Story and Photos by June Landrum, my wonderful traveling companion on this trip to Iran. Carolyn
August 2013: I was traveling to Amsterdam, on my way to Africa. When we changed planes in Atlanta, I sat beside a young woman who was asleep. She slept for an additional hour or so then bounced awake and began to talk nonstop.
Her name was Samar, originally from Iran. She was returning from a trip to visit her older sister who lives with her husband and child in Costa Rica. Samar lived and worked in Switzerland. I told her my travel friend Carolyn and I were planning a trip to Iran in November/December.
She couldn’t believe we were going to Iran! I assured her we were unless something unforeseen happened. She said her parents in Iran would love to visit with us and I must call them when we get to Tehran! She gave me her e-mail address and her parents’ phone and e-mail. What a great idea, but I honestly thought nothing would come of it. I told Carolyn about the conversation I’d had with Samar, and we agreed I should pursue the connection.
In early November, I e-mailed Samar, starting my message with “You may not remember me, but…” She wrote back almost immediately saying she had contacted her parents who were extremely interested in meeting us. I sent a note to her father, Hossein, detailing our schedule in Tehran, where they lived. He replied that he and his wife would love to have us as guests in their home!
I was shocked and honored by his reply to say the least, but there was no way I was going to take him up on his offer. Carolyn heartily concurred. I sincerely hoped he would not be offended at our refusal to stay at his home. My hudband Phil’s hair was already on fire at the thought of this trip, and of course I had my own concerns as well.
Over the course of the next few weeks Hossein and I exchanged several more messages. At one point he told me he was to have unexpected eye surgery close to the date we’d be in Tehran and hoped he would be able to meet us after all. My heart fell. Had they decided they didn’t want to meet us? Was it just too much trouble? Unsafe?
In November, traveling through Sudan and Yemen, Carolyn and I landed in Tehran. After meeting our guide, Naydi, I told her about my correspondence with Hossein, and wanted her opinion on all aspects of the situation. She said she would call Hossein. I was so relieved – she could speak to him in Farsi and there would be no misunderstandings due to language or accents. She could certainly assess the safety issue. Carolyn and I crossed our fingers and waited.
Friday November 29th (Because of the 9 1⁄2 hour time difference it’s Thursday, Thanksgiving Day back home): Our guide Naydi reported she had talked to Hossein, and he and his wife would like to meet us at the Ferdows International Hotel for lunch. Carolyn and I were ecstatic.
While in Iran, Carolyn and I had to cover our heads even when in our hotel (of course not in our room), and even at night riding in a dark van. I felt very restrained. Other than our heads, the rest of our attire was simply “modest”. We spent the morning at the Tehran Archeological Museum. I was interested in the artifacts, but I must admit my mind was on the upcoming lunch.
Soon after we arrived at the hotel, Hossein and his wife Shala arrived. Introductions were made all around. Our meal was a buffet – and in honor of the date the cuisine centered around a traditional Thanksgiving meal. We had baked turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and great vegetable dishes.
I should mention there was now a third party in our little group – Juan, from California, had joined us for the remainder of our trip. This lunch with Hossein and Shala was not on our scheduled tour and for some reason Juan wasn’t as excited about it as Carolyn and I were.
Hossein and Shala were perfectly delightful people, I guessed them to be around 60 years old. We had a very long lunch. He was a businessman and farmer, owning a large farm (I believe he said 100,000 hectares but that’s a lot of land) of pistachios, obviously wealthy. He seemed proud of his success and who could blame him?
She taught criminology at the University of Tehran. Shala was a lovely quiet unassuming woman, clearly well-educated and wearing the required head covering. She does not speak much more than basic English so some of the time Hossein translated for her.
I could tell from his body language and a couple of comments Juan was chaffing at the bit to get on with our program, but we had a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit with a “real” Iranian couple, people not involved in the tourist industry in any way. Juan’s broad hints went ignored as long as we could.
During our chance encounter on the airplane their daughter told me her mother doesn’t like her to return to Tehran, because she’s afraid Samar will get arrested. I did not question Samar further about that statement. We took several pictures together.
One of us asked them how they met. Hossein said once when he was on a date with another girl they went to a “fortune teller’ who told him he would not marry the girl he was with, but would marry, and he’d become wealthy. Carolyn and I thought this was a strange memoir to share especially as he didn’t tell us exactly how he and Shala met.
We exchanged more questions and answers such as how long they have been married, children, etc. Their older daughter who lives in Costa Rica has a little girl, their only grandchild. I would have loved an in-depth conversation with them, but of course we avoided anything controversial, nothing about religion or politics. Hossein spoke excellent English – he told us as a young man he worked several years in the oil fields near Midland.
Near the end of our lunch, they gave us a HUGE box of pistachios – probably 7 or 8 pounds! What were we going to do with all those wonderful nuts? (Our group consumed them daily during the remainder of our trip. I didn’t think we’d be allowed to take them home.) Hossein wanted – insisted – to pay for our lunch, but Naydi told him lunch had already been paid for and they were our guests.
I gave Shala a hand towel I’d brought from home – a design in red, white and blue. I thought the design was a best souvenir choice. I had brought two towels but, in my haste, to leave the hotel that morning I could not find the second one. My suitcase was such a mess!
After lunch we six (Naydi, Juan, the Iranian couple, Carolyn and me) traveled in our
van to the Carpet Museum. Hossein insisted on paying our entrance fee and this
time Naydi allowed him to treat us. The museum was interesting, and we saw many beautiful designs and color combinations. After the museum, we said goodbye to
Hossein and Shala, who took a taxi back to the hotel where we’d had lunch.
We continued our trip – Iran is an amazingly beautiful, interesting country. Other than Tehran, we traveled to Shiraz, Persepolis, and Isfahan. The people we met, the colors, the architecture and history were simply outstanding.
Leaving Iran, we traveled on to Dubai and Iraq – but that’s another story.
After we returned home, I wrote Samar and thanked her for arranging our meeting with her parents, and to Hossein and Shala for visiting with us. I attached some of the pictures taken during our lunch.
Near Thanksgiving in 2014, I received an e-mail from both Samar and Hossein, wishing me a lovely season of thankfulness. I e-mailed them once more, but when I didn’t receive any more correspondence and I pursued it no further.
A casual discussion with Samar on the airplane morphing into meeting Hossein and Shala – That kind of serendipity can’t be planned! I’m so grateful our guide Naydi was willing to take a chance with that meeting.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, carolyntravels.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 email@example.com. 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. firstname.lastname@example.org 512-769-1147. More fun and different adventure stories in many countries can be found here on my blog.
As we went down the roads of Pakistan, they kept passing us on the other side and we just had to concentrate on them because we had never seen anything like them. And they kept passing us one after the other from Islamabad to Karachi.
When we saw each one, our joyous screams of amazement permeated our vehicle because each one was a little different from the other ones we had just seen. It continued like this each day for our 10-day tour of central and southern Pakistan.
Any object with wheels was subject to decorations. When I asked one driver why he decorated his truck, he explained “everyone does it.” They do decorate. When one does something new, many copy it and others try to do bigger and better, making it competitive and one-up-man-ship. We rarely saw an undecorated vehicle.
Dump trucks, 18-wheeler trucks, cargo trucks and all other kinds of trucks were dripping in some kind of truck jewels. We saw decorated tanker trucks, tractors with decorated trailers, buses, tractors and trailers, and tuk-tuks. Anything that moves is decorated. It was an exciting drive and going to sleep was out of the question because we didn’t want to miss seeing one rolling art vehicle.
First, paint is used to decorate the various vehicles. Then they add bells, ironwork, fringe, pinwheels, horns, lace, plastic, metal, wood, glass, fabric, strings of lights, and neon lights also are used and anything else they can find. Driving an artistic truck is their pride and joy, their job, and home away from home.
Some even decorate inside the cab, including seat covers, to ceiling and all around. They use the same color combinations as outside. And some trucks only have a door barely big enough to enter the cab because they want to keep the theme all the way around the truck without interruption.
Many trucks had an extended front bumper 1-3 feet (1/3-1 meter). Some had fangs, or 4-5-foot (1-1/2 meters) tall iron spikes made into a columns or single rods spread out across the front extended bumper. Candlestick-looking objects stuck up around the edge of the 1-3 foot (1/3 to 1 meter) extended bumper. All of these ornaments made the truck look mean and vicious to me and some resembled the horns on a rhino. All the people we talked with had their trucks decorated by professionals with the know-how as the truck only has a short time between hauls.
Some even decorated the windshields and left just enough clear so they can see to drive. Some trucks beds were double and triple high, depending on the product they are carrying. Just harvested top-quality Pakistani cotton is one of the products trucks haul to the mill. Vehicles carrying cotton are a sight to behold.
The owners spend thousands of dollars making their truck one-of-a-kind and outstanding. Different, highly decorated trucks, buses or tuk-tuks generally get noticed and hired more often than plain ones. One tuk-tuk driver told me that he has customers who pass up other tuk-tuk rides to wait for his highly jingling tuk-tuk.
He spent $1000 to decorate his tuk-tuk because he takes and picks up children from school. “I do it for the children and they love riding with me and the parents know they are safe with me.” Then, he had to go because school was over and he had to be there waiting for the children.
Using all of these truck art media is to show passion, love, storytelling, characters, politics, people, spiritual gurus, sports figures and anything that has meaning. Decorating has become a part of the Pakistani culture since the 1920’s when a Bedford truck was imported from England with a crown on the hood. That started the popular vehicular art which is now imbedded into the Pakistani vehicular culture.
As our outstanding guide, Didar Ali, and driver, Munir, were taking us down the roads of southern Pakistan, we would see a truck or a tuk-tuk (a motorcycle-like transport) stopped on the side of the road, I would ask Didar if I could talk to the driver. Immediately, Munir would make a U-turn and Didar would meet the driver and get permission to talk to him.
Interviewing the drivers turned out to be a major attraction for the people in the area. At one Tuk-Tuk interview, up to 75 people gathered around us to listen to the questions and answers. Didar would listen to the question I wanted in English, then ask the driver in their local language, and tell me the answer in English. It was so much fun and everyone seemed to enjoy the interviews.
One driver, Maqbool, a 30-year-old father of two we talked to, was on a 15-minute break and had just a few minutes to tell us about his artistically-designed truck. He said he began driving-hauling for his father and now he owns two trucks. He has black and white strips and tassels hanging from his truck to keep evils away. He said “It is my hobby and interest to make my truck beautiful.”
And to do this, he has spent $8000 USD so far. He hauls cookies for a company from Punjab to Sindh provinces and loves it even though he only gets a few days off a month. And then he said he had to get back on the road to meet his arrival time deadline.
