February 28, 2021

Volunteering For NYC

Forward by Adam Rapp, Founder, D7 VENTURES LLC:

For those that do not know, D7 VENTURES LLC is based in NYC and we, as a city, were hit extremely hard at the beginning of the pandemic. Coming up with the Cubed Travel Journal contest, we expected to receive travelogues from around the world... to experience it while we all couldn't board a plane and visit safely ourselves. Entries from dozens of countries were sent in and then we received Tom's. Personally, as a NYer, his journal touched me deeply. In recognition of his selfless service to the people of NYC, we will be sending Tom a special $1200 Travel Stimulus check.

Tom, from ALL of NYC, Thank You.

Here is his journal entry (please be aware there is some graphic content):

By Dr. Tom Q. from Honolulu, Hawaii

Travel Stimulus Check Entry # 5 of 5

After six years of retirement as an MD in scenic Hawaii and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I signed up to go as a volunteer physician to Queens, NY — the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak. I was welcomed and utilized immediately by the New York Health + Hospitals Queens Hospital to see the non-acute cases in their very contracted “cold zone” - i.e. the small space of their ER that was not filled with COVID cases and “rule outs”. After all, corneal abrasions of the eye do not stop just because there is a pandemic.

My presence as an old retired 67-year-old physician was utilized to keep the younger docs there able to keep managing the more serious patients on ventilators — or (more tragically) comforting those numerous nursing home patients with DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, who we kept on oxygen only until we pronounced them. The three bays of the ER were so full that every hallway was filled with gurneys — truly unbelievable.

I arrived just a few days after the peak as part of a Heart-to-Heart / International Medical Corps deployment. And no, I didn’t worry about pickpockets. I sure did last year on our Italy trip—thanks again to the pickpocket-proof folks. That’s another subject — geez it hit Tuscany and Lombardy a good couple of weeks before us — and did we do anything? I only hope we can go back to worrying about just pickpockets.




October 18, 2020

India: The Great 40ᵗʰ Reunion Sightseeing Adventure

By Mac C. From New York, USA

Travel Stimulus Check Entry # 4 of 5

Four months after our 40th class reunion, one classmate contacted 5 of us and said, "While here, you all told me that you had wanted to visit India, but never had. My wife and I would like to guide you there." What an offer!! But, what a risk! We hadn't spent time together in 40 years save one recent weekend, our partners had never laid eyes on one another, and our hosts were proposing to take 10 retired, relative strangers to India for a month. What could possibly go wrong???

Everyone immediately said, 'YES!'

Our host, a native of Calcutta, and his wife, a native of Mumbai, had also never undertaken such a project. Despite any misgivings, they persevered, and over the ensuing year, put together the most amazing and ambitious itinerary for a month-long journey – with no detail left out. We would travel from Delhi in the north to Kerala in the south, with many stops in between.

We met in Delhi from 5 separate geographic locations. After a welcome breakfast and introductory lecture (one of many to come), we had some basic idea of what we were in for.  

With a population of about 1.3 billion people, a child is born in India every 2 seconds. There are 29 States and 7 Territories, and they are all very different, with different languages and customs. We were in for a whirlwind trip through many of them and can only share a few of the hundreds of highlights of the trip.

A few days in Delhi let us experience the grandeur of the city by day and night. With no time to lose, we hit the streets. Inside the Red Fort, we started to get accustomed to the scale of things we would see in the coming days – big. Very big.

It was the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, and the park and monument to him were humbling. A black marble slab memorializes him with an eternal flame on the top and the words “Oh God” in Hindi on the side - the last words he spoke after he was shot just outside his house in 1948.

One of the unforgettable highlights of the whole trip was a topsy-turvy wild ride through the markets in tuk-tuks. The market area is enormous and packed cheek by jowl with vendors, customers, and goods in transit via every means of conveyance imaginable. Despite the congestion, everyone was quite cheerful. We only saw the spice, paper goods, and wedding supplies "districts." Wedding supplies are a multi-million dollar trade, as are (seemingly) tiny spice shops who do the majority of their business online. We tried to drink in as much atmosphere as we could.

For our next stop, we head East to another corner of the golden triangle in Rajasthan. At Agra, we visited the Taj Mahal – a monument that many of us felt was ‘the prettiest thing we’d ever seen.’ After an extensive restoration, it looks new, and one cannot stop looking at it from every angle. This tribute to love is a true wonder.

From the first glimpse Until sunset, when the semi-precious stones begin to sparkle all over in the fading sun…..Being there was a thrill.

The Amber Fort and the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, the Pink City, were two more impressive structures – both ages old and well preserved with enormous, ornate carving and decoration. Plenty of mirrors and stained glass throughout, with wonderful vistas of the city beyond, were seen.

From the primitive to the advanced – we stopped at the Jantar Mantar Observatory - a collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments built in 1734, but which could easily have been built yesterday, in appearance and science. It features the world's largest stone sundial and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

From Jaipur, we headed out west to the "Golden City" on the edge of the desert. The imposing Jaisalmer Fort takes a full day, visiting palaces and more temples within its vast walls. The Patwon Ji Ki Havelis area - five intricately carved homes formerly belonging to wealthy merchants-was a wonder. One has been completely restored and is open to visitors.
(houses Jaisalmer)

The scenery completely changed as we left Jaisalmer and rode out to the Damodra Desert Camp. We enjoyed a camel ride at sunset and played at dune surfing – quite fun and easy to learn with a soft landing!

