Category Archives: around-the-world travel

Global Scavenger Hunt: Seville to Porto to Complete Toughest Leg of 23-Day Around-the-World Mystery Tour

A couple enjoys the sunset over Gualdelquivir river, Seville, Spain. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am overwhelmed by the beauty of Seville, Spain. The bus ride from Le Leigne de la Conception in southernmost point of Spain (the closest bus stop to Gibraltar) as I continue on this leg on the Global Scavenger Hunt that began in Marrakesh, Morocco, has been absolutely beautiful, providing glimpses of farms and villages and graceful wind turbines. As the bus turns into the city, the exquisite architecture, the vast green parks, the bike lanes, the atmosphere is just breathtaking. Even the bus station is magnificently decorated.

Wind turbines along the highway from Le Leigne de la Conception to Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have booked Apartements Hom Sevilla through hotels.com, choosing a place that seemed closest to the city center (0.2 miles) and The Cathedral which seemed the major landmark (0.2 miles) that also was within the budget allotted by the Global Scavenger Hunt (under $100 since my teammate, Margo, went directly to Porto from Gibraltar instead). It is a delightful 15 minute walk from the bus station that literally transports me.

Even the bus station in Seville is beautiful © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 It is the late afternoon and the Cathedral that takes up much of Avenida de la Constitution is bathed in golden light. A tram moves smoothly, virtually noiselessly down the boulevard; cyclists stream by, pedestrians meander by. The hotel is right in the midst of this historic district. The manager, who has been texting me while I was on the bus asking when I expected to arrive and giving me walking directions, is (thankfully) still on duty when I arrive. He shows me how to use the espresso coffee maker in their lounge/lobby (the hotel is self-service after hours) and offers suggestions on how to get around, gives me a map of the city and suggests places to go to restaurants that are less touristic, more typical, and where to get the bus to the airport the next day.

The Cathedral, Seville in the golden light of late afternoon © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 The hotel is absolutely lovely – a modern, chic boutique apartment hotel. I am beyond delighted and  think how clever I am to have chosen this ideal place. (Apartamentos Hom Sevilla, Calle Fernández y González 13B, Sevilla, 41001, Spain)

I rush out to catch the remaining light and am treated to an amazing, flaming sunset. I find myself drawn to the historic Torre Del Oro (Tower of Gold), built in the 13th century (1220-1221) during the reign of the Taifa Kings, a time when Spain was invaded by the Moors, to prevent attacks from Christians. Restored in 2005, it apparently got its name because it was covered in lime and straw mortar which would have given it a golden reflection. Over the centuries, the tower has been used as a fortress, a chapel, a warehouse, a prison and even as the Guadalquivir River Company main office. Today it is the Naval Museum and an iconic symbol of Seville.

The Torre del Oro (Golden Tower), an iconic symbol of Seville, was built by the Moors in the 13th century. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander along the river and across the San Telmo Bridge over the Gualdelquivir, which I learn is the only navigatable river in Spain and “has played a leading role in many of the city’s historic moments: sieges, defenses and conquests have been fought on its waters, and exploits and crossings have been forged from its shores.”

I had not realized that the first trip to circumnavigate the world originated from Seville: that in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan began his voyage here; crossing the San Telmo bridge, you can see the armillary sphere that commemorates mile zero of that voyage.

“Seville in the 16th century was the mercantile center of the western world, and its river was the main maritime route for Atlantic traffic for more than 200 years…Seville was known as ‘the city where the world’s heart beats’. Its maritime activity permeated commerce, population, culture, and its own urban development, making it unique,” the visitor bureau notes (www.visitasevilla.es/en/history/guadalquivir-river).

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The lights of the city come on, reflected in the cobblestone streets; there are couples along the river bank enjoying the scene. Seville is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It is a dream.

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I delight in just walking around, taking in the exquisite architecture, the colors and textures and shapes, the peace of this place. There is such a wonderful feeling that even a fellow riding his bike is singing.

The Cathedral, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Unfortunately, under the Global Scavenger Hunt challenge, I am only here through early afternoon the next day – having elected to fly out to Porto, rather than take a nine-hour bus ride through Faro and Lisbon to Porto, in order to arrive by the deadline on Friday, 11:30 am. The deadline is pretty firm because we are taking the 3:55 pm flight to New York City, our final stop of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. (Those teams that are still in contention are not allowed to fly to Porto; instead, they have to take bus and/or train, a 9-hour proposition from Seville, with stops along the way to do scavenges.)

I plan the morning carefully – getting up extra early to arrange my bags (to avoid paying baggage fees on Iberia Airlines) – and stroll over to the Parque de María Luisa – one of the prettiest parks I have ever seen. It is comparable to Central Park in New York City, the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and the Ueno Park in Tokyo, in that in addition to being an urban oasis, also contains important cultural sites.  

Parque de María Luisa, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parque de María Luisa, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parque de María Luisa, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among them is Plaza de España, the most extravagant of the building projects completed for the 1929 Exposición Iberoamericana (this is reminiscent of Palace of Fine Arts, built for San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific exhibition). This is a vast brick-and-tile structure features fountains, mini-canals, and a series of tile pictures depicting historical scenes from each Spanish province (one of our Global Scavenger Hunt travelers found her family’s province). Archeological Museum and the Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions. There are row boats and bikes to rent.

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At some point, I find myself in front of a gate with a sign on the wall that says “Juderia,” which, I later learn, turns out to have been the old Jewish Quarter (before Spain evicted Jews, in 1492, known as the Inquisition). It has been converted into a hotel, Las Casas de la Juderia,  comprised of a vast complex of interwoven dwellings, a city within a city, a sprawling maze of 27 houses and two palaces, restored to their 15th century glory, literally in the shadow of the Cathedral and the Alcázar (https://www.lascasasdelajuderiasevilla.com/en/).

Judeira, once the Jewish Quarter of Seville, Spain, is now a family-run hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Unmistakably Spanish, the family-run hotel is an alluring retreat hidden right in the heart of the city,” writes Trafalgar, a tour company which features this “accommodation with a story” in its Seville program.

“At Las Casas de la Juderia, you‘ll tread in the footsteps of nobility and even royalty. Over the centuries, Christopher Columbus, The Duke of Bejar and The Count of Villamanrique have all stayed here. In fact, after returning from America, Columbus’s men all resided in these houses. Perhaps most compelling of all is the network of subterranean tunnels connecting houses commissioned by former owner, the Duke of Segorbe. You can wander through these today; in fact, breakfast is taken in the captivating underground Hall of Mirrors.” (https://blog.trafalgar.com/2018/02/26/stays-stories-sevilles-las-casas-de-la-juderia/)

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get lost walking to the Real Alcázar, the major attraction in Seville and for my limited time here, which costs me dearly. By the time I arrive at 9:38 am (it opens at 9:30 am) there are what seems 1000 people ahead of me on the line for people (like me) without pre-purchased tickets, and a guard who only lets in a handful of people every 20 minutes. At first, I don’t understand the sign that says (“Limited access, 4-5 hours wait”) for those without pre-purchased tickets (recommended to purchase online, they give you a time to come, or visit in the afternoon, https://realAlcázarsevilla.sacatuentrada.es/en) who go in on a separate line. As it turns out, my wait is 3 ½ hours, but It is touch-and-go as to whether I would get in with enough time to see the Alcázar before having to get back to the hotel, pick up my luggage, and get to the bus to go to the airport.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally, at 1 pm, just at my absolute deadline, the guard lets me in to the Alcázar and I take advantage of the senior rate (3E versus 11E, so even the limited time is well worth it; Mondays offer free admission). I have to be out by 2:30 pm.

Though you take loads of photos, none can do the Alcázar justice because the beauty is in the exquisite details of architecture, pattern in the decoration, the symmetry, the delicacy and grace, the ambiance, how you are constantly surprised by beautiful images and scale. You look up at magnificent ceilings, at the gorgeous archways, the passages that lead on and on. I think I have seen it all in about 45 minutes, only to discover two other palaces and gardens. (A separate ticket is required to visit the personal apartments still used by the royal family when they visit Seville).

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Alcázar royal palace complex that was originally developed as a fort in 913 was built for the Christian king Peter of Castile by Castilian Christians on the site of an Abbadid Muslim fortress, destroyed after the Christian conquest of Seville and reflects the mix of the different architectural cultures. The palace is a preeminent example of Mudéjar architecture in the Iberian Peninsula and renowned as one of the most beautiful. 

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It has been built and rebuilt and modified many times in the last 1000 years, most spectacularly in the 14th century when King Pedro added the Palacio de Don Pedro. I wonder how many people waiting with me on the long, long line have been intrigued to visit because the Alcázar was featured as a location for the Game of Thrones TV series. The Alcázar has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A guided tour would be helpful here, especially since there do not seem to be any notes or guided material, and I have to go quickly through, just taking in the stunning visual images and details. I reconstruct the details later from various sources (See www.lonelyplanet.com/spain/seville/attractions/real-alcazar/a/poi-sig/411802/360736)

We enter through the Puerta del León (Lion Gate) on Plaza del Triunfo, to the Patio del León (Lion Patio), which was the garrison yard of the original Al-Muwarak palace. The Sala de la Justicia (Hall of Justice), with beautiful Mudéjar plasterwork and an artesonado (ceiling of interlaced beams with decorative insertions) was built in the 1340s by the Christian King Alfonso XI. It leads to the Patio del Yeso, part of the 12th-century Almohad palace reconstructed in the 19th century.

You wind through what seems a maze of rooms and courtyards and porticos:

The Hunting Courtyard was where hunters would meet before hunts with King Pedro. The Casa de la Contratación (Contracting House) dates from 1503 to control trade with Spain’s American colonies. The Salón del Almirante (Admiral’s Hall) houses 19th- and 20th-century paintings showing historical events and people. The Sala de Audiencias (Chapter House) is notable for its tapestries.  

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Palacio de Don Pedro, also known as the Palacio Mudéjar, “is considered Seville’s single most stunning architectural feature. King Pedro, had an alliance with the Muslim emir of Granada, Mohammed V, who was responsible for much of the decoration at the Alhambra. When Pedro decided to build a new palace in the Alcázar in 1364, Mohammed sent many of his top artisans, who were joined by others from Seville and Toledo. Drawing on the Islamic traditions of the Almohads and caliphal Córdoba, the result is a synthesis of Iberian Islamic art.”

The Patio de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens) is surrounded by beautiful arches, plasterwork and tiling. A sunken garden was discovered by archaeologists in 2004 from under a 16th-century marble covering.

The most spectacular room in the Palacio is the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors) which originally was Pedro I’s throne room.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I come upon the breathtaking formal gardens with pools and fountains. From one, the Jardín de la Danza (Garden of the Dance), a passage runs beneath the Salones de Carlos V to the Baños de Doña María de Padilla (María de Padilla Baths). I find myself in the vaults beneath the Patio del Crucero with a grotto that replaced the patio’s original pool.

Above the gardens is the Galeria de Grutesco, a raised gallery with porticoes fashioned in the 16th century out of an old Islamic-era wall. There is also a hedge maze that adds to the romance and mystery of the Alcázar.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Alcázar is still a royal palace. In 1995 it hosted the wedding feast of Infanta Elena, daughter of King Juan Carlos I, after her marriage in Seville’s cathedral (another magnificent structure to visit which was too crowded for me to fit into my too brief visit). The Cuarto Real Alto (Upper Royal Quarters), the rooms used by the Spanish royal family on their visits to Seville, are open for guided tours (€4.50; half hourly 10am to 1.30pm). Highlights of the tours include the 14th-century Salón de Audiencias, still the monarch’s reception room, and Pedro I’s bedroom, with Mudéjar tiles and plasterwork. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to visit myself.

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mindful of the time, I walk back to the hotel along the beautiful promenades, get a coffee gelato as my lunch, and get myself to the bus station for the airport.

(More information at www.visitasevilla.es)

Porto, Portugal

I arrive in Porto at about 8 pm after changing planes in Madrid (by now I am second-guessing whether I should have instead taken the nine-hour bus from Seville to Porto). Coincidentally, I meet up with two other teams from the Global Scavenger Hunt at the airport who are following the same route.

They take an Uber from the Porto airport to the Sheraton Porto Hotel; I hop on the Metro, amazed at the convenience and speed of the service and low cost (just about $3 to get into town about 20 minutes from the airport). The hardest part is figuring which way to walk from the station which happens to be quite dark, but a kindly person points me in the right direction. It’s about a 15 minute walk to the hotel.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get up early to hop on the Metro again for the 12 minute ride to Center City. I just want to absorb the gorgeous ambiance and color of Porto before having to meet the deadline of 11:30 am for the Global Scavenger Hunt. We will be taking the 3:55 pm flight to New York City, our final leg of our 23-day, around-the-world mystery tour, and the crowning of the World’s Greatest Traveler.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Porto, which I visited much more extensively years ago (the Lello Bookshop and Majestic Café which J.K. Rowling frequented when she was writing the “Harry Potter” books are now overrun with tourists who queue up and pay admission), is absolutely lovely. I just want to immerse myself in the ambiance, wandering around the boulevards to take in the gorgeous “exuberant Baroque style with some Rococo touches” of the buildings, the colorful tiles facades.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander to the port where the Port wineries are located (popular for tours and tastings) and a cable car, walk across the bridge, before getting back to meet the group.

Traditional boats on the Douro River, Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Visitor information is available from Porto & Northern Portugal Tourism Association, portocvb@portocvb.com, www.portocvb.com, www.visitportoandnorth.travel.

The results for this most difficult leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt (our “final exam” as world travelers), that took us to four countries (Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal) in just five days:

In third place having completed 92 scavenges, 5 bonuses and amassing 5310 points, Order & Chaos (the doctors from San Francisco).

In second place with 102 scavenges (that’s 20 a day), 7 bonuses and accumulating 5680 points, Lazy Monday.

