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.
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.
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 (email@example.com) 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.
And in Papua New Guinea, we were so fortunate to experience the Asaro Mudmen. Amazing! I am so grateful for all who made feasible these incredible experiences that I never imagined would happen.
I encourage anyone to contact me should you have questions or need additional information. Perhaps by knowing as much as possible about my physical situation and adaptations, this will help you judge your ability to travel to “far away places with strange sounding names!” If anyone can get you there, Journeys International/API Tours, Focus Tours and others can if you ask!
As we entered the Harishchandra Ghat in Varanasi, India, we noticed the heat and we were 20-25 feet away. Then, we saw a group of people watching from a step high above the sacred Ganges River. And all along the river for several Ghats, thousands and thousands people were everywhere. It was then that we learned everything that was happening.
What were we’re seeing, Ajay Pandey with Bestway Tours and Safaris told us, were Hindu ceremonies at the most sacred place in India that take place 24/7 each and every day. “No other place on Earth, Ajay said, “holds daily cremations at Varanasi like this right by the sacred Ganges River for the devout Hindu.” Over 80 cremations are performed daily on bodies brought by family members from everywhere any way they can to reach the cremation site because this Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat are the main places where Hindu can reach Moksha. Cremation must occur within 24 hours of death.
In addition, on this particular day, several Ghats( concrete steps on the bank down to the Ganges River) were packed with people observing Chhath Puja, a yearly 4-day observation where the faithful Hindu pay obedience to the Sun God. And this event was separate from the daily cremations. It just so happened that the 2 events shared the same area of the Ganges River. Married men and women observing the 36-hour fast prayed for the well being and prosperity of their families.
This age-old observance on the Ghats by the Ganges River was one of the many sites in eastern India where the festival was observed. The puja starts with the ritual of ‘Nahai-Khai’, in which devotees prepare traditional food after bathing. The second day is ‘Kharna’, during which devotees observe a 36-hour-long fast which starts from the second day evening onwards and continues till the fourth day sunrise.The third day, the devotees stand in water and offer ‘Arghya’ to the setting sun God.
On the fourth and final day of puja, devotees and their friends and relatives assembled at the Ghats on the river bank before sunrise and offer ‘Arghya’ to the rising sun God.
These devotees and others all watched the cremations and final day of the Chhath Puja, a once a year happening at Varanasi and all of East India. Several of the 87 Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi were full of people, and the river close to the cremation ceremonies was full of boats full of people observing it all.
As cremations were on going 24/7, we saw only males watching their loved one being cremated on a pyre. Hindu accepts death as a positive event on the way to Moksha and peace. Hindus believe the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives -samsara- and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived -karma. Hinduism is not only a religion, it is a cultural way of life.
Before each cremation began, the male survivors took the body wrapped in a gold or white cloth topped with ribbons, marigolds and other flowers to the sacred river for washing to relieve the body of its sins.
Then the body was placed on a wooden pyre and the #1 male survivor, dressed in white, set the wood on fire. Prayers are said to Yarma, the god of death. The body is now an offering to Agni, the god of fire. Cremation takes 3-4 hours. When the skull explodes, it signifies that the soul had been released to heaven. The Dom keeps the fire going during the entire cremation and cows strolled around some of the pyres eating the marigolds and other flowers on the ground.
Many of these family members saved money for years to be able to buy the wood for their cremation. The most expensive wood is sandalwood and teak. Mango is the cheapest. The untouchables of society, called Dom, oversee each cremation and charge a fee to do so. They also charge for wood and weigh each log. Many of these Dom make a lot of money from the cremations.
The Dom stacks the wood into a pyre. Then the body is unwrapped and placed on the pyre. To keep it flat during cremation, more wood is placed on top of the body. The attending Dom then gives the #1 male survivor the flame with which he sets the pyre afire. Dry wood ignites immediately with flames leaping into the air and covering the body.
Should a person not have enough money to buy all the needed wood, the body is partially cremated with the amount of wood they can afford. Then the ashes and remaining body parts are put into the Ganges River where the soul is transported to heaven to escape the cycle of rebirth. The holier the place the better the chance the soul will achieve “Moksha” or cycle of rebirth and avoid returning to earth as an animal or insect.
Women are not allowed at the cremation because it is believed that their cries will interrupt the cremation and cause the soul to not make it to moksha. The transfer must be pure, and not sad or painful. We were allowed to pass through Harishchandra Ghat by keeping a respectable distance. And photographs are allowed only from a respectable distance.
Because of pollution concern, some cremations are performed in other locations and then the ashes are put into the Ganges River. But most Hindu choose the traditional cremation that has been carried out for thousands of years. After cremation, the ashes are searched for gold, and if any is found, it is given to the poor for purchasing wood.
After observing cremations from afar, we reached the Ganges River where a small wooden boat was waiting to take us to observe the “Prayer of the Ganges” to make the Ganges River happy to receive bodies into Moksha. This was at the Dashashwamegh Ghat. My first tour of India with Tauck.com included this Prayer of the Ganges ceremony and I was so impressed I decided to visit again on my private Bestway tour.
Lasting for 1 hour each night, the Prayers are watched by scores of boats full of observers floating on the Ganges River. And we were one of them. The 9 Hindu priests perform the worship arti of the river Ganges to fire where a dedication is made to the Ganges River, Lord Shiva, the Sun, Fire and the whole universe.
Under powerful lights that illuminate the Ghat, rhythmic chants and offerings are made by the nine priests to the river to accept the soul of the deceased on their journey to Moksha. We floated oil lamp candles in the river meaning light, happiness and knowledge. It was a most reverend ceremony.
This one particular evening once a year, 2 events occurred at the same time, the daily cremation ceremony and Chhath Puja, the last day of the 36-hour fast that pays obedience to the Sun God. Hundreds of Hindu devotees packed the Ghats with baskets of food and flowers and family and friends to break that fast.
Watching the deceased take the journey to Moksha and the Hindu break the Chhath Puja fast was a total experience like no other in the world. Being able to observe both ceremonies in Varanasi, India, the holiest city in India, at the same time was a total honor.
