lost his wonder at this natural lake.  It was easy to be caught up in his excitement and it certainly provided a lovely backdrop for a most unusual 50th anniversary celebration.  And for their 60th ?  Who knows?  Maybe we can catch the full moon ride through that dreamy world apart from every-day life.

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Personal Disaster Stories from Friends Around the World

I’ve often said that travel in not just about checking off bucket lists.   Yes, I loved seeing the Pyramids, Himalayan Mountains, Machu Picchu, and the Galapagos Islands. What I remember most, though, are the people I engage with, and I try to stay in touch with at least one person in each of the countries I visit.

This means receiving first source information about a disaster or volatile political situation.  I’m sharing the ones I’ve received just in the last month.  I have not edited them as English is their second language and I am always impressed with their effort to correspond in our language.  The exception is my Cuban friend who writes in Spanish, and I translated his letter.

The floods in Germany prompted an email to a foreign exchange student, Helmut.  His response “… since the flooding happened very close to us, we were helping friends and other people who had so much mud in there houses. There is so much stuff that they cannot use any more and have to throw it away. It is terrible. No electricity, no drinking water. Always things like that seem to be in places like Bangladesh or India but not here.”

Ethiopia is suffering through a civil war that has affected the entire country and has halted their tourism industry.  Our Ethiopian Orthodox Deacon friend, Muchaw, writes “Mary as you know by different magazine television internet at the moment Ethiopia is not a peaceful country  beaucoup (because of) their civil war .COVID  19 very hard every a day increasing,  their is no governmental help so life is very difficult. mary to be honest there’s no electric power no light in the north part of ethiopia  because of the civil  war of Ethiopia.  it is very very hard civil war.  the electric power damage by the tigray military.  their is no access to send you a message.”

Fr. Frank Fernandez in Cuba

Cuba is having a very difficult time and an inquiry to a friend, who is an Episcopal priest, generated this reply to explain the recent demonstrations-  “Mary imagine the situation, currently the country is “ZERO”, there is nothing in the stores, only water pipes. There is much need. The Blockade is suffocating, Trump applied 243 extraterritorial measures and the country is at “ZERO”, there are no drugs in hospitals, people are dying of simple diseases such as asthma. Many medicines are manufactured in Cuba and we do not have them, because raw materials have to be imported. Add to that the 6-hour power cuts, in the middle of a hot summer like ours, says the government version that it is because there are no shipping companies that bring oil for fear of US sanctions. Those are the causes of the social explosion.”

On the right is Himangshu in Assam Valley of India 

Our wonderful guide in the Assam Valley of India wrote about the terrible floods they’ve had in the area, “Hello Mam, after a long gap I say hi to you.  Actually my phone and laptop has been completely damaged by flood.  Hope you are all alright.  We are well here and having our vaccines but situations here is not good.  For 20 days we are in a lock down in our area.  In spite of Covid, flood has also badly affected us.  Situations are really worse.  Every day it is very hard for those persons so that they can overcome this pandemic situation.  God knows when this will be over.  Please take care of yourself and sir.”

It is easy for we Americans to get caught up in our own problems and tune out the disasters from other parts of the world.  And even if we hear of them on the news, they are distant events, both physically and emotionally.  But having a direct contact with residents in a country makes the tragedies more personal.  My husband and I can sometimes ease the pain with a donation to our friends, but nothing is allowed into Cuba and we can only commiserate from afar. Having these contacts helps me understand the oft quoted “we are in this together.”  Since tourism is the number one industry in the world and millions around the globe make their living from our desire to travel, the COVID 19 pandemic and environmental disasters have wreaked havoc on these workers. My foreign friends are just trying to survive and are facing a more dire situation than we have in the U.S.

We can be grateful for what we have here but should not turn our backs on our worldwide brothers and sisters.  Even without personal contacts, all can do their part through the many churches and international NGOs working directly with those afflicted by COVID 19 and global warming. COVID 19 doesn’t respect borders, and neither should we in our support.