In first place with 105 scavenges, 7 bonuses, and 6110 points, Lawyers Without Borders, putting Zoe and Rainey Littlepage of Houston, in great position to win the competition for “World’s Best Traveler.” (See Zoe Littlepage’s blog, https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-rock-seville-in-spain-and.html).

We’re off to New York City, the last leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, when we will learn who will be crowned the 2019 “World’s Greatest Travelers.”

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

Dates have just been set for the 16th annual edition of The Global Scavenger Hunt, April 17-May 9, 2020, Applications for the around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers are now being accepted at GlobalScavengerHunt.com
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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us on  facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt: A Dash through Gibraltar Reveals a Modern-Day Brigadoon

Gibraltar’s Barbery Macaques frolic on the taxis that carry tourists up to The Rock. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

­­­­­by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is clear why Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt, inserted Gibraltar on the “final exam” in which we need to get ourselves from Marrakesh to Fez to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto in five days – it is a challenge to figure the logistics and prove ourselves as world travelers, let alone chalk up points by fulfilling the scavenges.

Some of the rules are relaxed for this, the most arduous of travel legs (a par 6) of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour – the top 4 teams in contention for “World’s Best Traveler” are allowed to team up together but only for one country; can rent a car but only once and in one country (not cross-borders); can use their cell phone for information and GPS. We are given an allowance to purchase transportation and to book the three hotel nights we will be on our own (there are extra scavenger points for booking an AirBnB and for the cheapest hotel night).

We are out of the Riad el Yacout in Fez, Morocco, at 9 am to catch the 10 am train to Tangier, where we will get a ferry to Algeciras, Spain, and from there get to Gibraltar, though we haven’t quite figured out that part yet. As it turns out, there are three teams (six of us), following this same itinerary (not a coincidence – since none of us are in contention any longer, we are allowed to share information and travel together).

This day, the third in the Par 6 challenge, is all about travel. Again, the train through Morocco is comfortable, fast, and provides a wonderful view of the country.

But it seems unnecessarily difficult to figure out which of Tangier’s ports to go to for which ferry. There are four different ferry lines, but two different ports. The group overrules me and decides to taxi 45 minutes to the Tangier MED port – a major cargo shipping port – instead of going to the Tangier Ville port just a few minutes taxi ride from the train station, where the ferry would have taken us to Tarifa (about 50 minutes away from Gibraltar, compared to 20 minutes from Algeciras).

Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The taxi ride along the coast is gorgeous – reggae music is playing as we speed along coastal road to new port (this is a popular beach destination, after all).  But the port is less suited to passengers than cargo. The immigration process takes forever. What we believe to be the 5 pm ferry leaves at 6 pm ferry (the way they handle or rather don’t handle the baggage is a riot). The hour-long sail is a pleasant enough followed by a literal riot to recover our luggage from the POD everyone has stuffed it in. Because of the hour time difference, we arrive at 8 pm.

Then we have to figure how to get from Algeciras (Spain) to Gibraltar (an overseas territory of Great Britain), which, we discover, means the taxis can’t cross the border.

A bus to Gibraltar border is a 15 minute walk and would leave at 9:30 pm so we decide to take the taxi, where, the driver tells us, we can walk across and get another taxi or a bus to The Rock Hotel. Sounds good, right? The cab drops us, we exit Spain (having just entered at the ferry terminal), and enter Gibraltar (darn, no passport stamp! You have to go to the tourist office!), but no taxi, no bus. We start walking about 1 ½ miles to the hotel – across an actual airport runway as it turns out.

Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have arrived so late, though, the small town (the whole country only has 36,000 residents) is shuttered for the night. Eventually, when we get to the heart of the village, we find one cab and two of us continue walking to the hotel.

The walk is absolutely charming – and also culture shock – having come from Fez, Morocco in the morning, put a toe into Spain, and now plunked down into this patch of Great Britain. There are red telephone boxes, Bobbies, English pubs. It almost looks like a movie set, and in fact, is not much bigger – or Busch Gardens Colonial Williamsburg.

Red telephone box, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But walking in the quiet of the night through this place evokes in my mind an image of Brigadoon, a town from long ago that emerges from the mist.

Our hotel, The Rock (which another team found and I booked through hotels.com), is majestically set on the foothill of Gibraltar’s famous rock with panoramic vistas of the Bay, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Spanish mainland.  It’s quite elegant – formal even, which I suspect is casual by British standards – and well situated, just opposite the Botanical Gardens, a very short walk to the main street. In fact, The Rock Hotel is a Gibraltar landmark, the oldest luxury hotel here, built in 1932. Its most recent refurbishment enhanced its colonial heritage and art deco style with contemporary comforts of a first-class hotel – it even has a pool. I can attest to the hotel’s elegant and sophisticated ambiance and warm, personalized service. Ours, along with each of the other 94 guestrooms and suites, has a gorgeous view.

View of Gibraltar from our room at The Rock Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hotel is filled with history. A Wall of Fame displays the royalty, world leaders, artists and TV, and film stars who have stayed here, most notably, Sir Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, Alec Guinness, and Sean Connery as well as John Lennon and Yoko Ono when they married in Gibraltar.

The Rock Hotel is a Gibraltar landmark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Hotel has a fine dining restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine – which was really handy since we all arrived very late when every other restaurant in Gibraltar, it seems, had closed. I find the rest of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams in the lounge, enjoying the hotel’s signature cocktail (what else?) Gin on the Rock. There is nothing more quintessentially British than Afternoon Tea and The Rock Hotel offers this tradition daily.

I only have until early afternoon here to explore Gibraltar before having to push on to Seville, and then on to Porto, Portugal, to finish this leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

Cable Car ascends to the Top of the Rock, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Early in the morning, I set out on an easy walk, through the Botanical Gardens, to the cable car that takes me to The Top of the Rock. I purchase a combination ticket (34E; senior rate is 25E) that gives me the ride up and entrance to the Nature Reserve as well as most of the key attractions that are all located along the road and trails from the top, hiking down to the village (the hike takes about 1 ½-2 hours, plus time to visit the key attractions; I give myself about 3 hours).

The cable car ride takes 6 minutes and immediately brings me to one of the highlights of Gibraltar: its Barbary Macaques (tailless monkeys). (I soon realize why the hotel concierge told me to wear my backpack in the front, watch for pickpockets and guard my passport.) They are there greeting tourists, even jump on people’s heads, and display antics (in fact, I don’t find any in the “Ape’s Den” which is supposed to be their habitat).

The Barbary Macaques were said to have come to Gibraltar through a subterranean passage under the Straits of Gibraltar that supposedly linked the Rock of Gibraltar to Africa.

Barbary Macaques jump on tourists at the Top of the Rock, Gibraltar; be careful to stow your passport from these pickpockets © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Top of the Rock, it turns out, is an entire preserve with a series of Gibraltar’s major attractions, and its entire, dramatic history spread on along its roads and walking paths.

A Barbary Macaque enjoys the view from the Top of the Rock © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gibraltar’s Barbary Macaques frolic on the taxis that carry tourists up to The Rock. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is evidence of humans on Gibraltar going back 2000 years, and Gibraltar has been visited by mariners since the 9th century BC. The Muslim invasion of Europe started in the Bay of Gibraltar in 711; Gibraltar was under Moorish rule for over 700 years until Christians briefly took it over for 24 years in the early 14th century. Christians recaptured Gibraltar in 1462, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella secured The Rock for Spain in 1501. Gibraltar was ceded to Britain as a consequence of the War of Spanish Secession (1701-14); the Treaty of Utrecht formalized Gibraltar as Britain’s territory. But that did not end the bloody conflicts by Spain to retake The Rock.

The Moorish Castle, first built in 1160, you climb into the tower of Homage that dates from 1333 when Abu’l Hassan recaptured Gibraltar form the Spanish. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to Visit Gibraltar (www.visitgibraltar.gi), “In 1779 Spain and France began the longest and bloodiest siege in Gibraltar’s history, ‘The Great Siege, 1779-1783’. In 1782 work began on the famous ‘Great Siege Tunnels’. The Battle of Trafalgar was fought close to the Rock in 1805.

“The 19th century was Gibraltar’s heyday, as a staging port on the vital route to India. Another series of tunnels were completed during the Second World War. Gibraltar became home to the Royal Navy’s ‘Force H’ and the focal point from where Eisenhower controlled the North Africa landings in 1942. During the Franco era, Spain attempted to revive her claim for the reversion of the Rock to Spanish sovereignty, which culminated in the closure of the border for 13 years in 1969.”

All of this history unfolds as you walk from the Top of the Rock, along its roads and paths spiraling down to Casement Square, once a site of public executions and today the hub of activity.

St Michael’s Cave has a plaque commemorating the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a whole chain of things to see and in the course of two hours I explore: St. Michael’s Cave (way too touristic for my taste, it was developed in the 1950s – there is a plaque noting the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the caves in 1954- and used as a great theater since the 1960s, but the Lower St. Michael’s Cave offers a much more intense experience, I later learn), Great Siege Tunnels that dates from 1779-83 to defend against the Spanish), World War II tunnels (I peek inside but I don’t have time for the 45 minute tour of what amounted to an underground city that could accommodate 16,000 with enough food to last 16 months; there was also an underground telephone exchange, a power generating station, water distillation plant, hospital, baker, ammunition magazines and vehicle maintenance workshop; separate admission is 8E; it is recommended to pre-book tours at naturereserve@gibraltar.gov.gi).

There are also various military batteries, Gibraltar A City Under Siege Exhibition (set in one of the first buildings constructed by the British in Gibraltar, there are re-creations of scenes from 1726 as well as graffiti by bored soldiers from then) and a Moorish Castle, first built in 1160 (you climb into the tower of Homage that dates from 1333 when Abu’l Hassan recaptured Gibraltar form the Spanish).

Gibraltar: City Under Siege Exhibition © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I don’t have time to really explore the Lower St. Michael’s Cave. I learn that while the upper section of St Michael’s Cave has been known for over 2000 years and used for various purposes such as a hospital during World War II, it was only in 1942 that Lower St Michael’s Cave was accidently discovered. The cavern is notable for the size of the main chambers, the profusion and variety of calcite formations and a lake of crystal clear water, nearly forty yards long, estimated to hold 45,000 gallons. There are organized tours into Lower St Michael’s Cave that normally last around three hours, but because there is some scrambling and minor climbing with ropes involved, duration times may vary. The cave is totally in its original natural state (although it is fully lit).

You can also climb the Skywalk, 340 meters directly above sea level, where you are treated to 360-degree views spanning three countries and two continents. Skywalk links to other sites within the Gibraltar Nature Reserve, Upper Rock including the thrilling Windsor Suspension Bridge and the famous Apes’ Den via a series of walking trails. Built on the foundations of an existing WWII base structure, the Skywalk is designed to withstand wind speeds of over 150km/hour and can carry the weight of 5 Asian elephants, or 340 people, standing on it at the same time (visitor numbers will be limited to 50 at any one time). The floor and balustrade panels are made up of 4 layers of laminated glass (with a total thickness of around 4.2cm). Laid out side-by-side, the 42 glass panels would cover more than 750m², roughly the equivalent of 4 tennis courts. The walkway is 2.5m wide and projects a maximum of 6.7m from the main structural support point. 70m of rock anchors and 30,000kg of steel secure the Skywalk to the Rock.

Gibraltar Macaque Experience is the only opportunity in Europe to spend time with a habituated troop of free-living monkeys in a natural setting, away from other tourists © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There’s a lot I don’t have time to get to which is interesting because before I arrived, I had thought I could just breeze through: The Military Heritage Centre in Princess Caroline’s Battery. I am really upset that I do not have time to explore UNESCO Gorham’s Cave Complex which contains evidence of Neanderthal and early modern humans. There is also a Gibraltar Macaque Experience, the only opportunity in Europe to spend time with a habituated troop of free-living monkeys, in a natural setting, away from other tourists. (Blands Travel, travel@blandstravel, www.blandstravel.com)

I take the road down but there are also many nature trails that meander through the extent of the Reserve. These combine the Nature Reserve’s natural beauty and stunning views with some sites of historic interest that are much less visited. There are themed routes: History Buff, Monkey Trail, Nature Lover, Thrill Seeker. Notable trails include Mediterranean Steps, Inglis Way, Royal Anglian Way and Douglas Path.

May Day Rally in John MacIntosh Square, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I make my way to the charming historic district. It’s May Day and I come upon a labor rally in John MacIntosh Square. I can easily imagine the same speeches (Privatization. Nonconsultation. Unfair Distribution.) being made in New York City.

I am also surprised to learn of Gibraltar’s sizeable Jewish community. On The Rock, you can take a trail to Jew’s Gate which leads to the Jewish cemetery tucked away behind trees that was in use up until 1848; it offers “a fascinating piece of history that reflects the important role the Jewish people have played in molding Gibraltar’s history”). I find four synagogues, including the Great Synagogue on Engineer Lane, one of the oldest on the Iberian Peninsula, dating back to 1724, and Flemish Synagogue.

Here in the town there is Casemates Square, Gibraltar Crystal Glass Factory, an American War Memorial, the Gibraltar Museum, Irish Town, Trafalgar Cemetery (where soldiers who died at the Battle of Trafalgar are buried), King’s Chapel and King’s Bastion can be visited (I don’t have time).

I linger over lunch outside a pub, watching the world go by despite really chilly winds.

Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My brief time here has been really enchanting.

I’ve never walked an entire country (okay, territory) in a single day, before. Or for that matter, literally strolled through centuries of history in such a compact space.

I make my way back to The Rock Hotel to pick up my things, hastily write out postcards I purchased in town, which the kindly hotel staff mail for me.

The hotel, which has provided me with the information for the bus as well as a time schedule, calls a taxi which takes me to the Gibraltar border (still no one to stamp my passport and the tourist office is closed for May Day!). You have to allocate extra time for the taxi in case an airplane is landing on the air strip.