It was fun and it was different. And my feet were massaged in a way much different than any other massage. All of my thoughts were focused on just the stomping and smashing. But my feet felt more.
When I went to Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley, California, to stomp grapes like Lucy did on the “I Love Lucy” TV show, an iconic episode of all time, I saw a 3-foot diameter wooden barrel that was about 18 inches tall.
In the barrel were grapes ready to crush. But to my amazement, the grapes were on the stems just like they had been cut off the vines. “What?” I said to Sean Hubbard, the handsome young man who helped me with the grape stomping. “Why are the grapes still on the stems?”
Come to find out, that was the way the grapes have always been smashed since the Romans began stomping grapes in 300 A.D. But I had never heard or considered that. So after my shock, and with Sharon Mason Davis taking photos with my camera, I lifted my bare feet into the barrel and stepped onto the cold grapes. My feet did not sink far into the grapes because there were just a few layers of grapes, but there were enough to get the feeling of stomping grapes.
My feet noticed a soft and hard feeling because those soft squishy grapes instantly smashed flat but the stems didn’t. It was like stepping on lots of twigs with mush in between and around them. I then wondered how the stomping was done many years ago if many layers of grapes were to be stomped in the barrel. How did they stand up, and did they have to hold on to the side of the barrel, I wondered.
Finally, after my eye-opening and foot massaging experience of smashing those grapes, it was time to end the experience by stepping out of the barrel onto a white t-shirt with my grape-colored feet. So one foot at a time I landed on the t-shirt and then I had a priceless souvenir.
The next stop was stepping into a #3 washtub full of cold water to rinse the grape juice off of my feet, dry them and put my shoes on. The end of my grape stomping experience was over at Grgich Hills Estate but another visit was just beginning.
Sharon and I met Linda Whitted, with Grgich Hills Estate, for our wine tasting appointment by introducing us to the grapes in the vineyard where the grape stomping was being held. And we sampled Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that were hanging on the vines in the vineyard nearby. Each one tasted and looked different from each other.
Then we all entered the winery headquarters sales room, cellar and tasting room. And there, Linda had samples for us to try, complete with cheese and crackers.
She began by telling us the five “S” of wine tasting – See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor. And we enjoyed doing them very much. The first sampling was 2014 Chardonnay Miljenko’s Selection, which was like the wine at Miljenko “Mike” Grgich’s first victory in Paris May 24, 1976 when the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that he crafted outscored the best wines of France in the 1976 historic Paris wine tasting that revolutionized the world of wine.
It was delicious and wonderful to know I was sampling the best Chardonnay in the world. Then Linda told us to take a bite of the first sample of cheese and crackers and then taste the Chardonnay again. It totally changed the taste of the wine and was even more delicious.
Then we tasted 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley and then the second sample of cheese and crackers. Next was 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley followed by the third delicious cheese, and finally 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville Selection, followed by an awesome cheese. All were outstanding and we wanted to continue sipping and sampling and each time cheese and crackers changed the taste of the wine. As a result, the cheese and crackers were all gone. And, we had to buy several bottles to take home for sampling with family and friends and get back to San Francisco.
Grgich Hills Estate was founded in 1977 by Vintners Hall of Fame inductee Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Austin Hills, formerly of Hills Bros. Coffee Co. The winery farms 366 acres of vineyards naturally without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides in the Napa Valley, and uses its passion and art to handcraft food-friendly, balanced, and elegant wines. His daughter, Violet Grgich, Vice President of Operations and Operations, and his nephew, Ivo Jeremaz, Vice President of Vineyards and Production, assist Mike.
Ivo met with us and told us a story of his Uncle Miljenko and the times when he had to stomp grapes in a barrel while everyone worked in his native Croatia. “That way, everyone knew where he was and that he was safe while they worked in the vineyards. Grapes and wine were always in his life,” Ivo said.
Stomping grapes like Lucy did was something I always wanted to do and it wasn’t exactly as I imagined it to be. But sampling the Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignons was truly a fun and favorable adventure that we will continue to enjoy with each glass of their wine.
This beautiful lady from Trinadad followed me in the grape stomping at Grgich Hills and she enjoyed it also.
When we entered, it looked like an outside man cave or party room underneath a palm tree.
Seating was set up around the perimeter of the room, incense burners were sitting on the shelves and assortment of objects and handmade carpets were covering the floor of the room.
If there wasn’t a wall, carpets where hanging to make us think there was one and all kinds of old items used in life were sitting everywhere. After we were invited to sit, we began to notice this might not be a party room either because in the corner was a gas grill, pots and cups.
And it was not a man cave either, Khalid Alqahtani, our Saudi Arabia tour guide, explained. This was a private coffee ceremony “room” on a driveway where Hussen, a retired mechanic, and his male friends could share one of the best coffees in the world, Yemeni Arabica coffee. In the corner, a grill was set up to roast fresh coffee beans until they were just right. Then he allowed the beans to cool in a tray.
And when cool, the beans were ground using a mortar and pestle. Grinding the roasted beans is very noisy, which says to all, “Come to my house I am making coffee,” Hussen explained.
Coffee making was next as Hussen poured the ground beans into boiling hot water and let them sit about 5 minutes for that perfect cup of coffee. But, before we could take a sip, Hussen tasted the coffee so we knew the coffee was safe and good. Following tradition, the oldest man at the ceremony was served coffee first, then the rest of the guests. Oh, the coffee was so delicious because it was flavored with a hint of cardamom, cloves and cinnamon.
After we had coffee in this outdoor ceremony “room“, we entered the house, and another coffee room. This one had a large flat panel TV screen hanging on the wall, plus wild goat skulls, antique janbiya knives, and it was full of more antiques, handmade carpets and an assortment of other collectibles. The display of many coffee pots on the shelf shines in every coffee room.
Then we visited another room of Hussen’s house and it was his third coffee room full of antiques and carpets displayed in places of honor all around the room. A collection of old coffee pots set regally in a row on a shelf while an assortment of janbiya knives hung in a row above them.
We loved the shape of the Saudi coffee pot so much we began visiting places that sell real authentic handmade coffee pots.