Asif, a single guy employed by a company, has been driving for 4 years. He hauls coal from Hyderabad to Sindh to Sahiwal and showed us the coal dust on his clothes. Asif explained he got into driving-hauling when someone needed him to drive in his truck-owning-family, so he said “OK.” And he has been driving a decorated truck ever since.
Pashtoon, married with 2 sons, said he bought his truck used and decorated so he didn’t have to hire someone to decorate it. He hauls coal from Punjab regularly except when he hauls in season potatoes to Karachi. “The government does not allow us to carry as many tons of a product anymore”, he explained.
So, why are they called jingle trucks? Well, as they go down the road, many of the items move and make noise like metal chains hanging fringe-like on the bumpers, bells that can hang anywhere they can ring, fan blades and multi-colored pin wheel blades going around and round, tassels that flop back and forth in the air on the truck anywhere, and anything else that makes noise and moves in the wind.
And every now and then they have to pull into a mechanics shop for repairs or another paint job or ornament to keep them shining, jingling and flashing down the roads of Pakistan. And continuing the creativity and shock and awe ornaments gives those who have never seen these trucks a great thrill.
People keep asking me where I am getting these incredible tours to these incredible countries. And the answer is Spiekermann Travel Service in Eastpointe, Michigan. Should you wish to have a tour like this, contact them at 800-645-3233, email@example.com
On the way to the starting place, the 2 guides said it would never happen after I told them my dream was to kiss a baby. Then she said neutral colored clothing was the only color allowed in the forest. I then asked her what would happen if I wore a color. She said I would not be allowed to participate wearing a bright vivid color because it attracts the eye.
We finished our discussion right at the time we arrived at the starting point and waiting for me was the basket in which I would ride to the mountain top to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. And I would ride lying on my back on a foam mattress in the basket since I cannot climb a mountain because of lung problems from birth and because osteoporosis has been bad for years and falls and broken bones occur, year after year. Other than that, I am in good condition. So, off I went with 8 strong men carrying me, 4 at a time.
First, we went through a neighborhood and it was so much fun like I was on a float in a parade waving to the people who had come from their homes or stopped chopping weeds in the potato fields to wave to me. I told every person “Hello” and waved to them from my basket. The people didn’t seem surprised to see me being carried because the men carry handicapped people all the time to see them, enabling the handicapped to fulfill a lifetime dream of seeing the mountain gorillas.d
After greeting the village people as we proceeded through the potato fields, we headed straight to the forest. But before we could start the climb, the men had to lift me and the basket over a 5-foot-high fence of stacked rocks. The four men grunted as they lifted me up high on one end with all their strength while the men on the other end then lifted me over the stack of rocks.
Once they had me up in the air, the men on the front lowered me and the men carrying me at the feet then lowered me. I was about a 20-30-degree angle going over the fence, first with my head and then my feet. I figured the purpose of the rock wall was to separate the national park from the potato fields. But why, I wondered, didn’t a gate get included in the rock wall so then the men carrying the basket could get through easily.
Now it was time to go deep into the forest so we proceeded up to the gorillas . The brush and vines were about 2-3 feet high and very thick and it was a challenge to find the ground below them. Vines covered the trees in many places and hung down so far one could barely see. So, one of the guides led the way with a machete cutting the vines and brush so we could pass.
Following us were seven other trekking men and women and the cleared path helped them navigate the newly created forest trail. We continued the climb up 10-25 degree angles for about an hour. And the smell of the newly cut vines in the pristine forest was beginning to make me sick at my stomach. But I wasn’t that sick that I had to stop. Nothing would prevent me from seeing those gorillas.
We entered an area about half way up that was heavy brush and we couldn’t see around it. It made me think of our soldiers who had to fight in many of the jungles of the world and what they went through to make it. But as soon as we could see around all the vines and other thick greenery there was a huge black-back male gorilla just waiting for us. It was a total surprise and I was ecstatic and oh so happy that I was so close to him and we weren’t even where the Umubano gorilla family was yet.
We stopped for a short time and why I didn’t know. We could have continued up the mountain and passed right by the gorilla but we didn’t. The gorilla wanted to check us out. The dominant silverback master of the family then arrived to observe but he remained calm while the black-back checked me out. So, the black-back calmly and slowly came toward my head and shoulder area as I laid in the basket. And he stuck out his right hand and examined the blanket on my basket mattress by lifting a section of it up and rubbing and looking closely at it.
I watched him rub those huge black leather-like fingers back and forth as he studied it with his big eyes and brain, analyzing every thread. And in that process, he touched my shoulder. Well, I was in dreamland and it was so surreal because a wild gorilla had touched me. I didn’t get to kiss a baby but I was touched by a gorgeous black-back in a close encounter.
I began to celebrate with no sound because we had just been told at the rock wall that no sounds were allowed in the forest. So, when he came up to my head area to check out the blanket by rubbing it between his huge big leather-like fingers, I decided it was time to celebrate because my dream had come true. So, I opened my mouth to show I was estatic and raised both arms up to the sky with my thumbs sticking up from my fists. And the gorilla was still beside me and watched me do it.
My guides then began gorilla talk. They research and study gorillas all the time and know the gorilla language, they had told me. So, several of the guides spoke the “everything is ok” sound over and over and over. And the guides even said it at the same time, In a cool, calm and collected manner. And then the gorilla backed up and sat down about 6 feet from my basket/head and crossed his arms tightly over his chest. The incident only took few seconds, but to me, it seemed like an hour of total enjoyment.
I didn’t know if this gesture indicated he was finished with the examination, or if he was satisfied all was ok and we could pass or if he was mad because he had been corrected. Maybe he sensed there was a problem that I was being carried when the other people were walking. He didn’t act threatened and neither did I. And what was the thing that attracted that black-back to come check me out as we were only half way up? We didn’t do anything unusual as the park rangers regularly carry handicapped customers who have difficulty walking or climbing.
The only thing I could figure out was the blanket. The blanket caused the big black- back gorilla to come meet us as we were half way up because the blanket was bright and vivid orange. And the guide told me on the way to the starting point that bright colors were forbidden because they attract the baby gorillas.
And I wondered why, of all the colors possible, did they select the orange blanket to cover the foam mattress in the basket. That orange stood out to that gorilla who was eating green leaves. And all of a sudden, he must have looked up and saw an orange thing coming up the mountain. So, I guess he was in charge of seeing what was entering their mountain kingdom.
There he sat looking at us as we passed to continue our trek up to the top. And at the top, we found the gorillas had moved down the mountain to eat new leaves. So, then I got out of the basket and begin walking down which I did handicapped. But two of the guides helped me walk all the way so I wouldn’t fall and one of them brought my walker with me so I could sit if I became tired. After taking a few steps, I wasn‘t sure. Now I had to navigate through 2+-feet-high thick vines to where those precious gorillas were and most were eating separately in trees or on the ground. And I was determined to see them, no matter what.
Oh, they were so cute and fat and fun to watch. My dream had come true again on my fourth gorilla trek. My first and second trek was in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and the trek was just a little walking on flat land and my third gorilla trek was in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and I just walked a few feet and stood watching them live their precious lives.
All guides were excellent as was my guide, Emmy Maseruka, of Afrikan Wildlife Safaris. I learned it doesn’t matter which country is selected because each trek is different even in the same park. Every trek is awesome and one of a kind.
Our gorilla group was called Umubano, meaning togetherness and cooperation. The family has 15 members, three of which are silverbacks, but only one is the dominant leader. Two females have produced several offspring. Currently they have three babies. I didn’t get to see one but I did see the rest of the family members.
As we proceeded to each member of the family, we saw a silverback about 50 feet high in the top of a tree eating leaves. He was huge and at one time, he was totally spread eagle with each of his limbs on a tree limb so we could see him in all his glory. Then, he decided to come down to the ground on one branch, and when he did, the branch broke and he fell about 45 feet to the ground. I thought it would be the end of him, but a short time later, we saw him walking around like nothing happened.
Preceding on with 2 guides helping me walk through the thick vines, we saw 2 male teenagers, each declaring he was the strongest and the king of the mountain and fighting and biting to prove it. And they were making such a commotion that the dominant silverback male made a flying dash to break them up and to referee the fight. But he didn’t do it until he pounded his chest while sprinting straight to the fighting boys, right beside me. He succeeded by his presence. And we got a great demonstration on how he rules his kingdom.
As we continued down, a female and a young gorilla were peacefully playing and bonding with the young gorilla ending up on his back with his right leg up in the air and his big hands playing with the foot. It was just like young children do and it reminded me that gorillas are 98% DNA of humans. They are like us and even look and act human except they are in a gorilla suit.
We continued our trek down and observing gorilla after gorilla up close and personal. I was tired from every step trying to find the ground without those vines and the smell of the cut vines was making me sicker. I sat down on my walker and just as I did, the lead guide said our hour was up with the gorillas and we must go. I was proud that I was able to make the entire trek handicapped and successfully. While I was trekking, I felt no sickness or pain until the last minute. It’s amazing when your mind is on something else, you don’t feel a pain.
We were told we could not touch a gorilla but a gorilla could touch us. When I was touched, my trip was made and I was in dreamland it was so surreal. In my world, I had hit the top of the mountain, and from then on, it was downhill all the way, literally and figuratively.
Following me on the trek were these ladies and gentlemen, and the guides helped us all.
They were in front of us from the airport and we didn’t even notice. Several days went by and we still didn’t notice but finally we realized they were there. And it continued even more times. Plus, no one anywhere informed us that they would be in front of us. Finally a clue surfaced that made us suspect what was going on because it didn’t look normal.
We were following a plain car in front of us and when it turned right, we turned right. And when it turned left, we turned left. And this happened over and over and that’s when we started asking questions of our first guide SiDi. “Is that car leading us around Algiers,” we asked and he replied, “Yes. And then I asked, “Why?” And he replied “They want to make sure you are safe during this brief presidential situation and to get us through traffic jams.
So with that knowledge, we learned we would be escorted around Algiers, Algeria everywhere we went from daylight to dark. And we were. And we began to like it and to enjoy the good looking Algerian policemen who were protecting us for our visit as a tourist everywhere we went in Algeria. Each time they began to escort us, they came and told us “Hello.”
Plus they would start out each day discussing with Yazid, our driver, where we were going and what route we would take because the policemen sometimes had a different route than Yazid did because of traffic safety. So we followed them where they took us and we thanked every one of them for their service several times each day.
If we wanted to buy a souvenir of Algeria, Billel, our second guide, told the police. The next thing we knew, we were at a souvenir shop and the policemen even came in the shop and helped us find just the turbo head wrap and began to show us how to wrap it around the head until the shop keeper, Smati, finished the wrap on our guide’s head. It fit Billel just right so I bought it as my first souvenir.