(The Rock Hotel, 3 Europa Road, Gibraltar, reservations@rockhotel.gi, www.rockhotelgibraltar.com)

 See more at Visit Gibraltar, www.visitgibraltar.gi/

I walk the few blocks from the Gibraltar border to the bus station across the border in Spain in La Línea de la Concepción. (My difficulty in arranging travel from Gibraltar to Seville was not realizing that you couldn’t travel directly from Gibraltar to Seville and I didn’t know the name of the city to get the bus. It is an exceptionally pleasant bus ride through southern Spain into Seville, enjoying the lush landscape, the magnificent farms, and the hilltops dotted with wind turbines.

Still Seville and Porto to go before finishing this leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

Dates have just been set for the 16th annual edition of The Global Scavenger Hunt, April 17-May 9, 2020, Applications for the around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers are now being accepted at GlobalScavengerHunt.com
________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us on  facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt: Entranced by the Mystique of Fez, Morocco

Bab Boujeloud, the Blue Gate,entrance to Fez el-Bali, the Medina, the walled city Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sun has yet to rise as we settle ourselves in the first-class compartment of the train from Marrakesh to Fez on our mad-dash on the Global Scavenger Hunt that will bring us through Morocco to Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal for the most difficult leg of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. The train pulls out of the modern train station exactly on time. The 6 ½-hour journey flies by as we roll through Morocco’s countryside and villages – farms and rolling hills on both sides.

The compartment seats six people very comfortably. During the course of the trip, people come and go and we engage in very pleasant conversations. A stop or two away from Fez, two fellows come in to the compartment the conversation that ends with the one fellow saying he knows a guide for us to hire to take us through the Medina – the massive gated city of thousands of alleyways which we have been strongly advised to explore with a guide. Sure enough, by the time we get off the train, the guide has arrived. And there is a taxi as well.

Welcome to Riad el Yacout, built in 1347 for Professor Laharchi, philosophy who taught at the famous Al Qaraouvine university, which stayed in the family until 2000, when it was converted to a 33-room guesthouse, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We make our way to the Riad el Yacout, a guesthouse, where we are greeted by Hadisha, a young woman who is the daughter of the owner, recently returned after spending eight years studying in Madrid, China and the United States. I can easily imagine her running a huge hotel chain at some point.

The riad (which is a traditional two-story house where the rooms are built around a courtyard) is absolutely enchanting. The riad was once the home of Professor Laharchi who taught philosophy at the famous Al Qaraouvine university. Built in 1347, the house passed generation to generation until 2000 when her father bought it.

Riad el Yacout, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He spent five years restoring it as a 33-room guesthouse (it is actually three houses that have been linked, with a pool; and there are plans to build a third floor and add a rooftop pool). The mosaics, decoration, furnishings are exquisite – all the rooms set around the most magnificent interior courtyard. The design, facing inward, is meant to maximize family interactions. The riad has already attracted important people – two years after opening, in 2007, Bono stayed for six weeks; Queen Noor of Jordan also stayed here (Riad El Yacout, 9 Derb Guebbas, Batha, Medina, Fez).

Hadisha strongly advises us against using the guy from the train and instead hiring an approved guide and driver from the tourism office. We only have the afternoon and evening here to see Fez, and even Bill Chalmers, our Global Scavenger Hunt leader, has told us to hire a guide to go through the Medina – the largest, with some 11,000 alleyways with no addresses.

The price seems fair and we only have the afternoon, and it proves a great way to see Fez in such a brief time.

It is interesting that two other GSH teams who are also staying at the Riad and come after us (they went on a balloon ride in Marrakesh, one of the scavenges before catching the train to Fez), happened to meet and hire the same guide we were introduced to by the guy on the train (turns out the second guy on the train was his son, who I spot while walking in the Medina – what are the chances? Actually it is less coincide and more a scam – the fellows get on the train a stop or two before Fez, find a seat in the first-class compartment and begin the grift. If you are keeping count, altogether four of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams all had either met the guide (us), or used the guide or the son. And everybody was satisfied.

Even though we realize that only four teams out of the original 10 have a chance of winning the Global Scavenger Hunt and the title, “Worlds Best Travelers,” we still pursue the challenges, albeit at a more relaxed, less frenzied pace, because they basically bring us to the places we would or should visit, places or experiences we never would have thought of, and give us a much more immersive, interesting and connected experience.

Fez el-Jdid, the Jewish Quarter

My teammate, Margo, and I set out with our guide, Hamid, the fellow sent from the tourist office (having told the fellow from the train we made other plans). At our first stop, at the golden doors to the palace (and this is before he makes the connection between “New York,” and likely Jewish person)– he relates how Jews made refugees when expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 were invited by the sultan to settle in Fez in order to develop the city, and settle the nomadic Berbers. The sultan gave them land adjacent to the palace and promised protection. To show appreciation, the Jewish community created ornate brass doors for the palace with the Star of David surrounded by the Islamic star.

Palace, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our guide takes us first to Fez el-Jdid (the “new part of the city”, which is still a few hundred years old)  to visit the Jewish Quarter, the Mellah..

Gold doors presented to the Sultan by the Jewish community of Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mellah of Fez dates back to 1438, the oldest Jewish Quarter in Morocco, though very few Jewish people live here today, most having moved to Casablanca, France or Israel; there are some 80 Jews left in Fez, but live in the new city, Ville Nouvelle.

Hamid tells us that this community continued even into World War II, when the Sultan gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. Indeed, Morocco’s Jewish population peaked in the 1940s but since the 1950s and 1960s, following the establishment of Israel, shrank to fewer than 5,000 today.

Ibn Danan Synagogue, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He leads us through winding narrow alleyways to the Ibn Danan synagogue. The synagogue was restored in 1998-99 with the help of UNESCO, American Jews and American Express). From the top floor, you can see the Jewish cemetery. 

Nearby is al Fassiyine Synagogue, which a plaque notes, “belongs to the Jews (Beldiyine) Toshabirg, native Jews who lived in Fez before the arrival of the Megorashimns, the expelled Jews from Spain in 1492. The building, covering 170 sq meters was built in the 17th century. It includes a small entrance hall which leads to a prayer hall housing some furnished rooms on the mezzanine level. It has been used successively as a workshop for carpets and then a gym. Despite these different uses and the degradation of its state, it still keeps its original aspect.”

The synagogue was restored in 2010-2011 through the efforts of Simon Levy, former general secretary of the Judeo-Moroccan Heritage Foundation, the Jewish community of Fez, Jacques Toledano Foundation and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Germany.

The reopening on February 13, 2013, was presided over by Morocco’s Islamist Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane inaugurated the reopening of the historic synagogue in which he conveyed the wish of Morocco’s King Muhammad VI that all the country’s synagogues be refurbished and serve as centers for cultural dialogue.

Hamid tells me that an adviser to the King and the ex-minister of Tourism were both Jewish.

Indentation on doorposts where a Mezuzah would have been, indicating a Jewish home, in the Fez el-Jdid, the Jewish Quarter Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The tourism minister had a lot to do with putting Morocco on the map as an international tourist destination.  The king, who studied at Harvard, in 2000 set a goal of 10 million tourists. “Morocco has no oil or gold. It had no highway or airport and didn’t exist except for hashish,” Hamid says. “The king opened Morocco to foreign companies, giving them five years duty-free. They were drawn by a peaceful country, a gateway to Africa. Foreign investors rebuilt the road to Marrakesh, turning it into an international city for the wealthy, like Europe.” Fez also seems to be benefiting – there is lots of restoration and new construction, at Riad el Yacout where we are staying.

As we weave through the alleyways, he shows us the indentation on the doorposts of houses where a mezuzah would have been placed, now the home of Muslims (what Jews remain in Fez live in the new city, Ville Nouvelle).

Zellige, Traditional Tile Making

Since we have a driver, we also visit a traditional tile factory, set on a hilltop overlooking the Medina.

Fez was the Moroccan birthplace of the beautiful tile work known as zellige. Introduced to the area by Moors fleeing Andalusiatiles were initially chiseled into small pieces to create mosaic-like geometric patterns. The decorative and highly skilled tile work had become especially popular by the 14th century.

Artisans create zellige, the traditional tiles of Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We go through various workshops and watch the various artisans as they chisel the pieces and set them into their patterns that we see in the stunning buildings of the Medina and the riad where we are staying. The colors come from natural material – mint for green, indigo for blue, saffron for yellow.

Artisans create zellige, the traditional tiles of Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The tiles are different, Hamid explains. “Every other city uses terracotta; Fez has volcanic clay). They use olive pits as well as old furniture to fire up the kilns that heat the tiles.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fez is Morocco’s third largest city, with a population of 1,275,000 – half of them in the Medina. It was under the French from 1912-1956.  It was Morocco’s capital for 300 years before the French moved the capital to Rabat, on the ocean.  The most remarkable part of the scene from the hilltop is how every roof of this ancient place has a satellite dish – Hamid says they were given for free by Al Jazeera. “Even a Bedouin tent in the desert will have a satellite dish.”

A forest of satellite dishes in the Medina, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fez el-Bali, the Medina

The driver drops us at one of the many gates into Fez el-Bali, the Medina (which means walled city) and we follow a route that takes us through the Medina. It is described as the world’s largest car-free urban space – 11,000 alleyways and no addresses – and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1983). The Medina is the oldest walled city, dating from 900 AD, and the largest in the Arab world. We find ourselves walking through 1,200 years and losing all sense of time or place – except when jarred back to the 21st century by the motorcycles coming through. It is one of the holiest places for Islam (Jerusalem and Mecca being the other two). There are some 272 mosques.

The Medina of Fez is the oldest walled city, dating from 900 AD, and the largest in the Arab world, at one point, Fez, Morocco was the largest city in the world. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He points out how the homes are simple on the outside, with heavy doors (to keep out pirates); they are two-stories high, but very, very tall. The buildings are designed so if pirates came, they could pour hot water down. Hamid warns that an outsider can only go into the Medina during the day. “It’s not safe in the evening, not even for us.” Hamid says he was born in the Medina and lived here for 35 years, but moved to the New City to send his children to school. “Here, they first teach crafts; if they have more than 10 or 11 kids, they may send them to school.”

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He tries to explain that women – the mother of the house – is the family’s bank; that the artifacts like carpets and ceramics are its financial security, “like diamonds and gold. If the family needs something, they sell something.”; a mule was like a Mercedes.”A carpet to sell is like an ATM; a wife who is an artist is like insurance.” He explains that the people of the Medina have no health care, no insurance and pay no taxes. “It’s like the 8th century.. If a wife doesn’t save money, the family is in trouble. Once a year, they will show off it they have a real wife at the Ramadan holiday. The mother chooses a wife for her son; a daughter goes off to live with the husband’s family. “A mother who has 8 sons is like a Queen, insurance guaranteed. If a family has no sons, they will adopt a nephew as a son. That system from the 9th century is still in practice in the Medina.”

Garbage is still collected by donkey; the sewage system is Roman. The French introduced a water system and electricity – up until then, they used candles and oil lamps. Homes still don’t have refrigerator.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

An important stop is al Qaraquiyine (Karaouine) mosque, university and library, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman who had fled her homeland of Tunesia. The madrasa became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world. It was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963. It is considered the oldest existing, continually operating institution of higher education in the world. Hamid tells us that the university spans 5 hectares.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I later learn that in addition to being Muslim, prospective students of the Qarawiyyin are required to have memorized the Qur’an, medieval Islamic texts and Maliki law, and have a very good command of Classical Arabic. And while most assume the university is open only to men, women have been admitted into the university since the 1940s.

Qarawiyyin Mosque, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The libraries contain important documents dating from c. 780 A.D. including the Al-Muwatta of Malik written on gazelle parchment. The libraries may soon be open to the public.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fez was founded in 789 A.D. by Moulay Idriss II, the son of the founder of modern Morocco, according to Journey Beyond Travel. It wasn’t until 817-18 A.D., when around 800 refugee families from Cordoba in Spain settled in Fez, followed a few years later by over 2,000 families from Tunisia, that Fez really began to grow. Apparently, settlements fought each other for over 300 years, until the arrival of the Almoravid empire in 1070 A.D. installed stability peace.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The city took form under Almoravid rule when the walls which still form the outline of today’s Fez El-Bali were erected. By 1170 A.D., Fez was the largest city in the world with a population of 200,000. Fez was an important trading hub, serving Africa and Europe, the gold route from Timbuktu, and because of  its tanneries with a reputation for making leather shields.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When the Merenids took control of Morocco in 1250 A.D., they made Fez their capital. This is when Fez el-Jdid, the “new” city where the Jewish Quarter is, was built with wider streets, gardens, and administrative centers. This is also when Fez became established as a cultural and intellectual hub and the “Fassi” style, a mix of Andalusian and Almohad traditions, began. One of the best examples of this architecture is the Medersa Bou Inania with its green-tiled minaret.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Today, Fez is known as the ‘Athens of Africa’ and the “Mecca of the West” for its history and role as the spiritual and learning capital of Morocco.” (www.journeybeyondtravel.com/morocco/fez)

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see the beautiful tile work of the mausoleum of Zaouia Moulay Idris, built in the Alawi architectural style, beginning in 1717 while Moulay Ismail was alive and finished in 1824. It is an important pilgrimage site, and one of the many sites that are closed to non-Muslims.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the course of the afternoon, we visit various craftsmen and artisans including embroiderers, carpet makers and weavers.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Carpets, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of these is the Widows Coop, where women weave carpets and scarves. Hamid explains that women who are divorced or widowed have little opportunity to remarry, and in the past, had few opportunities to earn a living besides prostitution. The Widows Coop gives these women a means for self-sufficiency. “Ladies with golden fingers.”

The final stop is the Chouwara tannery which has absolutely exquisite leather items for sale, and a fantastic view from its roof down to the vats of dyes.  We learn that they use lime, salt and pigeon droppings to make the ammonia to tan the leather; the skins soak for a week, then are put into a wheel and turned every day for two weeks, then bleached for a week, then washed for three hours, then put into a vat to dye.

Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The shop is exquisite (even after getting this glimpse of how the sausage is made) – I have never felt such soft leather. Margo, who protested shopping, falls under the spell of a jacket, but it needs some tailoring. They take measurements and promise to deliver the jacket that evening. Sure enough, a completely custom jacket is delivered to the riad. It is stunning.

Leaving, we drive alongside the walls of the Medina and pass by the famous Bab Boujeloud  known as the “Blue Gate”.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(As I reflect on this guided tour, I am disappointed because as can be expected, we spent most of our concentrated time at the tile factory, the weavers, the carpet makers and the tannery – all designed to have us spend money, but did not get to properly see the Blue Gate, which I “grab” as we are driving or Medersa Bou Inania, two of the Medina’s most important sites. I have trouble reconstructing what we saw.)

Back at Riad el Yacout, we meet up with the other two teams and discover that all of us have followed pretty much the same itinerary.

Dinner at Riad el Yacout, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have a fantastic dinner at the riad – chicken tagine and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere sheer perfection. (Rian el Yacout, 9 Derb Goebbas Batha, Fes Medina 30200, Morocco, riadelyacout@gmail.com, www.riadelyacoutFes.com).

We still have to get from Morocco to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto by Friday on this most challenging, Par 6 leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, our “final exam.”

I have been unable to figure it out online. It turns out we need to take a ferry to the Spanish city of Algeciras, and then get a cab to the border of Gibraltar (my mistake was trying to input Tangier to Gibraltar). But there are two ferries and two different ports. Which one?

Breakfast at Riad el Yacout , Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riad el Yacout, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riad el Yacout , Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The other two Global Scavenger Hunt teams who are staying in the riad (they were the ones who found it) seem very sure of knowing which train to take and say they will figure out which ferry when we get to Tangier, so, after a fantastic breakfast set out early for us, at 8 am, served in the gorgeous courtyard, we pile into cabs for the $1.50 ride to the train station.

We purchase ticket for the 10 am (first class) train to Tangier Ville. The 4 ½ hour trip is very pleasant, rolling passed lovely landscape, farms, towns and villages, stopping perhaps six times to pick up passengers. A cart of refreshments comes by (tea costs something like 6 cents).

Team NEXUS (aka Ali & Michael) from Ontario, Canada; Team Ying 2.0, father and daughter Alan & Emory from Texas; and Team MargoPolos (Margo from Connecticut and Karen) on the train to Tangier © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are on our journey to Gilbraltar.

(Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, Lawyers Without Borders, the team leading the Global Scavenger Hunt, published a brilliant blog documenting how they fulfilled dozens of the scavenges: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-from-minurets-in-morocco-to.html )

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

See also:

Unraveling Marrakesh’s Old City Maze Before Tackling the Global Scavenger Hunt 4-Country Challenge

4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at      facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Unraveling Marrakesh’s Old City Maze Before Tackling the Global Scavenger Hunt 4-Country Challenge

The colorful stalls of the souks in Marrakesh © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” and CEO (Chief Experience Officer) of the Global Scavenger Hunt, launches us our biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of the 23-day, around-the-world mystery tour: a Par 6, in which our challenge is to get from Marrakesh through four countries – Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal with scavenges in each to win points – in five days, meeting at 11:30 am in Porto, Portugal, when we will fly out to New York, our final destination and the final and decisive leg of the competition to be crowned “World’s Best Traveler”.

“Now for your final exam, when all the skills you have learned come together while your situational awareness is peaking and the Travel IQ ready for action,” Chalmers tells us as we gather together in the lobby of the Savoy Le Grand in Marrakesh, Morocco. “The Big multi-country adventure of the Par 6 North Africa/Iberian Peninsula leg.

“There are over 150 scavenges with 19 Bonuses, 3 Team Challenges and a whole lotta good eating; six exciting days of buses, trains, ferries, camels, trams, bikes and funiculars; four diverse country stops over 1,400 km (870 miles) lay between here in Marrakesh and there in Porto. Oh yea, did I mention May Day!?”

Teams are handled $300 to cover their best-guess transportation costs and told we are required to secure our own lodgings for three nights (we are given an allowance of $200 per team per night) “all depending on your risk/reward course of action. We will see you Friday at 11:30AM in the lobby of our Porto, Portugal hotel. Good luck to everyone, be safe, be smart.”

Chalmers allows these rule changes for this climatic leg:
1) Teaming up allowed, but only in Morocco!
2) Car rentals allowed, but only once, and only within one single country where the rental must be both picked-up & returned.
3) Use of smartphones allowed.
4) Airbnb & Uber allowed.

There are some 150 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to figure which ones to do for points and logistics), including mandatory ones like #51 (“Within the bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate”). It is also mandatory to complete at least one scavenge in all four primary countries: Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal. Other mandatory challenges have to do with eating, since food is such a window to culture and tradition, and also brings people together.

There are scavenges that earn bonuses. In Morocco: either camp out in the desert one night or stay in traditional riad; venture to the Atlas mountains to visit Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka; visit the blue city of Chefchaouen; visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman; visit nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss.

We have arrived at Savoy Le Grand  – a massive modern resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall and a casino, about a half-mile from the gate to Marrakesh’s Old City – at midnight local time, about 2 am for us having come from Athens. Bill recognizes the need for a break so essentially gives us the morning off, so we can meet at 11:30 am in the lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”

Le Savoy Grand, Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hotel is a bit garish (it makes me think of the Concord in the Catskills) but actually quite nice. Still, Bill actually apologizes that he couldn’t get us into something more “authentic”. Because of the wedding between British actor Idris Elba and model Sabrina Dhowre (former Miss Vancouver), they had to research over 50 properties before they could get us into Savoy Le Grand Hotel for two nights.

My teammate, Margo, and I are not competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge and use hotels.com to book hotels in the places we want to overnight. Even so, it takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline for how we will cover the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakesh to Fez (we give the concierge the money to buy the ticket) and book hotels in Fez and Gibraltar (another team has gotten names for a traditional riad in Fez and a hotel in Gibraltar which three teams decide to book).

Margo decides to spend an extra day in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there and a flight from Seville to Porto (which wouldn’t be allowed if I were competing), so we will travel together from Marrakesh to Fez to Gibraltar and then travel independently until Porto (if we were competing, we would have to do everything as a team).

By 5:30 pm, I still haven’t figured out how to get from Fez to Gibraltar and Gibraltar to Seville, but I am frustrated and angry not actually seeing Marrakesh, and drop everything so we go into the Old City. The other two teams which are following much the same itinerary are content to just wing it once we get to Fez.

Right at the gate to the old city is the famous, five-star La Mamounia Palace  hotel – a hotel since 1923, but with a history that extends back to the 12th century. Its magnificent gardens were a wedding gift to Prince Al Mamoun in the 18th century.

Koutoubia Grand Mosque, Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Margo and I walk to the famous Koutoubia Grand Mosque that so dominates the city (It turns out that everything we do could earn scavenge points).  The largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia is not only its spiritual center but an architectural trend-setter. that was adopted in buildings in Spain (Giralda of Seville) and Rabat (Hassan Tower), which were built in the same period. 

Koutoubia Grand Mosque , Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The mosque is ornamented with curved windows, a band of ceramic inlay, pointed merlons, and decorative arches; it has a large plaza with gardens, and is floodlit at night. The minaret tower, standing 253 feet high, has a spire and orbs. The mosque was completed under the reign of the Berber Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184 to 1199).

Founded in 1062, Marrakesh was once the capital of a vast trading empire that stretched from Toledo to Senegal. You get a sense of this at Marrakesh’s main square, Jemaa el Fna, which I learn, was once a medieval trading square where public executions took place (why it is called the Assembly of the Dead).

Jemaa el Fna,Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As soon as we enter the massive square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion and color. And activity – snake charmers, acrobats, henna artists, musicians, Berbers (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them), merchants hawking every kind of item – snake-oil salesman selling men’s fertility.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are scores of “restaurants” – stalls, really, with long tables under canvas like picnics, with their representatives with numbered signs identifying their location, recruiting new customers – when one sits down, they serenade in triumph.

The souks radiate off the square with tiny alleyways.

Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue (which happens also to be one of the scavenges).

We weave through the maze – asking people who point us in a direction (just as we are supposed to do under the Global Scavenger Hunt) – a kindly fellow leaves his stall to lead us down narrow alleyway to Laazama Synagogue, which is still a functioning synagogue but also serves as the city’s Jewish Museum.

The Laazama Synagogue, founded in the 16th century, in the Jewish Quarter of Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After Jews were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492, Rabbi Yitzhag Daloya came to Marrakesh. He became president of the court and head of the “deportee” community in Marrakesh and founded the “Tzlat Laazama,” Synagogue of Deportees”, shortly after his arrival.

But the Moroccan Jewish community is much older than the Spanish Inquisition– dating back to King Solomon and the Roman period. Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Joseph Ibn Tasifin, ruler of the Halmorabidim, who allowed Jewish settlement in the city. The Jewish community was “renewed” in 1269, headed by Rabbi Yahuda Jian, originally from southern Spain. The Atlas Jews remained the majority of the community even after the Jews from Spain and Portugal settled in Marrakesh.

The situation changed in the 16th century when Marrakesh became a major center for Marranos (secret Jews) who wished to practice Judaism openly. Spanish and Portuguese Marrakesh Jews lived in their own neighborhoods until all local Jews, some 35,000, were collected by order of the King, in 1557, and resettled in the Mellah (a walled community). In the 19th century, the population increased in the Mellah after refugees from the Atlas Mountains arrived, becoming the largest Jewish community in Morocco. At one time, there were 40 synagogues here.

The synagogue is beautifully decorated with tile, a courtyard ringed with study rooms, a music room, living quarters. There is a video about history of Jewish community in Marrakesh. The photos on the walls are interesting – the faces of the Moroccan Jews are indistinguishable from the Arab Moroccans.

Moroccan Jews have also left the country – the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora counts more than 1 million members in four corners of the world, “a diaspora that continues to cultivate ties to their homeland, Morocco.” Indeed, we come upon a woman with her sister-in-law and mother who left Marrakesh first for Casablanca and now lives in Paris; her brother is still a member of the synagogue’s leadership – she shows us his chair. Her grandfather is buried in the nearby Jewish cemetery.

From the synagogue, we walk to the Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, which should have been closed, but the guard lets us in.

Marrakesh’s Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, founded in 1537, has 20,000 tombs including 60 saints © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Founded in 1537, the cemetery spans 52 hectares and is the largest Jewish burial site in Morocco, with some 20,000 tombs including tombs of 60 “saints” and devotees who taught Torah to the communities of Marrakesh and throughout Morocco.

The arrangement of the graves is “unique” to the city of Marrakesh. There is a children’s section, where 7000 children who died of Typhus are buried; a separate men’s section and a woman’s section while around the perimeter are graves of the pious, the judges and scholars of the city who are believed to provide protection for all those buried.

Margo hails a taxi to head back to the hotel, and I walk back to the main square through the markets (the tricky part is less about getting lost than avoiding the scooters that speed through the narrow alleyways), and get the real flavor of this exotic place and dusk turns to darkness and the neon-colored lights come on.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here you can see a huge variety of Moroccan craftsmen and tradesmen, organized by profession, under a roof of reeds, hawking leather goods, fabrics, kettles, pottery. The Dyers’ Souk, has colorful skeins of wool hanging out to dry on its walls, while the Blacksmiths’ Souk (souk Haddadine) displays a wide variety of metalwork.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Back in the bustling Jemaa el Fna square, I see a crowd of men gathered around one fellow with a lizard, selling a miracle cure. When I ask a fellow what it is about, he grins and I get the idea. No different than the snake-oil salesmen of old.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s dinner time, neon lights have come on, and I go to the section of the square  where there are dozens of outdoor restaurants. Guys wave a placard with their stall number which are their ID and do a sales pitch (“Remember #1, Remember 35”, “Air-Conditioned!” they say with a grin). Then when you stop, fellows come by and sing to draw in customers. It is all very good natured. I find a stall to have dinner – seated on a bench with others who have come here from around the world and local neighborhoods.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It should be noted that Marrakesh has bike share, bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, is clean, with lots of police and auxiliary, striking new buildings, and the people are very helpful and hospitable.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marrakesh, a thousand-year old city, has just been designated African Capital of Culture 2020, a a showcase of today’s urban Africa, highlighting the diversity of African culture.

Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next day we are up at 4:30 am, breakfast is delivered at 5 am, and we take a five-minute cab ride to a gorgeous train station, to catch the  6 am train, riding in a first-class compartment for a wonderful 6 ½ hour trip to Fez.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at      facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt: In the Scramble to be Crowned ‘World’s Best Travelers’

Returning champions SLO Folks, Tom and Paula of California, hire a boat to complete the Global Scavenger Hunt challenges in Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is marvelous to listen to the other nine teams in the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day mystery tour around the world where we don’t know where we are going until we get the call to get to the airport – excitedly relate their separate adventures and experiences. This happens when we gather at airports (which the teams use as time to do peer-review of each other’s lists of scavenges completed and points won), on the bus to a hotel, at breakfast, or when we come together for the meetings where we get our booklets describing the challenges in a destination or find out where we are going next. Indeed, even though this is in a theoretical sense a contest, a competition, it is a friendly competition and people are helpful even though the rules prohibit actual collaboration.

Even those who have dropped out of the competition still pick up on organizer Bill Chalmers’ (the Chief Experience Officer and ringmaster) challenges because they invariably lead us to wondrous and fascinating things that we may not have considered, or some experience at a highlight that we might not have considered that prompts new perspective and understanding. And since the competition is intended to crown “World’s Best Travelers” it is designed to challenge one’s ability for logistics and handling the inevitable trials and tribulations of travel. That’s the sport.