Shop after shop was checked out and several had a coffee ceremony in progress where 8-10 men were sitting on the carpeted floor in a circle drinking coffee and visiting. At each shop we visited, men were sharing a cup of coffee on a short break.
Women also have their own coffee ceremonies with their female friends at locations where and when the ladies specify during the day. But we did not attend one. It is tradition in Saudi Arabia that men and women have separate coffee ceremonies.
Earlier in the week, we had visited our first coffee ceremony at Khalid’s home in Abha, Saudi Arabia. This coffee ceremony was held in the public receiving room of his house, where 3 walls were lined with couches and cabinets full of collectibles from his family. Khalid showed us his trophy he received for being named the No. 1 travel guide in Saudi Arabia.
Serving us coffee was Khalid’s son, Mujeb, following the tradition and duty of a man’s oldest son. He graciously and patiently offered each one of us a fourth of a cup of coffee over and over because we all drank it so fast. The cups were small and the coffee was so delicious I must have had 7 refills which indicated to the host that I really liked his coffee.
It is tradition in Saudi Arabia that the cup be small without handles. And it is tradition that the little cup be filled one-fourth so the guest can take a sip, not burn the fingers and not waste the coffee because the price of it can be expensive.
The coffee ceremony is one of the ways men and guests and women and their guests get together to socialize, communicate, relax and unwind. And women do the same at their own coffee ceremonies. In Saudi Arabia, alcohol is not consumed. So the coffee ceremony is a very important social event.
Finally, after 2 weeks visiting Saudi Arabia and the many coffee ceremonies, the ladies just had to have a coffee pot with cups as a souvenir of the custom practiced in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi coffee pot is so beautiful we just had to show it to all. So Khalid, our tour guide, took us coffee pot shopping and we found a custom made metal shop that had pots made of all kinds of metals. The one I chose was brass.
At each coffee ceremony, a dish full of native Saudi Arabian dates was waiting for us to enjoy. They were so delicious and fresh I had to have several with each cup of coffee. At one ceremony we attended, we were offered fruits, nuts, pastries and dates to accompany that perfect cup of coffee.
Our visit to Saudi Arabia was enjoyable and fun as we met people and experienced their culture and life while learning how they live and make it in life. One way we enjoyed being with them several times a day was at the traditional coffee ceremony where we drank many cups of their tasty and refreshing Yemeni Arabica coffee brewed to perfection each time in their ceremonial coffee rooms. And the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon flavor made the coffee irresistible.
Kim-Kay Randt of Houston, Texas Executive Director of Travelers Century Club, an International travel club, presented Carolyn with a certificate certifying she has visited 251 countries and territories in this wonderful world. And it only took Carolyn 45 years to accomplish that goal.
“It has been unbelievable experiencing and enjoying the different customs and peoples on this planet. And following on my international travel blog are many stories and photos of the encounters I have enjoyed,” Carolyn said. “I hope you enjoy the world with me as I show and tell you of my many adventures.”
Travelers Century Club, an international travel club, lists 325 countries and territories for its members to visit. Carolyn has 74 more to visit. So keep following her to see how many more countries she will visit.
All of their offices are on sidewalks. As we watched at one of them on Churchgate Street, each one arrived on foot or bicycle carrying priceless bags of spicy treats and specialties for their many clients.
One after the other they arrived at about the same time and exchanged scores of tiffins with each other using a delivery system that is one-of-a-kind.
In those bags were tiffins full of fresh cooked hot food that family members prepared at home for their loved one to eat at work a few hours later. Each tiffin contained 3 or 4 bowls that connect together to make one container. How the tiffins get to the family member’s place of work in downtown Mumbai/Bombay, India, is a system and method only the Dhabawallah delivery men understand. The Dhabbawallahs put certain marks on the tiffins, such as a different color or group of symbols indicating the correct train or office.
“Dhabba” in the Hindu language means food and “wallah” means person. So, the delivery men are called Dhabbawallahs and they have been delivering the home cooked meals since 1890 for clients who want only their home cooked specialties to eat because they think their food is best because of their religions or diets. As more and more clients requested delivered meals, a delivery system had to be developed that worked for them because they have minimal education.
The delivery system was started in 1890 by Mahadeo Havai Bachche, a Parsi banker, who wanted his family’s home-cooked food. More and more friends and employees also wanted home cooked food so he hired 100 Dhabawallahs at first to deliver the food. Today, more than 5,000 Dhabbawallahs do it, delivering 60-70 tiffins each day to clients in downtown office buildings in Mumbai/Bombay, India.
The Dhabbawallahs are men who pick up the tiffins each morning at 7:15 a.m. at client’s houses located about 60-70 kilometers from the office area and deliver them by train, bicycle and foot by 12:45 p.m. to the family member’s place of work using their unique coding system. Very few mistakes are made in deliveries considering that a tiffin can pass through up to 12 different Dhabbawallahs’ hands from the home to the office and back.
Dressed in all white and wearing a Gandhi hat, the Dhabbawallahs meet every day Monday-Saturday at the same places in Mumbai and exchange bags containing tiffins. And they deliver the tiffins though all kinds of weather, conditions and holidays. They place the appropriate bag on the sidewalk to start a group of other tiffins that are to be delivered to that same building or street. As each Dhabbawallah arrived between 11:40 a.m.-12noon, they placed the tiffins in the appropriate office group on the sidewalk.
When all the bags had arrived from the clients, each Dhabbawallah took off with all of new bags attached to a bicycle or in a large wooden tray and delivered each one to the appropriate person’s place of work. In the tiffins, some family members placed notes, flowers, tickets, an all sorts of communications. Now, the clients enjoy their delicious lunch until 1:45 p.m. And the Dhabawallahs enjoy their lunch when all the tiffins are delivered.
This custom service provided by the Dhabbawallahs cost $14 USD or 900 Rupees per person per month. Each Dhabbawallah earns 10,000 Rupees per month ($155 USD) and they all work for the common good as a team for the trust that oversees them.