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Jimmy Dean Museum – Remembering a Local Star

Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats

Small towns are rightfully proud of their people who make it big in the world at large.  Paris’ Coach Stallings’ name is recognized across the country for his Alabama championship teams.  Buddy Holly put Lubbock on the map.  In my hometown of Plainview, Texas it was Jimmy Dean, country music performer, actor, tv host, and sausage entrepreneur. Today a lovely Jimmy Dean Museum on the campus of Wayland Baptist University honors this icon and draws visitors from across the country.

Jimmy Dean came from modest means, growing up in the tiny suburb of Seth Ward, adjacent to Plainview. His mother worked hard after his father left, launching a lifetime desire for Jimmy to take care of her.  He came by his musical talents naturally as both parents were musicians.  His mother taught him piano, his father was a singer/songwriter, and Jimmy taught himself to play the accordion and harmonica.

After serving in the military, he began the band The Texas Wildcats in 1948 who were well known from appearances on the radio in Washington. Because of the success of his most famous song Big Bad John in 1961, he would go on to perform in Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, the Ed Sullivan Show and become the first country music star to perform in Las Vegas.

Jimmy Dean with Muppet Rowlf

Dean with a young Elvis Pressley

After Jimmy became the first guest host on the Tonight Show, he was given his own morning show on ABC.  It was a surprise hit, thanks to Dean’s easy going country boy approach to interviews. A favorite feature of the show was the interaction between Dean and the early appearance of the Muppet Rowlf, along with Jim Henson.  Through his career, Dean appeared with an array of famous people – from Elvis Pressley to Kate Smith, Pearl Bailey, Bing Crosby, Whitey Ford, three U.S. Presidents and even Woody Allen. The museum provides wonderful photos of these encounters as well as information on Dean’s later acting career.

Younger Americans may only recognize the name of Jimmy Dean because of his sausage company.  The decision to sell a quality sausage launched the construction of a large processing plant in Plainview and supported many local pig farmers.  The history of this popular product that was began in 1969 is in the museum and covers the parting of the ways when the company was sold to Sara Lee Corporation in 1984.

One of my favorite parts to the museum was Jimmy’s folksy quotes for which he was known.  Many were casually filled with mild expletives, but some were gentler. “Will Rogers was once quoted as saying he had never met a man he didn’t like and I can truthfully say I never met an audience I didn’t like.” “It’s nice to be important but more important to be nice.”  “Grin once in a while. It’s good for you.” And my favorite, “There’s hardly anything that cannot be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”

Dean’s greatest hit

A side benefit to having the museum in Plainview is the large number of residents who still have Jimmy Dean stories to share.  I heard from those who had their hair cut by Jimmy’s mother or who played the same piano at the Seth Ward Baptist church where Jimmy attended.  Many tell of his brother, Don Dean, who delivered milk in homes.  On occasion, Jimmy joined him on the milk rounds even after he became famous.  Former workers at the Jimmy Dean Plant called him polite and encouraging.  Jimmy once agreed to greet a soldier fighting in Vietnam when his brother asked him to say a few words into a cassette recorder. And some remember when Jimmy built a new house for his mother even though she just wanted a new linoleum floor.

The final decision to locate the Jimmy Dean Museum in Plainview came after his death when his widow, Donna Dean, recognized his hometown was more appropriate than in Virginia where they lived.  Jimmy had always kept in touch with Plainview residents with frequent visits and had been honored on several occasions. Reflecting his heart for kids, Jimmy gave $1 million to Wayland for scholarships.

Outside sign of museum

The Museum is well displayed, filled with memorabilia from his career, and is adjacent to the Llano Estacado Museum that tells the history of the area, including the other famous Plainview product – the Plainview Paleoindian projectile points dating from 10,000 BCE.  If you like West Texas music, the museum is sponsoring the first annual Jimmy Dean Music Festival on September 4th. Jimmy Dean Music Festival

After visiting the museum, you can check out the Jimmy Dean Dorm on the Wayland Campus or the granite plaque on the Walk of Fame downtown.  And don’t forget to talk to some folks.  You just might get more stories.

