By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, joining a huge movement of young people who are choosing to live the nomadic life (at least for a time) and travel or work remotely, becoming immersed in local life and culture. They are filing these dispatches periodically. They previously reported about their adventures in Mexico, South Korea and Vietnam. Here’s their dispatch from Malaysia and Cambodia:
Salutations from the two-shower-a-day club! We both agree that if these last four weeks of our trip had a title it’d be “Never Not Sweating”. The combination of oppressive humidity and laundry machines that never seem to get our clothes fully clean nor fully dry (could definitely be user error, still unclear) make us think the clothes we brought will never smell normal again. BUT the lingering scent of delicious food past, present & future prevails!
Since our last update, our love fest for Vietnam continued a couple weeks longer with visits to Cat Ba island (including an epic stay on a houseboat amongst a floating village of 200+ dwellings), Central Vietnam (Hoi An & Da Nang for a change up of beach yoga, morning runs, and smoothie bowls), and Ho Chi Minh city before boarding our flights to Malaysia. We definitely squeezed out every last drop of our hard-earned 30-day visas.
Malaysia really surprised us in the best way. We immediately appreciated the multiculturalism and quieter calm of daily life, which was a pretty stark contrast to our previous month in Vietnam. The melting pot of Indian, Chinese & Malay populations with all the many permutations of ethnic and religious cultures within each group made for a wide sampling of options every meal. And we were reintroduced to traffic lights and crosswalks, adding the months back to our lives that we likely lost from the heart palpitations navigating the streets and highways of Vietnam.
The places we visited were a pretty broad sampling of western Malaysia. Penang, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site, is a food stall mecca with funky street art woven throughout. It scores extra cuteness points for being home to the smallest national park in the world. Langkawi feels like how we’ve heard/imagined Kauai to be, amazingly lush and mountainous with lots of wildlife and white sand beaches. Here, we treated ourselves and balled out on Eric’s Marriott Bonvoy points at the Ritz Carlton, enjoying every free amenity the hotel had to offer and surviving almost solely on contraband fruit, cereal, instant noodles and turn-down snacks (hey, we’re on a budget y’all.. don’t judge!).
And our last stop in Malaysia landed us in Kuala Lumpur, which has a cool hybrid feel of both East and Southeast Asian megacities with its traditional houses and stray animals juxtaposed next to sleek luxury skyscrapers (spectacular infinity pools with massive skyline views are a dime a dozen).
In our experience, the only thing we found to be stronger than the infinity pool game in Malaysia was the army of monkeys. We encountered them pretty much everywhere we went – during both city and jungle explorations, on beaches, and even on our hotel balcony. It was cute and fun for a while, but it got personal when Sarah was peacefully enjoying her apple with peanut butter, only to look up (at first excitedly) to see monkeys gripping the balcony rails. This excitement quickly turned to terror as the gaggle of conspirators jumped to her, and one mother monkey with baby hanging on ripped the PB jar right from Sarah’s grasp (which is quite strong, not sure if anyone here has ever tried to take PB from Sarah). Sarah is trying her best not to now think of them as glorified rats, and has Eric to remind her diligently of our shared ancestry (monkeys are Eric’s favorite animal.. shocker). Yesterday, a new friend we met on the train told us a monkey recently ripped her pants attempting to get a snack from her pocket! No thanks. Sarah’s mind is set for now.
Next, we skipped over to Cambodia to see the ancient temples of Angkor, just north of the town of Siem Reap. We were blown away to learn that this site was home to 1 million people at its height about 900 years ago (the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with 1/400 people on the PLANET living there). The temples throughout the 250 square mile archaeological park are in varying states of being consumed by the jungle due to a combination of factors over the years – namely neglect, war, vandalism and (thankfully) restoration efforts.
More fun factoids – the temples have changed hands (and actual coats of paint) between different religions over the years, based on the beliefs of whoever ruled at the time. Originally Hindu, then swapped to Buddhist, then back to Hindu again when the leading man embraced Brahmanism. Many of the Buddha statues were defaced in some way (missing a head or an arm). But can you blame the people?!.. sounds very confusing to be constantly switching horses on the path to salvation! -Editor’s note: Eric thought that was funny; Sarah thought offensive.