But this service did not end after all lunches were delivered because each Dhabbawallah then returned to all of his client’s offices and picked up the empty tiffins at 2:15 pm. With the empty tiffins in his hands, each Dhabbawallah then met back at the Churchgate corner where they reversed the process and exchanged empty tiffins.
By 2:45 pm the Dhabbawallahs were back on one of the three train routes where their clients live with all of their empty tiffins to deliver to the homes around 5pm. Family members then cleaned and washed the tiffins and had them ready for the next day’s spicy Indian food specialties such as lentils, rice, vegetables and chapattis, all home-style and delivered to the customer’s delight. And the Dhabbawallahs will be there at 7:15 a.m. the next morning to pick up the fresh cooked specialties.
They come by the thousands every day dressed in turbans, scarves, saris, kurtas and western clothing not only to pray but to sit in a row on the floor cross-legged and barefooted in a huge hall next to anyone regardless of race, color, sex, caste, religion, creed, age or social status. And they all get along and follow the procedures established by the kitchen.
This is every day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, India where the Temple’s kitchen (called langar in Punjabi) serves up to 40,000 hungry people a vegetarian meal 24 hours a day every day of the year. And on Holy Days, weekends and holidays the crowd can reach 100,000+ at the Golden Gurudwara (Temple) for a free meal. And this has been going on since the Sikh religion began in 1469.
Although all Sikh temples have a langar and serve free meals to pilgrims, the langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar is like no other because it has the largest free kitchen in the world. “It has so many visitors it rivals the Taj Mahal as the most visited place in India, “our guide on this Bestway.com tour told us.
The Golden Temple is the home of the Sikh religion which has 3 aspects: sing and chant the name of God, sing religious hymns and volunteer. Plus, it considers all people equal in every way. And all Sikhs wear a turban to be equal with each other, to show respect to the Guru, and to protect the hair.
Serving the hungry pilgrims everyday is their volunteer mission all over the world. It was the founder, Guru Nanak, who began the concept of the langar. Volunteers do almost all of the work and show up every day to prepare the food. Ten percent of the volunteers, however, are paid staff to manage and coordinate the program but the other 90% is all done by volunteers and donations from the local community and the world. All of the food is donated or purchased with donations.
Thousands of volunteers chop, cut, boil, and mix organic onions, garlic, chilies, carrots, radishes, cabbage, spinach, fruit, rice kheer (pudding) rice, lentils for soup called dal, ghee (clarified butter) and roti (Indian flat bread). The food is cooked with wood and gas in huge cauldrons, and roti making machines, yielding a simple vegetarian meal for all to eat.
And the pilgrims do eat. But before they can eat, however, when they arrive at the Golden Temple, they must immediately put a provided triangular orange scarf on their head, then must check their shoes at one of the many windows where they are kept until claimed. Entering the Temple with head covered and barefooted shows respect to the Guru. Then, they get in line and receive their stainless steel food plate, spoon and water/tea/dessert/soup bowl before going to the big marble hall where new arrivals are being seated. Many times, a person takes a seat on a cloth in a row on the just cleaned floor next to someone s/he doesn’t even know. Receiving the food with both hands signifies blessed food.
And then volunteer servers arrive carrying buckets or tubs containing food to give to each person, one after the other. Rice, lentil soup (dal), roti, tea/water, ghee pudding or fruit awaits them.
And each day’s meal is determined by the availability of foods in season, purchased or provided. And they never run out of food even when 100,000+ come to eat. After the people finish their meal and leave, the process begins all over again. But before new people arrive, each section is mopped clean and it is done many times a day.
Then it is time to wash the dishes for the new arrivals so each dish is washed several times. Volunteers stand and wash dishes in large vats full of soapy water and then pass them to another group of vats and finally to clean water vats. The stainless steel dishes even go through a cleaning that polishes and shines them. Then they are stacked in large steel trailer-like bins with large wheels and pulley so they can be positioned near the awaiting new arrivals. And huge steel boxes of clean utensils are also moved nearby.
It impressed us how orderly and clean everything was and how, with all the people, it was relatively quiet and respectful. And it impressed us how all pilgrims sit in a row on the floor cross-legged and barefooted in a huge hall with anyone and everyone regardless of race, color, sex, caste, religion, creed, social status, or age to eat. And they all get along and follow the rules of the langar and Temple. The Golden Temple langar is like no other.
After riding for hours and hours through the barren Al Nefud Desert, small mountains started to appear. We thought at first they blended in with the desert and were ordinary hills of sand. But these weren’t normal looking mountains. Since we arrived at our destination during the night, we couldn’t see much of them. But when we left our hotel room the next morning our eyes popped open in amazement.
Right before our eyes next to our hotel were the original natural creations shaped by rain, wind and temperature for millions of years. These unusual and outstanding mountain outcrops were Mada’in Saleh, of Saudi Arabia, also called the “Number 2 Petra.”
This famous Nabataea necropolis has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 because of its well-preserved remains from late antiquity, especially its 131 rock cut monumental tombs with elaborately carved facades of the Nabataea Kingdom of the 1st Century AD. And it is also known in Saudi Arabia as “the Capital of Monuments.”
My favorite of all the Mada’in Saleh tombs was Qasr al-Farid, a single tomb in a stand-alone dome. It also is called the most photogenic and most iconic symbol of all the tombs. The façade is not finished and is heavily carved at the bottom which shows how the mason did the carving from the bottom up. But it’s massive and domineering presence was magnificent.
Another one of my favorites was the Jabel Ithlib. And in the middle of it is a slit, separating 2 outcroppings approximately 1 meter wide (39 inches). Like Petra, that space is called the Siq. It was a refreshing walk from the hot sun through the 131 feet (40 meters) Siq. The walk through it leads to the Diwan, a Muslim council chamber or law court. Small religious sanctuaries with inscriptions were also cut into the rock.
A total of 4 necropolis areas exist in Mada’in Saleh and many have inscribed Nabataea epigraphs on their facades. The Qasr al Walad necropolis constructed 0-58 A.D. includes 31 tombs decorated with fine inscriptions as well as artistic elements like birds, human faces and imaginary beings. It has the most monumental of the rock-cut tombs, including the largest façade measuring 52.5 feet (16m) high that is called “The Palace of the Daughter or Maiden.”