If our tour called for a visit to the outstanding Mosaic Museum or Archeological Museum or ancient ruins from the Phoenicians, Romans, Turkey, Byzantine, Arab, Spain, French and Berber periods that have occupied Algeria since B.C. times, our police escort was there ready to lead us through the city. And then the police escort waited for us until we left the exhibit and then escorted us to the next place on our itinerary.
When we stopped for lunch, the police escort stopped for lunch in the same restaurant where we were eating. We ate at our own table with our guide, Billel. Sometimes, the police escort changed shifts at lunch time so we had different police escorts after lunch. And when we went from city to city, the escort policemen changed. Each Algerian state we were in or passed through provided us a police or military escort in their state.
So we drove through several states, from Cherchell, Tipaza, Annaba, Constantine, Timgad, Lambaesis, to Batna, and Bou Saada and we pulled over to the side of the road and there was a policemen or a military policeman waiting to take us on our journey through their state. We had policemen on motorcycle, in an SUV for police or a olive-colored pick-up that the military police used to guard us. Some vehicles were marked police and some were unmarked.
Several times in our escorted journey, the police escort encountered traffic jams and some vehicles traveling in convoy formation. So when the police escort saw there was no way to get us through the bottle neck, they put on the flashing lights and the siren to tell motorists we were coming through.
And the drivers moved to the side of the road, allowing our van to proceed. And every time, a policeman in the passenger side had his arm out the window to direct traffic as we passed through. It told the drivers something else was following him.
And several times, we had a police escort at the front and back of us when there was a lot of congestion. One time, a stretch of 2-lane highway was so clogged with traffic that we had 2 police cars leading us and one following. Watching them maneuver around the traffic was the work of artists and professionals. One police car was 5-6 cars ahead of us and our police escort. When it was time to do the pass maneuver and the way was clear, the lead car would pull out into the opposing lane with lights flashing and siren sounding. Then our police escort would follow with our van and the rear escort following. They performed this maneuver when there was room enough for vehicles to move to the side of the road.
And the policeman in the passenger seat had his right arm out the window directing traffic and signaling someone was following him. Vehicles moved to the shoulder and everything each time went perfect with no problems. It was so artistic watching the maneuver like a well rehearsed dance, but watching it also was nerve racking and suspenseful for we had never seen or experienced anything like it.
Our guide SiDi told us that the policemen escorting us are educated and trained to be escorts and they certainly have learned their training well for their excellent performance for the 10 days we were in Algeria. So when we went back to the airport to catch our next flight to Mauritania, there was the police escort for our final ride and a salute to us. And we saluted them and the Algerian government in each state for all the great work they did for us. This time, we knew they were leading and following us.
The first indication we had of what was to come was driving down the highway and noticing sand being blown on the road in stripes and then a white out. And it continued and continued making us realize we couldn’t do anything outside or we would be bombarded by sand in a strong wind. And we were.
We had sand in every crevice or crack or bend or hole in our body. Everywhere we walked, we walked on sand and sat on sand and ate sand and any other thing you could do with sand. It made us respect the camel more because it had eyes, a nose and ears that could be closed in a sand storm. Closing ours didn’t help. They still had sand in them.
We had sand everywhere. And it lasted for the 4 days June and I were in the Sahara Desert of Mauritania following a caravan route in a pickup truck.
In that truck was our guide and driver, Mohamed, our cook, Mounir (Moo-near) and June and I. We were following a caravan route in northern Mauritania because I could not walk for the 44 days that a normal walking caravan takes with camels. Instead of camels carrying supplies, our truck was packed with food, water and our luggage and any other thing we needed for 4 days for the mini caravan. Our custom designed mini-caravan had us staying in the best available hotels possible in the villages closest to the caravan route instead of staying with nomads and in tents.
These hotels did not serve food or provide anything except a plain room with toilet facilities. They were basic and they worked for us. But they didn’t provide any food so Mounir and Mohamed unloaded our food supplies from the truck and spread a fabric cover on the floor of our room and provided us a meal, picnic style. We had mixed vegetables from cans sometimes with tuna fish and olives and dates and a long loaf of uncovered bread from the market that he bought out of a wheelbarrow that probably was covered with sand.
So half way to our final destination, we stopped at a hotel of bungalows with a bed and natural toilet inside. And inside that room, Mounir fixed our first meal. Mounir wanted to cook meat inside our room but I told him I could not breathe smoke or any pollutants. She he cooked outside on a small portable cooker and bought a chicken for us at the local market. It was meaty and delicious and so were the mixed vegetables from cans.
On this day, we were going to see the Oasis in the desert. So, I figured it would be a short ride to get to it. I had seen one oasis city in the desert in United Arab Emirates so I was looking forward to seeing this one.
Mohamed found a little path and turned onto it from the paved highway into the Sahara Desert and headed toward the Oasis. We were following a caravan trail and the ride was smooth, bumpy, enjoyable and adventurous. We were amazed that trees and bushes and shrubs were in the desert and they were living. Mohamed and Mounir both agreed it was normal for a desert to have some greenery.
The caravan route was not straight, and we turned right and left many times. And every turn was a different and beautiful scene. One turn we made, we came upon the oasis. There was a pond of water in the middle of nowhere that was about 50 feet long and 20 feet wide. And sitting beside it were 6 cows. I was shocked and amazed that a desert would have cows deep inside it. We also saw several camels as we progressed along the way.
But to my amazement, this was not the oasis we were going to see. So we continued on the trail and on and on. We saw huts and little villages as we proceeded deeper into the Sahara Desert. People actually lived in the desert and seem to be surviving just fine. I never dreamed people could live in the desert. But now I know they can.
We were into the Sahara Desert for almost an hour and a half now and finally we began to ask “Are we there yet?” And finally, Mohamed indicated we were near. But we kept driving and driving through villages and trees. Finally we parked after 2 hours of driving in the sand and we walked up to the oasis. And we walked and we climbed up the hill and the terrain was natural and not a smooth sidewalk. I was so tired from the day before that I could barely make the climb.
But with the help of Mohamed and Mounir, I finally made it to the oasis. It was a wall of different layers of dirt/rock/sand with water drops falling down into the stream below. It was a silent beauty. A large fabric cover was on the ground for us to rest on and to have a picnic. So Mohamed and Mounir brought up our food supplies from the truck and prepared our dish of mixed vegetables from various cans. It tasted good as we rested from the long bumpy ride through the Sahara Desert.
It was so relaxing to watch the drops of water quietly fall into the stream below and to wonder in amazement how this could exist in the middle of a dry desert. And it was refreshing to just see water and learn that this can and does exist in the Sahara Desert. But the enjoyment and rest soon ended.
We made it back down the hill to the truck and continued driving/riding further into the desert. I was getting real thirsty after another long drive so I took a bottle of water and began to drink it. And just then, Mohamed stopped the truck that was bumping, and rocking and rolling along the desert path so I could drink without spilling the water or cutting my lip on the container. Oh, the water tasted so good and I finally finished so we could proceed further into the Sahara Desert.
But there was one problem. The truck wouldn’t move because it was stuck in the sand. And we were in the middle of nowhere. And I didn’t know if anyone knew where we were. I quietly became worried if we would ever be found as Mohamed and Mounir tried to get us unstuck. First, they tried digging out the sand from the front wheels. That didn’t work. Then they tried putting bark and limbs from nearby trees under the tires and that didn’t work. Then they tried letting air out of the tires and that didn’t work. Then they tried digging out more sand and rocking the vehicle back and forth. Nothing worked. Thirty minutes had passed as they tried endlessly to get the truck unstuck.
Then, they tried everything they tried before and added Mounir‘s pushing power and the truck slowly began to move and we slowly became unstuck and moving again. June and I thanked them and thanked them for successfully getting us unstuck. So then we headed straight to a car repair shop in a small village in the desert where we could get air to refill the tires. It was a glorious moment when we were back safe and sound and moving again.
And we were back on the paved highway on the way to our hotel nearby and the wind was blowing and streaks of sand blew again. And we were reliving the unbelievable experience we just had at an oasis and getting stuck in the Sahara Desert as we followed a caravan route. We never had food poisoning or any problems. And Mohamed and Mounir never spoke a word of our language and we never spoke a word of their language. We used the charade method until I remembered the Translate app on my iPhone. And when Mohamed heard our question in his language, he celebrated with joy. And we did also. Priceless.
Sharon and I decided to try it but we had no idea what it was like. We soon learned. We screamed all the way down the hill because it was so exciting and scary and exhilarating and unique all at the same time.
It was a ride like no other we had ever done. And we had never visited the island either. The sleigh/sledge/toboggan/sled/car ride we decided to get on was on Maderia Island and it was waiting for a customer so we climbed right in. The sledge was a handmade wicker sofa basket made especially to sit on top of the sledge’s 2 runners. So we climbed into the basket seat with the help of our 2 drivers who would keep the sleigh on track from the top of the hill down 1.24 miles or 2 KM.
We had no seat belts, no rules or regulations to follow, no warnings to follow like keep the feet and arms inside the basket, no wheels, no engine, no emergency rules, nothing. We just had 2 male drivers, dressed all in white and a bowler straw hat, who were masters in driving the sled.
Our guide told us it would take about 10 minutes to complete the ride but it seemed like it took an hour. We started off just fine sliding straight down the hill and thought it would be a simple ride, but we were screaming and laughing and going 30 mph/48 KM all the way down because it was so fast.
All was normal until we came to a curve. And that is when we started sliding through the curve sideways going 30 mph/48 KM. And the screams became louder and longer. As the sliding occurred at my side, I knew the sleigh was out of control and we were in danger. I even thought we would turn over or crash into the wall. It became a bare knuckles ride that was out of control.
But what I didn’t know was that the 2 drivers had control of the sleigh. It’s just that I thought they didn’t. I began to learn that each driver had control of the sled with a rope and their feet. The 2 men wore special leather booths with tire tread soles made especially for them so they could control the sledge by traction. And the 2 ropes were attached to the front of the sled, one on each side, that helped them control the angle of the sled from all sides as it went down the road. When the sleigh was in control, the drivers rode behind us on the runners, using their feet to make us go right, left or straight.
We didn’t slide down a dedicated tract. No. We slid down a public road that cars drive on. And the road was shiny smooth and slick from the many times a sled has gone down the hill. At one intersection in the road, a man holding a stop side, had several cars waiting behind him for us to pass.
One time, we had to stop and move to the side of the road so a car could pass us. And to get us going again, the 2 men moved from the back of the sled to the front to pull the ropes. Then, as we started going fast again, they quickly moved to the back so they could move the toboggan to the right, left or straight to keep us on the road. And we were screaming all the time.
