Two Lady Tourists Travel To Conflict Stricken Countries

When June Landrum and I arrived at the last police check point into Damascus, Syria February 10, 2020, we had to show our passports one more time.

Damascus, Syria, received 3 inches of snow the day before we arrived. But we never expected to see a surprise at the police station into the city. Photo by June

And when we did, we politely showed approval and happiness for what we saw because we did not expect to ever see anything like this in a war-torn country and especially at a police station into one of the longest inhabited cities in the world. These 2 senior ladies still hadn’t seen it all.

Olaf’s Brother! Photo by June

But somehow, this man survived all the fighting until we were there. He didn’t have a black hat but he had the coolest one-of-a-kind green hair and I said he looked like Olaf’s brother because he was a real snowman. The police had made him from 3 inches of snow Damascus, Syria received the day before our visit and he waited for us before he left.

Everywhere June (right) and I went, children would run up to us to greet us and then their parents would follow. Then we began visiting with the parents and exchanging hugs and selfies.

In every country that had terrorists fighting, June and I always found something unexpected and wonderful that just made our trip awesome. When we returned home, we were asked what it was like, did we have any problems, what was the food like and were we scared,” because it is so dangerous.”

In Tehran, Iran, these young ladies were visiting the museums and other antiquities when we ran into them. So, we all said let’s sit on this bench and have our photo made. Then, we proceeded to visit some more and we all hugged each other.

My Mother always told me “there is something good about every person and everything. You just have to find it.” In every one of these countries, we always heard and read bad things about them. But when we got there and began visiting with the people, seeing their antiquities and talking with our tour guide, June and I always found something good and saw the country was not as bad as we had heard.

I spotted this remarkable scene of all ladies in their burkas sitting side by side on the curb from the car as we passed it but I couldn’t get my camera fast enough. But on the return visit 2 minutes later, June was able to snap this scene.

Every trip we take, we select an excellent travel company that is reputable and honest. We check to make sure they have the knowledge of designing tours for us in a country we want to visit. And we make sure they select tour guides for us who are experienced and educated on the country in which they will guide us. Plus, we make sure they have a security plan included that will protect us everywhere we tour. With all of these in place, we confidently travel to these adventurous, interesting and educational countries and enjoy every minute of it.

This beautiful  Torajan lady on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi, was just sitting at the entrance of a grocery store selling homegrown tomatoes. I knew she was Trojan because her headdress indicated it. I thought she would be outstanding in a photo and when I asked her permission, she said, “no.” So I sat beside her and started visiting with her, telling her to never give up, stay positive and then I told her how beautiful she was. The next thing I knew, she said “yes, you can take my photo.” Right before the photo was taken, we hugged and we put our heads together. It was a wonderful visit that I didn’t expect.

As we travel to these cities/countries, we always notice the people continued to live their lives, for most areas do not have terrorists wreaking havoc on every inch of their country/city. We always honor the rules, regulations and laws of a country as we are their guests and luckily have had no problems. We also compliment and thank everyone for letting us visit their wonderful and outstanding antiquities, people and country. As a result, we have always been welcomed with open arms.

In the old city of Damascus, Syria, we shopped along with others while terrorists were in the south. We bought gloves because our hands were almost frozen.

We observed the people continue their lives in war/conflict but they take precautions. The other time we had our passports and backpacks checked was when we entered the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, Syria, one of the oldest and biggest mosques in the world.

The Memorial marking the burial location of the head of John the Baptist in the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. It was a church once so both religions are allowed in the mosque. Photo by June

With previous permission and an admission ticket, we walked inside the mosque during a Call for Prayer service between the praying men on the wall closest to Mecca and the women praying at the opposite wall. During this service in the mosque, we freely walked to view the Memorial marking the burial location of the head of John the Baptist and other antiquities.

We walked and shopped Straight Street in old Damascus, Syria along with other people. And we walked straight from gate to gate just like St. Paul did.

Then, we walked the ancient cobblestone streets of Damascus including Straight Street, which was the way of St. Paul mentioned in the Bible. And we visited the house of St. Ananias. We never had any worries even when we stopped to visit with the people and shopped the old city for souvenirs. We always followed the instructions of our tour guide, Abdul, on everything we did.

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Our outstanding Syrian guide, Abdul Homsi, bought a surprise for us from Abu George in his shop and had a great time laughing as he did.