The largest of the 4, Jabal al-Khuraymat, has numerous outcrops separated by sandy zones, although only 8 of the outcrops have cut tombs, totaling 48 in quantity.
Area C has single isolated outcrop containing 19 cut tombs. Jahal al-Mahjar tombs are cut on the eastern and western side of 4 parallel rock outcrops and the façade decorations are small in size.
All the tombs are spread over 8.3 miles (13.4 km) and inscribed with Nabataea epigraphs on their facades. The site constitutes the kingdom’s southernmost and largest settlement after Petra, the capital. Non-monumental burial sites, totaling 2,000, are also part of the place.
Known also as Hegra and Al Hijr, the archaeological site is located 310.7 miles/500 km southeast of Petra. It is on a plain, at the foot of a basalt plateau, which forms the southeast portion of the Hijaz Mountains. Under Nabataea King Al-Harith IV (1 BC-40 AD), the place enjoyed an urbanization movement that turned it into a city and second Nabataea capital after Petra.
Visiting the tombs was relatively accessible because our Top Saudi Arabian guide, Khalid Alqahtani, and our driver took us right up to the different areas which were not adjacent to each other. Then when we finished visiting that area, we rode to the next areas making it easy for those who didn’t want to walk that far in the hot sun or were somewhat handicapped. Khalid and Spiekermann Travel Service Inc. 800-645-3233 www.mideasttrvl.com made this experience in Saudi Arabia an outstanding, educational and fun one for all of us on the tour.
Located at the crossroads of commerce and culture, the Nabatean Kingdom flourished and had a monopoly on frankincense, myrrh, and spices. These products had to pass through the Nabatean Kingdom to be traded on the main north-south trade route.
The motifs of the façade decorations, from stylistic elements of Assyria, Phoenicia, Egypt and Hellenistic Alexandria combine with the native style.
Some facades indicate the social status of the buried person and the size and ornamentation of the structure reflect the wealth of the person. They are finely carved and fairly uniform in their style. Some have plates on top of the entrances providing information about the grave owners, the religious system, the person who carved it, or the military rank.
Inside the tombs, we found roughly chiseled large and small rooms with recesses carved into the walls where bodies were placed. The Mada’in Saleh site is outstanding with its desert landscape with sandstone outcrops of various sizes, heights and shapes.
Right in the middle of the flat desert are small freestanding accessible mountain/hills, perfect for carving tombs. The Nabataea’s carved beautiful facades and tombs for their citizens for the entire world to see and enjoy for thousands and thousands of years. And they made my eyes pop wide open when I first saw how magnificent they are.
It was magic, unbelievable and magnificent. At times, it looked like lighting and at other times Comet tails gliding in the Heavens and other times a dance. All were bright vibrant green and they were doing acrobats of all kinds, going forwards and backwards and sideways. Stretched from East to West to North for four continuous hours, they truly boggled the mind.
This mind boggler was the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska, better known as the Northern Lights, which some believe give them special fertility powers. Fairbanks is right in the middle of the Arctic Oval that circles the far northern portion of the world where Northern Lights can be seen. The chance to see the lights gets better the farther north in this oval. And we saw them perfectly.
But it didn’t start out that way. The first night we sat and watched and waited for 4 hours for the lights to appear and nothing happened. No northern lights and we were so hyped up for them. But the next morning, we learned they did appear around 4 a.m., about an hour after we had left.
Through research, I learned that the best time to view the northern lights is March and the second best time is October. We were there the first week of March and learned the best time to see them is in a dark sky with no moon around 12-3 a.m.
Ben Boyd, our guide, told us that even though the weather might be bad in Fairbanks, it usually is good and clear at Chandalar Ranch. We had followed all recommendations and still no lights.
Ben Boyd picked us up at out Fairbanks Hotel at 10:30pm at night. He is a native Alaskan mountain man that we found on Trip Advisor after asking for a good Northern Lights native guide. His name popped right up. He took us to see the lights the first night not knowing if we would see the lights because the Northern Lights are natural phenomena of nature created by the heavens.
Ben Boyd took Sharon and me and 9 other people in his van to Chandalar Ranch, about 25 miles outside of Fairbanks. The viewing of the lights here was excellent. The Ranch has a large hostel with a main assembly room with one side glassed in so we could see what the heavens were doing. Attached to this hostel was a large deck which also provided a great area for viewing and photographing the awesome show. And the deck is easy for handicapped and wheelchair customers.
Below the deck and beyond is a wide open area where dog sledding is available and it was the most perfect place for those with a tripod and camera. Available at all times for visitors was coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cookies and restroom facilities in the assembly room. And if we were too cold from being outside in the minus degree weather, we could go inside, warm up and visit with others.
It was so much fun sharing photos and seeing how other photos turned out. Since this was my first time for taking time exposures, I was particularly interested in how other photographer’s photos looked. Come to find out, I passed because I captured them. And every time I took a photo of the lights, I immediately looked at my photo to make sure it looked just like the one I had just seen with my eyes. And it did.
The second night, we were picked up at our hotel by Hugh, Ben Boyd’s helper, and taken to Chandalar Ranch again. And while we were going there, the northern lights were dancing and popping in and out and doing somersaults all around us. There was much joy going on in that van as we saw the lights. And I was just screaming with joy because my dream had come true of seeing what I have wanted to see all of my life.
When we arrived at Chandalar Ranch, we all jumped out of that van and ran as fast as we could to see those lights with our own eyes in perfect conditions and below zero weather. And we watched them non-stop for four hours before it was time to leave around 3 a.m. for our hotel and sleep.
All 9 of us were so ecstatic after seeing the unbelievable show of lights that Ben Boyd told us, ”Don’t count on seeing these lights like this every time. But the northern lights have been very active the last 2 weeks, so I am happy you got a good show tonight.” And so were we.