We later learned the drivers oiled the soft eucalyptus wood runners so they would slide easier and faster when we were stopped to let the car pass by. Then we wondered how the drivers could get traction with oil all over the road from the oiled runners. And how could the cars driving on the slick road keep from sliding down also.
We slid sideways curve after curve and curve. I nearly fell out of the basket and then Sharon nearly fell out because we were going so fast. But we didn’t. We just thought we were going to fall because the speed around the curve seemed so fast. But the men had control of the sledge and we proceeded just fine every time. But, we screamed even louder.
The ride was fairly smooth. When we did come to a bump, it wasn’t a jarring hard bump. We assumed it was because of the soft eucalyptus wood the runners were riding on and they had to be changed often as the street wore them up.
The ride ended when the drivers veered the sled off to the left by pulling on the ropes from the back and dragging their feet, landing right in front of the Toboggan Souvenir Shop and Refreshments area and the man holding the photos of us taken along the way. We just had to buy the $10 photo of us screaming with hair blowing as we went down the road and a t-shirt at the souvenir shop, for we didn’t want to ever forget that exhilarating ride in Maderia.
Writer Ernest Hemingway took the ride and described the experience as one of the most hilarious in his life. We agree with his analysis.
We wondered how this ride ever was invented so we asked Delores, our guide for the tour of Maderia. Mr. Gordon, she said, used to walk down the hill every day to work. He kept noticing the sled delivering supplies down the hill that was pulled by 2 oxen. So he reasoned, it he could make it like a sleigh, he would get to work real fast.
In 1850, he began to ride to work after having a wicker basket sofa designed and attached to the sleigh runners. And he rode from the village of Monte to the Maderia capital city of Funchal in record time. Others noticed his sleigh and the ride became popular with natives and tourists alike.
Where is Maderia Island you wonder? It is a Portuguese island located in the Atlantic Ocean just off the west coast of Africa, about 300 miles from Morocco. It has become a popular tourist destination with all seasons being a great time to visit. It is often referred to as “the island of eternal spring” since the climate is outstanding.
No other place in the world has this kind of ride and Maderia is known as one of the 7 most unique commuter rides in the world. And we screamed and laughed all the way down on the wildest ride of our lives.
Winston was waiting for us in the corner of his exhibit with his female partner, son Monroe and other family members behind him because Winston is the dominant silverback lowland gorilla at the World Famous San Diego Zoo Safari Park (SDZ Safari Park). Fernando, an anteater, just awoke from a nap and Zinvvhi (ZenVee), a giraffe, was waiting on us too. The one thing they all had in common was food. Each one clearly loved their cuisine.
For Winston, age 48 and 600 pounds, lunch included a large whole green squash. Clutching the squash in his huge plastic-like polished leather right hand, he eagerly stuck it in his big pink mouth and chomped it in half. Several chews later, he finished off the other half. Next was a huge carrot which he finished in two bites.
After several rounds of mixed whole vegetables, it was time for the grand finale, corn. It obviously was his favorite as he loudly smacked and chewed and smacked till it was gone. He hit the wall with his big right hand telling his keeper, Mandi, he wanted more corn and she gave him another corn on the cob. As he took his first bite, young Monroe could no longer maintain his composure and suddenly lunged to grab Winston’s corn. Winston lunged back at him.
Winston was hitting the wall again wanting more corn. And when we left, Winston was smacking loudly eating more corn. The other seven members of the gorilla troop watched, waiting patiently for Winston to finish so they could eat their lunch at the eating station.
The San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California USA has four Orangutans who are known as the clowns of the apes. They will keep you laughing at their funny antics. Our visit coincided with their afternoon snack time. Each day, volunteers take the snacks and put them in different objects so the orangutans experience different ways of extracting food from various objects that Tanya gives them.
Clever and smart, orangutans quickly figure out how to get the snack from an object. Watching the discovery process is great entertainment for the zoo guests.
One treat was encased in a round plastic ball with several holes and each hole stuffed with excelsior. To get to the snack, each orangutan had to pull the excelsior from the ball to find the treat. It was so much fun watching each one figure out how to get to the treat of in-shell peanuts.
And then watching their plastic-like polished leather hands peel the shell from the peanut and put the nut in their big pink mouth was both intriguing and fun to watch. They all were just so precious.
Then there was Fernando, an anteater from a South America Rain Forest, who lives at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. At 10 am, Fernando had just awakened from his nap and was ready to eat. So, with a bowl of soupy tan liquid with tiny pellets in the bottom, Fernando began to slurp and slurp and slurp the liquid and suck the pellets into his mouth the same way he would slurp up ants. His tiny mouth and long skinny tongue are perfectly designed for sucking up ants, his favorite food.
Fernando is an “Ambassador Animal” at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. He goes around with his keeper, Ryane, for guests to pet him and learn about anteaters on an up-close-and-personal basis. He obviously loves being petted by guests.
Another Ambassador is Milo, a Kinkakou, a native mammal of the South American Rain Forest. His thick, short dark brown hair made him look like a live fur collar on Ryane. Goldie, a male Cockatoo, was ready to show us his tricks. Goldie is very smart and loves the attention he gets being an Ambassador. Some of his tricks included hollering like a hawk, swinging upside down and fluffing his head feathers like he is mad.
Zimvvhi, a giraffe, had a baby just two days before we met her. During our tour of the 1800-acre Safari Park, Zimvvhi came up to our Caravan Safari truck seeking a treat. And of course, we just happened to have her favorite leaves.
Her best friend, Mara, approached us, wanting to join Zimvvhi’s party. We loved watching their long dark tongues wrap around the long skinny leaves we were giving them. It was exactly like giraffe’s eat in the wild from Africa’s Acacia tree. And each person on the Caravan Safari gave them more and more.
As we fed Mara, we spotted Kacy with her new Rhino baby, Justin, the 97th Southern White Rhino baby born at the SDZ Safari Park. Two other female Rhinos are pregnant and due in July, making the 98 and 99th baby Rhinos born at the SDZ Safari Park.
Rachel, our guide for the Caravan Safari, said when babies are born at a zoo or animal park it means the animals are happy and comfortable there. When no babies are born, something is wrong. The Safari Park is using in vitro fertilization to produce the almost extinct Northern White Rhinos.
The Safari Park’s terrain closely resembles some areas of the bush in Africa. Our very popular Caravan Safari truck came upon Maoto, a Southern White Rhinoceros, who also wanted a snack. Each person on the truck gave Maoto his most favorite leaf snack. How thrilling it was to be so close to a dangerous wild animal and have our photo taken while feeding him!
And then a surprise happened just like on an African Safari. We stopped for OUR snack and restroom break half-way through the 3½-hour tour. Waiting for us right in the middle of the wild open land was a portable potty made private by a bamboo fence, and a short walk away, a covered patio with table and chairs. At the serving table displayed three large trays of all kinds of snacks, vitamin drinks and water served to us by Rachel, our guide, and Barbara, our truck driver. We were as delighted as the animals we had just visited to get OUR snacks and potty break.
Refreshed, our Caravan Safari truck came upon a herd of Somali Wild Asses, including a barely dry baby born that morning. So cute. A camel was accompanying them.
Next, we saw a Black Rhinoceros which had just arrived from Florida that morning. A Roan Antelope’s new baby was hiding motionless in the grass just like they do in the wild, to be safe while Mother is away eating grass. And we saw a beautiful Kudu with big antlers.
As we toured the big park, we learned that 9,000 pounds of food is fed to all animals per day at the Safari Park. The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park have 750,000 plants and 197 species of birds, with over a thousand specimens available for viewing. Mammals total 138 species, with 1728 specimens on view. Reptile Amphibians number 16 species with 40 specimens on view.
The 100-acre San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California and 1800 acre SDZ Safari Park in Escondido, California, 35 miles north of the Zoo, contain more than 4,000 different animals.
Another beautiful experience was The Bird Show at the Safari Park where we were able to see some of those bird species. Jenn, the MC and keeper of the birds, just loved those in the show and each one was presented with its attributes. We got to enjoy Gazzy, an East African Crown Crane, who flew over our heads to another keeper who had a snack. And then Gazzy flew back to another keeper and then to its perch.
Then, all of a sudden, a Red River Hog from Africa named Rudy, walked from one end of the stage to the other and didn’t say a word. He was so cute, colorful and so funny that everyone laughed. He made several trips back and forth on the stage and stole the show. Then a huge owl flew over our heads to a keeper with a snack and back to another keeper with one.
Next, it was Nelson’s turn to fly over our heads and fly he did. He was so fast, if we blinked, we missed him. Nelson, a Falcon, is known as the fastest bird in the world. And he presented a show for us to see his attributes and abilities.
The final bird at the Bird Show was the Secretary Bird, Aren. He was so beautiful and colorful and large. We learned why the bird is called a Secretary bird because the person who named him many years ago in Africa said “he walks like my secretary.” So, the bird was named the Secretary bird for her strutting walk. And Aren is a perfect Secretary bird.
We couldn’t leave the Safari Park without seeing the Lemurs from Madagascar at the Safari Park. The Ring-tail Lemurs were sunbathing themselves with their arms straight out to make sure every inch received sun. And this Coquerel’s Sifakas Lemur was viewing the entire area and seeing what was happening while doing a little sunbathing.
We left the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park loving each one we had a personal encounter with and agreed to return to the world’s best zoo again and again for there were hundreds more animals for us to meet. And when we left Winston, was hitting the wall again wanting more corn-on-the-cob and Monroe was still trying to grab it from him.
When we began watching at 5 a.m., our ship was already moving slow and easy. It was windy and cold and that woke us up to see the event we had never experienced. Lights were bright and beautiful on both sides in the dark.
But, thirty minutes later, we couldn’t see a thing. It was total white out. The white out continued for several hours and we didn’t think it would ever end or we would ever get to enjoy the experience we had wanted to do for a lifetime.
The white out was fog/smog/pollution and we watched our ship sail right into it as the white out covered the entire area. It was scary going into total white out because we couldn’t see where we were or get any idea of what was going on around us. We didn’t know where we were but Capitan Betten and that Suez Canal pilot on board did. Several times the Seabourn Ovation had to blow it’s horn to warn other ships of it’s position so others wouldn’t hit us during this total white out.
Then the white out started to slowly disappear and a sliver of our dream we thought could come true. Finally, 2 hours later, there was a beautiful blue sky, bright sun and the water appeared.
We could see our dream come true as we were transiting the Suez Canal that goes through Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea with Captain Stig Betten of Norway at the helm. But it looked like a river it was so wide (673 feet wide/205 meters).