One day on our visit to Damascus, Syria we took a tour to Maaloula, 31 miles (50 km) outside of Damascus. We saw many buildings destroyed on the way and when we arrived, we saw the hotel on the top of the hill had been destroyed by a car bomb and the bombed car frame was still by the hotel. As we proceeded down the hill to little shops nearby, we visited a farmer named Abu George, who owned a small food and souvenir store.

Abu George shows one of the many bullet holes the terrorists shot at him and his shop as he took off running 7 blocks to the safety of the Syrian police.

One day in 2015, Abu explained, terrorists began shooting at him in his store after they destroyed the church. Abu showed us the scores of bullet holes in his storefront and at the check-out counter. “I took off running toward the highway and they were shooting at me the entire time, but I made it 7 blocks to the Syrian police who saved me,” he said thankfully. “The terrorists took all of my food and all they could steal but they didn’t take me.” Today, his store is still open with bullet holes still in the outside wall.

This elegant lady is lucky to be alive after her ordeal with the Jihadists in Maaloula, Syria. They kidnapped her and she knew the area and how to escape, so she did. And she still works at the monastery today.

Then, we visited a 325 A.D. Monastery where terrorists took the frescoes from the walls and the church icons. There we met a young lady who was kidnapped by the terrorists. When they came to her, she started running and bullets flew all around her but she survived so the terrorists took her to a cave where their wives lived. Six of the terrorists were Jihadist. One great day, she escaped because the terrorists didn’t know the area but she did and was able to escape to freedom and was unharmed. And she still works at that Monastery today.

Hotel entrances were guarded by armed guards and security x-rays checked us and our luggage. Photo by June

In Kabul, Afghanistan Oct. 2019 that was at war with the terrorists, we took the same precautions as we did in Syria. Our hotel was in the outskirts of Kabul and was barely noticeable. As we exited the vehicle 6 feet (1.829 meters) from the entrance, armed police guards immediately helped us get into the hotel and through the second set of steel doors into the hotel’s very small lobby. An elevator existed but it only had electricity when needed to service floors. So, we climbed stairs to our 2nd floor room and then ate meals at the 4th floor restaurant and the food was delicious. Windows were covered in the restaurant and our room for privacy.

When we visited the Afghanistan Museum, we met these children and talked in English about our country and schools. Then, they all wanted to take many selfies with us.

When we toured sites around the city in an SUV, we were free to go anywhere we wanted with the help of our guide, Najibullah Sedege. At the Afghanistan Museum, we openly talked to and visited with 120 beautiful Afghani school children who were touring the museum in their school uniforms. It was so rewarding exchanging information on their schooling, finding out how they were doing and encouraging them to never give up and to continue their education always.

These school girls wanted to share their selfies with June.

The children practiced their English with us and asked questions about our lives and country. And, of course, we had to take photos with them and they took photos of us on their mobile phone which almost each child had. We were instant friends. These children only knew war because they all were under 18 years old.

The archeological site of Takht-I-Rustam, the former Buddhist Center in the 4th and 5th centuries near Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan, was an educational experience.

One day, we were scheduled to visit Balkh/Bactria, Afghanistan, one of the oldest cities in the world. We were scheduled to walk the old walled city for the afternoon and see all the ancient sites. But our guide informed us we couldn’t go there that day because the terrorists were actively fighting.

One of the 3 caves we toured in the Buddhist caves where the monks taught school and sold fruits and vegetables.

So, we toured outside Kabul in another area of Afghanistan and we really enjoyed the beautiful Hindu Kush mountain area as we made our way to the Buddhist Caves next to the Samangam archeological site of Takht-I-Rustam, the former Buddhist center of the 4th and 5th centuries, all with no troubles.

This precious little lady caught our eye one day as we going to see the white doves in Mazar-I-Sharif. The people believe that outlining children’s eyes in black makes them beautiful and stand out. It worked.

Our guide told us he checks often with informants where the fighting is to keep us safe so we visited an ancient Shrine Hazat Ali, the Blue Mosque of Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan. Outside, we visited with the local people who had come to pray and we had to have a photo with them and they enjoyed taking photos of us so they could show their friends.

One of the several capet stores we checked until we found just the one to buy THE carpet as a souvenir of our incredible experience in Afghanistan.