Dusting ourselves off, we headed south to Udaipur, "The City of Lakes." The City Palace was built over a period of nearly 400 years, with contributions from several rulers of the Mewar dynasty, starting in 1553. Inside are 11 ‘small’ palaces built of granite and marble, small being a relative term. It is perhaps the largest structure I have ever been in. Because is was built over a 400 year period, there are many styles of architecture to be found. In general, doors are short, and hallways narrow to slow and confuse any possible intruder. One famous mogul was known for disguising his horse as an elephant to not look weaker than his enemy.

From Udaipur, we continued south as the temperatures rose, and the scenery became more verdant; we entered Kerala, the most restful part of the trip. Still, there was an abundance of activity, including visits to an elephant sanctuary, the Pongala Festival Eve celebrations, riverboat cruises, and some yoga and ayurvedic treatments to prepare us for the final onslaught of Mumbai.

One fun memory was when my husband tried to mail a package from the local post office on the day of the Festival of Pongala – an annual festival where 3,500,000 (yes, million!) women congregate from all over India.   As a result, the local post-mistress was off at the festival and had left her brother in charge. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to process a package for Europe, and so put my husband on the back of his motorbike to drive to the nearest branch where someone did know. Mission accomplished! This was typical of the kind and over-the-top service we got wherever we went.

Our final stop was Mumbai, which wasn’t as overwhelming as it might have been at the beginning of our trip. By now, we were well acclimated. We enjoyed so much wonderful food in every city, but had a very memorable thali meal consisting of a dozen individual dishes at one of the best known local places, with the owner explaining each dish, even showing us the raw ingredients for each. There were two rounds of all these small plates - and there were seconds for anyone who could manage them. As if!

With our whirlwind tour of India complete, there were many emotions, most of all, the unspoken gratitude we felt to our hosts who managed to fit what seemed like a one-year trip into a one-month timeframe – without any casualties along the way. It was as though we had been taken around on a magic carpet – driven by two people who both know and love India to its core.

Only one word comes close to describing India, and that is ‘kaleidoscope.’ The whole experience of this wonderful country is an assault on all the senses and more. The sights, sounds, colors, smells, and experiences all set to the traffic, and human interaction music is unforgettable. We experienced universal cordiality and politeness. We have made fast friends for life, having ‘taken a chance’ on this invitation. We can only thoroughly agree with the slogan – Incredible India!




September 02, 2020

Mozambique Island: Crossroads of Colonialism

By David Z. From Toronto, Canada

Travel Stimulus Check Entry # 3 of 5

Our wooden dhow crosses into the channel as local entrepreneur Harry Potter sails us away from the island to enjoy a day of magical snorkeling in crystal clear waters. A seafood dinner cooked fresh on a deserted beach awaits us following an afternoon exploring the island's hidden treasures. Another day passes in this most tranquil of places - historic, charming, Mozambique Island located just off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, Mozambique Island is a crossroads of people from Africa, Europe and India (Goa), and headquarters of Portuguese colonialism for almost 400 years. Inhabited for centuries before the arrival of Vasco da Gama who claimed it for Portugal in 1498, the island’s mix of Swahili, Arab, and European history blend for the ages in architecture, food, and tradition.

While the whole island and town are truly precious, there are treasures from the past like the huge decaying Portuguese San Sebastian Fort started 1509 and the largest in Africa at the north end. In its shadow is the Capelade Nossa Senhora (Chapel of Our Lady) Baluarte - considered the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.

As you explore the island further, you find The Governor’s Palace Museum that started out as a Jesuit college in the early 1600s and now displays the island's colonial history. The island has still more churches,and mosques to explore, with its great pier extending out into the channel, the ideal place to catch the daily, glorious African sunset with a cold beer and local seafood snack.

Connected to the mainland by a very interesting two-mile, one-lane bridge, the two-mile-long island is far from the capital Maputo. Once you make the effort to get here, you discover a great hideaway from the hustle of the mainland. Half of the island’s old colonial city has been beautifully reconstructed, though still rustic, while the rest remains in ruins, still waiting to emerge from the destruction of a civil war that saw the Portuguese withdraw in 1992.

With the red and orange sunlight still lingering in the clouds, it’s back to enjoy one of the various restaurants and hotels, each with their own local flair unique to the island. En route, I loved walking by the statue of Luís de Camöes, a Portuguese poet who lived and wrote here many centuries ago, inspiring my creativity. If only I, too, could spend two years here as he did, I would write and paint my stories.

Exploring further, you reach the local Macuti town in the southern half of the island. Formerly the source of labor and stone to construct the grand city of European power further north, today it is a bustling hub of local merchants and tradesman. The locals live an island life, finding sustenance from the sea, and the youth take to the streets in the evening.

Ultimately, we make our way back to a tranquil beach absorbing calming warm ocean breeze and colors, past the ancient cemetery, down quiet streets, savor a local Portuguese dinner of giant lobster prawn and experience a feeling of peace so rarely felt on the road. I pledge to return.




August 09, 2020

Ethiopia: The Land of the Ark of the Covenant

By Dr. Mark S.

Travel Stimulus Check Entry #2 of 5

(See Also Stopped Pick-Pocket #180: The Pick-Pocket Technique of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

Was it hidden? Was it captured? Or, as history tells us, it was moved for safety. King Solomon built a fantastic temple in Jerusalem over 3000 years ago. Then the Ark of the Covenant disappeared. Many stories have been written about the Ark and seeking to find it. This one is mine.