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Visiting Mosques – A New World of Faith

Eyup Mosque in Istanbul

Inside Eyup Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Ahmet, our Turkish friend, insisted we were welcome in the Eyup Mosque of Istanbul, Turkey, even though we were not Muslims.  He wanted us to experience one of the many local spiritual centers of Islam and only required that my friend, Mary Grace, and I cover our heads.  We entered through the women’s section in the balcony and could observe supplicants below.  It was between the five required calls to prayer and yet there were men praying on their knees, occasionally bowing to the floor, coming and going as they chose, an experience similar to the activity in a European cathedral.

Inside a mosque, a feeling of spaciousness prevails as there are no pews or chairs but most often a thick layer of beautifully woven rugs, gifts of generous benefactors. Missing are statues, ritual objects, musical instruments, and stained-glass windows of the Christian story.  However, carved domes, arched windows, flowered tiles, wooden carvings of inscriptions from the Qur’an (Koran) or names of Muhammad and his companions are allowed and can be quite stunning.  Large crystal chandeliers often shed subdued light on the sacred space.

The semicircular niche or mihrab points in the direction of Mecca to assist in knowing in which direction to pray while the minbar serves the familiar purpose of a pulpit for the Imam to speak at the Friday noon weekly service.  Passing by a mosque on a Friday in Alexandria, Egypt, my group listened to a broadcast by the Imam talking a large group of Muslims seated outside.  Our guide translated it as advice about the required once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.  The Imam advised one should only go after he has provided for his family and should not go into debt to make that journey.

Inside the Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia

Courtyard of Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia

The oldest mosque I have visited is also the oldest place of worship in North Africa dating from 670 AD – the Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia, relatively unknown in the West but well respected in the Mahgreb. If you cannot afford to travel to Mecca for the required haj, a visit to this mosque seven times can meet the requirement.  Even though we were well covered, all of us, including the men,  had to wrap ourselves in a cotton robe handed out at the entrance to the courtyard. Shoes must be removed to enter a mosque, and many were scattered at the entrance to the prayer hall.  At this one, we weren’t allowed inside but could view the open prayer hall with its 500 columns and imagine thousands of the faithful standing shoulder to shoulder.

Mosque inside the Fes Medina, Tunisia

From my various trips to Muslim countries, I have become used to the calls to prayer sung out through loudspeakers from the beautiful minarets attached to mosques.  I admit to finding the monotone grating at first but have come to simply associate it with my many positive experiences in Islamic countries.  Only the 5 a.m. rendition can be jarring, especially if the broadcast system is near my hotel window.

Recordings are now often used rather than a chanter’s voice.  The call is a reminder that God is the greatest, Muhammad is his prophet, and to come to prayer and salvation. Truthfully, I have not seen a large response to the call in the Muslim countries I have visited such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey or Jordan although more than one driver has pulled to the side of the road for a moment of prayer.  But it serves the purpose of church bells only more widely spread and even for non-Muslims, it is a reminder of God’s omnipresence.

Most mosques are government owned.  In Turkey in 2012, we saw many newly constructed mosques.  They were small but numerous.  Turkey’s government wanted to move the country’s traditional secular approach toward a more Islamic way of life.  To that end, they constructed hundreds of new mosques so that the call to prayer was readily heard by all Turks.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Since that time, Turkey has become a leader in providing funds to construct mosques internationally, both for those in the Turkish Diaspora in Germany but also for the Muslim community in Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Bucharest, and even Maryland, all in the traditional Ottoman building style.  They’ve also opened a Grand Mosque in Istanbul, large enough to compete with the iconic Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosques.  President Erdogan attends many of the openings of these new structures, claiming they present a more moderate way of Islam in comparison with the Wahhabi ideology of their mosque building competitor, Saudi Arabia.  The architecture of a mosque often can predict the form of Islam being taught.

