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Two Lady Tourists Travel To Conflict Stricken Countries

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

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

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

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Olaf’s Brother! Photo by June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These school girls wanted to share their selfies with June.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of our travels have been arranged by Spiekermann Travel and Tours 800- 645-3233 ihab@spiekermann.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. maureen@aoh.com 512-769-1147. More fun and different adventure stories in many countries can be found here on my blog.

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

Photo Copy © 2020 carolyntravels.com 

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Jingle Trucking Machos in Pakistan

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.DSC_0152

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.DSC_0727DSC_0693

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.DSC_0156

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.P1020929

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.P1020994

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.DSC_1000 - Copy

P1020996.jpgSome 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.DSC_0230DSC_0167

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.DSC_0211

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.DSC_0193

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. DSC_0216DSC_0826 - man

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.P1021007

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.P1020988.jpg

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.”DSC_0999.jpgDSC_0165

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.DSC_0227.jpg

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.DSC_0168.jpg

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.DSC_0223.jpg

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.P1020987.jpg

DSC_0723.JPGAnd 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.DSC_0727.jpg

Photo Copy © 2019 carolyntravels.com

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, info@mideasttrvl.comDSC_0226.jpgDSC_0205.jpgDSC_0232DSC_0224.jpgDSC_0362

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A Touching Encounter in Rwanda

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.DSC_0187

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This good-looking young man carried my walker for me on the entire trek and he did an excellent job.

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. DSC_0485The 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.DSC_0211.JPGd

DSC_0203After greeting the village people as we proceeded through the potato fields, we headed straight to the forest. DSC_0448But 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.DSC_0447

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.DSC_0233

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. DSC_0222

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.

DSC_0242We 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.DSC_0248.JPG

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.DSC_0238

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.DSC_0267

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. DSC_0245

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.DSC_0238

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.

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These are the wonderful guides who carried me to see the gorillas for 1 hour and 40 minutes until they reached them, and then helped me for the hour were with them. And it only took 40 minutes to reach the finish area because the gorillas had moved so much down the mountain. It was priceless.

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.DSC_0441

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.DSC_0256

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.DSC_0314

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.

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My guide, Emmy Maseruka, on the left, has been my guide on four gorilla treks so far. I have trekked Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda all 4 times handicapped. He provided this team of guides and others to help me perfectly. His email is afrikanwildlife@gmail.com and he can tailor a gorilla trekking trip for one or more persons. The best time to trek is the dry season of July to December. All 4 times I went in August because it is one of the most popular months with no bugs and it is cool. Government permits must be obtained 6-12 months in advance because only 8-10 trekkers are allowed per day per gorilla family. And if handicapped service is needed, it must be requested from your guide.

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.DSC_0277

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.DSC_0350

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.Image-1 second edit of holding foot 2019

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. DSC_0313

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.

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Following me on the trek were these ladies and gentlemen, and the guides helped us all.

  Photo Copy © 2019 carolyntravels.com 

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It costs $300. USD to be carried in the basket plus tips for each guide in Rwanda. It was money well spent for me to realize my dream.

 

 

 

 

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The Captain and the Suez Canal

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.

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This area was the first thing we saw as we began our watch at 5 a.m.

 

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Our ship, the Seabourn Ovation, as it slowly moved into the wide Suez Canal.

But, thirty minutes later, we couldn’t see a thing. It was total white out.DSC_0311 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.

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We were able to see this marker in the Canal but that was all.

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.DSC_0304

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.DSC_0271DSC_0266

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).

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Capitan Sig Betten has been a captain most of his life. The glass window below shows him what is going on in the water below.

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,DSC_0360

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DSC_0279.JPGchildren 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.DSC_0343DSC_0340

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.

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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.

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Watching our every move through the Canal was Capitan Betten and several of his first offices and the Suez Canal pilots when on board.

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.

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We followed this container ship through the Canal and there were at least 5 ships a head of us in convoy going southbound. We saw mostly container and cargo ships in our transit.

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.

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We are going southbound and the container ship is going northbound on the new 2-way 45-mile section of the Suez in the sand.

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.

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The ship in front of us is turning left into one of the 8 major bends in the Canal. The Suez goes through 4 lakes.

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.

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Sharon took this photo of me as the container ship passed in the other lane going north while our Seabourn Ovation was going south.

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.

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When we exited the Suez Canal, we counted 7 different ships waiting to transit north.

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.

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Sharon and I were invited to the bridge to meet and interview Capitan Betten after we had exited the Suez Canal.

When we began watching the Seabourn Ovation at 5 a.m. go through the Suez Canal, we only could see for 30 minutes and then it was solid white and the ship was blowing its horn to show its location. But a few hours later, we were blowing our horn in total celebration of finally getting to transit it, for the experience was another outstanding one for us and our travels in this magnificent world. DSC_0306Photo Copy © 2018 carolyntravels.com Photo Copy © 2018 carolyntravels.com DSC_0252