Legend tells us that the Ark was floated down the Nile river, and each night it was hidden on the hillside by the river, covered by the holy animal skins and cloth made for the transport of the Ark. The stories of history now place the Ark in one of the thousands of ancient churches of Ethiopia. Legend also retells the story that many duplicates of the original Ark were made and scattered in churches all over Ethiopia and into Eritrea to keep the location of the real Ark a complete secret. Priests have dedicated their entire lives to live at the church and protect the Ark. They are never permitted to look at it or allow others to view it, and to this very day, no one knows for sure if their church has a facsimile of the real Ark (if the real Ark is really inside any one of these churches or if it was lost to history.) Where is the real Ark? In which church is the real one or do hundreds of priests dedicate their lives to protecting a false Ark?

For 20+ years, I have traveled to this land and visited many churches and priests. They all have a magnificent story to tell. Did the real Ark ever leave Jerusalem on a journey down the river? Has it survived over two millennia of being hidden? Stories abound around Ethiopia on where the true Ark of Covenant might be. Every priest is sworn to secrecy, and they dedicate every day to live and protect their Ark... never knowing if they are protecting a false Ark or possibly the real Ark. These men do not know which Ark is hidden behind the veil of their church. Biblical accounts, the tales of history, legends, stories from childhood, and rumors of hope abound.

It is not uncommon to sit with a group of Ethiopians, to listen to the stories they have passed on for multitudes of generations and share a meal of genuine Ethiopian food as the stories come alive, the legends of miracles happening in each church that “just might” have the real Ark hidden behind the veil. Yet, no priest, no leader, no bishop will ever be bold enough to look under the veil and see if they have and protect the true Ark of antiquity. Moses built the Ark with his brother Aaron, King David danced in the front of the Ark, the Philistines stole the Ark, Solomon built the most glorious temple to hold the Ark. So is it in Ethiopia as the stories abound and are passed from generation to generation? Perhaps we will never know...

Behind the security built into D7 VENTURES LLC is also a traveler's peace. When you want to spend decades looking at church after church; knowing you will never be permitted to look behind the veil, there is a wonderful knowledge that security and peace of mind create a journey into another country, another culture, and into the world of antiquity... As I seek to find the history at each church, to sit and talk with the priests, some have worked together to try and pick my pocket. While generations have passed and Ethiopia has grown, some still have a way of finding the talent to lift a traveler's wallet. One youngster grabs your arm so hard you wince with pain, and they hope who will lose concentration over your wallet or papers or passport. Yet, never has a single pick-pocket been able to get inside a pocket and get my phone or wallet or passport. Thankfully the triple protection of your travel pants offers security and mind of peace on my quest for the Lost Ark!




August 02, 2020

Ireland: 10 Days Circumnavigating The Island

By David M. from Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Travel Stimulus Check Entry #1 of 5)

The eyes of several dozen strangers watched us. It was too late to retreat and back-out. We were committed. So on we went, tentatively pushing our way through the crowd - which instinctively parted before us. Miraculously, and thankfully, our sanctuary lay just a few steps ahead - a cozy empty booth and ubiquitous tiny round table not much larger than an oversized dinner plate. Now to get a pint from the bar!

Our days were spent circumnavigating the island clockwise from Dublin and arriving back again 10 days later driving our rented car (on the ‘wrong’ side of the road of course). You’ll have heard Ireland referred to as the “Emerald Isle”, but nothing prepares you for the green. Green in every variation, shade and tint. It is hard to imagine such an infinite variation in the hue as far as you can see and in every direction.

But those greens can blend together while rounding a hairpin turn at speed! 80 kilometers per hour (50mph) does not seem so fast at home. But when screaming along a one lane roadway with low stone walls forming the borders and overgrown greenery leaning in and whipping the side of the car, the posted speed limit seems absolutely crazy - but one gets used to scanning beyond the bends ahead for on-coming traffic, following the local courtesies for making way and passing. In our 10 days experiencing country, highway and city driving we saw no accidents at all. However we were both relieved to finally hand back our car, unscathed, at the Dublin airport.

Now back to the pub, it is Ireland... as it turned out we needn’t have worried. True, we had deliberately eschewed the noisier and more obviously tourist-catering establishments, so it was our own darn fault that we stumbled into a pub most decidedly “un-touristy”. What we didn’t count on was being the only non-locals in a fully packed “local” with an apparently critical game of football (soccer) playing on the several TV’s. A clearly partisan crowd of mostly twenty-something males displayed various stages of beer-fuelled enthusiasm.

Like everyone else we’d met in Ireland, the patrons of this bar were just there to have some fun, sing some songs and tell some tales. But for my wife and I (decidedly skewing the average age of pub patrons northward) that remained yet to be determined. Safely in our seats we needed yet, as unobtrusively as possible, to manage the drink-ordering process. As you may have noted from the many Netflix series set in the British Isles, one doesn’t wait to be served in such an establishment - you’d wait forever - one elbows their way to the bar and in a process discerned only by the bar-keep, your turn, in turn, comes to order. You pay upon being served (no running a tab) and you then very carefully edge discreetly back through the throng, mindful of not sloshing your beer on any of the other patrons jammed at the bar either ordering, standing and drinking, or performing the trifecta - standing, drinking and shouting at the TV.

Back in our seats and having toasted our success (“slainte” - “to your health”) we discreetly took in our surroundings. Like every other of the many Irish pubs we ‘d been in this one was well worn, cozy and comfortable. And due to the match on the TV, this one was very crowded. The “red shirts” were playing the “white shirts” in what was clearly an important match. We quickly deduced the red shirts were the “home” team and it wasn’t long before we were cheering along at the appropriate moments. The enthusiasm was contagious and soon the initial wary glances shot in our direction turned to nods of approval and then to smiles.