Eric dragged Sarah out of bed at 4AM three consecutive days in a row in order to be at the Angkor temples for sunrise. But Sarah admits it was pretty special to be on the scooter on those dark mornings, slowly making our way through Siem Reap with the few locals and shopkeepers awake at that hour. It was also so worth it to escape the heat of the day and have many of the temples all to ourselves (our guide told us that pre-Covid this site could see 12,000-13,000 tourists per day, compared with 400-500 right now). We feel lucky to be able to tour the utterly magnificent sites with such freedom, but heartbroken at the economic impact the pandemic has had on so many in the tourism industry. Some we’ve met have lost their homes/homestays/hotels, and many changed their jobs entirely (to farming, fishing..) to make ends meet. They all vocalize that they can’t wait to see more and more tourists again.
We went on to continue the whole not-really-sleeping thing for our first week in Indonesia, first due to an overnight layover at the Singapore airport, and then chasing first light for some epic volcanoes in Java. We’ll be making our way east in Indonesia over the next month, so please send over any/all recommendations! Sarah is 50/50 at this point in thinking we should do a week-long silent retreat.
By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, joining a huge movement of young people who are choosing to live the nomadic life (at least for a time) and travel or work remotely, becoming immersed in local life and culture. They are filing these dispatches periodically. They previously reported about their month in Mexico. Here’s their report from South Korea and Vietnam:
“This is the way so many of the great meals of my life have been enjoyed. Sitting in the street, eating something out of a bowl that I’m not exactly sure what it is. And scooters going by. So delicious. I feel like an animal. Where have you been all my life?” -Anthony Bourdain eating in Vietnam (and we couldn’t agree more).
We write this second installment of our sabbatical dispatch from Phu Quoc, Vietnam (an island in the Gulf of Thailand very close to the Cambodian border). We were very stoked to make it into Asia just a couple of weeks after border re-openings, and it’s been fascinating (and at times eerie) to be some of the first tourists here.
We spent our first week traveling Asia in Seoul after Eric was denied entry into Vietnam because he accidentally mistyped the entry month on his e-visa (*Note: if you want to read Eric’s best Aaron Sorkin impression in further documenting the gripping drama of being turned away at the border, see the PS). In South Korea we saw 100% mask compliance inside and outside everywhere we went (though those smoking cigarettes on the street get a nonsensical pass hehe), and never in our lives have we seen every single person in sight staring at their smartphone! It can look dystopian at times. Sarah happily embraced the quiet, introverted culture. Eric had to fight the impulse to chat up uninterested locals.
But, we came together in our love for chilly mornings spent at the market scarfing down some impressive form of dumpling/kimchi soup while seated on heated benches, saving room for lots of lunch/dinner Korean bbq (and in Seoul you don’t lift a finger when prepping your bbq–it’s all done for you by extremely impressive waiters who manage 8+ grills at once). We also checked out a local baseball game where cheering is technically banned because of Covid (cheer in your heart), though when a team scores, their fans impulsively scream anyway. To our delight, the stadium allows BYO beer/soju and fried chicken, all conveniently sold right outside.
Our second attempt at clearing customs in Hanoi went off without a hitch (thanks to Sarah triple checking all of Eric’s documents), and being able to finally taste the forbidden fruit made it all the more sweet! We immediately felt invigorated by the delicious smells coming from every direction, and having to be on our toes when crossing the street (the rushing river of cars/scooters never stop, they just, without fail, go around you). We loved figuring out that what seems like complete and utter chaos really has a very predictable and harmonious rhythm to it.
In the food department, we quickly realized that the best meals come from street stalls with tiny plastic chairs and just one thing on the menu. The insane combination of unlimited chewy rice noodles, tangy broth, chilis, crunchy peanuts, and mountains of herbs make every dish a choose-your-own adventure of deliciousness. We could’ve been convinced that some of the street food we were eating for $1-2 came off a Michelin tasting menu – the Bun Cha and Banh Cuon were especially incredible. We also learned that the French colonial rule in Vietnam is what sparked the popularity of bread here, consumed daily by millions in Banh Mi, and re-invented with rice flour here. We’ve enjoyed the food scene endlessly, but there is also a hint of sadness in this reopening world. Many stalls/restaurants we research and can’t wait to try have no reviews the last two years, and, we come to find, have just disappeared.