We couldn’t leave Kabul without visiting the shopping street where I had to have an Afghan carpet as a memento of my outstanding experiences in Afghanistan. Others were also shopping for their daily needs, all while their country was at war. To leave Afghanistan, we had to park several blocks from the airport terminal and walk to it through 3 police checkpoints with 2 more inside each time showing our passports and documents. Plus, each time, we had to have our luggage x-rayed. But we didn’t have any problems.dsc_0133-1[1]

In Algeria January 2018, we had police escorts 9-5 pm daily for 10 days everywhere we went because “we want to keep you safe,” they told us. We were and we thanked each one of the police who watched after us every minute, including eating and shopping.

This precious Yemeni child suddenly showed up in the window to wave to us after our guide gave the indication that we were safe. Then people exited their homes to visit with us and greet us.

At the time we visited Yemen November 2013, the terrorists were in the south and we were in the north and all went well. We toured in a van that had curtains on the windows so we couldn’t be seen. But once we arrived at our destination, we exited the vehicle and freely walked the many incredible 2500-year old city of Sana’a, Yemen full of one-of-a-kind UNESCO rammed earth terra cotta buildings.

This amazing man in the old market of Sana’a, Yemen, welcomed us to his city and gave us this little silver-looking box for my miniature souvenir collection. He was so impressed we would travel such a long way just to see him and Sana’a, Yemen. This wonderful man made the visit worthwhile and unexpected.

We talked to many shop owners to learn how they are making it in life and how they are selling their products in a war-torn country. They said they just keep on keeping on and somehow it seems to work out.

One section of the original walled city of Sana’a, Yemen, constructed of rammed earth, has been occupied for 2500 years and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986. It truly is a one-of-a-kind place.

And many of the store owners gave us gifts when they learned where we were from and that we came all the way to visit them. Our lunch was delicious shish-k-bobs cooked on an open grill in front of the 8×12 foot (2.4×6.7 meters) restaurant. It had 5 tables inside for the customers and it was full. To this day, they are the most delicious shish-k-bobs I have ever eaten.

June and I squeezed into this super small restaurant in Sana’a just to eat the best shish-k-bobs I have ever had.

In Mali February 2018, we had no trouble as terrorists were active in the south and we were in the north. One tour we took was so rewarding to see row after row of men repurposing one metal item into another and selling it. An old refrigerator door because a new metal trunk with lid.dsc_0152[1]

In Pakistan, October 2019 we were safe and had a wonderful time interviewing several jingle truck drivers and asking them why they decorated their trucks with such elaborate items. It was tradition generation after generation they said. And of course, each generation wanted to decorate more than the other. This story along with 126 other fun and different things I have experienced in my travels can be found on my List of Stories here on my blog,

June and I couldn’t resist having our photo made imside a tomb at Mada’in Saleh. It was the round window that resembled a heart that drew us to the inside and the tomb was empty.

In Saudi Arabia February 2016, we were safe the entire 2-week adventure with our excellent guide, Khalid Alqahtani, but when we went to the border of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, we could hear shooting back and forth as we toured the ancient sites near Najran while being guarded by the police.

At the annual festival for Saudi families, we just had to visit one of the booths, McDonalds! We all had an ice cream and I had a Big Mac too. It tasted delicious, YUM.

We were so excited to tour Mada’in Saleh, the Petra of Saudi Arabia, built by the Nabataeans not far from Petra, Jordan. And, wearing an abaya just like the native ladies wore showed respect for their public clothing.

Yes, I had henna put on my hands by this beautiful Saudi lady. And right before it, I bought the headband with metal-looking coins hanging down. It was a fun experience.

On our last day, we were allowed to attend an annual festival near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and two of our hotel men accompanied us. The yearly festival had activities for families to spent the evening watching dances, eating at McDonald’s, shopping, visiting, and getting henna. And yes, I had to have henna put on both of my hands by a beautiful Saudi lady who was totally covered except for her eyes in her full-length Burqa with Niqab.

Everywhere we went in Saudi Arabia, we visited with the amazing ladies we encountered. We hugged each other like we were long lost friends. And of course, we had to take selfies and photos of all. It was a heartwarming experience. Photo by June.

We greeted and talked with ladies everywhere we went because we could tell they wanted to meet and visit with us as much as we did them. They were human beings no matter how they were dressed so, we were instant friends. And we had to exchange photos on our mobile phones.

In Lebanon May 2017, we toured without problems and even waved to a dump truck full of armed men as we passed them.

In Beirut, Lebanon, we stopped at this little shop making the traditional purse bread called ka’ak covered in sesame seeds. Of course we had to have one. They put cheese inside and brush with egg, sprinkle with sesame seeds and heat it, ready to eat. They call it purse bread because the bicycle and car vendors carried the breads on bars as they sold them and they looked like a purse. I carried my Purse on my arm until it broke and then I ate it.
At the shop, we met these purse bread lovers and learned they lived near us once.