The sights and sounds of the Canal were enjoyable for the entire 120 miles through Egypt like: the call to prayer for the Muslims, a train moving down its track, a pickup truck full of workers waving and hollering at us as they passed, military outposts along the Canal, lights shining brightly through the windows of the houses in the villages,
people going about their daily chores,
children playing, fishermen fishing from their tiny boat close to us, a ferry carrying vehicles across the canal, and a crane worker moving sand from the Sinai Desert into a dump truck.
Due to the design of the Canal, the Seabourn Ovation had to arrive at the entrance in the Mediterranean Sea by 11p.m.the night before our transit. “When we arrived, the Suez Canal Authority told us where we could anchor and wait with all the other vessels scheduled to transit southbound with us. A group at a time goes through the Canal in convoy northbound or southbound as the Canal has one lane, then 2 lanes, then one lane and the Canal traffic cannot meet when there is only one lane,” Captain Betten explained.
Seabourn Ovation could only go 8.6 knots speed limit for the entire 120 mile length of the Canal or be fined a hefty fee because vessels cannot meet at the one-lane sections of the Canal. And for the right to transit the Suez, ships must pay depending on the size and number of guests on board,” Captain Betten said.
In 2014, a second lane was added over the central 45 mile section of the Canal. “It was severely challenging with only one lane,” the Captain complained. As a result, wider vessels can transit and the number of ships increased from 49 to 97. The expansion also reduces the transit time. It used to take the Seabourn Ovation 16-18 hours. Now, with the new improvements, it takes only 12 hours.
When the Seabourn Ovation began the transit through the Canal, Captain Betten was in the bridge almost 24 hours supervising all the procedures and formalities necessary to go through the Canal. “Correct documents had to be presented and approved and if they were not, the transit would be delayed until all had met the Egyptian rules and regulations, many of which are still performed the same way as many years ago,” the captain explained.
Seabourn Ovation took 3 Suez pilots onboard who knew the route through the Canal. “These pilots may and may not take control of the ship but the Captain is always responsible, and has absolute authority on the ship every minute. They advised our officers at the helm how to con (drive) the ship through the Canal,” Captain Bitten pointed out.
The first pilot came from outside the Canal about 3:30 a.m. When he left, another pilot took the ship through Port Said and into the Canal until 10 p.m., and when he finished, a third pilot took the ship from 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. when it exited the Suez Canal. And when the pilot left, the Seabourn Ovation was then free to proceed on.
Built in 1869, the Suez Canal is a sea-level waterway running north-south across the Isthmus of Suez. It is an open-cut, and, through extensive straight lengths occur, there are eight major bends. The Canal connects 4 lakes to make the Canal: Lake Manzala, Lake Timsah, Great Bitter Lake, and Little Bitter Lake. It is 79 feet deep/24 meters and 120 miles long/193.30 km.
Comparing the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal is like two opposites. The Panama is controlled with locks, is organized, has tug boats to help guide each ship, has “mule” machines that pull a ship through the canal, and has pilots who take absolute control of the ship by conning the ship through the Canal. It is 48 miles long (77.1km) and locks are 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long in the original Canal. When through the last lock, the pilot releases the ship to proceed on its own. Both Canals collect billions of US dollars each year and the revenue has increased since the addition of the second Canal built parallel to the original Canal.
We had just looked out the window and there they were, moving fast towards our ship and our balcony. “They don’t all look Polynesian like the other people we had seen,” Sharon and I said, as we had been to the Tahitian and Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Then, we saw them stopped next to our ship. And the next thing we knew, they were on our ship, all 33 of them. We knew who they were so we were not worried, but we had never seen or met them. These visitors were the Seventh generation of the 7 mutineers of the Bounty, plus wives and friends. The Bounty was a small armed British merchant ship of the Royal Navy that was on a botanical mission when the mutiny occurred. And that mission was to go to Tahiti and collect breadfruit plants and seeds and take them to the British islands in the West Indies for food for the islanders.
These visitors had left their island for a morning with us and to sell us their many handmade items and island products on the Crystal Symphony cruise ship. The waters were too treacherous for our ship to stop and it took several attempts and areas before we could successfully anchor hundreds of feet/meters away.
And we couldn’t have docked on the island anyway because the island didn’t have a dock except for a tiny landing spot for a small boat. So, the islanders and the ship created a method by which each could meet and greet each other.
These visitors were from Pitcairn Island, an isolated British Overseas Territory in the eastern South Pacific, a bit larger than Monaco. It is located half way between Panama and New Zealand and the 7 mutineers and 41 others on the Bounty in January 1790 selected this 18 square mile (47 km) small volcanic mountain sitting alone in the ocean with treacherous and dangerous waters surrounding it.
Thus, this was the reason the mutineers, under the leadership of Captain Fletcher Christian, chose this island on which to land and live.
It also, was in the wrong location on the British maps so Captain Christian knew they would never be discovered by the British. For when the British found them, they would be taken back to England and punished for the mutiny. The British finally found them in February 1808 and the mutineers had died by then.
And so, the 7th generation mutineers, along with Dennis Christian, descendant of Fletcher Christian, came to visit with us as we purchased their items in the small market they set up around the ship’s pool with Pitcairn Island visible from all angles. And while they were setting up the market, Melva Evans, Director of Tourism on Pitcairn Island, talked to us in the ship’s conference room about living on an isolated island in the South Pacific. Besides, selling Pitcairn to the outside world, she takes care of her 90-year-old Mother, a native of Pitcairn Island.
Evans began by telling us in 2016, Pitcairn was named a Marine Protective Ecosystem and the largest marine reserve in the world because it is pristine and almost untouched. And then she began to tick off item after item to explain what it is like to live on Pitcairn:
*●All residents of Pitcairn are Seventh Day Adventist
*●Whales come around the island May to November
●Residents have located the Bounty’s anchor and ballast and house them in the Bounty Museum
●The island has great fishing and every year on January 23 “Bounty Day”, the residents catch fish and have a fish fry in honor of the Bounty landing on Pitcairn. Plus, they build and watch a replica of the Bounty burn in Bounty Bay until it all disappears into the ocean just like they did when they came to Pitcairn. When the mutineers landed on Pitcairn, they unloaded everything from the Bounty and then set it on fire until it disappeared in the ocean so the British would not find them.
●All plants and animals on Pitcairn are endangered except Miss T, a Galapagos tortoise who loves everyone.
●When the mutineers arrived, they brought breadfruit plants and seeds with them for planting. Now they make everything with it. The mission of the Bounty was to collect breadfruit seeds and plants in Tahiti and take them to the West Indies for the people to plant.
●The names/areas of the villages are named after the mutineers
●Anyone who wants to live in Pitcairn is given land for a house and garden.
●When the mutineers arrived at Pitcairn, they immediately set up a village, complete with church, police, community center, school, medical center, post office and now internet office. The government treasurer is the bank
●All residents of the island help with the sugar cane harvest and they work with the arrow root. They gather at the Community Center and make an assembly line.
●To celebrate Christmas, the villagers cut a tree and take it to the town square where each person decorates it with a can of food or food item, and then they have a meal using the different foods from the tree.
●Three generators provide electricity 6 am to 10 pm. and are looking into wind generators and solar panels.
●A monthly newsletter is published online or can be sent by snail mail 4 times a year for $40.
●Honey is produced on the island and is certified the purest in the world because there are not many pollutants there.
●Minor medical problems are handled on the island where residents only pay for some medications to the Doctor/Clinic. But major problems are handled in Mangareva Island, 355 miles away by boat.
●The economy is individual or family. Arts N Crafts, and government is the main source of income for the islanders.
●Islanders do not make much money so taxes are low.
●To get products, the residents order online to New Zealand and a boat arrives every 3 months with the products.
●Their source of water is rain and 4-5 tanks are at each house to catch that rain water.
●Around Pitcairn, there are very few sharks.
●To get to Pitcairn, one must fly to Tahiti, then to Mangareva Island and then take a boat 355 miles to Pitcairn. The journey takes 30 hours and 2 nights and 1 day.
●Those wanting additional education go to New Zealand. Basic schooling is provided in a one-room school house on Pitcairn where 3 different levels of learning are offered.
●Meat is imported from New Zealand, but Pitcairn has goats which are pinned.
●The island does not suffer from typhoons.
●The Postmaster, Dennis Christian, does not collect taxes as income is so low
After the slide show and speech, it was shopping time and we all had fun getting something from Pitcairn Island.
Then it was time for them to say good bye and they did it in a grand way. All of them came to the ship’s lobby and sang their Good-Bye song for us and then returned to their awaiting long boat full of new items, less souvenirs and more cash. And then as they rode out of sight just like they came in, we waved good-bye and they waved good by and it was a win-win visit for all of us. And again, we looked out our window to watch them disappear to their most isolated island on Earth. And we were happy and they were happy.
When we looked at them, they just stared at us with those big eyes. And the stare was constant and unrelenting like they were looking right through us. It was like they wanted to talk to us but they couldn’t because their lips were sealed. Some were tall and some were short and some had their hair piled on top of their head and some did not.
These famous UNESCO World Heritage humanlike moais statues were everywhere on Easter Island as we went on a private tour from the Crystal Symphony cruise of the South Pacific. Moais number more than 900 on the island and some stood alone and some were in groups of five or seven. Ahu Tongariki is the famous one with 15 standing in a row. The moais range from 33 inches tall to 40 feet tall and weigh up to hundreds of tons.
(This photo and the one below was taken by June Landrum)
And they were all hand carved from volcanic tuff and became the iconic Moai statues of Easter Island. Using hand chisels of basalt, the Rapa Nui people chipped the monolithic statues out of blackened cliffs of the Rano Raraku volcanic crater between 1250 and 1600. The moais were placed on rectangular stone platforms called ahu, which are tombs for the people that the statues represented. The moais were intentionally made with different characteristics since they were supposed to look like the person in the tomb.
As were toured the crater, we saw many Moais still standing on the crater slope and they stared at us as we stared at them. Once the moais were carved, they were rolled down the crater and lifted into a standing position so the back could be completed. When they were finished, they would be moved to an ahu platform of someone’s property.
Before our tour began, we were told not to touch the statues, climb them or chip a stone or take any stones from them for a souvenir. But if was ok for the roaming horses and cattle to rub against them or use them to scratch on or lick.
After many of the moais were carved, they were placed on rectangular stone platforms called ahu, which are tombs for the people that the statues represented. The moais were intentionally made with different characteristics since they were supposed to look like the person in the tomb.
How the extremely heavy moais were moved from the volcano several miles to their ahu platform is a mystery with several theories. The most popular explanation seems to be that the statues “walked” to the ahu platform. Three ropes were used to move the moai: one on each side and one around the neck and pulled from the back. So, it was twisted from side to side and the rope from the back helped keep it standing.