Continuing on in Hanoi (our favorite city in Vietnam) we were captivated by the Hoa Lo Prison, where French colonists imprisoned and killed Vietnamese political activists in the late 1800s through the mid 1900s, and this same location is where American POWs were incarcerated during the Vietnam War. Learning about the many generations of occupation that the Vietnamese have endured brought us deeper meaning and reflection as we thought about the US’s recent departure from Afghanistan and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. And we also really enjoyed the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, where we learned how valued women are in the work and family unit in northern Vietnam, and that Vietnamese women even propose marriage.
With the constant beat of vehicle horns in the air in Hanoi, Eric was beginning to itch to get on a motorbike (no shock there). So, we hopped on an overnight bus north to Sa Pa and hired a motorbike guide named Kin- a pure soul, the same age as Sarah and a father of three. Kind Kin said yes to all of Eric’s crazy ideas and before we knew it we were motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang along the Chinese border (a total of about500km over 3 days) stopping at small homestays on our scenic way.
Eric did all of the driving while Sarah dutifully snapped pictures and videos from the bumpy backseat. The scenery was absolutely stunning-terraced rice paddies (which we learned are made that way for irrigation) every shade of green, heaps of green tea drying in the sun, and farmers markets where locals insist we sit down for “Happy Water”–Vietnamese moonshine–which Sarah does happily and Eric does also happily but with more responsibility because he is our forever DD. Lots of fog rolled in in the north, which made us appreciate the views when it did clear, even more.
We moved south to central Vietnam so that Sarah could realize her bootcamp potential, signing up for a multi-day jungle trekking & caving tour. The caves in Phong Nha, Vietnam, are otherworldly. In fact, the world’s largest cave is here (Hang Son Doong–first discovered by a farmer by accident just three decades ago, and so big it has its own rainforest!). We found availability on a tour of the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis (highly recommend), so we strapped on our provided army boots, and spent the next three days walking straight through rivers and caves (fully clothed in long layers to protect against plants and insects), and then scaling rocks up and down in order to capture some incredible Vietnamese nature. Our group of 10 (5 domestic and 5 foreign travelers) bonded Birthright style during the tentside hangouts, and we were fed constantly (and deliciously) which kept us smiling 🙂 despite the unrelenting heat and humidity. (https://oxalisadventure.com/ [email protected])
After a desperate shower and laundry session we made our way to Hue, also in central Vietnam. Eric wasted no time seeking out a tailor for his absolute favorite–custom clothes. His request was so specific, that our amazing tailor Bo (we really have met people unbelievably patient with Eric here) offered to take us to the fabric market to pick one out that she didn’t carry at her shop. One scooter ride together and a couple of hours later she nailed it! Sarah also got her first custom clothing with Bo and agrees, it is really fun. Another highlight of Hue-the salt coffee. Each region of Vietnam highlights a unique version of their rich coffee, but our favorite variation is this one–salted cream that perfectly compliments the strong black coffee blend creating an almost caramel taste.
We now find ourselves on the beach in Phu Quoc, southern Vietnam. Sarah is wrapping up book number three and Eric is taking the hotel’s paddleboard about 100 times further than the buoy’s limits. The hotel seems to be approximately 10% full. Seeing as we now recognize every fellow guest were living out our White Lotus moment giving them all backstories and deciding who will get murdered (just kidding!! and watch the show White Lotus if you haven’t yet!). We continue to thrive on almost strictly street food–we went to a nightmarket the other night with a German couple from our cave tour and to Eric’s delight, found Banh Mi with steak and runny white cheese a la the Philly Cheesesteak, and sea urchin with herbs and peanuts. No food is left untried. And while Eric has been brave enough to weigh himself this week (somehow lost weight!?), Sarah continues on in ignorant bliss.
* * *
PS – So there we were..3 flights and 36 hours of travel from Mexico City to Hanoi (by way of Dallas and Tokyo). It was 11PM. We were beyond exhausted because we had to wake up at 2:30AM in Mexico City to return our rental car and get to our first flight. We slept but a wink on the planes, but the in-flight viewing of the Anthony Bourdain and Alpinist docs (both must-sees btw) sustained us and we were stoked to have touched down in Asia.