Rainey & Zoe of Lawyers Without Borders, from Houston, and Vivian and Sal of Team Order & Chaos, from California, do their peer review at the airport in Vietnam © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lawyers Without Borders, the team of Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, of Houston, has now done the Global Scavenger Hunt more than a dozen times and won it five times, in addition to being avid adventure travelers on their own. But they appreciate the difference in traveling this way – first as a mystery tour, so you have no ability to research or plan in advance what you will see or do at a destination; second, the challenges force you to experience things or see things from a different point of view and become immersed, even in an abbreviated way, in local culture and society; and third, the rules (such as not being able to use your cell phone or computer to research or book, not being allowed to book through the hotel’s concierge, not being allowed to hire a taxi driver for more than two trips) are aimed at making you “trust in strangers” and interact with local people.

Midway through our adventure, the Lawyers are currently leading the contest (no surprise). Rainey explains that a lot is luck (for example timing), but I think it is more art and willingness to embrace challenge as opportunity. And an ability to plan so effectively you can accomplish more scavenges, higher-point scavenges, and simply amass points. The problem is, if you fail to achieve any of the “mandatory” challenges, you don’t get any points at all for that leg.

“It’s different than regular travel,” Rainey tells me. “Play the game. The sheet gives purpose to do things you wouldn’t do. You have to plot. It’s a brilliant way to see things… You decide how many to do, but you turn to look and find another.  How between trains you might have an hour, and get 3 scavenges done. It’s an experience to get it done. I feel pity for those who are just there – no points.”

Global Scavenger Hunt “Lazy Monday” team of Kathryn & Eric of California race to complete the scavenge challenge in Petra, Jordan. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Innocuous things bring a sense of accomplishment (like identifying local fish at the market). “How you solve. I love the game. We have been lucky this year,” he says, pointing to how one of the mandatory challenges in Jordan was to be at the Citadel in Amman at sunset – no mean feat since they had to get there from Petra. The sunset was at 7 and they arrived at 6:15 only to discover the Citadel closes at 6 pm. It was cash, not luck, that got them in: they paid the guard $5 to let them in to get the photos they needed as proof at sunset. “We would have lost the whole competition if he didn’t let us in.”

At the Dead Sea, where the mandatory challenge was to swim, it was nighttime when they arrived, but found someone (the kindness of strangers, is a theme of the Global Scavenger Hunt), to let them take the required dip.

At Wadi Rum in Jordan, where they stayed in a tented camp, another mandatory was to be on a camel wearing headdress. But it was night and camel rides were no longer available. They found somebody to provide the camel and even let him put on his headdress. They then paid a guy with a pick up truck to bring them fro the tented camp to a taxi at 3:40 am to get to Petra by 6:15 am (when I met them). They completed the challenge of making it all the way through Petra, hiking up the Monastery Trail (about 8 miles altogether) by 9:15 am when they dashed off to Jerash (by 2:30 pm), accomplishing in three hours what it takes most 4-5 hours.

Sally Silverman of The Fillies team, at the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

They had to sit through an hour-long church service before the required element would appear, took a Turkish bath, went to a café to smoke a hooka, ate falafel at a particular place, sent a stamped postcard from Petra to Petra (Bill and Pam Chalmers’ daughter who couldn’t come on the trip), and for the “beastie” challenge, pose on a camel. “Points are king,” he tells me.

But here’s an example of real luck: Getting back from Inle Lake in Myanmar, Zoe has her plane ticket but Rainey did not (again, they had to be back in time for the 6 pm deadline). Rainey was 30 on the waitlist, when a man offered his place on the plane. “I had to run to an ATM down the street to get the cash to give him.” (Read Zoe’s blog: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com)

A few of the Global Scavenger Hunt teams gather for dinner in a local restaurant in Amman, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Think of it as “Around the World in 80 Days,” where Phileas Fogg had to use such ingenuity to get place to place (and out of trouble) by a deadline to win the bet. Or how Indiana Jones, who had that powerful scene at Petra, in “”The Last Crusade used the clues in his father’s notebook in pursuit of The Holy Grail, which ended with a “leap of faith.” (If the trip sounds a lot like “The Amazing Race,” that is not coincidence – rumor has it that the reality TV show producers got the idea from the Global Scavenger Hunt.)

I think upon Chalmers’ pep talk during our 8-hour layover challenge in Bangkok:

You escape the airport albeit for a short time with only one rule…don’t miss your flight!
…you embrace this short window of opportunity
…you take a mini-excursion…explore a neighborhood…see something you’ve always wanted to see
…you stretch your legs in an exotic location
…you go out and see and do as much as possible
…you maximize your exposure to a new place, a new culture
…you engage with real human beings
…you have a good time
…take a whirlwind hit n’ run no-time-to-waste tour
…but the clock is ticking— you have to be time sensitive
…you won’t turn into a pumpkin—but you will miss your flight!
…so efficiency matters…you have to know when to walk away—it’s just not working out
…forget lines and mass tourism spots
…our layover challenges test their Travel IQ…their situational awareness…
…but they have to be careful, be smart
…remember the vagaries of local logistics
…and the airport boogaloo awaiting them: check-in, security, customs & immigration queues…
Remember: don’t miss your flight!

Indeed, Chalmers’ blog that follows our trip, which picks up on the highlighted experiences of all the 10 teams is thrilling and a tutorial in what it takes to be “World’s Greatest Traveler” – https://globalscavengerhunt.com/category/2016-event-blog/.

We are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery tour and en route to Athens for a 30-hour challenge.

“You all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things, trust strangers, found balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace that,” Bill Chalmers, says.

Catching Bill, Pamela and Luka in the Plaka, Athens (one of the on-the-go Global Scavenger Hunt team challenges) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chalmers created the Global Scavenger Hunt not just to promote the benefits of international travel to cultivate Global Citizens, and all the benefits of travel – from providing economic foundation to sustain places of history, heritage and culture that might otherwise be abandoned, provide jobs and improve the living standards for communities and societies, and promote an exchange of understanding and ideas just as Marco Polo did centuries ago, where we are also encouraged to engage in voluntourism projects along the way – but serves to support The Global Scavenger Hunt’s cause-related, charitable purposes. The annual event raises funds for GreatEscape Foundation’s twin goals: building co-ed elementary schools in low & middle income nations, and distributing interest-free no-fee micro-loans to budding global entrepreneurs (mostly mothers).

“Both our methods of helping others help themselves are designed to facilitate their great escape from the cycle of poverty—one person at a time! Happily, we have improved the lives of thousands: building a dozen schools, a mid-wife training facility, and funding thousands of mothers wanting to make a better life for their families,” Chalmers writes.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at      facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Ancient City of Petra is a Highlight of Global Scavenger Hunt in Jordan

Coming to The Treasury in Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the start of Leg 6 of the Global Scavenger Hunt in Amman, Jordan, only four of the original 10 teams competing are still in contention to win, so several of the teams can now join together, use their cell phones for planning and booking, get help from the hotel concierge, and be generally unrestricted by the rules but still enthralled by the challenges of the scavenges.

But for those competing, some of the mandatory challenges pose a difficult puzzle to achieve in terms of logistics and timing. The one that proves problematic requires the team to travel one way to or from Petra along the ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t take that route and the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing how the two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.

We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Amman W, have our meeting and get our booklet with the scavenges, and a bunch of us (no longer competing) pack into a taxi to visit an ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD. We cross the street to a local restaurant, where we enjoy a meal of rotisserie chicken served with rice, and get a sense of this ancient city.

The artful, chic Amman W Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Whereas Abu Dhabi seemed unreal in many respects – a modern invention, manufactured even – Amman, the capital of Jordan, is very real and reflects its age as an early city. Jordan is where one of the largest Neolithic settlements (c. 6500 BC) ever discovered in the Middle East exists; Citadel Hill contains early Bronze Age tombs (3300-1200 BC). By the beginning of the Iron Age, Amman had become the capital of the Ammonites, referred to in the Bible as Rabbath-Ammon (“rabbath” means capital, or “king’s quarters”). We can look out from the high floors of the hotel to the hillsides crammed with houses and imagine what it might have looked like.

The ancient Roman amphitheater built during the time of Antenios Pius in 138-161 AD, in Amman, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have chosen various means to get there. I find myself on the 6:35 a.m. Jett Express Bus with three of the teams, including one that is in second place in the Global Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Five others (including my teammate) hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing), and Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and teenage son Luka are traveling separately. Each of us leaves at a different time by a different conveyance. But what a surprise! We all wind up at the same mid-way trading post at the same time. Hugs all around.

Struck for decades by the Frederic Church painting of Petra, and then by hearing a New York Times Travel Show talk about “Petra at Night,” I decide to arrange my own overnight stay so I don’t have to rush back. I learn that the Petra at night is only offered twice weekly and am lucky enough to be there for a Wednesday. I hastily consult hotels.com for a hotel – none available under $200/night. I check booking.com and find a hotel – more of a hostel, really – at a very affordable price, less than a mile from the entrance to Petra. “Only one room left” the site warns. And considering how so many of the hotels were booked, I take the leap and book it within seconds.

The concierge has reserved the seats on the Jett bus for the morning, with the return the next day (only one departure each way/daily), at 5 p.m.

Rose-Red Ancient City of Petra

We travel 240 km south from Amman (120 km north of the Red Sea city of Aqaba – the trip through the countryside is interesting – the vast emptiness, the sand, flocks of animals. Wind turbines!

Wind farm, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Road to Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company has put on a second bus to accommodate all the passengers – arrives at the Petra bus station next door to the entrance to the archeological site at around 11 am.

I use our Jordan Pass (which Chalmers had obtained in advance, providing pre-paid admission to most archaeological sites, including two consecutive days at Petra, along with the visa) for the day’s admission and buy the ticket for Petra at Night ($25).

Musician, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact, they don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point of coming at all?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, immersing myself in the scenes and the details, knowing I will return in the evening and the next day.

Walking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view of the Church painting (and Indiana Jones movie) that comes into focus as you walk through the cavern (known as the Siq) with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then the teaser of The Treasury through the opening. It is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra is a complete surprise – I had not realized how vast – an entire city, in fact – how much has been carved out of the rock (the Royal Tombs are not to be believed), and how much was built during the Roman era (The Great Temple where Brown University is doing archaeology and the Colonnade).

Waking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

All around are fellows who hawk riding their camel, their horse, their donkey, or take the horse-drawn carriage (at fantastic speed considering the narrow walkway), to or from the entrance – it is a full mile walk from the entrance to The Treasury (an electric cart is available for those who have difficulty walking in addition to horse-carts).

Walking through The Siq, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is hot, but dry and the breeze is surprisingly comfortable. Besides exploring the archaeological structures, Petra turns out to be a hiking place – you can take trails that bring you up to fantastic views. One of the toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down again (and one of the challenges on the scavenger hunt – in fact, visiting early and doing the hike is worth 500 points).

The iconic view of The Treasury, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I decide to reserve that for the next day.

The city of Petra, aptly known as the Rose-Red City for the luscious color of the rock from which many of the city’s structures were carved, was the capital of the Nabataean Arabs, and is today one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.

The Siq, the main road that leads to the city, starts from the Dam and ends at the Treasury. It is a rock canal 160 meters in length, 3 to 12 meters in width and reaches up to 80 meters in height. The main part of the Siq is created by natural rock formation and the rest is carved by the Nabataeans.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

If you look carefully, you can see a channel carved from the rock to capture and even filter water – the secret to how Petra was sustained. At the start of the Siq the original Nabataean dams are visible, and these prevented flooding in the Siq and collected water for use.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then, through a narrow, curving break in the rock, you get your first teasing glimpse of The Treasury, just as Frederick Edwin Church painted it in 1874.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to the website, www.visitpetra.jo, it is not known precisely when Petra was built, but the city began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the 1st century BC, which grew rich through trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices (stalls sell the spices).
Petra was later annexed to the Roman Empire and continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD. The earthquake, combined with changes in trade routes (and politics), eventually led to the city’s downfall.

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The city was pretty much abandoned by the middle of the 7th century and lost to all except local Bedouins,” according to the website, www.visitpetra.jo. “But in 1812, Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt set out to rediscover Petra. He dressed up as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to the lost city. After this, Petra became increasingly known in the West as a fascinating and beautiful ancient city, and it began attracting visitors and continues to do so today.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were cut out of the mountain sides and the city also had temples, a theater, and following the Roman annexation and later the Byzantine influence, a colonnaded street and churches” the ruins of which we can explore.”

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I climb the path up to the Royal Tombs and go into cavernous rooms – I can’t tell if it is the rock’s own configuration or whether the surface has actually been painted or carved to expose swirls of different colors and textures, but they are exquisite.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Royal Tombs, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“In addition to the magnificent remains of the Nabataean city, human settlement and land use for over 10,000 years can be traced in Petra, where great natural, cultural, archaeological and geological features merge,” according to the website.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking back out through the Siq, you have to keep moving to the side to let pass the horse-drawn carriages which go through at quite a clip.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The park closes at about 6 p.m. and reopens at 8 pm for the 8:30-10:30 night program (it is operated separately and privately from Petra). I still have to get my pack, which I have left with the fellow at the CV Currency Exchange, just before you enter ($5 tip) and get to the hotel, which I had thought was within walking distance (0.7 mile), but turns out to be totally uphill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate since I don’t have very much local currency).

Soldier reenactors guard the entrance to Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My el cheapo-supremo hotel (more of a hostel than a hotel), The Rose City Hotel, turns out to be exactly that – the nicest part is the name and the front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I think the fellow made a mistake and has brought me to a room under construction (or rather deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet, rusting shower, cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that is falling apart, only a small bed and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that are too disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall, clean and no bugs. So this will do for a night, I think, laughing to myself about my room at the five-star, ultra-hip, chic and luxurious W Hotel (which is like living in art, it is so creatively designed) I had left behind in Amman.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I head out just after 8 p.m., walking down the hill into the park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the mile-long stony path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking how dramatic and wonderful. It turns out to be the best part of the evening.