I had heard only Muslims can enter a mosque but have learned that not to be universally true. The leaders of the mosques do ask for modest dress, shoes removed and for those in prayer to be respected – all simple requirements to experience a new world of faith.

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Dr. Pepper Museum – A Fan’s Pilgrimage

Did you know that Dr. Pepper is a year older than Coca Cola – 1885 vs 1886?  Did you know there a career as a “flavorist” who is trained in chemistry to construct flavors?  Were you aware that “drink a bite to eat” was the slogan in the 1920s to promote Dr. Pepper as an energizing snack to be “eaten” at 10, 2 and 4 to avoid fatigue?  There’s much more to learn at the Dr. Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute.

I had long wanted to stop in Waco for a visit to the Dr. Pepper Museum.  You would think after hundreds of trips to Austin, that would have happened before now – especially since Dr. Pepper was my favorite drink growing up.  I preferred it to Coca-Cola and liked to brag that it was a Texas drink.  I drank it in earnest in high school when my friends and I would “circle” the Arrowhead Drive-In in Plainview and order a vanilla Dr. Pepper.  Some preferred cherry Cokes but not me.

When my family traveled around the United States, I would order a Dr. Pepper and received many puzzled looks from waiters.  Most had never heard of it. Although it is now a national drink, I still get irritated when it’s not available on airlines or at ball games.  I don’t drink it often but want it available when I do.

Early bottling machine to place tops on bottles

Thanks to Joanna and Chip Gaines of HBO’s “Fixer Upper” fame, downtown Waco is a flourishing destination, and the Dr. Pepper Museum located in its 1906 bottling plant is part of the draw.   In comparison to the Disneyesque “ World of Coca-Cola” museum in Atlanta, Dr.Pepper’s tribute is informative but staid.

I read most of the facts provided like bubbly water has been with us for centuries.  In 216 BCE, Hannibal took a break with his troops at the bubbling waters of Les Bouillens, France, which spring supplies the world with Perrier water today. In the past, these effervescent waters were thought to have healing powers.  It wasn’t until the 1700s that an artificial process was devised to infuse carbon dioxide into water to produce artificial carbonated water.

I loved learning that the first soft drinks were developed in pharmacies where individual pharmacists concocted their own special drinks that produced followers who would come to the pharmacist just for that drink – much like the specially created cocktails offered in many bars today.  Both Dr. Pepper and Coca Cola’s recipes came from pharmacist’s experimentation.  The museum credits Charles Alderton with creating the formula for Dr. pepper in 1885.  However, according to Paris historian, Skipper Steely, the formula was brought to Waco by Robert Lazenby and two other men who served a similar drink at the Tennessee Drug Store on the west side of the square in Paris, Texas.

Ad from Mexico

The history of the Dr. Pepper company follows its move out of Texas into the world at large, and includes cans from Mexico, England, Belgium, and Russia.

Some of the products owned by Dr Pepper Snapple Group

The main company is still in Dallas but is owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.   As with Coca-Cola, the company owns more carbonated beverages such as Canada Dry, 7-Up and A&W Root Beer.

 

Advertising has changed over the years with the first decades emphasizing the energy Dr. Pepper provided and even promotion of it being a “healthy” drink with its “myriad fruit juices.”  The latter was forced to change under truth in advertising rules and the company agreed to stop targeting children under 12.  I’m wondering if the Dr. Pepper poker game will fade out as fewer players understand why 10s, 2s, and 4s are wild.

The unique section of this museum is the Free Enterprise Institute, created “for the purpose of educating Texas School Children and Adults about the economic system that underlies American life.” The emphasis was how failure leads to success, citing Coca Cola’s attempt at a “new Coke” as a classic failure.  Another corporate misstep of a different flavoring was the Celery Champagne drink that was apparently popular for a time but fell out of fashion. I can’t imagine it ever being in fashion with a name like that.  In this Institute, school kids are encouraged to experiment and to be ready to learn from failure – an important lesson in our free enterprise system.