BUT NOT SO FAST the travel gods said. At immigration in Hanoi, Sarah lifted her bucket hat and mask, flashed her million dollar smile and breezed right through to the promised land. But the immigration officer looked longer at Eric’s documents. “You have to go over there,” the officer said after a few minutes of scrutinizing the documents. A lot of back-and-forth with immigration officers and airline attendants facilitated by the Google Translate app ensued, and Eric came to realize that the dates on his e-visa were wrong – it was for a May 9th entry, not April 9th. An hour of pleading for a date change on the existing visa or the issuing of a new visa on arrival fell on deaf ears. “You need to get on this plane back to Tokyo now,” the officers forcefully told him. “But my partner is on the other side,” he pleaded.
The airline officer ran to retrieve Sarah while Eric placed dead end calls to the US embassies in Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Pleading to let us book different flights to countries that were newly open to US tourists like Thailand, Singapore or Korea (instead of Japan, which was still closed, and we expected once we got there they’d tell us we needed to go all the way back to the US) didn’t work either because these countries, while open, still needed processing time for visa/Covid paperwork.
After fortunately being reunited at the boarding gate (and Sarah’s last attempt at pleas to stay), the officers forced us onto the plane for Tokyo stating our passports were now being held in the cockpit and that we’d be blacklisted from ever entering Vietnam if we didn’t board the plane NOW. We felt beyond exhausted and defeated, but quickly fired up our laptop for the 6hr redeye flight back to Tokyo to investigate our options.
Thanks to persistence and a lot of help from our travel savvy family, we were able to show proof of flights and visa documentation in Tokyo to ensure we could enter Korea and wouldn’t need to be forced all the way back to the US (and btdubs for future reference, when something like this happens, you are responsible for paying whatever the flights costs which is astronomical because of the same day booking rate; so tl;dr don’t be like Eric and always quadruple check the dates on your visas!)
By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, and are filing these dispatches periodically. Here’s their report after a month in Mexico before moving on to Asia.
We finally did it–rented out our house, packed a tiny sliver of our possessions into four packing cubes inside a large backpack, strapped on our water shoes and hit the road for the adventure of a lifetime–six months of uninterrupted travel! We have now been traveling together for exactly five weeks and we’re delighted to share that we still like each other!!
We’d come to learn that this sort of deep, bold and soulful flavor was uniquely Oaxacan, and was pervasive throughout their history, cuisine & art. They have a fascinating history of protest and human rights advocacy that permeates the art all throughout the city – from the large format street murals to the gallery walls in fine art museums. It is dark and expressive with lots of skulls, fire, protest depiction & political symbols. Learning more about this history brought new meaning to the intense flavors of mole and mezcal.
We continued our journey on a 7-hour drive almost entirely on mountain roads with dramatic switchbacks to the coast of Oaxaca (Eric drove and Sarah passed out on drowsy Dramamine). Over the next week, we made stops at three beach towns: Puerto Escondidio, Mazunte, and Playa Bocana. Puerto Escondido prevails for its cliff-like coast line and amazing street entertainment (imagine our surprise when a man with a guitar and an amp shows up on the beach, usually a nightmare scenario at any Bay Area park, and ends up providing the most perfect sunset vibes)!
Mazunte gave us some good laughs because its “hippie” vibe is out of control and almost cartoonish; you’re weird if you actually wear shoes around town/on hikes, and if you don’t like acai and bulle proof coffee you need to get your ass out of there. But, thankfully, we (gladly) dabble in some aspects of the hippie lifestyle, so the vegan nomz, acai bowls & a two-hour (very stinky) yoga class were a welcome change-of-pace. Eric even bought a turquoise pendant (maybe a Buddhist symbol? We’re not sure; we’re posers) there that he wears most days now as a lucky charm 🙂
And the last stop on the Oaxacan beach tour was La Bocana; a true surprise gem. It is a tiny town with just two restaurants, one boutique hotel and several local women who provide mud scrubs (with the special mud from this beach) daily.
Our cute little airbnb was a mere 50 yards from a spectacular long stretch of beach that felt like it was all ours. And when we started exploring the beach, we’d come to discover that a 15-minute walk up the beach led to the intersection of a gorgeous river with the ocean; which was utterly picturesque and made for a best-of-both-worlds situation of enjoying the beach while swimming in the calm of the river. During our short stay at La Bocana beach, we made both sunset and sunrise pilgrimages to this beautiful spot. Anyone who knows Eric knows he can’t resist a sunrise/sunset swim. And we ate delicious camarones a la diabla (shrimp in spicy sauce) and fresh langosta from that river basically every meal there, happily.