Walking into Petra at Night, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After 45 minutes of walking (it is dark in the cavern), I arrive at The Treasury where there are perhaps 1,000 people sitting on carpets. I stuff myself into a place. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had seen of the event, but The Treasury at this point is barely lighted at all. There is some traditional music, then a fellow sings, talks for a few minutes, and then garish neon-colored lights are projected against The Treasury, completely destroying the mood. And then it is over at 9:30 pm (not 10:30 p.m.). People start leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so I leave, too. I hike back up the hill to the hotel getting lost so a fellow very nicely leads me to where I need to go. I fall asleep to the meowing of feral cats just outside the window.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Early Morning Solitude at Petra

My overnight adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am able to return to the archaeological park as early as 6 a.m. The hotel proprietor has packed my breakfast in a baggie in the refrigerator. I take my pack with me and find a nice man at one of the refreshment stalls at the bus station who offers to hold it for me for the day.

When I arrive at Petra, who should I come upon at 6:14 a.m. but the Lawyers Without Borders team! What are the odds! (Literally on the run, so not to lose time, Zoe tells me of their amazing adventure in a tented camp about two hours away where they could get their scavenger points being photographed on a camel, so they were up at 4 a.m. and had to organize a taxi to get here by 6 a.m.). Rainey and Zoe have to literally race through Petra and do the strenuous hike up to the Monastery in order to earn their 500 Global Scavenger Hunt points.


The Global Scavenger Hunt “Lazy Monday” team of Kathryn & Eric of California race to complete the scavenge challenge in Petra. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I could be more leisurely because I am not trying to earn points. Walking through the caverns (some of the most exquisite scenes) is unbelievably peaceful at this hour – I am even the only one at some points. There are no horse-drawn carriages rattling through, none of the hoards of people stopping and posing for selfies. And once inside, there is perfect peace also at The Treasury – the camels perfectly positioned to re-create the 19th century paintings of the scene.

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As soon as you arrive, though, you are swooped upon by a legion of guides. One guide offers to lead me on a trail that would take me to the overview of The Treasury (ranked moderate), but I am not feeling 100 percent and hope I will be able to hike the Monastery Trail if I take it slow.

Nabataean and Roman ruins at Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A word about the guides – they try to convince you that they will take you places you can’t go yourself, which is highly dubious– but though I don’t hire any, what I observe is that they are very knowledgeable, very considerate of their guests (in fact, it is difficult to become a guide – you have to take a test, be accepted, and then trained). The people who provide the camels, the horses, the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and the carriages work very hard (the animals work even harder). Later, though, I see guides leading people up the Monastery Trail that spend their time on their cell phone coordinating their next gig.

Souvenir Stand improbably set on the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And all through are the souvenir stands (they actually look pretty good) – and you realize that Petra was a trading center, a stop along the vital caravan routes, and this is very likely what the scene would have looked like even then. And I am sure the experience was the same for the early European tourists 150 years ago, guides, merchants, donkeys, camels and all.

Hiking up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
View from the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I walk through the park again, this time to hike the Monastery Trail at the other end of the park. I get some scouting information from people coming down and begin the steep ascent up stone steps. It is a very interesting hike not just because of the gorgeous stone contours and colors and the views back down, but because of the market stalls and refreshment stands set up along the way. (You can also take a donkey up, which means that hikers have to keep moving aside for the donkeys). I wish I had my hiking sticks with me (the hike reminds me of the Bright Angel trail up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon) – a fellow from Spain hiking with his mother, offers a hand when I trip (then we take a wrong turn and find ourselves scrambling over boulders, instead of climbing the stairs).

New friends from the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding a donkey up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding donkey up the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually bigger than The Treasury – one of the largest structures carved out of a rock face (if I have that right). The hike is absolutely worth it and feels so satisfying when you make it to the top. There is a lovely rest stop at the top (as well as stalls improbably situated along the way and a refreshment stand picturesquely set about two-thirds up the trail with a stunning view).

The Monastery, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Refreshment stand on the Monastery Trail, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before the Jett Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive at the W Hotel after the 8 p.m. deadline for the Global Scavenger Hunt teams but have informed Bill that the bus likely won’t be back until after 9 p.m., and I won’t miss a flight to our next destination, will I?)

Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at the entrance to the Monastery Trail, a veritable oasis, where I sit outside under trees and have refreshment. I regain some strength and wander some more. At this point, I realize what a phenomenal experience I have had in the early morning when I had Petra to myself when I see coming at me some 2,000 passengers off the MSC ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC ship, and hundreds more off a Celebrity cruise that look like an invading army. Each group is led by a guide holding high a numbered sign (I spot the number 50) for their group.

The new Petra Museum, Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My next plan is to stop into the Petra Guest House, which is located right at the entrance to the park. (This is the hotel I would recommend for those who want to come overnight in order to experience Petra in the early morning – it is very comfortable, pleasant and moderate price).

Some of the artifacts on display at the new Petra Museum, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Petra, Jordan © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have left an hour to visit the newly opened Petra Museum, sandwiched between the Visitor Center and the Bus Station (perfect!). It offers an outstanding exhibit (curiously Japan was a major contributor) – with some 250 artifacts and displays that explain extremely well how Petra developed, the Nabateans, how they grew to power first by controlling water through ingenious engineering and the main trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three kingdoms. Artifacts including art as well as everyday materials going back to the Stone Age are on display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays that are engaging and informative.

Petra was designated a World Heritage Site on Dec. 6, 1985 and Smithsonian Magazine named Petra one of the 28 places you should visit them before you die.

(More visitor information from Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, www.visitpetra.jo)

I board the Jett Bus (it is the first-class bus geared to foreign tourists) for the three-hour trip back.

More information on visiting Jordan at the Jordan Tourist Board, http://in.visitjordan.com/.

By the time I get back to Amman, I’ve missed the meeting when Bill Chalmers tells us our next stop on our Global Scavenger Hunt and departure time. My teammate texts the answer: Athens.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
________
© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 5: Discovering Abu Dhabi

View of the Grand Mosque from the Souk at Qaryat © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Abu Dhabi is one of those places where the impression you have is either completely wrong or nonexistent. At least for me. Coming here on the Global Scavenger Hunt is yet another instance of proving what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself, and undoing stereotypes and caricatures.

Yes, Abu Dhabi is about conspicuous ostentation. That part of the pre-conception seems validated.

But what I appreciate now is how an entire nation state was built relatively recently out of a chunk of desert. The skyscrapers and structures have grown up here in a matter of decades, not centuries.

Fort Hassan, the oldest structure in Abu Dhabi, is an excellent historical museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My first awareness comes visiting Fort Hassan, the original defensive fort and government building, and later the sheik’s residence built around (it reminds me of the White House, which is both the home of the head of government and government office). Fort Hassan has been restored (not rebuilt) and only opened to the public in December 2018. It provides the history of Abu Dhabi (https://qasralhosn.ae)

Qasr al Hosn, as it is properly called, is the oldest and most significant building in Abu Dhabi, holding the city’s first permanent structure; the watchtower. Built around the 1790’s, the commanding structure overlooked the coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement established on the island.

Fort Hassan, the oldest structure in Abu Dhabi, is an excellent historical museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It consists of two major buildings: the Inner Fort (originally constructed in 1795) and the Outer Palace (1939-45). Over the centuries, it has been home to the ruling family, the seat of government, a consultative council and a national archive; it now stands as the nation’s living memorial and the narrator of Abu Dhabi’s history.

Transformed into a museum in 2018 after more than 11 years of intensive conservation and restoration work, Qasr Al Hosn is a national monument that encapsulates the development of Abu Dhabi from a settlement reliant on fishing and pearling in the 18th century, to a modern, global metropolis, with displays of artifacts and archival materials dating back to as far as 6000 BC.

Fort Hassan, recently opened after restoration, tells the history of Abu Dhabi, ringed by modern skyscrapers © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You see photos of how the fort/palace looked in 1904, with nothing but desert and a couple of palm trees around it. Today, it is ringed (yet not overwhelmed) by a plethora of skyscrapers, each seeming to rival the next for most creative, most gravity-defying, most odd and artful shape. It is like a gallery of skyscrapers (New York City Museum of Skyscrapers take note: there should be an exhibit) – for both their art and engineering. I note though that as modern as these structures are, they basically pick up and mimic some of the pattern in the old fort. And the building boom just seems to be going on.

And then you consider this: it’s all built on sand (and oil). “In 500 years from now, will these be here?” Bill Chalmers, the organizer of the Global Scavenger Hunt for the past 15 years, remarks. We had just come for Bagan, Myanmar, where the temples have been standing since the 11th century despite earthquakes and world events, and Yangon, where we visited the Schwedagon Pagoda that dates back 2,500 years.

At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is also a Hall of Artisans which begins with an excellent video showing how the crafts reflected the materials that were at hand (eventually also obtained through trade) and then you see women demonstrating the various crafts, like weaving. (Indoors, with very comfortable air-conditioning and facilities.)

At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
At the Hall of Artisans at Fort Hassan, Abu Dhabi, you can watch people doing traditional handicrafts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From there, I walk to a “souk” at the World Trade Center that had stalls of some traditional items – wonderful spices for example – but in a modern (air-conditioned comfort!) setting, and directly across the street from a major modern mall promising some 270 different brand shops. Souks are aplenty here.

Visit to a souk, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My walk lets me revel in the skyscape. I come upon an intriguing road sign pointing toward the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation.

Visit to a souk, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Falcon Hospital

I find myself dashing to get to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where I had pre-booked the 2 pm tour. I didn’t realize how far it is from downtown – a 35-minute drive. The taxi driver, who I learn was recruited to come work in Abu Dhabi from his home in Ghana along with many other young men, and lives in an apartment building with other migrant workers, has to stop for gas and I worry I will miss the tour altogether.

Prized falcons wait patiently for their appointment at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The visit to the Falcon Hospital is truly a highlight of a visit to Abu Dhabi. It is fascinating to learn how these prized birds are handled. We are taken into the treatment area, surprised to see a couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting room for their “appointment”. Their owners drop them off for the day for whatever checkup or healthcare they require; others stay in the falcon hospital (the biggest in Abu Dhabi and one of the biggest in the world), for months during their moulting season, when, as wild falcons, they would otherwise live in the mountains for six months. They are provided the perfect cool temperatures they would have in that habitat, before coming to the desert in spring to hunt, and later to breed.

A doctor anesthetizes a falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We get to watch a falcon being anesthesized – they quickly pull off his hood, at which point he digs his claws into the gloved hand holding him, and his face is quickly stuffed into the mask and put to sleep. His claws, which normally would be shaved down in the wild, become dangerously overgrown in captivity; the falcon doctor also shows how they can replace a feather that has become damaged, possibly impeding the bird’s ability to fly or hunt (they can carry prey four times their weight). The feather has to be an exact match, which they match from the collection of feathers from previous moultings. Then we get to hold a falcon. Not surprisingly this is one of the scavenges on the Global Scavenger Hunt (worth 35 points in the contest to be named “World’s Greatest Traveler”).


A falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) is the first public institution in the United Arab Emirates providing comprehensive veterinary health care services exclusively for falcons. It was established by the Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency and opened in October 1999. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become the largest falcon hospital in the United Arab Emirates and in the world, caring for 11,000 falcons a year and more than 110,000 patients since its opening.

A falcon being treated at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From being established as a purely veterinary facility, the ADFH has expanded in the fields of education and awareness, training and research. Due to the huge demand the falcon hospital has became a full-fledged specialized avian hospital for all kinds of birds and poultry species in 2006. In 2007, it added services for a wide variety of VIP pets and in 2010 opened an animal shelter. In 2011, it began its own falcon breeding program and breeds Saker falcons for the H.H. The Late Shk Zayed Falcon Release Program.

In 2007, ADFH opened its doors to what has become an award-winning tourism program and has become the most important tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi – for good reason.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become one of the most visited attractions in Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is a thrilling and unique experience. I meet a woman from Switzerland who is engaged in a four-week internship at the falcon hospital, learning how to handle and care for the falcons – information she will bring back as a high school teacher. She tells me the falcons are very kind and gentle and bond with their owner. The feeling is clearly reciprocal – these prized falcons, which can cost up to $1 million, can fly on an airplane in the first class cabin with their owner (they have to have their own passport to prevent illegal trafficking), have their own seat and their own menu (fresh killed meat).

The Grand Mosque

Next I go to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – an experience that is not to be believed. If you thought the Taj Mahal was magnificent, a wonder of the world, the Grand Mosque which was built in 1999 and uses some of the same architectural and decorative design concepts, vastly surpasses it, in architectural scale and in artistic detail. Not to mention the Taj Mahal is basically a mausoleum, while the Grand Mosque is a religious center that can accommodate 7800 worshippers in its main sanctuary, 31,000 in the courtyard and altogether up to 51,000 worshippers for such high holy days as Ramadan. At more than 55,000 sq. meters it is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world. And every cubic meter of it spectacularly decorated – the courtyard is one of the largest mosaics in the world.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I time the visit to arrive about 4:30 pm in order to be there at dusk and sunset – and go first to what is labeled “the Visitors Happiness Desk” – how could I resist? The two gentlemen who manned the desk (surprisingly who are natives of Abu Dhabi when 88 percent of the population here come from some place else) are extremely well suited to their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am asking my questions, who should come down the escalator but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate (small world!), so we visit together.

Your visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi starts at the Visitors Happiness Desk© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The experience of visiting is surprisingly pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected (especially after having visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar where even when the stones are hot enough to fry an egg, you have to walk completely barefoot). Women must be fully covered, including hair, but they provide a robe (free). (I look like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

Indeed, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque “aims to cultivate interaction between Islam and world cultures… Sheikh Zayed’s vision for the Grand Mosque was to incorporate architectural styles from different Muslim civilizations and celebrate cultural diversity by creating a haven that is truly diverse and inspirational in its foundation. The mosque’s architects were British, Italian and Emirati, and drew design inspiration from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt among other Islamic countries, to create this glistening architectural marvel accommodating 40,000 worshippers and visitors at a time. 