The absolute best part of the museum was the free Dr. Pepper drink made from the original syrup and carbonated water given at the end with paid admission.  it was my first soda fountain Dr. Pepper in years, and I could not say enough good things about the sweet flavoring. My Coca Cola loving husband was not as impressed.

In my adulthood, I’ve had more than my fair share of end-of-tour beer, wine, and champagne samples but none released the nostalgia that this one did. For all Dr. Pepper lovers, Waco needs to be a pilgrimage destination where a museum and fountain drink awaits you.

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Uluru Rock – One for the Ages

The approach to Uluru rock in the outback of Australia is long, anticipation building as the view of the massive structure grows over the desert horizon. From a distance, it appears as an ordinary isolated plateau but up close, visitors are dwarfed against its looming fortress walls.  Millions of years ago the formation was pushed up by geological forces and laid on its side, causing the unique display of layers from below. It would take some time to explore this natural wonder.

Many of us grew up identifying the large rock structure as Ayers Rock – named for Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.    As with most sites in Australia, it was given an English name without any deference to the long-held Aborigine term. For the aborigines, though, this holy space belonged to them and ownership was returned to the Anangu people in 1985 and the name reversed in 2002.

We first arrived at Uluru in the late afternoon as the sun spread its muted orange and yellow rays over the desert landscape. On a small rise to the west of Uluru, our guide brought out a table to fill with nibbles and wine.  After fighting the very persistent flies, I quit trying to eat and concentrated on the scene in front of me.  From our distance, Uluru appeared like a moonscape – worn smooth outer layer of rock with crater like carvings.  It beckoned to come closer.

Early the next morning the sacred rock revealed its personality and history as we walked part of its six-mile circumference. By rising before dawn, we experienced what centuries of natives have enjoyed – a sunrise bathing the tinted cliffs in reds and gold.  Our guide encouraged us to mind the signs noting which parts of the rock could be photographed and which were to be treated reverently. The Mala Cave is used by initiation for ceremonies and is fenced off.  Other Caves are considered resting places for ancient spirits.  An obvious erosion appears as a vulva, used by aboriginal women to instruct girls on childbirth. A cool breeze and bird  songs accompanied us on our walk along the sandy trail of discovery.

Inside one of the many canyons, we met Mini, an aboriginal guide – barefoot, disheveled white and gray hair, dressed in a worn black shirt and blouse.  She first pointed out berries and leaves that could be eaten at a location used to teach young girls what was safe to cook.  She then sat on the dirt and drew the basic aboriginal symbols, including circles for places, digging sticks for women gathering, and boomerangs for men hunting. We moved inside a cave where she pointed out drawings with ages as recent as 100 years ago, but some could have been 5,000 years old. It was strange having a translator for Mini’s talk as she did not communicate in English.  These symbols were repeated in the paintings offered by indigenous artists at the visitor center.

We walked past the starting point to climb Uluru with only a chain to grip marking   the path upwards.  In the past, hiking to the 2,831 foot summit was expected of visitors and many took rocks home as souvenirs.   It was considered a seeker’s accomplishment.  But that changed when the Anangu people regained power over the rock.  When I was there in March, 2019, a climb was allowed but discouraged.  The sign said simply , “Please don’t climb.  This is our home.”   Since October, 2019, even the option to ascend was stopped and today, visitors can only admire from below.

As further evidence of growing sensitivity to native beliefs, a phenomenon known as “sorry rocks” has gripped guilty tourists who took home rocks they gathered during their visit to Uluru.  Some felt it brought them bad luck and others just wanted to return them where they belonged as a sign of respect.  Rangers at the National Park must now decide whether the returned rocks are authentic Uluru rocks and then where to place them.