One other table held a four-some in our relative age bracket. Their curiosity about our presence was not subtle. Finally a tall slim gent peeled away from his friends and came over to ours, and without waiting for an invitation pulled up a chair to the already cramped space, set his glass on our tiny table and out poured the questions. He’d obviously been elected the emissary to get the goods on the tourists. Who were we, where were we from, what were we up to on our trip and on and on. We were to discover, and not to generalize, but that like just about everyone we met in Ireland this gent was inquisitive, talkative, full of the “blarney” and very tuned-in to current events and geography relating to North America. Needless to say it was only a matter of time before our new friend waved his friends over to our increasingly cramped space so he could show off his new friends to his old ones. And so it was that we passed another wonderful evening in Ireland.

From prosperous and pretty towns like Kilkenny, to the idyllic fishing village of Dingle, past endless bucolic fields of sheep, to weaving along rugged and impossibly beautiful cliffside ocean inlets, and on to fantastical natural formations like the Giants Steps in the North, castles, museums and yes even gaols (penitentiaries), towns, villages to small cities, Ireland was everything we had hoped it would be. The food, from traditional fare like “boxties” (potato pancakes wrapped around a delicious creamed sauce with chicken) and the ubiquitous and consistently delicious fish and chips to finer fare like delicious lamb served at a highly rated restaurant in a 300 year old stone building seaside in Galway, to upscale dining at a classically imposing castle (now a hotel), one will not go hungry or thirsty in Ireland!

And while our experiences mixing with the wonderful Irish was great, these were usually evening events. Whether enjoying crowded pubs with wonderful live music playing with regular patrons occasionally joining the band on stage to “sit in” for a song or sharing seemingly impromptu poetry or literature readings, the Irish love to share - their beer, their talent and their opinions! One evening we were served our beer in some very cool glasses. Alison asked our server if they sold the glasses, but alas the answer was no. At the end of the evening however our server popped by the table with 2 glasses, with his compliments - and in an unexpected bonus, he had wrapped them in a bar cloth of authentic and sought-after Irish linen!

The people, the music, and the beauty - these three things will remain with Alison and I forever when we think of our circumnavigation of Ireland. Oh and the beer - did I mention the beer? And in the event you might be thinking that all we did was drink “Mother's Milk” aka Guinness in Irish pubs, we took a break one day and had a wonderful visit at the oldest distillery in the world - Bushmills Irish Whiskey in tiny Bushmills, Ireland. The tour was most interesting and, yes, they had a tasting room! And that’s what constitutes a break from beer in Ireland. Would we recommend a trip to Ireland? Only if we can come along! We’d go again in a heartbeat.

Slante!




April 26, 2020

Egypt: Life On The Nile

By Angel ​"The Travel Ambassador" Castellanos (AngelsTravelLounge.com)

Every day on the Nile is a day frozen in time. The Ancient Temples of Karnak, Luxor, Edfu, Philae, and Abu Simbel make​ your childhood memories of hieroglyphics and the Ancient Egyptians come to life. The highlight for me was the ​​Edfu Temple, still mostly intact and physically imposing as it was in the days of the Pharaohs. Running around the Ancient Thebes Necropolis where the Valley of the Kings & Queens is located made my inner Indiana Jones come to life. Face to face with the tiny mummified body of the boy King Tutankhamun deep within his ornately painted tomb was like looking back 3000 years into the history of humanity.

As the Nile flows through Egypt, you close your eyes and wonder if you are living in the present or​ 2500 BC​. The majesty and stillness of the ancient river is seductive. Feluccas, the traditional boat of the Nile, drift by on the calm waters while farmers tend to their grazing livestock.

Each night the call to prayer creates a melodious cacophony of sound that echoes from village to village. Then the sun becomes a massive emblazoned orange fireball along the horizon, an iconic sunset shared between generations along the Nile.

We began our trip in Cairo. Egypt is a massive country and we spent 3 days in the capital. Staying on the island of Zamalek, or in any of the major hotels along the edge of the Nile, will offer views that will be branded into your memory. Plan on the first full morning exploring the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza. Our guide was sorted well ahead of time which made things a whole lot easier. We got an early start from the hotel to beat the heat and the crowds. Don’t forget your sunblock, plenty of water, and small bills for tipping. Our guide was invaluable in helping to navigate the large Giza plateau and brought ancient history to life.

​​Don't rush the experience. Kicking up sand by either horse or camel under the blazing morning sun is one of my favorite ways to explore this area. Take the time to touch, feel, and sit on one of the massive stone blocks that make up each structure. Let your mind try to grasp the expansive 4000-year history of the Pyramids.

The massive construction site near the Pyramids is the unmissable Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). The brand new museum was set to open this year but it will likely not be ready until 2021. It is the largest cultural project in the Middle East. The new GEM will not only house all of the important treasures from the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo, but it will also display ancient treasures from all over Egypt. Some will be together for the first time.
 

Getting around Cairo is easy. The organized chaos that is intrinsic in the Middle East might be unnerving for those who are not prepared, but I relish in the unfamiliar and unknown. Uber is inexpensive in Cairo, limits how much cash you need to carry, and drivers tend to be reliable. As you zip across the city, do not miss the opportunity to stop in Tahrir Square, close to the big pink Egyptian Museum. It was the epicenter of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 that became part of the Arab Spring. Today, the square is just a busy roundabout, and peaceful, just like any other busy square in the Arab world.

Egypt just gets better the further south you go. Luxor is the traditional jumping-off point to explore the South. Formerly Ancient Thebes, it is full of stories of Pharos, Queens, and Mummies surrounded by glistening gold treasure. Nothing really compares to the grandeur of the temples, monuments, and tombs that travelers can explore in southern Egypt, especially between Luxor and Aswan.