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The open-door policy invites tourists and celebrants from all around the world who can witness the spectacular onion-top domes, the reflective pools that engulf the courtyard and the iconic prayer hall, which not only overflows with blissful sunlight, but also houses the world’s biggest chandelier and carpet, both meticulously handmade. Be sure to spot the calligraphy encircling the hollows of the domes, etched with verses from the Quran and painted with gold leaves in An-Naskh lettering.”

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When you arrive at the Visitors Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you walk underground to where there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and shops, then go through a tunnel like an airport (an electric cart is available for those who can’t walk distances; it kind of reminded me of how Disney moves its visitors into its attractions).

Definitely take the public tour of The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The public tour (an absolute must) is also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free. (Fortunately, Margo manages to get us on the last public tour of the day which had already left, getting the guard to let us slip under a barrier.) Our guide is a delightful young woman who cheerily walks us through and points out the amazing art and details. The mosque is massively large in scale, but looks remarkably delicate.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just as we leave a touch of sunlight breaking through clouds that make the structures even more beautiful, if that were possible. By the time we get outside, the lights have come on (www.szgmc.gov.ae/en/Home ).

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at dusk © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I ask the Happiness guys where to go for the best view of the Grand Mosque after dark, and, instead of the adjacent hotel where I had first been directed, they point us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view is spectacular.

View of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque from the Souk at Qaryat © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Global Scavenger Hunt Challenges

We had arrived in Abu Dhabi about midnight local time the night before, after having left our hotel in Myanmar at 5:15 am, flying an hour to Bangkok where we had an eight-hour layover challenge (I only managed to do a water taxi on the canal and explore the Golden Mountain and some buildings and watched preparations for the King’s coronation (I later heard it was for a parade that day). Then flew six hours to Abu Dhabi where we gained 3 hours (that is how we make up the day we lost crossing the International Dateline and why it is so hard to keep track of what day or time it is), so for us, midnight was 3 am. Bill Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of the Global Scavenger Hunt tells us this was the most arduous travel day we would have (and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver to Vietnam was the longest airline trip).

We have had a full day in Abu Dhabi to do our scavenges. Tonight’s scavenger hunt deadline is 10 pm, when we will learn where our next destination will be on the 23-day day mystery tour. Only five of the original nine teams are still in contention to win the title, “World’s Best Traveler” (and free trip to defend the title next year).

The scavenges are designed to give us travel experiences that take us out of our comfort zone, bring us closer to people and immerse us in cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that would earn 100 points is to be invited for dinner with a family in their home. “It is always a good thing to be invited for dinner with a family in their home. If you are, and you do – please do bring something nice for them, be patient and be gracious. Of course, we want proof.”

Another is to “hold an informal majlis with actual locals (people actually from UAE and not at any hotel) over an Arabica coffee; talk about a few things like the future of Abu Dhabi, oil, tourism, arranged marriages, Western values, etc.” That would earn 35 points.

View of the Presidential Palace at night, from the roof of the St. Regis © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other possibilities: ride “the world’s fastest rollercoaster” (75 points – Paula and Tom, the SLO Folks and returning champions, did that and said it felt like 4G force); walk the Emirates Palace from end to end and have a “golden cappuccino” (they literally put gold flakes in the cappuccino, this is Abu Dhabi after all) for 35 points; take in the grandeur of the Presidential Palace, only recently opened to the public, and visit Qasr Al Watan, a building within the compound dubbed “’Palace of the Nation” (complete with huge white domes, lush gardens and dramatic chandeliers, the new landmark is intended to give visitors a stronger understanding of the UAE’s governing traditions and values. There is also a spectacular nightly show.)  (50 points).

Many of the scavenges (including mandatory ones) have to do with local food, because foods and food preparations are so connected to heritage, culture and environment and bring people together. One of the scavenges here is to assemble three flavors of camel milk from a grocery store and do a blind taste test (35 points).

Unfortunately, an attraction we all wanted to visit, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was closed. The museum, which opened in November 2017, is a collaboration with the famous Louvre of Paris, France, and intended to be a “universal museum in the Arab World,” focusing on “what unites us: the stories of human creativity that transcend individual cultures or civilizations, times or places.”

The pioneering cultural project combines “the UAE’s bold vision of cultural progression and openness with France’s expertise in the world of art and museums.” The museum was expected to exhibit Leonard Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, considered the most expensive painting in the world (purchased for $450 million at auction in November 2017, believed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sulman), but delayed the exhibition. (www.louvreabudhabi.ae)

A lasting impression that I will carry away from this brief visit to Abu Dhabi is that its theme this year is “Year of Tolerance” which also goes to what we have experienced here: attractions and programs intended to promote understanding of Islamic history, heritage and culture.

Our accommodation in Abu Dhabi is the five-star St. Regis (just about all the accommodations arranged for the Global Scavenger Hunt are five-star), which serves the most extravagant breakfast. Purposefully, our ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, has arranged it so we will have two, lavish breakfasts here, much to our collective delight.

Grand lobby of the St. Regis Abu Dhabi hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hotel has a stunning rooftop pool and bar (what a view!) and is connected by a tunnel under the busy boulevard to the beach on the Persian Gulf.

We gather together at 10 pm in the lavish lobby of the St. Regis, excitedly trade stories about our travel adventures during the day. Inevitably, I am jealous of the things I didn’t do, couldn’t fit in to do – like visiting the Fish Market, the Iranian Souk, the Presidential Palace! (can’t believe I missed that), built for the tidy sum of $5 billion (open til 7 pm, then a lightshow at 7:30 pm).

And then we learn where we are going next: Jordan!

More information on visiting Abu Dhabi at https://visitabudhabi.ae/en/.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt 8-Hour Layover Challenge in Bangkok, Thailand

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the organizer for the past 15 years and inventor of the Global Scavenger Hunt, “a blind date with the world,” notes the rare backtracking to Bangkok from Myanmar. “Oddly, we had to fly slightly east to further our westward global trajectory…Myanmar is still hard to get into and out of with limited connections to mostly its regional neighbors…especially Bangkok and Singapore. Today we chose Bangkok as a more interesting layover in our exit strategy. Thus we a have fun 8-Hour Layover Challenge…but I am getting ahead of myself.”

We scurry about the Bangkok airport, finding a place to check our luggage for the precious few hours, finding an information counter with a map and information about how to get downtown (we discover a rail link into the city).

Besides figuring out the logistics of Bangkok without any prior preparation (because that is the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt, an around-the-world mystery tour to determine “World’s Best Travelers”), our visit is complicated by preparations for the coronation of the new King.

Also, my teammate Margo has her own scavenger hunt going: she is trying to find chips from Harley Davidson Motorcycle dealers in every place we go. Her hunt brings us to one of Bangkok’s major urban shopping malls – every luxury and brand name in the world is represented. Harley is on a floor with Jaguar and other luxury cars. It is an amazing opportunity to view local life of Bangkok on a Sunday. (The movie, “Crazy Rich Asians,” immediately flashes in my mind.)

Harley Davidson shop in high-end mall in Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Food court at the shopping mall, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Margo goes off to do sightseeing by the Hop On/Off Bus; I am determined to take a water taxi. But I learn that the city has already closed off river access to the major attractions and sites that are along the river, including the Palace, and there is, in fact, a giant security cordon from the Grand Palace (later I learn that the Palace was open to visitors earlier and we just missed it).  But the water taxi along the canal is still operating.

Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Water taxi, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I go walking (in the intense heat) toward where I can pick up the water taxi. The time is ticking away and I have to calculate the amount of time to get back to the airport in time for our flight to Abu Dhabi. I pass interesting places, like the “Anti-Money Laundering Office”.

Anti-Money Laundering Office, Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

It is fun to ride the water taxi and I take it to a place close to the Grand Palace where there is an important temple, the Golden Mount (Wat Saket). A very nice fellow coming off the water taxi points me in a direction to the Democracy Monument. I learn that it was commissioned in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 Siamese coup d’etat which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in the Kingdom of Siam. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram saw the monument as the center of a new Westernized Bangkok, akin to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs d’Elysees in Paris.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I see literally thousands of police, military, and what appear to be volunteers in colored shirts, the streets decorated for a parade (the administration building is nearby)– but no people on the streets waiting for a parade. The coronation is taking place in just a couple of weeks time. I assume that they are doing a rehearsal.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Golden Mount (Wat Saket), Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I contemplate hiring a little jitney taxi to take me close to the Grand Palace, but looking at the time and calculating how long it would take to backtrack to the airport, I just head back to the water taxi, walk through a broad shopping boulevard (big portraits of the King and Queen), to the train to the airport.

This moment in history, in fact, becomes the theme for my Bangkok visit.

Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bangkok © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of it, though I did not get to see the Top Attractions of Bangkok, I fulfilled the essence of the Global Scavenger Hunt: I immersed myself in the everyday rhythm of this place and these people, exotic no longer.

(For more travel information, visit https://na.tourismthailand.org/About-Thailand/Destination/Bangkok.)

We are off to Abu Dhabi!

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3: Back in Yangon, Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics; its dome is gilded with 60 tons of gold, and the top has an orb with 4531 diamonds. It is breathtaking © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final day on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, in which we set out from Yangon to travel about the country, making a triangle that takes me to Bagan and Inle Lake and back to Yangon to fulfill the Par 5 challenge on this a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.

The 45-minute taxi ride from the delightful, five-star Sanctum Inle Resort on Inle Lake is wonderful – I catch people driving oxcarts and donkey carts and people riding the backs of trucks, villages and pagodas. But I have some trepidation about Heho Airport because of the snafu in booking my ticket, resolved long-distance by text to my son in New York to phone the online booking agent, as I bounced around on the overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. But I arrive, am checked in to Golden Airlines without incident, and relax during the 45-minute flight back to Yangon.

The morning flight gives me time to explore Yangon which I didn’t have when we first arrived on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt from Vietnam, and were given our challenges, to travel around Myanmar and return to the Sule Sangri-la Hotel by the 6 pm deadline.

Leaving the airport, I attempt to take the public bus back into downtown, but after two buses pass me by, I take a taxi instead.

Riding back, I review a brochure I picked up at the airport which mentions a synagogue in Yangon – in fact, the last synagogue in Myanmar. So I resolve to find it.

It turns out it is only a 15-minute walk from our hotel, the Sule Sangri-la, bringing me through various bustling market streets and shopping districts. The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue itself is set on a busy market street where there are chickens and fish for sale – the chickens clucking, the fish squirming to get out of their container (I see one jump out of its container), the rich scent of spices, and every other manner of item you can imagine.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar’s last synaoguge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By the time I arrive at Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, it is 1:40 pm – which proves extremely lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm (open daily except Sunday). Inside, it is a lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in 1896. At one point, the Jewish community in Yangon numbered 2500 before the mass migration of WWII; today, there are only 5 families (about 30 people). The Samuels, one of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue for generations, a plaque notes.

One of the bustling street markets in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
One of the bustling street markets in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street market in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Street market in Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Perhaps not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market, which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace. I am surprised to see all the sellers of jade and jewelry (which is what the market is known for), as well as traditional longyi, and just about anything else you can think of. I come upon a seller of interesting post cards, and find the post office on the third level (one of my traditions of travel is to send home postcards, which not only have stamps, but mark the date and give some visual and personal notes). Also, I have been impressed by the absolute lack of political messaging in the streets, but here in the market is one art seller who has images of Myanmar’s most famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Wondering about the name, I later learn that Bogyoke Aung San market is named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San.

Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon’s major marketplace since 1926, is named for Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon, Myanmar’s major marketplace since 1926 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A likeness of Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi for sale at Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon’s major marketplace since 1926, named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shwedagon Pagoda

I walk back to the hotel, just a few blocks away, to refresh (it is 104 degrees), in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, which I have been saving for the late afternoon (one of the mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger Hunt is to visit at dawn or dusk), so that I will be there at dusk (but back at the hotel by the 6 pm deadline for the scavenges), but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of seeing it.

Just as I am about to leave, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I went on to Inle Lake, walks in. She relates that after a snafu with her airline ticket, she had to hire a taxi to drive her back to Yangon (ironic because I couldn’t get the airline to cancel my ticket when I changed my plan to go to Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into marvelous adventures). We go off together to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is located west of the Royal Lake, on the vast, 114 -acre Singuttara Hill.

Margo cleverly hires a guide to show us around this vast, vast complex and it is fascinating: this was the first pagoda in the world, he tells us.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics; its dome is gilded with 60 tons of gold, and the top has an orb with 4531 diamonds. It is breathtaking.  © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. It is breathtaking.

Workman restore the gold to the Shwedagon Pagoda’s dome © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

The Shwedagon Pagoda stands 326 feet high, its dome covered in 60 tons of gold (we watch  workmen on scaffolding replacing some of the gold plates). At the very top, too small to be appreciated from where we stand at the base, is an orb, 22 inches high and 11-inches wide, encrusted with 4531 diamonds, the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond. The base is surrounded by 64 small pagodas with four larger ones in the center of each side. There also are four sphinxes, one at each corner, with six leogryphs (a lion-like creature). Projecting beyond the base of the Pagoda. are Tazaungs (shrines) in which are images of the Buddha and where offerings are made.

There are also figures of elephants crouching and men kneeling and pedestals for offerings all around the base. In front of the 72 shrines surrounding the base of the Pagoda, there are images of lions, serpents, ogres, yogis, spirits, or Wathundari. Among the most dazzling art is a Jade Buddha. There are also mystical and mysterious places, like the well where Buddha’s sacred hair was washed and Buddha’s foot print.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

Representing the highest achievements of Myanmar’s sculpture, architecture and art, there are hundreds of colorful temples, stupas and statues spanning nearly 2500 years. It is known as Shwedagon, “the Sanctuary of the Four,” because it contains relics of four Buddhas who had attained Enlightenment.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

We move among the bustling activity of devotees and monks washing the statues, offering flowers, worshiping, and meditating. 