Recent DNA results have confirmed that the Aborigine people of Australia are the world’s oldest civilization, having been separated by rising water from the rest of the world over 10,000 years ago.  Their distinctive broad faces and dark sundrenched skin tell a long history of living off nature in a desert world that appears to give little.  But they knew hidden in the small canyons of Uluru rock were water, food and shelter, a discovery that today’s visitors can also observe and admire. It was a connection to the past, made present by Mini and other Anangu artists who continue to pass down the stories and secrets of Uluru rock.

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Ancient Kunming – Now the Garden City of China

I knew nothing of Kunming, China until discovering it was the terminus for most of the WWII flights over the Himalayas from India bringing supplies to the Allied and Chinese armies.  My father flew this dangerous route over the “Hump” 150 times.  When I journeyed to follow his WWII footsteps in 2014, a stop in Kunming was required.  Expecting a 2000-year-old ancient trade city visited by Marco Polo, I found instead a modern metroplex with temperate weather and a reputation as the Garden City of China.

The striking Kunming Airport, designed by the American architectural company, SOM, and completed in 2012, was China’s first green airport and an early indication of an updated urban environment, especially after flying from Kolkata, India. It is China’s fourth largest airport and has a surprising number of international flights including a direct to Paris, France. Customs was efficient with stern officers barely glancing at my newly purchased ten-year visa.

Flags along the sparsely populated new highway into town promoted Kunming’s beauty.  According to our guide, freeways and airports are built more rapidly in China compared to the long process required in the United States.  Land is leased in China, not individually owned, and they have efficient ways to clear the path for new developments.

Located in southwestern China, Kunming was a late bloomer.  The early explosion of industry and population movement on the Eastern side of the country caused nauseating air quality problems and crowded conditions.   By the time Beijing approved its “Go West” development program, an enormous domestic economic policy to boost development in western China, they had learned more about clean air.  Kunming’s existing industry was moved out of the inner city and solar energy emphasized.  All motorcycles are battery run, meaning motorcycles approach without warning. We had several close calls with passing cyclists.

Silver Chest Hotel Library

Sadly, since 1952 most of the original walled historical area has been torn down to make room for high rise apartments.  We struggled to find any charming lodging other than international hotel chains, including the Holiday Inn. We discovered the Silver Chest Boutique Hotel created from the home of a wealthy entrepreneur who had built it over a century ago near the Bird and Flower Market.  Owner Tang Lei had to meet strict requirements of the Kunming Bureau of Cultural Relics to create an authentic ambiance of a past era.   From the original wooden front doors to 1930’s tiled floors in the rooms to a cozy library with rare books loaned by the Yunnan Province Library, we could imagine a wealthy family’s living arrangements. Our continuous complaint centered around the lack of heating in all the buildings in Kunming, including the hotel, with only our small room excepted.

In addition to being a large agricultural area that includes thousands of fruit trees, Kunming is the largest flower exporter in Asia.  The City began hosting the Kunming International Flower Expo in 1995 which launched its reputation for natural beauty.  Last year’s expo featured 10,000 new, high-quality flower species and products.

Green Lake in Kunming

 

Cave Temple in Western Hills of Kunming

Two large lakes anchor the center of town while the Western Hills lie to the west. We explored the park around Green Lake.  Young environmentalists were protesting water quality (we think) but put down their signs for a photo with us.  A visit to the Western Hills required a bus ride, a ski lift part way up the mountain and a climb to ancient temples carved into the mountain side.  Students pray at the temples for good grades, wives for success in a pregnancy and all touch the elaborate Dragon Gate for luck, us included.

Yauntong Buddhist Temple in KunmingOn a tour of the city, we visited The Yunnan University founded in 1922 and highly regarded in China.  Just down the street was Yuantong, a major Buddhist Temple, where we joined supplicants buying candles and offerings to burn.  Two of the original gates to the city have been beautifully restored for viewing, the Horse and the Rooster.