Getting to Luxor from Cairo is easy. Egypt Air has daily flights. I opted for the slow overnight train that typically departs at 7 pm and arrives in Luxor at 7 am. There are many 3-4 day cruises that sail between Luxor & Aswan. Various cruise ship companies, both local and international, sail this route. It’s one of the best price value propositions in Egypt to maximize budget and time. Most cruises offer the same packages that include: cabins with River views, full meals, fully guided excursions,​ and​ entrances to all of the main sites​.​

​​After dinner on the ship, I would go to the top deck and look up at the stars that light up the sky. I was not certain about what I would find in Egypt, but I had come face to face with a civilization that I had only read about in history books. The deep sense of the vast span of humanity was not lost on me as I made my through this ancient land. I went to bed each night ready for the sun to knock on my door and start another day where everything will be ​legendary.




January 30, 2020

Mountains of Kazakhstan

By Milosz Pierwola (AdventureMilo.com)

With a name that translates to “Land of Wanderers,” this is one of the last places on earth where you can truly feel like an explorer. Welcome to Kazakhstan! The 9th largest country on earth that boasts a total population less than the city of Istanbul. From majestic limestone cliffs to mysterious car-sized stone spheres, to mosques carved right into the mountainside, Kazakhstan’s geology and intriguing culture will inspire anyone with the love of travel to add it to their wish list.

A combination of the world’s largest dry steppe region, deserts, and mountains – all historically the hardest places for humans to settle down​, Kazakhstan was a mystery to me before landing in the country.​The famous Silk Road is what put the region on the map, literally. As a result, it became a strategic territory to control and inspired innovation in travel​ over many generations​. ​Historians believe humans first domesticated horses​ here​, though the vehicle of choice is none other than camels. In fact, the culture continues to deeply worship the “Ship of the Desert,” and you are bound to find some no matter where you go.

As we leave the city, it's impossible to miss the ​impressive sculpted mountains coming into view. Eons of geologic time mark millions of layers that tell the earth's story; their sides carved as if by a Renaissance sculptor. From a distance,​ the cliffs appear to sail across on seas of sand, but the closer you get the more interesting they become. It was in these mountains that early tribes would seek shelter and discover resources. One particularly famous mountain is the site where a great Kazakh leader was trapped by invading forces, the Ustyurt Plateau. It was in the caves ​here, which you can explore, that it is said he discovered a freshwater spring and survived. The mountain is so famous, it now appears on the 1,000 Tenge note.

Kazakhstan barely gets any rain and mostly bakes in the unforgiving sun. Pair this with the fact that the entire region was under a massive ocean at one point, and you may start to understand the incredible natural beauty of the country. Also what made some of the oddities you can find here. Take the Torysh Valley, for example, otherwise known as the “Valley of the Balls.” As you drive along a vast sandy plain, an odd large stone begins to surface every once in a while. Soon, you notice that these dark stones compose a line that cuts the desert in half as if deposited deliberately… but, they’re not just stones. These are large balls; near-perfect spheres of hardened rock, evenly wrapped in layers that flake off like cracked eggshells. Though theories exist on how these formed (or who they were formed by), it is still largely a mystery and you are encouraged to come up with your own explanations.

As we climb back into our 4 wheel drive vehicles, we make our way across the steppe to a set of cliffs the ancient Kazakhs used for more than a refuge for the elements, they also used it for worship. Kazakhstan is one of the few places on earth where entire mosques were carved into the raw stone. The Shakpak Ata mosque, for example, is entirely underground at a site with a unique limestone features. Before you even go in, the walls on the outside appear to be alive, resembling an organic network of seemingly breathing openings. These features are integrated into the mosque, serving as decorative walls that encase tombs, rooms, and prayer sites. Inside is equally impressive with multiple rooms, a roof opening for a fire, and beautiful writing carved into the walls. The mosque has carpets that remain on the site for any visiting worshipers who need to spend the night, and a tradition of removing your shoes upon entry.

But don’t worry! That’s not where you’ll be staying, traditional housing as you travel is yurts! Large circular tents constructed with a complex wooden frame, ropes, canvas, and rugs, are s​e​mi-permanent features of the landscape. These structures have a rich history as their construction is tied to Kazakh beliefs. The crowning piece of a yurt called a shanyrak and appears everywhere in Kazakhstan. Each part of a yurt has deep meaning for the Kazakh people as they maintain their traditions to this day. As night falls on the desert, the sun sets behind the cliffs, and the sky is blanketed by a sea of stars.  

Kazakhs are known for their hospitality. It is a tradition to make sure travelers are offered the best fare when they visit, including entertainment. One more performance you may be lucky to see when you visit Kazakhstan involves falcons and horses. A sport that is very popular in Kazakhstan is bird hunting (not hunting birds, but hunting with birds). A trained falcon is kept blinded until the prey is spotted, at which point the blinders are removed and the falcon takes flight. It traps the prey until the hunter catches up, and is fed a tasty treat.

Now for the finale, a sport called Buzkashi, which is similar to a game of basketball; except instead of running the players ride horses, and instead of a ball the players use a “sheep.” This is a team game where players start at the edge of the playing field and race to pick up the sheep from the center. Traditionally, a sheep was used, but in recent times it has been replaced by a large leather bag with holds where the legs would be. Once a player has the sheep, he must take it to his circle and drop it in the center for the win. Sounds easy, but now imagine an entire team of players swarming you on horses trying to knock you down, rip away the sheep, and stomping up a mess of dust in the process.

Back in the city, I'm grateful to have visited Kazakhstan. What the country lacks in population, it more than makes up for with its vast unspoiled beauty and treasures. Visiting for the first time feels like you're discovering it as you go from via off-road vehicles, to horses, to camping in yurts under a galaxy of stars!