The base of the moai was slightly rounded and so were the roads so it could be moved from side to side. Other theories are rolling the statue on tree trunks and moving it with a sled on round tree trunks as “wheels.”
All Moais we visited were placed looking inland so they could look over the ceremonial area, except Ahu Akivi. which are 7 moai facing the sea to help sailors find the island. It is also thought that they were waiting for their King. When the moai statue was placed on the ahu platform, the eyes were the last to be carved. White coral and black or red scoria stone made the pupils and the moai then begin that cold, hard stare. Many moais were left without the white coral eyes as it is believed the white eyes were reserved for -the prominent people.
And years later, the top knot made of red scoria stone would be added. Called pukao, the top knot added further status to the moai.
It is believed the Moai were traditions of religion and status and were built to honor the chieftain and ancestors. And it is believed the moais are symbols of authority and power, both political and religious and they have mana, which is charged by a magical spirit essence. And it is believed the moais were representative of ancient Polynesian ancestors. And another belief is the moais was considered one “up-man-ship” among the Rapa Nui people. With a moai, they were saying, “mine is bigger than yours.”
Then around 1550-1600, the Rapa Nui people stopped making the moais and Easter Island began declining. The Rapa Nui people began turning against each other. They fought among themselves for the fertile land that was left as their ancestors had destroyed most of it as crops failed one after the other. Some began to turn to their god Make Make or the Birdman cult. Competition began among them to become a member of the cult for if succeeded, food was the reward. To become a member of the birdman cult, a person had to find the first Sooty Turn egg. If a person did not succeed, the person killed himself.
The Birdman Cult then began rebuilding the population and sweet potatoes and other crops were now doing good. But, newcomers started coming and brought diseases, rats and cockroaches and by the turn of the century only 110 people were left.
Then missionaries arrived and brought Christianity with them and the Rapa Nui people began ridding themselves of tattoos and many moais were toppled. And it wasn’t until recently that most were restored to their position atop ahu platforms all over Easter island.
The moais now stare with that unrelenting stare like they were looking right through us. It was like they wanted to talk to us but they couldn’t because their lips were sealed. Some were tall and some were short and some had their hair piled on top of their head and some did not. And hopefully they will stand and stare at many people for many years to come and be enjoyed by all at this UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was like watching a silent movie. We could see the action but there was no sound and the action was so fast we couldn’t comprehend what our eyes had just seen. The only noise we did hear came from the screaming people watching the action happening. And for these first timers, it registered as a dream to actually witness such an event.
Thus, was our feeling of experiencing the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, live and in person. It was dream-like viewing “The Run for the Roses” as we saw the famous horse race from our Jockey Club Suite overlooking the racetrack because we were on a Tauck Events tour to see the Derby and experience the beautiful horse country area of Kentucky.
On the way to the Derby, I happen to sit beside a man who said he was from Louisville so I asked him what horse was ranked high for winning the Derby. And he told me several names. But when he mentioned Always Dreaming I said that’s the one I will bet on because I just loved the name. It was so appropriate for the horse to always be dreaming for a win.
June Landrum. my traveling companion, and I are not gamblers. But we were at the Kentucky Derby #143 and just had to gamble once. So, June came up with the idea of betting $2 on each horse so both would gamble $20 on 20 horses. Our bet would total $40. And we would pick the winner no matter who it was we reasoned. And yes, we picked the winner Always Dreaming and collected $11.50 for first place. We split the winnings and had a wonderful time with our scheme of betting and picking the winner.
But I just had to bet on Always Dreaming as it was the horse I said I would bet on. So, with $10 in hand, I placed my first bet ever on a horse race. And yes. I won and after I won, I asked myself why I didn’t bet $100 or $1000 if I was so sure Always Dreaming would win. But it was fun gambling for the first time at the Kentucky Derby and picking the winner.
At the Kentucky Derby, it was “normal” for women and men to dress up and it was a fashion show like no other. Every color, size and shape of hat was worn by ladies of every color shape and size. But the most outstanding of the fashion show was the huge outstanding statement-making ladies hats. Those hats set the southern mood of the Derby as it had been done for 147 years. And the men’s outfits completed the fun and theme of the classic Kentucky Derby.
But before we could go on this tour, we just had to make our hats to wear to the Derby although they were not required for the tour event. But attending the Derby without that world-famous tradition of a big hat would not complete the experience for us first timers. So, June Landrum and I designed and re-designed our hats until we were happy with our creations.
I wanted a black hat with a big brim, so my sister offered one of her sun hats that had a large brim. And from that, I took it around with me as I shopped for the perfect decorations. It was fun creating and making our hats and June and I had many fun conversations on how our designs were working for our Kentucky Derby event. June’s hat was a gift from her grandson and she never planned to use it for the Derby. But after purchasing little roses, she decided to put them on the hat to wear to the Derby because it was “the Run for the Roses.”
Our next creation was how to get the newly created hat to Kentucky. So, I used an old packing trick that worked for many other hats I had purchased on several of my foreign trips and it worked for this Derby hat. I put the hat flat in my luggage and stuffed the crown full of clothes I was taking that did not wrinkle. And I put clothes flat under the hat and on top of the brim. That kept the hat in its original shape and it made it to Louisville safely and intact. The decorations were in a rigid plastic container.
When we arrived, we glued all the silk flowers and feathers on the brim and the hat was ready to wear. June made her hat by gluing those silk roses on the hat and we had our personal creations to parade around at the Derby.
But we didn’t just parade around at the Kentucky Derby in them. We also wore them the day before the Derby at the Kentucky Oaks, the “pre-Derby” race and ‘The Run for the lilies”. And we wore them for all the 10 races before the Kentucky Derby on Derby day. It was so much fun walking around in the rain in our decorated hats as we looked at others with their decorated hats. It was a first time to ever do such an event and it was just an awesome experience.
Now that our hats were designed and worn at a race, we had to participate in Bridles and Bourbon. So, we visited the time-honored art of distilling, aging, and bottling fine Kentucky Bourbon at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, the oldest continually operating distillery in America. And yes, we had to sample their award-winning product and then have a barbeque lunch in the Clubhouse at Buffalo Trace. It all was so delicious as was the welcome reception and dinner with a local bluegrass band and folk-dance troupe.
As we drove to Margaux Farms, we enjoyed the clean and gorgeous green-hill farms of Lexington, Kentucky. This visit was to see the horses in their stalls at the Brood Farm and how they are worked and managed for breeding. As we walked into one barn, all the horses bellowed at once their neigh-neigh sound as they looked at us. And I just loved our wonderful unique horse greeting we were given until the keepers told us the horses were calling for food, not us. And another keeper told us they were wanting to exercise. Anyway, each of our Tauck group greeted a horse and enjoyed learning the methods used to make sure each mare got pregnant. But we didn’t have any food or exercise for them.
But then, the next morning, we had to be at Kneeland Race Track at 6 a.m. to watch the jockeys exercise the horses at that race track. It was cool enough for a jacket and we could see the horse’s breath as they finished their race exercises. Again, I was amazed how quiet it was as they ran. And it was so fast, we didn’t get a good look at them until they stopped and came up to us for photos and a visit.
Having dinner at Kneeland Race Track with Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron was another highlight of our Kentucky Derby experience. In his speech, he gave a wonderful overview of his unbelievable racing wins from the beginning at 19 years to retirement 28 years later. And when he retired he was thoroughbred’s All-Time leader, and his purse earnings totaled more than $264 million in winnings and 7,141 races won.
It had been raining for 2 days but as soon as the thoroughbreds started running, it stopped and they stopped after 2 minutes and the race was over. And the rainy and muddy conditions didn’t hinder anyone at the Kentucky Derby. But the excitement before the race was so much fun and it kept building as 150,000 persons placed their bets on the winners. And we picked the winner, Always Dreaming. But If you blinked your eyes, you missed it because they were running 40 miles per hour for the roses.
It all began June 9 as we headed to the Maasai boma village in southeast Kenya in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Ambroseli National Park which has a swamp in it. I knew that baby elephants were often rescued there and didn’t know why. But I soon learned they were stuck in the swamp and couldn’t get out and their Mother couldn’t get them out either.
The ride took 1 hour from the hotel and the entire area had 8-inch ancient volcanic rocks scattered all over the area from the eruption of Mt. Kilimanjaro many years ago. We finally arrived at the boma where 122 Maasai lived in their individual houses made of cow manure.
Sitting under a shade tree and listening to the elder Maasai tell how and why they do things, each one of us asked a question at the end of the hour meeting. Then, we were invited to tour the boma to see where and how they live.
But first, I had to visit the toilet which my Tauck World Discovery guide said was 1 block away.
So Sharon Davis, my travel companion, and I headed to the toilet, also made of dried cow manure. We arrived at what we thought was the entrance but it was the back. Sharon said to me, “Stay here while I find the entrance.”
And when she returned to tell me where it was, she saw me fall from standing to flat on the ground and I didn’t hit one of those volcanic rocks that were also scattered around the out house. I had turned 90 degrees to my right to look and the next thing I knew I was one foot from the ground.
I landed on my right shoulder and right hip and my head hit the ground and bounced up like a ball. The ground was covered with 4 inches of dried cow manure which was all over the right side of my face, hair, leg and Nikon camera. But I still needed to go to the toilet.
The biggest surprise I had besides falling was the toilet had no odor. Having been to many toilets in this world that smelled horribly, it was wonderful to find one that did not smell and it was made of cow manure. I wondered how the Maasai could keep the toilet so clean and odor free and many peoples of the world could not.
When I got up, my right shoulder hurt so we went to our guide and told him what happened, and proceeded to tour the boma and all the souvenirs they had for sale.
Then we enjoyed a tour of a home containing only a cooking pot, fire, little stool and bed made of sticks. This home had an 8×10 inch glass window which I had never seen in a Maasai house that are always made by the women of cow manure.
When we arrived back to the hotel, a nurse checked my painful shoulder and asked me to lift up my right arm to the sky and I did. She said “Take these pills and use this ointment for 4 days and your shoulder will be well.” So I did and added an ice pack to it every hour.
Neither Sharon nor I wanted to return home as there was nothing wrong with me, according to the nurse. So we continued on the tour. Plus, the Tauck tour of Tanzania and Kenya was awesome. How could we leave those precious wild animals and the wonderful people, we said.
The next morning I looked down at my chest and the entire right side was black and the entire left side was white. I thought my right shoulder had something break and now I knew it was a blood vessel. But it did not hurt and the black stain lasted for several weeks before my chest became white again.
Two days later, we were in a small town that had a medical center. There I saw a doctor dressed professionally in his suit and tie, who took an x-ray of my still painful shoulder. He called me in, lifted up the 5×7 X-ray to view my shoulder and said “You don’t have any breaks so you are good to go.”