The return to Mexico City was a happy one because we were excited to spend more time exploring and Sarah’s mom Marci came to join for a week! Major highlights included visiting a Luis Barragan house, discovering more neighborhoods/parks & going to the Mexico vs. El Salvador World Cup qualifying futbol game (where we tried nearly every food item sold in the stadium.. even Cup of Noodles with shrimp & hot sauce which yes, is cold and soggy by the time they sell it to you at your seat!)
Another gem we discovered in Mexico City is the weekly shut down of major streets on Sundays (up to 50km we learned) to promote safe and uninterrupted biking/running/roller blading. We stumbled upon this by accident in our first CDMX stint, and were so excited to show Sarah’s mom! We went basically the entire route out to the big park, down to the neighborhood of Coyoacan, and back. Mexico City is truly as lovely and vibrant as everyone says it is. It’s like the best of both worlds of East and West Coast US cities; it has the serendipitous cosmopolitan feel of NYC with the wide open green spaces of LA/SF. Everyone is in love with Mexico City these days and it’s obvious why.
Last stop on the tour landed us in San Miguel de Allende, a shorter 3-4 hour drive from Mexico City. San Miguel is a very charming town, known for its colonial architecture which drew many artists in the 20th century. It’s a must to find a terrace to enjoy the sunset, taking in the gorgeous pink church and red rooftops while obliging every other couple’s request for a photo (Eric is a hot commodity because he takes multiple angles and never skimps on the portrait mode). Eric did finally succumb to the first round of food poisoning of the trip here (which is shocking given what he’d eaten in the previous 4+ weeks), though he recovered in a day and we’re happy to report that Sarah’s stomach of steel is still going strong (knock on wood).
Eric and Sarah in San Miguel de Allende, get ready to continue their around-the-world odyssey in Asia.
At the present moment, we’re in Seoul after a failed attempt at Vietnam entry (and over 50 straight hours of travel), but were super stoked to begin the Asia chapter of our travels, where Sarah’s love for headbands and bucket hats is bound to flourish. It’s crazy and refreshing how “home” has become having each other, and our backpacks….
Global Scavenger Hunt teams arrive in New York City for the last leg of the
Global Scavenger Hunt, a mystery tour that has taken us to 10 countries in 23
Chalmers, the ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of this around-the-world
mystery tour, has designed the rules, challenges and scavenges to get us out of
our comfort zone and immerse us in a culture, fine-tune our skills as world
travelers, and most significantly, “trust in the kindness of strangers.”
in New York, he is delighted all 10 teams circumnavigated the world “in one
piece” without dramatic incident, in this, the 15th annual
Global Scavenger Hunt competition.
There is one more challenge in New York (an easy urban Par 1), and even though, based on points and placement, the winners of the 15th annual, 2019 edition of the Global Scavenger Hunt have been determined, still the teams go out and give it their all. The four teams still in contention must complete at least one of the scavenges in New York, and complete their time sheet and hand in by the 4 pm deadline.
Examples of the scavenges: take in a Yankees game or a Broadway show (actually difficult because of the deadline of 4 pm); have one of each of following: a New York bagel, a New York hot dog, a New York deli sandwich, a slice of New York pizza, New York cheesecake, a New York egg cream, or an old-fashion Manhattan; locate five pieces from five of the nations you just visited in the Met; visit Strawberry Fields to pay John Lennon tribute; do one scavenge in each of the five boroughs of New York City.
A native New Yorker, this is really
my turf, though there is the oddest sensation of feeling like I am in a foreign
place, reminding myself of what is familiar and not having to think twice about
things like language, currency, drinking water from the tap, eating raw
vegetable, the street grid).
fact, that is the genius of the way the Global Scavenger Hunt is designed – we
are supposed to feel off-balance, disoriented because that’s when you focus
most, the experiences are more intense, you are out of your comfort zone and
need to rely on the kindness of strangers, as opposed to the style of travel
where you stay long enough to become familiar, comfortable in a place so it (and
you) no longer feels foreign.
I elect to take up the challenge of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to seek out objects from five of the countries we visited (Canada, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Greece, Morocco, Gibraltar, Portugal, Spain). Greece will be easy, of course, but Morocco and Jordan (Petra), Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) are trickier. It is Chalmers’ way of making us experience things on a different level, and for me, it brings together so much of what we’ve seen, learned and experienced along the way. I have a context in which to appreciate the artifacts, dare I say a personal connection. Indeed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art enables you to travel around the world, be transported over millennia, within the confines of its walls.