May 15, 2019

Climbing Kilimanjaro: Travels in Africa & Kissing a Giraffe

By David ʻThornyʼ Hafner "All who wander are not lost... well, maybe sometimes."

From Stella Point, it was a fairly easy walk of 30 minutes to Uhuru Peak. If there is such a thing as an easy walk at 19,000 feet, to the very top of Kilimanjaro! Rising to 19,341 feet, a new altitude record for me, I put on my tuxedo jacket and took some photos.
 
​Itʼs always good to have a plan, that way, you know when things go​ ​amiss. ​The plan was to fly into Nairobi, Kenya, and spen​d​ a few days exploring the area​ ​before going on a photo safari to the Great Migration of the wildebeest herds in the​ ​Maasai Mara. After that, an independent climb up Mount Kenya in order to help​ ​acclimate for a climb to the roof of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro​. ​
 
It started out well enough.

I arrived in Nairobi, took a cab to a nice hostel on the outskirts of the city, and then spent a few days exploring the sites. First was the Farm of Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa, one of my favorite books. Then the Railroad Museum, the highlight of which was the actual sleeping car where the man-eating lions of Tsavo​ crept into and​ ate the professional hunter that was using it to ambush the lions. You may remember this from the movie​, The Ghost in the Darkness. Next stop, safari.

The photo safari was absolutely amazing! The great wildebeest herds gathered at the river's edge and then suddenly plunged down the steep bank to the river below, and sw​am​ across the crocodile-infested water​, to the opposite side.

At times, I was merely a few feet away from the animals here and we got to see the Big 5​ - ​lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo.

I was fortunate enough to see several lions on a kill and extremely lucky to witness a mother cheetah and her cubs, stalk, chase, then devour an antelope.​This was just the beginning and it ​already was​ the trip of a lifetime​.​

Next up, I went back to Nairobi for a few days to prepare for my climb up Mount Kenya. Several of us who were staying at the hostel decided to visit the David Selkirk Elephant orphanage. The orphanage cares for young elephants and rhinos that have been orphaned by poachers. Each elephant is assigned several keepers, one of which is with the elephant 24 hours a day including sleeping in a stable with them. The goal of the orphanage is to rehabilitate the animals then find a wild herd that will accept them. This process sometimes takes 15 years!

After this, we travelers went our separate ways to explore on our own, agreeing to meet that evening for a sundowner, the term given to the watching of the sunset with a friend in Africa. My choice was to go see a facility that bred the rare and endangered Rothschild Giraffes. When we left the elephant orphanage there were many taxis waiting so I simply got into one and told the driver where I wanted to go. It was a good ways out of town on a road that looked to be almost deserted. After viewing the giraffes, and kissing one, I needed to get back to Nairobi.

Easier said than done with no traffic on the road in front of the facility. The thought of a 15-mile walk not really appealing to me, I was getting a little worried, but after 20 minutes a motorcycle taxi came by. I flagged him down, and off we went. Now almost back to our destination, I could actually see it, when I felt something hard, bone-crushing hard, hit my left foot. It was a taxicab colliding with us. Then, just like in the movies, time slowed down! I watched the driver slowly fall off the bike. Then I watched the motorcycle slowly fall over with me still on it. After this, time caught up and I fell off the bike and slid on the asphalt across several lanes of traffic (can you say ʻroad-rashʼ). When I looked up I saw a delivery van headed straight for me so I got up as quickly as possible and hobbled to the side of the road. My foot hurt like hell! Quickly diagnosing my foot, I decided that nothing was broken... hopefully only a bad sprain. Time would tell.

Over at the crash site, things were getting interesting. Several motorcycles had stopped as well as several taxi cabs. Apparently, no one will call the police in Kenya as they are considered too corrupt. The assembled drivers were going to decide who was at fault right there in the middle of the road. The motorcycle guys were on one side and the taxi cab guys on the other. The group kept getting bigger and as more folks joined in, the people started shouting and pushing. It looked like a fight was about to break out so I decided to get the hell out of there. I made my way back to the hostel and iced my foot.

Remember the beginning: For itʼs good to have a plan, that way you will know when things go amiss...

Things have now gone amiss! My foot swelled up and it was black and blue...all the way through. Obviously, I wouldnʼt be climbing Mount Kenya anytime soon. Luckily I still had almost a month before I was scheduled to climb Kili. I hoped my foot would heal by then. I decided to go on another photo safari. This time to Amboselli Park in S.W. Kenya. That way I could rest my foot and at least see Mount Kilimanjaro. After Amboselli I spent some time near Lake Naivasha, visiting friends. A few weeks later I decided to test my foot with a short backpacking trip thru the Hellsgate National park. This park is the home of a rock ledge that is said to be the inspiration of Pride Rock in the movie The Lion King. The park is also home to all sorts of plains game with the noticeable exception of large predators. This allows one to wander on foot and camp without fear of being eaten. I set my tent up on a ridge overlooking a waterhole and watched as the animals came to drink. The sunset was amazing, and almost as spectacular as the sunrise the next morning.

It was an 8-hour bus ride from Nairobi, Kenya to Moshi, Tanzania. Thankfully both the bus and the roads were new. The next afternoon I met the other climbers in our group, and our guides, George, and Joseph, our chief guide who has been on Kilimanjaro for 16 years and has over 280 summits to his name! I think we are in good hands.