So again we agreed to continue on the wonderful trip of Kenya and those wild animals living their lives right before us.
A few days later, the tour went to the Maasai Mara and I began having trouble walking on the right side so I used the hotel’s wheelchair while there and it worked well. I didn’t need to walk then and also didn’t use my right shoulder much either.
I didn’t miss one safari or anything. However, I did decline the hot air balloon ride because I had enjoyed 2 before there. But Sharon went on the hot air balloon and she was ecstatic about it. I could ride and see the awesome animals with no problem and photograph the balloon in the air withSharon riding in it.
Again, we decided to continue on with the awesome tour around Kenya and then to Nairobi, the only city in the world that has a national park in it full of wild animals.
The tour finally ended in Nairobi, one week after my fall. By now, my shoulder was still hurting and I couldn’t walk on my right side. There we went to a hospital which had a CT Scan machine and the professionally dressed doctor said my shoulder was broken in 2 places. Then he put a sling on my arm to wear for weeks until well. But because I am only right handed, I took it off and used the arm very little.
Again, we agreed to stay on in wonderful Nairobi until it was time to return home.
I had booked a 3-day extension tour of Nairobi to again visit the rescued darling baby elephants in the David Sheldrick Orphanage where several of the babies had been rescued from Ambroseli. Next, was the Kazuri bead making ladies and finally, the endangered Rothschild giraffes that live at the Giraffe Manor. (“Read Eating Breakfast with Giraffes” at in Nairobi elsewhere in my blog)
We visited all places we had planned. And at Kazuri Beads, I purchased a priceless handmade piece of art made by the bead ladies at www.kazuri.com. I named it the The Dance with beads made every day by 360 women who roll every shape of bead from Kenya’s Mt. Kenya clay into necklaces and wall hangings and sell them worldwide using Fed Ex.
When I bought the wall hanging, the factory ladies stopped work, danced and sang for 15 minutes. They make $175 a month to support themselves and their many children as they had no husband or any help and each would get money from my purchase.
Two of the ladies worked 6 weeks creating the wall hanging with the many beads then sewing them into a custom African pattern using macramé. (See my story called “The Bead Making Ladies of Nairobi” elsewhere on my blog.)
Our wonderful Tauck tour ended and upon arriving home, I went to a hospital for a CT scan and learned my painful right shoulder clavicle was broken at both ends and my painful pelvis was cracked.
But I continued to hurt and went to Mayo Clinic and learned my pelvic bone was completely broken and so was the sacrum, which meant several of my world wide trips needed to be cancelled while I recuperated for 6 months.
But I needed another dimension to my recuperating “trip.” Since I could not go on a world-wide tour, I created one I could go on to replace the trips I had to cancel.
Being able to get in a wheelchair and transferring to an electric shopping cart, Hester, my helper and I went shopping at stores with electric shopping carts. Plus, she helped me daily with food, cleaning, driving and all.
While shopping at Walmart, I would select a person in the check-out line and pay for the items in their cart. This opened the door to conversations with these folks and enabled me to hear their stories. It was a wonderful discovery experience that was a win-win for us both, and converted a very negative experience into a positive one for me. And I continue this wonderful “trip” every time I go to Walmart.
I was very grateful for the opportunity and I appreciated their kind responses more than they could know, changing a lemon event into lemonade for me so I can get back to thinking about my next world wide trip.
Oh they were so beautiful. And they were everywhere in Kyoto and Kanazawa and everyplace in between. We first noticed them in Kanazawa as we rounded a corner and there they were. We screamed with excitement for we just couldn’t believe our eyes seeing such natural awesome beauty.
Soon, we calmed down as we enjoyed the glory of those pink cherry blossoms in parks and gardens, alongside rivers and roads and many places in between in Japan. Those famous cherry blossoms provided us glorious beauty every minute for 8 days as we toured Kanazawa, Kyoto and Tokyo on the Tauck World Discovery tour.
Sharon and I just had to experience the blossoms up close and personal. So one day in Kyoto, the former imperial city, we enjoyed a rickshaw ride among the blossoms for 90 minutes dressed in a traditional kimono. It was just outstanding and so much fun as we connected with people enjoying the blossoms everywhere we went. While we were touring around Kyoto, we saw a geisha girl escorting her guest among the cherry blossoms. It was a famous Japanese icon touring a famous Japanese icon.
The experience began with getting dressed into a kimono. I never knew there were so many layers to a kimono. There was an under slip and another slip and then a garment that reduces the waist size. The two dressers pulled the strings so tight, I begged for relief and air because I had trouble breathing.
What relief it was when they loosened the strings a little. The kimono was wrapped last with the wide cummerbund added and pulled tight again.
Our hair was styled next and flowers and leaves were added to complete the total kimono look. Socks that worked with the sandals were donned and we were ready for our public debut.
We first met our tour guide, Armin Geiger and our national Japanese guide, Mickey-son. They couldn’t believe our transformation and yes, we had to have our photo made with them. Waiting for us at the hotel entrance was our private rickshaws and the petite drivers. Now we were ready to tour Kyoto’s cherry blossoms and tour we did.
Every year those cherry blossoms pop open in late March or early April but no one knows exactly when. So thousands of Japanese stage a vigil under the trees and wait for hours until just the moment the blooms pop open.
This sacred vigil tradition has been going on for thousands of years. We rode among the trees when the blooms were in full bloom and the pedals were beginning to fall.
It was like a light pink pedal rain adding to the ambience of the ride. It was the 9th of April.
They call it Sakura which means cherry blossom time. The moment the cherry blossom opens is a major festival in Japan that began in the Nara Period 710-794 A.D. Blooms happen February to May from south Okinawa to north Hokkaido, Japan.
It is a sacred time because it signals the beginning of rice planting. And thousands and thousands gather to eat and drink and be merry at this Hanami, blossom viewing because it is party time.
Climate conditions control the exact second the blossoms open. If it is a cold winter, the blossoms may not open until later. If it is a mild winter, the blossoms may open sooner. And if it is a rainy winter, the petals start to drop sooner. Because of these variables, the people watch the forecast and the blossoms by the minute. This year, the blossoms were later because it had been a colder winter.
Everything is about cherry blossoms during this time. Special foods and drinks are made for Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing parties, for this most loved festival. There is Hanami beer, Kit Kat candy bars, dumplings, crisps, sweet alcoholic canned drinks and even Starbucks Latte.
I ate an18-carat gold leaf ice cream cone in the Kenrokuen Gardens in Kanazawa. It was delicious and I didn’t get sick and I am still alive.
At night, lighted lanterns under the trees shined their soft glow so the blossoms could be seen, making for a beautiful romantic and relaxing atmosphere for the night beneath the pink glow of those blossoms. And thousands came to view the beauty.
But there was more of this dreamy tour of Japan to come. And it was the onsen known as naked communion. Japanese have enjoyed hot spring onsens as an integral part of their culture forever because it breaks down barriers between others as they soak in the natural hot springs.
This Tauck tour included an onsen bath for every guest, But I was not certain I would enjoy one as I had been to Japan three times before and passed on one each time when I learned I had to do it NAKED. Swim suits were not allowed. I wasn’t sure I could take a bath nude along with other people in the nude. But this tour could be my last tour of Japan and if I was going to do one, I better do it now, I reasoned. So, I grieved and grieved over doing the onsen for days. But now the final chance had come to do it or not.
To check out one, I went to the onsen for a tour to see what it was like as we were staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. I learned that the Japanese have separate men and women onsens which helped my decision somewhat. And I learned I had to take a bath before I used the onsen. Bathers could not get the spring water dirty and could not use a towel.
Only a small cloth approximately 10×12 inches could be used to dry off and to cover any body parts getting in and out of the onsen. And when in the hot springs, the cloth was kept on the head so as not to dirty the water. That was it.
Now that I had seen the onsen, I decided to try it when everyone was at dinner. Then there would not be anyone using the onsen, I reasoned. After eating an early dinner, it was off to the onsen and there was no one there.
Hurriedly, I showered by the onsen and then made it into the hot spring. It was nice and not too hot. To my surprise, I floated and could not stay below the water but the water was warm and wonderful. After 10 minutes, it was time for my adventure to end.
After dressing, I made my way back to my room pleased that I had experienced a centuries old tradition of a Japanese onsen in cherry blossom time. And I was even
more pleased and happy that we experienced so many more adventures and things. It was 2 weeks of heaven in Japan at cherry blossom time.
And I was pleased that I had enjoyed Kyoto, Japan riding in a rickshaw dressed in a kimono while enjoying the people along the way who were also enjoying the enchanting and glorious cherry blossoms.
People raised their hands and arms high in the air wanting more and more trinkets and then surrounding our pedicab and begging for more. Why are these trinkets wanted so much, I wondered.
It is the human exchange of value from one person to another, I was told by natives of New Orleans. And it is the thrill of catching those beads, plush toys, necklaces, plastic cups, doubloons (Krewe coins), and shells and getting a little gift during this time of celebration. It is the tradition of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
And catching and throwing trinkets has been going on at Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, since 1870 when the Krewe of Twelfth Night Revelers became the first Krewe (crew) to throw Mardi Gras “throws”. And the Krewes have been throwing them ever since. And the people love it, both the throwers and the receivers, for this is celebration time in New Orleans before the fast begins for Easter.
Mardi Gras began in 1703 in Mobile, Alabama and soon was celebrated in New Orleans by the 1730’s where it became the premier celebration in the USA to this day. Mardi Gras is always held 47 days before Easter in the Christian religion. It begins Jan. 6 each year on the Feast of Epiphany or King’s Day. Parades are held all over New Orleans during this 47-day period by scores and scores of Krewes.
And it all culminates on the last day, Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French) when people stuff themselves, before the start of Lent on the next day, Ash Wednesday, where all begin to fast or give up something for Lent for 46 days to Easter. Mardi Gras is the time of parties, celebrations, food and drinks to the max before the fasting begins. And everyone joins in with the Krewes to party.
A Krewe is a group of revelers that band together to host a Mardi Gras ball, ride on a Mardi Gras parade float, and participates in social gatherings. So Sharon and I joined the Krewe of Tucks which began in 1969 by a group of students from Loyola University who came up with the name “Tuck” from a no-name pub. It started as a rag-tag group or animal house “theme” where anything goes yet keeps its sense of humor on everything.
We were told we would be lionesses, queens of the jungle, and each would ride in a pedicab “float”. So we arrived the day the final 5-day festivities began. Awaiting us was our costumes, designed by Mardi Gras costume designer, Alan. We laughed and laughed and took photos as we put on each costume piece. As luck would have it, that stash of large safety pins that had been riding in the checked bag for months came in handy as we pinned the lion’s furry “legs” to our black sweat clothes to keep them from falling off. More pins kept the lion’s ears in place. With all on and pinned, it was show time.