Kunming has many more Chinese visitors than international ones.  We met no other Americans and only one Dutch woman waiting at McDonald’s for a taxi.  English was almost non-existent.  Our hotel receptionist had to show her phone’s translation of what she wanted to say.  Elena, our guide, ordered the most wonderful dishes at lunch time but in the evenings, we were without her help to decipher restaurant offerings. By pointing at pictures of dishes on the menu or even ordering food being served to the next table, we managed but were never quite sure what we were getting.  My brother tried pizza and was served plastic gloves to eat with.

Kunming offers a picture of present-day Chinese development in a pleasant setting with a small overlay of the past. It is also the gateway into the tribal areas of China that hosts 24 tribes, a location I want to visit before the Chinese Modernization Machine catches up with it.  I should go soon.

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The Thrill of the Sudden View

With photos available on the internet and travel sites galore, it is difficult to be surprised in traveling today.  Professional photos online with their perfect lighting beautifully reflect a location at its best. An in-person visit can sometimes be disappointing.

I do believe in being prepared for a voyage.  If I know the history of a city or country, I’ll “see” political posters and understand the importance of a candidate.  I’ll note the ethnic variety of a community or the foreign crowds at our national parks. Local guides add even more depth to a visit.  But it is the view that I often feel overprepared for.  That is why I can distinctly remember some recent experiences where the first view took my breath away.  They all have one feature in common – I could not see them coming.

Crater Lake in Oregon had been on my bucket list for years.  It is just enough off the main interstate and urban areas for the numbers of visitors to be moderated, even in the summer. As with all volcanic lakes, it was formed by the collapse of a volcano, the 12,000-foot Mount Malzana 7700 years ago.  Snow is the water source for the 2,000-foot-deep lake, the deepest in the United States and its 43 feet annual snow fall one of the highest in the country.

The drive circles up to the crater’s rim, masking the lake below.  We chose one of many turn outs and pulled into a parking place, grabbing a jacket to walk to the precipice.  And, suddenly, the lake was below us, stunningly beautiful with the dark blue clear waters, green pine trees clinging to the steep sides, and the quiet undisturbed by boats or visitors on the shores below.  We couldn’t get enough of the view, pulled towards it at every turn-out opportunity as we continued to drive around the lake.  We climbed to the Watchman Overlook for an even more spectacular vista, taking in the surrounding snow-covered volcanoes in the distance.  It is a view that cannot be over-hyped.

On a trip through Utah to see their national parks, we checked off three parks, all of which were impressive in their own way, but we could see them for miles as we approached. Bryce Canyon was different.  To get there required driving on a flat plateau, passing through a recently developed business intersection and entering the national park with nary a canyon in sight.  For several miles, woods obstructed our sight, but we finally pulled into a parking space with an arrow pointing to the canyon edge.  A quick walk brought us to the brink with rows and rows of the famous hoodoo columns below, carved by wind and erosion and standing at attention for miles, it seemed.  The canyon spread out until touching distant mountains.  We starred without talking, soaking up the geological wonder.

      You would think it hard to “lose” a view in the Himalayan Mountains.  Waves of mountain tops are easy to admire from the airplane circling the Thimpu, Bhutan airport.  But once on the ground, the road follows the river valley and forest obscures the view.  My husband, brother and his wife and I were observing and commenting on the many roadside temples and prayer wheels.  The van began to climb and weave up a mountain as we chatted.  On a final curve, directly in front of us was a panorama of snow-covered peaks against a deep blue sky. A collective “ohhhhhh” spontaneously erupted from the four of us, the view sudden and majestic. The van pulled into a parking area and we scrambled out to try to photograph the circular scene around us.  On our return drive to the capital, we came upon this same beautiful vista, but it wasn’t the same.  The unexpectedness from our first encounter gave it the excitement of a discovery, a treasure found.

There have been many other spectacular views in my travels – first sight of the Grand Canyon, walking through fog to encounter a mountainside Buddha in Hong Kong, waking up to a snow-covered mountain in Morocco, or finishing a trek in Turkey at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. No camera can capture the unanticipated, the abruptness of a discovery.  It is a reason to “go there” despite thinking you’ve seen pictures of it.  The real view is so much more.