After a briefing, the guides checked our gear to ensure that we hadnʼt forgotten anything, and then we climbers took a cab into town for dinner to get to know one another. The next morning we were up early for breakfast then driven to the outfitterʼs office to meet out porters, load our gear, and help load 8 days worth of food onto an old bus. Then we were treated to several hours of a "Tanzanian Bus Massage," with the roads bad and the busʼs suspension worse. We spent the first night camped in a Montane forest at 9,120 feet.

The next morning I was greeted at 6 am by a hand thrust into my tent with a cup of hot coffee. We reached the next camp at about 2:30 where tea and coffee were waiting. After dinner, we were treated to singing and dancing by our crew to welcome us on the mountain. I was in my sleeping bag by 9 O'clock.

There was a heavy frost on the ground and on the tents. Not unusual at 11,400 feet. Today we hiked up to Sheela Cathedral at 13,500 feet then down to Sheela 2 camp at 12,800 feet. Up to this point, the days have been sunny but the nights have been cold. Today we climbed the Lava Tower at 14,000 feet. Much of this is a scramble on rock. On the way down it started to rain, but enough to make everything wet and slippery. We reached Baronco camp around 3 pm. It was a cold, damp night with no visibility. The next morning I was up at 5:30 and the coffee was waiting. The sky was clear. The stars, simply amazing. Our first obstacle was the Baronco Wall. A very steep scramble on rock. Hand over hand. It took me 1 1/2 hours to reach the top of the wall, then it was a gentle, but steady climb the rest of the morning.
We arrived at Karanga camp at 4:15 pm. It sits at 15,223 feet and is the base from where we will make our summit attempt. After supper, Joseph gave us a summit briefing. We would not be carrying our heavy packs to the summit, only the bare necessities. It is very cold here at 15,000 feet. As soon as the sun goes down the temperature plummets. Now itʼs time for bed.

Up at 3 am. It is cold!!! I am wearing everything I brought in my backpack in order to keep warm. 3 layers on my legs and 6 layers on top. A quick coffee and some popcorn for breakfast then it was time to begin our summit push. The way up was steep, occasionally on rock, scrambling, hand over hand but mostly on loose scree. The easiest slopes were greater than 30 degrees. The last 2,000 feet to Stella Point was an unrelenting 45-60 degree slope on loose ground. Take a small step then slide backward several inches. Take another step. Repeat. Donʼt look up. Just concentrate on your footing and force yourself to take that next step. It seemed like forever.

We caught the sunrise at about 16,500 feet. It was stunning. We lingered, watching the sunrise from behind Mount Meru (also catching our breath in the thin mountain air). Then we set off again on our slow, painful climb. Slowly, slowly (Poleʼ Poleʼ in Swahili) Around 9 am we reached Stella Point at 18,885 feet and took a much-needed rest. Stella Point is on the rim of the volcanic crater that makes up Mount Kilimanjaro. The crater was to my right, a few hundred feet below. On my left, the snows of Kilimanjaro... Glaciers in Africa!
I stayed in Africa another month and had many more adventures while visiting Zanzibar, Zambia, and Zimbabwe including a swim in the Devilʼs Pool and a sit on the Devilʼs Chair at Victoria Falls.
 
After leaving Africa I backpacked the Camino de Santiago from Lisbon, Portugal to Santiago, Spain. A distance of over 380 miles. Like most avid backpackers I am extremely conscious about my pack weight. The only pants I had on this entire trip were the Pick Pocket Proof Convertible Travel Pants I purchased from D7 VENTURES LLC. I wore them every day. The only time I wasnʼt wearing them was when they were in the wash (they dry very quickly) and when they were being repaired due to the motorcycle accident in Nairobi. I highly recommend these pants.



February 22, 2019

Cubed®️ Travel Journal: Sahara

By Stephen Eng (see also 106th Stopped Pick-Pocket: Marrakesh Market Hand Shake!)

Experiencing the sunset while sitting on a sand dune in the Sahara is what drew me to Morocco. Based in Marrakesh, we discovered delicious food, vibrant colors, friendly people, wonderful scents, and a countryside framed by beautiful mountains and picturesque deserts. There is so much to do and see, that in our short stay, we opted for the bustle of Marrakesh and the solitude of the Sahara.

We start our journey from the Riad Abaca Badra in Marrakesh. Our driver, Ali, would take us on this 3 day / 2 night tour into the Sahara. The High Atlas Mountains greeted us as we left the city. You know, I never knew what a casbah was until he brought us to the Kasbah de Talouat. You hear about one in the song “Rock the Casbah” and I never knew what it meant. The drive is about 11-13 hours and to break it up we arrive at Ait Ben Haddou, which has been used as a backdrop for movies, including one of my favorites, Gladiator. After a bit of exploring, we head to our Riad in Zagora for a home-cooked meal.

Day two and our journey continues to the great dunes of Erg Chigaga via Zagora, Draa Valley, and M’gamid El Ghezlane. At noon, we (finally) arrive at the Sahara Desert! Sitting in the car one way for 14 total hours while engaging in great conversation with our driver was well worth the sore back and butt. Upon checking into our tents, we are treated to a wonderful lunch before heading out to take a camel ride as the sun is low on the horizon. It’s like riding a horse but at a slower and more steady pace. After thirty minutes, we get to the base of a huge dune. As we walk up the side, the vast desert comes into view, and we experience the tranquility of the a glorious sunset.

For the next two hours, sitting alongside my buddy, Manny, we are able to take in the full beauty of the desert. The temperature was a perfect 64 F and there was no wind to blow sand in my face. Sitting in the Sahara with no cell service was a blessing. This gave me the time to live in the moment and reflect as I watched the sunset inch by inch. It also allowed me to escape the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh where I have a foiled pick-pocket story to share because of my travel pick-pocket pants! Experiencing this moment made me realize that if I want to do more of this, I would have to sacrifice other things and I am totally OK with that.