Every day at 1 p.m., Boyd offered snow activities for us and we did almost all of them. The first was our favorite, walking with reindeer. Hugh took us to the little ranch where 6 reindeer live with Jane and Doug, owners. And we learned everything one needs to know about reindeer. The first was Ruby, not Rudolph, and she was their pet. She ruled the roost.
We were thrilled to pet her and watch her eat, check out her horns and watch her walk in the snow with the other reindeer. When we were finished playing with the reindeer in the snow in the little boreal forest around Jane and Doug’s farm, we were invited into their home for hot drinks and awesome oatmeal cookies. They were so good each lady had to have the recipe. It was our favorite adventure and it is ranked the best thing to do in Fairbanks. But nothing could beat those Northern Lights.
Another afternoon at 1 p.m., we were picked up at our hotel for our tour of Chena Hot Springs, located several hours outside of Fairbanks. The most fun was touring an Ice Museum where we could have an Appletini to drink at a bar made of ice, in a glass made of ice, while sitting at a table and chair made of ice or at the bar with a stool made of ice.
There were 4 bedrooms made of ice and an igloo, a sculpture of a man on a horse, a castle and more. It was so much fun to explore and to see what it would be like to stay at an ice hotel. After viewing the cold museum, we could warm up in the natural hot springs or have dinner at the restaurant.
Touring the Fairbanks area was another afternoon treat at 1 p.m. Going to North Pole, Alaska to see Santa Claus and his house full of gifts was a highlight for us both. Hot chocolate and cookies were waiting for us if we wanted them and we did.
Many of the business around the city had ice sculptures outside their buildings that were outstanding. At first, it shocked me that an ice sculpture would be outside. And then I remembered that I was around the Arctic Circle where it is freezing or below and those sculptures were doing just fine outside.
We also visited an Ice park where more outstanding and award-winning ice sculptures were displayed. In one area, an ice sculpture contest was held. One feature of the park was a huge tall ice slide for children to enjoy. And it was made totally of ice.
Our final afternoon activity in between seeing the northern lights was ice fishing. Sharon and I went with Keith Koontz, an ice fishing pro for many years. With a BIG 3-feet long fishing drill (1 meter), he dug 12 holes 8 feet apart. Each participant was given a plastic bucket for sitting and fishing with a 2-foot fishing pole, complete with hook and string, to drop in the hole and catch a fish. Sharon was the first one to score a little 4-inch fish.
The fishing experience lasted for about 4 hours on a frozen lake about 2 hours from Fairbanks. All of the men and women participants caught about 10-12 fish each, making for a great meal which was had afterwards at Chandalar Ranch. It was a great time had by all and an experience like no other.
We chose to not do the dog sledding because being bounced around was not safe for our medical issues.
The third night we had to view the lights, we chose to stay in the hotel and get a good night’s sleep. And it turned out to be the correct decision because no lights appeared that night.
But the fourth night, we arrived at Chandalar Ranch at 11 am, and there were the brightest and biggest lights of all. They lasted about 30 minutes, just long enough time for us to get our last photos and have the final experience of seeing the northern lights before it was time to leave.
The entire 6-day experience turned out to be a fantastic time for both of us and an experience and adventure of a lifetime. We loved it so much we are planning to do it again because it was and is the greatest display of celestial lights in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The gravel road we took was unpaved and full of deep potholes and it was a lot of swerve driving to miss those potholes. Thomas Yilma, our guide from KibranTours.com, chose the route over an easier and smoother route because he wanted us to see the Elbore people who live on that route. We crossed dry creek beds one after the other until we came to one that was different.
What was different was nine cars parked on the other side of the wide dry river bank causing us to stop. And cattle blocked our way. Suddenly 2 men appeared at Thomas’ window and they talked in the Amharic language of Ethiopia. We had stopped 60 feet (18.28 meters) from a Bull Jumping ceremony, the Rite of Passage of the Hamer people, where a boy becomes a man and can marry. My dream had come true to attend this ceremony of the Hamer people in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia.
But seeing the event was not guaranteed as the event is a private Rite of Passage Ceremony among the Hamer and the date is not known publicly. But by taking the most difficult route, we had found a bull jumping ceremony by accident. And this one was just beginning.
We did not know about it but the rural Hamer people knew when the Rite of Passage Ceremony would be held by using a “calendar.” The calendar was a rope with the number of knots equaling the number of days before the ceremony. Since the rural Hamer people are illiterate, the rope calendar worked perfect. Each day they untie a knot in the rope. So if it is delivered on the 10th of the month and the rope has 20 knots then the ceremony is held on the 30th at a predetermined place. The Hamer people show up ready to support the bull jumper.
Each of the Hamer people must bring a gift of money or a goat which can be used for the celebration or the jumper’s bride price when he marries. Ike (eye-kay) was the jumper at this ceremony and the Hamer welcome visitors and tourists because they charge a fee for attending any of their events. We paid $75 USD (1500 Ethiopian Birr) for the ceremony for 2 persons. One-third went to the guide we hired to explain everything going on and why and one-third went to each of Ike’s Father and Mother.
When we arrived at the ceremony, Maza men were sitting in a circle painting the faces of other Maza, men who had successfully bull jumped and became men. These men would help the bull jumping ceremony by holding the bulls in place, making sure Ike didn’t fall from the bulls by dropping sticks on the ground to cushion his fall, help him up to the bulls and any other help they could give. Symbols of the Hamer and other designs were painted in different colors and shapes all over the men’s heads, making for a true Hamer work of art.
Next to the painting circle, females members of Ike’s family, sisters and cousins, were being whipped by the family’s Maza men with switches signifying good luck for Ike. They slashed the ladies backs so hard that it sounded almost like a gunshot pop. And then blood ran from the cuts. And over and over they were whipped and their backs were becoming full of slashes with blood oozing all over their skin. And the ladies were begging for more, even though the Maza men did not want to whip the ladies.
But it was an honor and tradition to be beat and whipped and the ladies begged for more because they wanted to remember Ike, their life with him and to wish him good luck. And now that he was becoming a man, his life would be different. To be whipped until bleeding was the way they could remember their Ike and have honor among the Hamer. After the whipping, dirt and ash were placed on the cuts and allowed to heal. The dirt causes the skin to pucker, making the scars protrude for all to see their honor of being whipped.