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Traveling against State Department Advisories

Travel Advisory Levels

When I first began traveling internationally to Europe in 1969, no warning system by the United State Department of State was readily available for citizens abroad.  I have visited countries where travel advisories should have been in place.  When I first landed in Santiago, Chile, in the spring of 1974, a year after a military takeover and murder of elected President Salvador Allende, I could still feel the tenseness.  Soldiers patrolled the streets and even guarded entrances of movie theaters. Bullet holes punctured government buildings.  In neighboring Argentina, businessmen were being kidnapped for ransom.  Under the current system of warnings, I suspect I would have been warned to reconsider travel.  But I didn’t know and as my grandmother used to say, “ignorance is bliss.”

Beginning in 1978, bulletins became available for those in the know which included government employees, travel agencies, tour groups and educational institutions with study abroad programs.  Not until 1990 was the State Department ordered by law to develop a more comprehensive advisory system to be accessible by all.

The first system only offered two possibilities, an advisory and a warning.  The advisory would be akin to watch your purse, don’t be out alone at night, or even be aware of an election.  The warning indicated more serious concerns – terrorism, civil unrest, serious health concerns, and even kidnapping.  I once taught a friend a Spanish phrase to memorize in case she got in trouble.  “Ayudame.  Soy rehen.”  “Help me.  I’m a hostage.”  She didn’t laugh when I translated.

Simply having a travel advisory or even warning doesn’t mean a country is off the itinerary.  Some warnings only apply to sections of a country. Before our son was to be married in Guatemala in 2013, a concerned brother called. He had read the warnings from the State Department about travel there.  I looked at them more carefully and noted we would not be in any of the areas of violence and that the country had their own tourist police to keep travelers safe.  We were rewarded with the beauty of a wedding on the shores of Lake Atitlan that enchanted us all.

Whether to travel with an advisory in place depends for me on several factors – how much risk is it really, what does the local news report, and most importantly, what do our local guides say.

When I wrote our guide in the Assam Valley of India in 2016 that the area was under a U.S. Advisory against travel because of possible terrorist activity, he was stunned.  He replied eloquently, describing the tranquility of the area and noting the lack of any disturbance for his clients.  He even offered to have recent travelers write me of their experience.  We were glad we decided to continue with the trip as it proceeded without incident, at least until the last day when there was a police shootout with terrorists just down the road.  Again, we were blissfully unaware until the next day’s paper.

Prior to our visit to Morocco, two young Swedish women were brutally attacked by extremists at a campground near a mountain town we wanted to visit.  It seemed an isolated incident and we proceeded with our plan.  It wasn’t until our arrival that we learned the town’s residents themselves had tracked down the murderers. They knew their town’s reputation as a tranquil and temperate retreat from the desert below was at stake.  It was a favorite spot in Morocco.

There are some countries with continuous warnings such as Israel.  The failure to resolve territorial issues with the Palestinians causes an undercurrent of resentment that can erupt at any time. In 2011, we arrived just as Big Bertha, their then new anti-missile system, was shooting down rockets from the Gaza Strip.  I’ve talked with so many who want to visit Israel but have concerns about their safety.  I tell them there is never going to be a perfect time to visit that amazing country and they should just go.

In 2018, the State Department revamped the program, eliminating the difference between advisory and warning.  Today, four advisory levels are defined from “exercise normal precaution” to “do not travel” and include specific reasons for the caution, including my favorite – possible kidnapping.  I’ve also used a new program called STEP or Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to stay abreast of current conditions for any country I’m approaching.  I still get warnings about Hong Kong.

Because of Covid 19 today, the entire world is under a “reconsider travel” or “do not travel” warning on the State Department’s online map. I’ve never seen that before, certainly not in peaceful times.  My hope is that in a year, the map will be more inviting, and I can dust off my passport.

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