When the sun finally sets, we head back to camp by camel for dinner. A great meal by a local family is shared with just the five of us campers present. We exchange conversations and laughs at the campfire with traditional Berber music to the background of stars. When the fire starts to die, we head back to the tents to sleep under seven blankets for warmth in the mild cold-of-night in the desert.

In the morning, we have breakfast before making the journey back to Marrakesh. Driving through Lake Iroquois, Foum Zguid, Tazenakht, and the High Atlas Mountains, eight hours later we make it to Marrakesh.

Bucket lists are great to have. My top five is to walk the ruins of Machu Picchu, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, experience the Uyuni Salt Flats, hike Patagonia, and camp in the Sahara Desert. The journey of a lifetime is finally over but it will be ingrained in my memory forever. I’m glad to have checked it off with my travel buddy, Manny.




January 08, 2019

Leaving Las Vegas: Hiking Red Rock Canyon

By Milosz Pierwola (AdventureMilo.com)

As our flight crossed into Nevada, the sight out the window took my breath away. Obvious as it was, it all suddenly made sense. When you hear about Las Vegas, most likely the image that pops into your head is a desert oasis that literally shines like a diamond from outer space. For someone like me, this oasis was not my destination. The place that brought me here was surrounded by hundreds of miles of “no man’s land,” a hostile frying pan that confined most visitors to the opulent air-conditioned halls filled with the merciless choir of slot machines. Not me. As soon as the opportunity arose, I found myself dashing for the city limits to explore the incredible environment that would have intimidated me before.

I could swear I saw glimpses of dancing figures on the horizon. As I departed the confines of The Strip, my mirage of a colorless and featureless wasteland dissolved. I anticipated getting lost in a broad parking lot of sand with an occasional sign-post cactus. Things aren’t always as they seem. My inner child’s expectations were on the line and I wanted to be just like a cowboy; carefully pacing in the heat, able to spot any threatening gunslingers as their silhouettes teleported into view over the boiling horizon. What I discovered was not a cracked wasteland, but one of the most diverse and thriving environments I have ever come across.

Approaching the mountains that surrounded the Las Vegas valley, my imagination filled with tumbleweeds and dust. As I got dropped off, the sweet scent of flowers was in the air. I passed a large bush that appeared dry from a distance and realized it was actually covered by yellow flowers with hundreds of insects drinking its sweet nectar. Looking away from this surprising discovery, I was here. I had arrived in the small tent colony of the Red Rocks Campground where I set up home base. This was to be my haven as it would be my first time venturing into this environment alone.

To enter the wilderness, I stepped through a gate in a fence that stretched from one end of the world to the other. Right away I took notice of what was underfoot. Nearly every plant I passed was of a different kind. Some had thorns, some blades, others sharp leaves and hard bark, and all were adorned with vibrant colors in some way. I discovered species that looked like something from another planet - long branches with sharp needle like leaves and hollow bubbles along the stems. I couldn’t help but “pop” one to discover a vacant cavity… and just at that moment, out of the corner of my eye I felt a presence - a stranger!

I remember becoming startled as a figure came into view in my peripheral vision. I darted up and nearly fell over laughing - it was a Joshua Tree! Perhaps this is the reason they received a proper name. These trees grow with broad, gently winding branches that end in a tuft of leaves, not unlike a torso and limbs. Staring at the strange figure, I could not help but laugh as I imagined it dancing when I looked away.

This place, the desert, is easy to overlook. From far away it takes on the appearance of emptiness and sameness, as if nothing interesting ever happens here. Perhaps this is the secret of its longevity and how it preserves itself. Upon closer inspection, there is more life here than most other places I’ve looked. It’s a fantasy to be here. As a child I would find myself absorbed in the romantic depiction of the Mojave Desert by classic Western movies. Such film epics truly captured the incredible sense of discovery and adventure that accompanied exploring vast badlands. The absence of comfort from heat, the silence of windless air, and unrelenting bright sun that hung unobstructed in a big blue sky.

Approaching the cliffs, I was met with even more revelation as I ran into a stranger, a real one this time. A man was hiking the other way and told me to look for patterns in the stones. He told me that the Native Americans would build prayer circles facing east and leave them as they were. These sacred places of worship were never recorded or marked, and could be found anywhere. He described that there was no real way of telling how old they were and, because trails between springs in the desert tended to remain the same over great expanses of time, it is possible that some could be a thousand years or older. He directed me to my final destination, a formation under the cliffs that looked more like a planet from a science fiction movie than the edge of one of the loudest cities on earth.

The desert landscape was just the beginning, another treasure was right beneath my feet. As I studied the stones, the sand, and the mountains, I began to read a story; the story of the past of this place. Because of the lack of rain and mostly trivial impact of vegetation, the past is clearly visible here. I began to tell where the streams run when rains do come, where the wind moves the earth when it does blow, and how the land twists and bends under the pressure of time.

I arrived at the top of a small jumble of rocks that peeked out just past a hill which, until now, blocked Las Vegas. The view from here was surreal. I stood in the middle of the desert looking back at the city. In that moment, I appreciated where I was. The sandstone underneath my feet was rock, but it was brittle to the touch and had a distinct appearance as if it were melting under the hot sun. Wind and water had shaped this stone and revealed nearly organic structures that took on the shape of muscles, tissue, sinew, and even bone. The most prominent feature was a large pillar that had the distinct appearance of a sphinx. It would be atop this pillar that I found myself gazing at Las Vegas and reflecting on my experience.