While the whipping and painting was going on, a group of Hamer ladies was singing and dancing non-stop and paying honor to Ike with their rhythmic beats and steps. Watching all of these events were about 100 Hamer people sitting in the shade and keeping up with the beat themselves. All the family members had a job in the ceremony, from singing, cooking, dancing, painting, whipping, helping with the bulls, counseling the boy on being a man, and donating a goat for the celebration afterwards.
Now it was time to go to an area deeper into the bush where the Bull Jumping Ceremony was being held. So everyone left en mass and walked 3900 feet (118 meters) on the gravel road into the bush where the ceremony preparations were beginning. about 15 feet (4.57 meters) from the ceremony area sat Ike. He was 10-year-old, not 17-year-old, and was sitting on a Hamer pillow that was a 9-inch (22.66 cm) high wood seat in the shape of a “T.”
He looked unhappy and confused. He did not smile or even talk to me or acknowledge my greeting. He barely participated in a photo. As I held his hand, I noticed it was limp, delicate and cold. We wondered if he was into this ceremony.
Ike, now, was called a “ukule”, a boy about to jump the bulls. He had a goat skin over one shoulder and a cloth tied around his waist. Inserted at the waist in the cloth was a a wooden phallic symbol, called a “ukule boko”, symbolizing a boy about to become a man. His head was shaved except for a 3-inch long Mohawk stretched from the crown to the nape of his neck. Sitting next to him was a Maza family member bodyguard.
Now it was time for Ike to be counseled by other Maza about becoming a man and the responsibilities and duties he must follow. He was taken into the circle of men and stripped of his goat skin and cloth. He was now naked symbolizing that he came into this world naked and lived one life. Now that he was becoming a man, he is naked again to begin living his second life as a man and marriage.
About 12 men formed a circle with Ike in the middle. They told him what it is to be a man among the Hamer people and he was expected to follow the traditions. And Ike would have to pledge that he would abide by only eating blood, milk, honey and meat until he married. He promised he would although he had many years before he would marry than older boys.
The bulls were being lined up side by side by the Maza men. Some bulls cooperated and others had to be pulled and shoved and lifted into place, but finally all 4 bulls were ready to be jumped. But it was normal that a ceremony had 10-12 bulls. However, Ike, being only 10-years-old, his family decided 4 bulls was enough for him to jump. And the bulls would be small as Ike was small and young.
So Ike began each jump of the 5 jumps with about 200 family members and tourists watching. He ran and took a flying leap up to the back of a 4-foot-bull and fell before he even reached the back of the first bull. Everyone became totally silent and shocked. So he tried again and this time a Maza man helped lift him to the top of that first bull and it was acceptable for a 10-year-old to have help. It would not be for a 17-year-old. Ike was able to jump from back to back to back of each bull successfully, landing on the ground standing up. Each bull’s back was about 2 1/2 feet apart.
Then he took a flying leap for the second try and again successfully jumped the 4 bulls again. And the third and fourth try was successful. The fifth try also was successful and Ike landed standing up and was declared a man and a Maza, a man who had completed the bull jumping ceremony. He then would pass the wooden phallic symbol, the ukule boke, to his half brother when he was ready to jump the bulls.
I congratulated Ike on becoming a man and he still was not smiling or happy. He had the goat skin over his shoulder again and the cloth around his waist sitting again on the Hamer “T” pillow. Finally, I was able to get him to give a thumb up signal but with no smile. He was the last to leave the ceremony area successful as a man with his bodyguard at his side.
If Ike had missed a bull and fell to the ground, he would have been ostracized by his family for one year. And he would be whipped and mistreated by them for embarrassing them. But he would be allowed to attempt another jump in one year.
Usually a 16 or 17-year-old boy jumps 10-12 bulls to become a man. But this Bull Jumping Ceremony was for a 10-year-old boy. Ike’s 17-year-old brother had died and his parents decided it was time Ike became a man. Ike’s father could marry as many women as he could afford with the bride price of buying a woman from her family with cows, and if he could afford to take care of his children and wife.
Cows are like money to the Hamer people and they determine a person’s wealth. Ike’s father had 3 wives and Ike’s Mother was the first wife. The first wife among the Hamer people has absolute power and authority over all wives and husband. Ike was the only living son of wife #1 and wife #2 had a 17-year-old son and wife #3 had a 17-year-old son, all ready to become a man by jumping the bulls.
Ike was forced to do the bull jumping ceremony now. If he didn’t, he would block his half brothers from becoming a man and marrying. He had no choice at 10 years-old. He had to become a man even though he was a boy.
The next day, the Wetele Ceremony was held in honor of Ike becoming a man, but Ike was not at the ceremony. He was with his Father at his Father’s home and this event was at his Mother’s home. It is not unusual for the honoree to be absent from his Wetele celebration, which means the grilled goat that is served to everyone.
At this ceremony, Hamer people were singing and dancing and grilling goats that were donated for the event. About 200 people were in attendance and several goats were sacrificed. Strips of meat were put on sticks around 2 bonfires to cook for 2 hours. Hamer ladies were baking bread from maize.
The wondrous smells of bread and grilling meat filled the air and all enjoyed the food, the celebration and Ike becoming a man. And soon, the ceremony will be held again for Ike’s 2 half brothers who will then become a man and eligible to marry because Ike jumped the bulls successfully.
When we arrived at the Mursi village, several women came to our vehicle to show us their lip plate. They were eager to show us because the Mursi people charge a fee for being photographed.
And they made sure they had the money before photos could be taken. With the money in her hand, one lady proceeded to show us her famous lower lip and how far she could pull it down and how wide she could stretch it. They collect money from the tourists for photos for their income.And next, it was show time. She took the terra cotta lip plate from her hand up to her lip, stretched it wide and down to open it into a circle. And then in 2 seconds she just slipped the disc into that circle and there was an iconic Mursi lady with the lip plate extended from her mouth. When the lip is cut for extension, the 2 middle lower teeth are also removed to accommodate the clay lip plate, also call a labret. And she then was considered beautiful and strong by the Mursi tribe members.