I first join a docent-led Highlights
Tour, knowing from past experience that these always lead me to parts of the
museum I am unfamiliar with, and enlighten me about aspects of art and culture
with the in-depth discussion of the pieces the docents select to discuss.
The docent, Alan, begins in the
Greco-Roman exhibit with a stunning marble sculpture of the Three Graces,
showing how this theme – essentially copied from the Greek bronzes (which no
longer exist because the bronze was valuable and melted down for military use)
– was repeated over the eons, into the Renaissance and even beyond. Greece. One
finding an object from Greece would be easy, and I hope to find objects from
Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand in the Asia wing where there is a
massive collection of Buddhist art (it proves just a tad more difficult, but I
and Jordan (Petra) prove trickier than I expected, but bring me to an
astonishing, landmark exhibit, “The World Between Empires: Art and
Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” with an extraordinary focus on
the territories and trading networks of the Middle East that were contested
between the Roman and Parthian Empires (ca. 100 BC and AD 250) “yet across the
region life was not defined by these two superpowers alone. Local cultural and
religious traditions flourished and sculptures, wall paintings, jewelry and
other objects reveal how ancient identities were expressed through art.”
This is a goldmine for my hunt.
Featuring 190 works from museums in the Middle East, Europe and the United
States, the exhibition follows the great incense and silk routes that connected
cities in southwestern Arabia, Nabataea, Judea, Syria and Mesopotamia, that
made the region a center of global trade along with spreading ideas, spurring
innovations (such as in water control), and spawning art and culture. It is a
treasure trove for my scavenger hunt.
It is the most incredible feeling to come upon the objects from Petra, having visited the site (was it only 10 days ago?) and having a context for seeing these isolated objects on display. I recall seeing their counterparts in the newly opened Archaeological Museum at Petra.
The World Between Empires
landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in
the Ancient Middle East (unfortunately it is only on view through June
23, 2019), focuses on the remarkable cultural, religious and commercial
exchange that took place in cities including Petra, Baalbek, Palmyra and Hatra
between 100 B.C. and A.D. 250. “During this transformative period, the Middle
East was the center of global commerce and the meeting point of two powerful
empires—Parthian Iran in the east and Rome in the west—that struggled for
Among the highlights is a Nabataean
religious shrine, reconstructed from architectural elements in collections in
the United States and Jordan; the unique Magdala Stone, discovered in a
first-century synagogue at Migdal (ancient Magdala) with imagery that refers to
the Temple in Jerusalem; and wall paintings from a church in Dura-Europos that
are the earliest securely dated images of Jesus.
Sculptures from Baalbek illuminate
religious traditions at one of the greatest sanctuaries in the ancient Middle
East, and funerary portraits from Palmyra bring visitors face to face with
ancient people. The exhibition also examines important contemporary
issues—above all, the deliberate destruction and looting of sites including
Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra.
“The compelling works of art in this
exhibition offer a view into how people in the ancient Middle East sought to
define themselves during a time of tremendous religious, creative, and
political activity, revealing aspects of their lives and communities that
resonate some two millennia later,” stated Max Hollein, Director, The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a video that accompanies the exhibit. “Further,
in focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent
conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also
engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.”
The exhibition evokes a journey
along ancient trade routes, beginning in the southwestern Arabian kingdoms that
grew rich from the caravan trade in frankincense and myrrh harvested there and
used throughout the ancient world. Camel caravans crossed the desert to the
Nabataean kingdom, with its spectacular capital city of Petra, which I have
just visited, walking through very much as the caravan travelers would have.
From here, goods traveled west to
the Mediterranean and north and east through regions including Judaea and the
Phoenician coast and across the Syrian desert, where the oasis city of Palmyra
controlled trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world to Mesopotamia
and Iran and ultimately China. In Mesopotamia, merchants transported cargoes
down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined
maritime trade routes to India. These connections transcended the borders of
empires, forming networks that linked cities and individuals over vast
“Across the entire region, diverse
local political and religious identities were expressed in art. Artifacts from
Judaea give a powerful sense of ancient Jewish identity during a critical
period of struggle with Roman rule. Architectural sculptures from the colossal
sanctuary at Baalbek and statuettes of its deities reveal the intertwined
nature of Roman and ancient Middle Eastern religious practices. Funerary
portraits from Palmyra represent the elite of an important hub of global trade.