Arriving at out parade gathering location around 10 am, we saw some of the other funny characters in our parade. As we waited for the parade, we learned that it would be delayed for hours because a float in the parade before ours had a tire bend under the float. It was so bad; the repair man had to come to the float because it could not be moved.
So we had time to see other floats like the man riding in a recliner chair on wheels complete with beer and cigarettes. And a group of bicycles that became a dinosaur, an elephant, a tiger and other fun designer animals. It was hodge-podge and it was so much fun.
But I didn’t realize what fun was to come as the parade finally started 1 ½ hours late. As our pedicab advanced along the parade route, we were inundated by revelers, one after the other. Soon our bag full of beads and shells and necklaces was empty.
Talking to the people, seeing them in their creative costumes and interacting with them was the ultimate fun. And we did this for 6 miles and almost 4 hours.
When it ended, we did walk and move our arms slowly but we were very happy to have had a one-of-a-kind experience. And the people seemed to enjoy our costumes and pedicab “floats” as they took many photos of us..
We thought we had seen all the Mardi Gras parades until we attended the Mardi Gras Indian parade. It began by meeting the big chief, Shaka Zulu, a Mardi Gras Indian, in Congo Square in the French Quarter where he told us about the Indians and showed his elaborate costume. Shaka Zulu explained that the Indians began doing their own celebrations and parade because the Indians felt they could not do Mardi Gras with the American Sector of New Orleans.
So the 42 tribes started their own mask making, creating and hand sewing their beaded costume and finishing it with elaborate colored feathers. Then, each put it all together to wear and show in their “Black Parade.”
“We used to burn our costumes after Mardi Gras so no evidence existed of us. And, we would make a new one anyway for the next year’s Mardi Gras, “Shaka Zulu said. But now their incredibly gorgeous costumes are placed in the Backstreet Museum for all to see.
Before or during parades, each day we attended a party along a parade route at a private home all decorated up with Mardi gras colors of purple signifying justice, green for faith and gold for power. At these private home parties, we also viewed a major Krewe’s night lighted parade while sitting on the front porch or balcony in perfect viewing seats.
At one parade, Sharon and I were sitting on the front porch of a gorgeous 1850’s home watching the parade go by. Sharon stood up one time with her hands in the air begging for a trinket. A man on a float saw her and threw her a bag of beads full of many necklaces and it landed on my foot. It was like a large rock had landed on my foot/ankle. My foot hurt so much and so long that I had to have a bag of ice applied to stop the pain. And it worked and I was fine.
When we watched parades, we were eating delicious New Orleans dishes like Jumbo, Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffee, Red Beans and Rice, PoBoys, or Muffelettas, with King Cakes and Beignets for dessert. This Virtuoso trip was a dream to experience plus we had a major adventure with Mardi Gras.
And all I did was ask that my travel agent Maureen Paap (firstname.lastname@example.org) book a hotel for us during Mardi Gras. And we got wonderful revelers begging us for trinkets as we rode in costume in our pedicab with the Krewe of Tucks, went to parties at private homes, watched many parades, enjoyed our own parade as we participated in Fat Tuesday in our pedicab, and other experiences of a lifetime during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Contact your travel agent for this Virtuoso experience.
“How did you get up here?” I asked her. The lady replied, “They carried me.” As we continued our travels around Ethiopia, she was in the same places as we were, Lalibela, the Omo Valley and Addis Abba. I began speaking with her and learned this lady travels all over the world just like we do.
But this lady travels in a wheelchair. Soon we became friends and I started asking how she makes it because I might need to know one day myself. And while we discussed all of her tips and ideas, I thought how many other people would like to know how she does it so successfully.
Following is her story and photos of her various trips around the world to Austria, Japan, Mongolia, Namibia, Norway, Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia, China, Myanmar, Antarctica, Trans Siberian Express, Argentina, Bermuda and more.
By Cynthia Henry
“Physically handicapped,” “disabled,” “physically challenged,” “differently abled”….. I have yet to find any term that feels comfortable for a life-changing condition that no one expects. But, I no longer need to! Thanks to Journeys International and API Tours of Indonesia (JI’s overseas operator), Focus Tours and more, I now use “World Traveler!” What a thrill to return from two and a half weeks in Indonesia and say, “What a grand trip—and it was do-able!”
Were there challenges? Well, sure. Did they work out? Yes, with the help of my traveling companions, Molly and Carolynne, and the operators, drivers, guides, boatmen and local people of Journeys/API and Focus Tours. Were the challenges overwhelming? NO! Could I do every single activity that Molly and Carolynne did? I never planned to and did sit out some, but was thrilled and amazed at what everyone made possible!
I had done much traveling over the years and planned to continue as I eased into retirement in 2003. I got in four overseas trips until… March 2005. Who was to know that I would then topple off an exercise ball and suffer a spinal cord injury? As I lay paralyzed in rehab, thoughts of going to such remote places flowed out of my head while I instead worked on feeding myself a cheese sandwich.
Well, movement came back. I eventually returned home, learned how to live from a wheelchair and soon “graduated” to a walker. I continue to use the walker and always will; I take a wheelchair on trips, which I use as a walker when not being pushed. I can go up and down steps, either with a railing or with support from two companions and someone hauling the wheelchair up. I am slow, awkward and have a variety of physical issues, but…I can also travel around the world!
After I began experimenting with shorter and then longerexcursions and finding out I could fly (get down the aisle and use the bathroom), a major life goal, I began thinking of the possibility of travel outside the country. Since then, I have been on several overseas trips! Five of my trips have been with Journeys International, that company rep providingthe warmest and most hopeful and helpful response to my tentative query of “….uh….what do you think? Here’s what I can do.” Pat’s response, in essence, were six magic words, “Our guides will get you up.” And, they did!
JI’s philosophy is that people with special needs have rights—the right to travel, the right to have “inaccessible” places made accessible, the freedom to go places they may have thought impossible… They then provide the support of so many staff to make this happen. Each JI agent has been wonderful in working with me. They assure me this will work and take every step necessary to see that it does. Many thanks to them!
So, how did the staff on the ground make all this possible? First, the spirit of Journey’s International/API/Focus Tours was there. I felt only support and no apprehension or dismay at the extra responsibilities that my situation meant for so many people. Every guide, driver (van or boat), hotel staff member and all others were kind, patient and helpful.
Bali, Indonesia had long been a goal, and so we finally booked it. But, then, Molly called and said, “Guess what!!! They have extensions to see the orangutans on Borneo and the Komodo dragons on Komodo Island!” My immediate thought, was “Oh, no, extensive sitting in a van or on a boat or alongside the trail while my two friends go traipsing off on marvelous adventures.” But, I weakly responded, “Uh, sure…take lots of pictures for me.”
I generally have a “rule” of no pictures of me in the wheelchair, but the ingenuity, the creativity, the physical strength, the dedication of everyone, the incongruousness of it all—well, no choice this time around! And, thank goodness, we did document, so that when our final guide, Yansur, asked that I do a report as a traveler with a disability, we were ready to say, “You bet!” He hoped it would inspire more people with special needs to venture to the far corners of the globe. I hope that will be the case.
Now to my report on this specific trip, especially the parts that I had no expectations of seeing–the orangutans and the Komodo dragons…. Bali was lovely, fairly routine sightseeing , and we enjoyed the ease of driving around and staying at marvelous hotels. Budi was our outstanding guide. I did have to stay in the van for a few off-the-road surprises, but, am used to that. The main help provided that made a huge difference was our wonderful driver coming up with a step to make my way into the van without such massive bottom boosts. Some vans are easier than others, and our driver throughout Bali converted this one into the “easy” category. He and all drivers were so kind to wrestle that wheelchair in and out of the back area so I could enjoy the monkey forest near Ubud and a Rhesus monkey on my head.
We flew to Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, for our orangutan experience Again, I did not expect to see any, except possibly swinging through the jungle trees during the boat journeys or from the boat at the get-in site, both of which actually did happen.
However, while still in Bali, my hopes were raised with a message from our wonderful companies that they were confident they had a plan to make it work!!! The word “palanquin” does not often come up in my vocabulary, but the written description brought it forth. Sure enough…oh, my… and my dream was accomplished well beyond anything I imagined.
With my usual awkwardness and trepidation (all this isn’t emotionally stress-free), and with many hands helping many body parts, I am loaded bit by bit onto the boat, get comfy in my chair—and ponder my latest wheelchair riding in first class… rigged up with a rope loop handle attached to each of the four corners.
After two hours, with a couple of orangutans along the way, we reach delightful Rimba Lodge and enough adventures for us all! First by my just getting there…! We begin with a nice boardwalk and board-carrying me in my wheelchair. And, off we go—some bare feet, tree roots, bumps, streams, slippery slopes…hard work, indeed!
Success! It can be handy to bring your own ringside seat for watching orangutans at a feeding station or mother and baby right in front of you.
I had long wanted to see where Birute Galdikas, one of the three Leakey women primate researchers, did her thing, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall doing theirs in Africa. And, here I am at Camp Leakey, thanks to my “four strong men” as Erwin reassured me!
On to the Komodo dragons on Rinca Island, Indonesia…another “impossible” feat to get me to these remarkable creatures..
My wheelchair and a vegetable cart are loaded onto the boat. The cart was unloaded, and then fitted with a lounge chair so that I could follow the path of this prehistoric reptile waddling ahead of me. We made it to the ranger station for some fun viewing while the others trekked through the wilderness, seeing six in the wild.
The four men from API Tours who met with us in the lobby of our hotel in Santur, at the end of our Indonesia journey emphasized that dealing with my specials needs, and working along with staff on the ground to solve the issues required was not a burden, but an exhilarating challenge to be creative and to work out plans for me to see the animals.
And then there was Harbin, China and the world famous Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival where my wheelchair was fitted with skis that I was told to bring with me so my helper could just push me on ice around the awesomely incredible illuminated sculptures in below freezing temperature.
And then there was Antarctica where I thought I would just see it. But, no. The ship crew saw to it that I would experience and stand on THE island and even enjoy a glass of champagne to celebrate making it.
Our experience in Mongolia was another great experience. Several times, I left the wheelchair and one time I would be surprised when I returned to it, like the time a precious Mongolian boy taking a nap or working on a game.
And in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, an iguana was resting on the chair’s arm and a chameleon sat on my arm.
In Myanmar/Burma, we watched an ox harvest peanut oil while walking around and around. Afterwards, we could buy it and sample it. What an experience that was.