Most interesting is coming upon a procession of families celebrating the induction of two young boys into the monastery.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com 

(The Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived in Yangon – was it just four days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of magnificent.)

(See more information on visiting Schwedagon Pagoda, www.shwedagonpagoda.com).  

You could easily spend hours here, but we must dash back in a taxi to get back to the Global Scavenger Hunt group, arriving a few minutes past the 6 pm deadline (we aren’t competing to win the challenge to be the “World’s Best Travelers,” so we did not have to turn in our scorecards documenting our scavenges, though, in fact, we have been doing as many as we can.

At a hosted dinner at a Japanese restaurant, all of us trade our stories of adventure and exploration from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. One of the scavenges invited the teams to take part in a volunteering opportunity and Lawyers Without Borders, the team from Houston, volunteered at a Youth Development monastery in Yangon.  “The monks take in, house, feed and educate orphans from far-flung and remote villages around the country,” Zoe Littlepage writes on her blog (http://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com). “My favorite part was eating lunch with the kids. They sing their prayers before they can start eating.. magical.” (Zoe Littlepage and Rainey Booth, of Houston, are on their 12th Global Scavenger Hunt, and are five-time champions, and their law firm helps support the philanthropic works of the Global Scavenger Hunt Foundation.)

We return to the hotel to get our four-hour notice and learn where our 23-day “Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues next: an eight-hour layover challenge in Bangkok and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having breakfast in Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United Arab Emirates.

We are out the door at 5:15 am (the hotel sends us off with breakfast boxes), to get to the airport.

It is worth noting that in addition to having a unique alphabet and language, Myanmar (formerly Burma) asserts its identity by keeping its clocks half-hour different from its timezone.

I realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed ordering our day, a concept rather than an invention. We lost a full day crossing the timezone during that first flight of more than 14 hours, and have been picking up an hour or so here as we go.

Global Scavenger Hunt teams Lawyers Without Borders (from Houston) and Order & Chaos (doctors from California) do their peer review at the airport © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of this Par 5, Leg 3 dash through Myanmar, SLO Folks, a team from central California who are the returning champions from last year’s Global Scavenger Hunt, earned the second most points with 37 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan and the point rich area of Inle Lake for 2,055 points; and Lawyers Without Border, a team from Houston on their 12th Hunt (they have won it five times) had the most, completing 52 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan & Inle Lake earning 2,745 points.

More Myanmar travel information is at http://myanmartravelinformation.com/top-destinations/yangon.html.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3 Continues: The Enchantment of Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour, begins the night before, on the JJ Express bus that leaves the temple city of Bagan at 10 pm and arrives at the bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am. It is complete darkness, not a sound or stirring besides ourselves as the bus pulls away, leaving us there. For a moment, we feel stranded. Then, out of the shadows, two tiny jitneys – like small tut-tut open-back vehicles – appear. The drivers ask which hotels we are bound for so we divide up based on which side of Inle Lake we are staying. We settle the fare (we are in a very limited position to negotiate) and climb in.

The jitney drops us at the Sanctum Inle Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel clerk calls in housekeeping early so we could get into our rooms by 6 am (when 2 pm would have been normal check-in time). This five-star resort makes me feel like I have been dropped into paradise.

Sanctum Inle Resort, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am traveling on my own at this point, though at least one other of the 10 teams, SLO Folks, on the Global Scavenger Hunt are here  – my teammate went on to Mandalay with another team who decided not to compete for points. SLO Folks (last year’s “World’s Greatest Travelers” GSH champion) has been scrupulous about following rules of the contest (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or to get information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local people) so they arrive in Inle with no hotel, not even a decent map to start planning how they will attack the scavenges (challenges) and accrue the most points in the limited amount of time.

Indeed, this challenge, Leg 3 of our trip, is to depart Yangon (the city formerly known as Rangoon when the former British colony was known as Burma) and complete a triangle of cities (Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake), allowing only two legs by air and return to Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday, making our own arrangements for transportation and hotel (we are reimbursed $200/night/team). I had planned to go from Bagan to Mandalay with my teammate, but after hearing about Inle Lake from another team (Lawyers Without Borders, a Houston team that has done the Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times) who had been here before, I was enchanted to see it; then, overhearing SLO Folks planning to take the overnight bus, I was determined to see it for myself.

The description enchanted me: Located in the middle of Myanmar, in the Shan State, Inle Lake is set in a valley between two mountain ranges, with whole villages of wooden houses built on stilts in the middle of the lake, floating gardens, boatmen who steer standing up, wrapping one leg around a tall oar. There are 10 different Shan ethnic groups living around the lake and the surrounding hills, home to many different minorities who come down to sell their goods in the villages – like the Long Neck Ladies. Inle Lake was designated a wetland wildlife sanctuary in 1985.

Inle Lake feels like a different world to the rest of Myanmar, indeed, it seems like an enchanted Sangri-la.

The Sanctum Hotel (Maing Thauk Village, Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar) is on the list of suggested accommodations provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked on hotels.com ($101 for the night). I am delighted to find it is an absolutely gorgeous five-star luxury resort (the infinity pool on the grounds with views to the lake is breathtaking), and just being here fills me with a contented peace.  But that is only the beginning.

The kindness of the hotel manager is immensely appreciated. For me, it means I am able to take advantage of the hotel’s 8 am boat tour (that means a traditional wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power motor as well as the boatman’s long oar) because most of Inle Lake’s special attractions are literally on the lake – whole villages, in fact, are built on stilts on the lake; there are floating gardens which are really aquatic farms; floating markets; the fishermen fish in a distinctive fashion with nets and the boatmen paddle standing up, with their leg wrapped around the tall oar. The temples and other major attractions – silversmiths, weavers, boatmakers – are all reached by the boat.

Sanctum Inle Resort, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The full-day tour will take me to the Five Day Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inn Paw Khone Village, Ywa Ma Village, Nam Pan Village (where we visit workshops to see crafts – silversmithing, weaving, boatmaking), Floating Gardens, Nge’ Phe’ Chaung Monastery and Indein Pagoda – essentially enabling me to see all Inle Lake’s highlights in a one-day visit ($35), though there is so much to see, Inle Lake is worth a two or three day stay.

The Sanctum Inle Resort is situated on the bank of Inle lake – a shallow lake that’s over 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide – and to begin the tour I have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour, while the competing team cannot, so they go off to find where the boatmen keep their boats), I am escorted down to the hotel’s dock where the boat and the boatman is waiting. It turns out I am the only one, so this is essentially a private tour. The boatman, a young fellow named Wei Mo, speaks only limited English – enough to tell me where I am going – but it is sufficient, I just don’t expect to get any commentary.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake, the fresh air and cool breeze rushing over me, especially after the debilitating 108-degree heat of Bagan. Inle Lake is notable for the Intha, lake dwellers who have a distinctive way rowing their wooden boats by wrapping their leg around a tall oar. At first, the mechanics make no sense. But I realize it is a way of standing and using such a tall oar and keeping the weight balanced on the tiny boats.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the course of the boat tour, I encounter a young fellow fishing (though you have to get out pretty much at sunrise to see the fishermen), boat people harvesting from the lake, go through an entire village built on stilts, where there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops we visit. One stop provides an opportunity to visit with the Long-Neck Ladies (actually only one), who come down from their secluded village to pose for photos with tourists for money. We also visit important pagodas and temples on the lake.

Long Neck Lady, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is remarkable to see how the Inthar make the most out of the lake – even creating farmland where none existed. They build floating gardens out of lake-bottom weeds and water hyacinth and grow crops like squash and tomatoes, anchoring them with bamboo poles. I learn that these floating islands can be cut, dragged by boats and even sold like a plot of land. Floating gardens can be found mostly in Kaylar, Inchan and Zayatgyi villages.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love visiting the various workshops in the various villages – it seems each has a specialty. We visit a silversmith workshop where I watch the intricate process before being led into (what else) an elaborate shop, filled with stunning creations.

Making thread from lotus flower, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Making thread from lotus flower, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wei pulls up to Inn Paw Khone Village, famous for its weaving workshops, but most notably, weaving silk from lotus. Silk weaving in Inn Paw Khon began 100 years ago. At first, they wove from cotton fiber and then changed to silk and finally lotus fiber. and I am told that the technique of making silk from lotus was begun by a woman now more than a century old.  I get to watch how a woman delicately pulls a strand from the lotus plant which is wound on a spindle into thread.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the boatmakers, I learn how each one is designed differently for their purpose – a family boat, a fishing boat (7.8 meters), a boat designed for the Long Neck people. “A boat lasts 25 years. Only men make the boats, they need to be strong. It takes 20 days to make a boat; they make lacquer from a tree to paint, wood powder and cotton. It takes two people to cut the teakwood,” she tells me. There are absolutely stunning wood carvings to purchase. But I must travel light.

We stop in several of the region’s most important pagodas.

Shwe Indein Pagoda Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shwe Indein Pagoda is the most impressive of the attractions visited. You walk up a covered walkway lined with beautifully painted columns, up a hill, flanked by an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist stupas, some of stone, some intricately carved, some gilded. Many have been restored but you also see many crumbling with age and being reclaimed by the jungle.  (There is a camera fee, 500 kyat, which works out to about 30 cents).

Shwe Indein Pagoda on Inle Lake, has an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist stupas © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to atlasobscurba.com, “These structures date from the 14th to the 18th centuries and are typical of Burmese zedi. Like others found across the region, the stupas feature fantastical creatures like chinthe – mythic lion-like beings that protect sacred spaces. These were (and remain) sites for contemplation and meditation and many contain relics inside their bases. The first stupas at Indein were likely commissioned during the reign of King Narapatisithu, although according to legend, it was King Ashoka – the Indian emperor responsible for spreading Buddhism across much of Asia – who first designated this as a site of particular spiritual importance. Hundreds of years later, that distinction is completely obvious. The sea of ornate spires coupled with the view over the lake and surrounding calm lend this spot an unquestionably mystic, reflective air.” (www.atlasobscura.com/places/shwe-indein-pagoda) It is breathtaking to see. Inside, people are gathering for a communal feast.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal shrines in Myanmar, just crammed with boats and worshippers. The pagoda houses five small Buddha images which are much revered by the lake-dwellers. Once a year, in late September-early October, there is a pagoda festival when four of the five Buddha images are taken on an elaborately decorated barge towed by several boats of leg-rowers, rowing in unison, and other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession on the water.

Ngaphechaung Monastery, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Ngaphechaung Monastery is a beautiful wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake at the end of the 1850s, the biggest and oldest monastery on the lake. The monastery is known for a collection of old Myanmar’s Buddha images from different eras.  It is also notable because the monks have taught a few of the many cats living with them to jump through hoops (that is the reputation, but I don’t get to see any cats).

I skip stopping for lunch so am able to condense the tour somewhat, which brings me back to the hotel at 2:30 pm.

Sanctum Inle Resort’s infinity pool, Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I indulge in Sanctum Inle Resort’s utterly stunning pool – I would rank one of the best resort pools in the world – an infinity pool of black and silver that shimmers as you swim, magnificently set with a view down to the lake, richly landscaped, a great size for actually swimming as well as playing around. It is also one of the most magnificent places just to lounge. I meet families from around the world.

I am back in my room by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from the resort into the nearby village of Maing Thauk. I am bound for the Friendship Bridge where one of the scavenges is to watch the sunset. I love to see the Burmese alphabet, with its circles and curley-cues, on signs (few have English translation, except for the Noble Aim PreSchool, my Rosetta Stone, and a traffic sign with a drawing of a parent holding a child’s hand, indicating a school crossing). I come upon a school holding a sports competition that has drawn a tremendous audience. Even though hardly anyone speaks English, we manage to chat (icebreaker: What is going on? Where is the bridge?). It’s a good thing I ask the fellow if I was going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am looking for, because he directs me to turn left on the next corner (I would have gone straight).

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Bridge connects many structures and from which people can get onto the scores of wooden boats that gather here, especially to offer sunset “cruises”, as well as walk to several restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is exactly what GSH’s organizer Bill Chalmers had hoped when he dealt with a question of whether we should be in a place that has earned worldwide condemnation for human rights abuses. Travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly, not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways. In very real ways (and especially now), travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. Boycotting destinations because of their governments, isolating people from one another, cutting off the exchange of ideas and people-to-people engagements is not how change happens – that only hardens points of view, and makes people susceptible to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.

Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What I see in the people I’ve encountered is a kindness, a warmth of spirit, a sweetness among the people here. I see it in how parents hold their children, how the boatman, Wei Moi, shows such etiquette among the other boatmen, how helpful people are.  And how readily they smile.

This leg has been a Par 5 in difficulty (Par 6 being the most difficult during this, the 15th Global Scavenger Hunt) – which has entailed us going out of Yangon to Bagan, Mandalay and/or Inle Lake (many more rules on top of that, including no more than 2 flights), taking overnight bus or hiring a taxi or train, and so forth. But Chalmers devious design has worked – in just these four days, we really do immerse ourselves in Myanmar, though our itinerary most properly should be done in 11 days (there are several operators who offer such trips).

The challenge of the Global Scavenger Hunt is important to mention because Inle Lake is worth at least a two or three day stay to be completely immersed in its spell. There is a tremendous amount to do and experience.

You can reach Inle Lake by air, bus (Joyous Journey Express, known as JJ Express, provided excellent service; travel on the first-class bus geared to tourists, www.jjexpress.net), or hire a driver to Inle Lake from various other major destinations in Myanmar (Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon). The closest airport to Inle Lake is Heho airport (HEH) which is 45 minutes away from the lake.

The final challenge of this leg is to get back to our hotel, the Sule Shangri-la, in Yangon by 6 pm, and for those competing to hand in their scorecards and proof of completing the scavenges. That’s when we will learn where in the world we will go next, and where we will all compare experiences.

See more travel information, http://myanmartravelinformation.com/where-to-visit-inle/.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

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