Wall paintings and sculptures from Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates
illustrate the striking religious diversity of a settlement at the imperial
frontier. And in Mesopotamia, texts from the last Babylonian cuneiform
libraries show how ancient temple institutions waned and finally disappeared
during this transformative period.”
From my visits in Athens and Petra,
particularly, I appreciate this synergy between trade, migration, environmental
sustainability and technology (in Petra’s Archaeology Museum, you learn how the
ability to control water supply was key to the city’s development) and the
links to economic prosperity and political power, and the rise of art, culture,
and community. (I recall the notes from the National Archaeology Museum in
Athens that made this very point.)
It is rare (if ever) for the
Metropolitan Museum to venture into the political, but a key topic within the
exhibition is the impact of recent armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen on
archaeological sites, monuments, and museums, including deliberate destruction
and looting. Some of the most iconic sites affected—Palmyra, Hatra, and
Dura-Europos—are featured in the exhibition, which discusses this damage and
raises questions regarding current and future responses to the destruction of
heritage. Should the sites be restored or will they now only exist “on paper”?
How much money and resources should go to restoring or excavation when villages
and homes for people to live in also need to be rebuilt?
There is a fascinating, if frantic,
presentation of three archaeologist/historians speaking about what the
destruction by ISIS and Islamic fundamentalists of Palmyra, Eura-Europos and
Hatra – what it means to destroy a people’s heritage, their cultural identity.
“It may seem frivolous to focus on [archaeological sites] when people are
enslaved, killed…but to wipe out, destroy culture is a way of destroying
Happening upon this exhibit made the
travel experiences we had to these extraordinary places all the more precious.
It is a humbling experience, to be
sure, to go to the origins of the great civilizations, fast forward to today.
How did they become great? How did they fall? Greatness is not inevitable or
forever. Empires rise and fall. Rulers use religion, art and monuments to
establish their credibility and credentials to rule; successors blot out the culture
and re-write history.
I peek out from the American Café windows to Central Park and see sun and the early spring blossoms on the trees, and dash out to walk through my other favorite New York City place. There is nothing more beautiful than New York City in the spring – brides are out in force taking photos; there are musicians and entertainers. There is a festive atmosphere as I walk through the park toward the Palace Hotel in time for our 4:30 pm meeting.
And now, drumroll please, Chalmers
announces the winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt: “Only one team wins.
The competition was fierce.”
third place is Order & Chaos, Sal Iaquinta & Vivian Reyes,
doctors from San Francisco.
second place, Lazy Monday, Eric & Kathryn Verwillow, computer networking
and think tank professional of Palo Alto, California “I am in awe of how hard
working, beginning to end – embracing the spirit,” Chalmers says.
the World’s Greatest Travelers of 2019: Lawyers Without Borders, Rainey
Booth and Zoe Littlepage of Houston, who have competed in the Global Scavenger
Hunt 12 times, and win it for their 6th time. “You
embody the spirit of the event, to go out of your comfort zone.” (You can
follow Zoe’s blog of her experience to get a sense of how strenuous,
outrageous, and determined the team was in accumulating their points: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019)
We celebrate at a final bon voyage
The Global Scavenger Hunt is the
brainchild of Bill and Pamela Chalmers, who in addition to forging
understanding and bonds among travelers and the people in the destinations
visited, use the program to raise money for the GreatEscape Foundation and
promote voluntourism – one of the scavenges in Yangon, Myanmar is to volunteer
at an orphanage or school; past GSH travelers visited and helped out at Tibetan
refugee camps in Nepal, orphanages in Laos, hospitals in Cambodia, homeless
schools in India, hospices in Manila, disabled facilities in Sri Lanka,
Ethiopian schools, the slums of Nairobi.
“The foundation is one of main
reasons we do the event,” Chalmers says at our final meeting before going out
for a celebration dinner. The foundation has raised money to build 12 schools
(1 each in Niger, Haiti, Ecuador, India & Ethiopia; 2 each in Sri Lanka
& Sierra Leone, and 3 in Kenya), helped build the Tamensa Medical Clinic in
Niger for migrating Tuareg nomads which serves as a midwives & nurse
training center too. “We know that we saved lives and bettered the lives of
hundreds. We have helped over 2400 families in more than 60 countries (mostly
women entrepreneurs) with our interest and fee free micro-loans (96% of which
have gone to women with a 99% repayment).”