At age 14-16, the Mursi girl’s Mother or family friend cuts a small hole in the her lower lip and inserts a small stick. Then, larger and larger plugs/discs are inserted to stretch the lip until the large disc plate can be inserted after several months. Ladies with the largest disc in her lip gets the biggest bride price for her family when she marries because the husband-to-be must give many of his cattle to her father for the marriage to occur. The lip plate is the Rite of Passage event from a girl to a woman who is ready for marriage. This has been the custom of the Mursi for hundreds of years. Each lady makes her own lip plate out of clay or wood and decorates it with geometric patterns and colors and then seals it with her breast milk. And if it breaks, she just makes another one.
Just as soon as the Mursi lady had shown us her lip plate, our Mursi guide told us we have to get back in the vehicle. We did, but didn’t know why but did say the Mursi ladies would not negotiate a reasonable price for photos because they were drunk. We rode and rode into the bush on a dirt road full of large and small mud puddles with it splashing all over our vehicle as we sped up the site.
We then walked and walked through the muddy water and cow manure to a site where hundreds of Mursi people had congregated. Our Mursi guide wanted us to see a special celebration the Mursi attend once a year. This was a private Mursi celebration and they only wear their lip plates in public. We were allowed to attend if we again paid another fee. We paid it and we were the only outsiders at the important yearly ceremony. But first, we had to shoulder greet the village chief.
When we first saw him, he was visiting with the village chief underneath a shade tree. Hundreds of cows were everywhere in the bush, grouped together by their owners. The day was super hot and muggy after all the rain.
All the rain, mud and cow manure didn’t bother the 200 plus people gathered at this annual 4-day Blessing of the Cows by King Bitongay. Nine clans of the Mursi people in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia each sacrificed a cow this day. This was an honor event for the Mursi because a cow is a treasured member of the family like a child.
The village chiefs from the clans were sitting and squatting in a circle intently watching the King’s every move as he pointed out lines and meanings of the lines. Every move he made and every word he said meant the future of each Mursi clan for one year.
Now that each clan had sacrificed a cow in honor of their King, the entrails of each cow was brought to the King and chiefs one at a time and laid out in the middle of their circle. Then, the King would read the entrails, looking at and studying every turn, bulge, indention, color, shape and size of the entrails of that one cow. By this method, he could determine the future of that clan. A bad or good reading would be the final prediction. When he finished reading the entrails of one clan’s cow, then another cow’s entrails were delivered for its determinations until all 9 had been read.
While these readings were being studied, a group of 10 men, all dressed in black and carrying 2½ meter long sticks, were running back and forth over and over singing a song in their language. The men were singing about their Rite of Passage from a boy to a man and asking for their ceremony to be held soon, for the winner could then be declared a man and eligible to marry.
The Rite of Passage Ceremony is two 18-year-old men from different clans about the same age, height, weight and strength fighting each other with a long stick. And the winner of the match is declared a man and is eligible to marry. The fighting men have places they can and cannot hit on their opponent’s body. Delicate areas like the head, private parts, knees, ankles, elbows and wrists are protected with a cotton cloth and were not allowed to be hit. Other than these areas, they were free to hit them over and over and over until the opponent gave up or died.
The village chief served as the referee and set the rules which the 2 fighters had to follow. He had the absolute authority and final decision in each fight. The rules could be about anything anywhere on the body, or about time or place. If it appeared that one man was beating the other man to death, or it was obvious the other man was not able to finish the fight or was down and not getting up, the chief could end the stick fight and declare the winner a man. And the winner then would get to pick a woman to marry.
If the loser is going to marry having lost the stick fight, he has to pay his bride’s family 40-50 cattle. On the other hand, the winner pays 20 to 30 cattle to his bride’s family. Should the loser not desire to marry, he can fight next year. And if he should win the fight one year later, he has to pay 20-30 cattle to his bride’s family and he is now a winner.
A Mursi man can marry several women and are the richest tribe in the Omo Valley because they have the most cows. But the King was the richest of them all and had several thousand cows, therefore he was the King. He inherited the title from his brother who had died. And the brother inherited the title from his Father upon his death.
The entrails had been interrupted from each of the 9 sacrificed cows and the determinations were made for each clan’s future. A bad reading meant famine and no food for them or their cattle and diseases for them and their cattle causing a clan to alter their ways and do different things to make it through another year until the entrails are read again. A good reading would mean food for them and their animals and they could continue on for another year like they had been doing with no changes. All of the clan’s entrails readings turned out to be good and the Mursi were very happy and thankful for a good year to come.
In another area of the bush, the 9 sacrificed cows were being cut into small sections for all the Mursi to take home with them. One had the skin, another had a leg, another one had part of the head, shank, sirloin, chuck, ribs, brisket, round, short plate and loin until every bit of the cow was gone. Each one was happy that they sacrificed their animal to honor their King and to have food to eat. But the Mursi only eat their animals when there is a drought, weddings, famine, and special occasions because they eat mostly porridge and blood. So this was a special occasion for their King and each one was honored to have another good year.
The king now was ready to bless the 1200 cows from the clans in attendance on this first day of the 4-day celebration. As he prepared a Calabasas gourd with water and ash for good luck, the cattle were circling around and around him. As a clan’s herd approached, the King would sprinkle the ash water on them until all had been blessed.
Then the keeper of the herd would lead them back into the bush where they would wait until it was time to go home. Herd after herd of cattle was blessed by the King.
Standing by the King were the hundred or more Mursi women who had been resting in the shade. They wanted to be close to their King as he blessed their cattle for another good year. So they joined him in the blessing ceremony in the center of the bush area.
The celebration was almost over and the Mursi could go home with their meat and begin their daily ritual of drinking their special home brew. They had refrained from drinking in honor of the King this day, but now in their huts and village, they could drink the brew until drunk. And they do this every day until the King’s Blessing of the Cow Celebration next year when they will go without drinking for half a day in honor of their King. But they were happy for the King’s prediction of another good year for the people and the animals.