And in Iraq December 2013, we had no trouble because the fighting was going on in the south and we were in the north. There, we were honored to meet a family who had escaped from the fighting in Syria and were living in a mud house on a farm outside of Erbil, Iraq with only one little heater to keep warm in the cold.

This Syrian family of 10 were living in this mud-terra cotta 2-room house outside of Irbil, Iraq. With one electric wire to the house, they had a little heater, and cooking pot. They requested that we visit them and we were so honored to do so.

Our North Korea group tour was arranged by Koryo Tours of Beijing, China that specializes in North Korea tours and it was one of the greatest adventure seeing the beautiful marble buildings for the people and children, sculptures, eating many dishes of delicious Korean food, enjoying an amusement park and movie-making studio where all of us dressed in a costume used in a movie.

Each one of our tour members, plus our 2 guides, donned a costume used in a North Korean movie. It was a fun adventure for all of us. We paid $1 “to rent” the costume.

Our final day was spent traveling to the DMZ where we stayed in an authentic Korean village in Kaesong on Folk Street and slept on a traditional floor pad. The next day we viewed South Korea from the north. We always followed the rules, regulations and laws of each country because we are their guests and luckily, we have had no problems.

One surprise of our trip was to get our photo made with a North Korean military man overlooking South Korea. Then we viewed the room where the Korean Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. And to get there, we had to march in perfect formation to the room.

In Iran November 2013, we visited several cities for one week including the gorgeous blue-tiled mosques and the Persian architecture in Isfahan, Iran and Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire 550-330 BC. And we didn’t have any problems.

Persepolis in Iran was magnificent as was the other antiquities in the country.

As we traveled from Serbia to Kosovo, May 2012 just to visit the 1321 UNESCO Serbian Orthodox Gracanica Monastery, we were checked along with our passport many times, mostly by the NATO police who were still guarding the countries after the Kosovo war. It was well worth the many checks to view that beautiful monastery. We even bought a bottle of their wine after we tasted many samples.

Gracanica Monastery was my favorite because of its architecture and winery. We sampled several wines until we settled on one for my souvenir.

To go from Serbia to North Macedonia, we were checked 9 times as we proceeded through NATO and police border points to show our passports and have our vehicle checked. Plus, we had to get out of our vehicle and walk across the border into North Macedonia while the driver and vehicle were checked and examined. But we made it, all went well and our adventure in North Macedonia made the security checks worth it. One highlight was seeing the house where Mother Teresa was born in Skopje.

In Skopje, North Macedonia, we saw the birth home of Mother Teresa. She then dedicated her life to helping the world’s poor in Kolkata, India.

In every country we visited, the food was excellent. We had their specialties and they were so delicious. But nothing beat those desserts because we had to try them all. It just amazed us how many different dishes can be made for the same ingredients and how many pounds we gained.

Our dinner meal one day in North Korea. The entire table was covered in these little dishes with a different food in each dish. And each one tasted wonderful.

Visiting all these countries was so rewarding experiencing how the people live and are making it through war, unrest or strictly ruled countries. The adventures of each country were enjoyable every minute. And Syria even built a snowman for all to enjoy. The people we encountered were as happy to see us as we were to see them and all welcomed us with open arms. And we were never scared.

Many of our travels have been arranged by Spiekermann Travel and Tours 800- 645-3233 Owner Ihab Zaki arranges special tours for us in the Asian, African and Middle East countries, paying special attention to the itinerary, quality of the guides and low cost. He also offers group tours to many of these countries, several of which we have taken. All precautions are to keep us safe. Maureen Paap of Art of Hospitality Travel provides excellent expertise and planning on many of our foreign and domestic adventures. 512-769-1147. More fun and different adventure stories in many countries can be found here on my blog.

Shopping for nuts in Erbil, Iraq.
The gorgeous mosque in Afghanistan.
It was so cold in Isfahan, Iran as we shopped and visited the mosques, I had to use the hand made and hand stamped cloths we had just purchased. All wrapped up in them, I was warm. Photo by June.
The traditional Korean village in Kaesong where we spent the night before viewing South Korea.
June, right, and me with our A+ tour guide, Abdul Homsi. His love of Damascus, Syria, made us love it also.

Photo Copy © 2020