Through the event this and last
year, the foundation will build 2 more co-ed elementary schools , in Ethiopia
Global Scavenger Hunt Set for April 17-May 9
Chalmers has just set the dates for the 23-day
2020 Global Scavenger Hunt: April 17-May 9, 2020. Entry applications are now
Eager Indiana Jones-types of adventurers and curious travelers wanting to test their travel IQ against other travelers in an extraordinary around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers, can apply at GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
The 2020 event will pit savvy international travelers against each other by taking them on A Blind Date with the World, visiting ten secret destinations without any prior preparation, and then have them unravel a constant blitz of highly authentic, participatory and challenging culturally-oriented scavenges along the way, like: meditating with monks, training elephants, taking flamenco lessons, cooking local dishes with local chefs, searching out Lost Cities, cracking sacred temple mysteries, joining in local celebrations, and learning local languages enough to decipher their scavenger hunt clues. Trusting strangers in strange lands will be their focus as they circle the globe for three weeks. Over the past 15 years, the event has touched foot in 85 countries.
The title of The World’s Greatest Travelers and free trip around the world to defend their titles in the 2021 event await the travelers worthy enough to win the 16th edition of the world travel championship.
Event participation is open but limited; the $25,000 per team entry fee includes all international airfare, First Class hotels, 40% of meals, and special event travel gear. All travelers are interviewed for suitability and single travelers are welcome to apply. For additional information visitGlobalScavengerHunt.com, or contact GreatEscape Adventures Inc. at 310-281-7809.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 [email protected]).
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).
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.
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, [email protected], 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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!?”
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Back in the bustling Jemaa el Fnasquare, 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
is a relatively easy Par 2 on the Global Scavenger Hunt, now midway through the
23-day around-the-world mystery tour. We have just 30 hours here, but our visit
will largely be shaped by the celebration of the Greek Orthodox Easter (we seem
to be hitting all the destinations on a religious holiday). We arrive on the
Greek Orthodox Good Friday and one of the challenges is to experience the
distinctive celebration. It’s hard to miss. Every church has a similar ritual.
I walk down from the Grand Hyatt Hotel where we have arrived in the midday, to
the Plaka, stopping to reflect on Hadrian’s Arch before I take the narrow
street that leads me to the 11th century Byzantine church, where
devotees are coming.
is particularly interesting, since so far on the Global Scavenger Hunt we have
been immersed in Buddhist culture, then Islamic. Athens is Christian, but it is
also the birthplace of democracy and Western Civilization, as it is known, and
the entranceway to Europe.
I feel very at ease, very comfortable here – partly because this is my third time in Athens and I have spent a relatively lot of time here, but also because it is, well, European, modern, hip, artful – even with its ongoing economic and political problems (though it seems to me the economy has much improved since my last visit).
I am waiting and watching, another of our GSH teams, Transformed
Travel Goddesses (aptly named in Athens), comes up the street and we watch
together. It turns out to be quite a long wait. I had been told
that at 7 pm, the priest comes out and the faithful ring the church. The
service is underway at 7 pm that we can hear from outside; the crowds really
thicken but it isn’t until 9 pm that the priest comes out, leading a
procession. People light candles and follow the procession of the cross and funerary
flowers through the streets.
join the crowd as they wind their way through the narrow streets below the
Acropolis, and when we turn to a different direction, we meet the procession
again. All the streets are flooded with similar processions – candles moving
like ripples of water through the narrow streets. People jam the outdoor
restaurants as well. We visit another small Byzantine church where the frescoes
are absolutely stunning.
next day, I immerse myself in Athens (some of the scavenges lead teams out to
the Peloponnese and the Theater of Epidaurus which I visited on a boat/bike
tour some years ago, and to accomplish them in the brief timeframe, rent a
car).I just want to soak in Athens. I have a list of four major places to
visit, starting with the Acropolis, then the historic Agora, the flea market at
Monasteraki (originally the Jewish quarter), and the National Archeological
walk from the Grand Hyatt to the Acropolis. I don’t have the luxury this time
of organizing my visit for the end of the day when the sunlight is golden and
the crowds are less, so fold myself into the crush of people, satisfied that so
many appreciate history and heritage.
can see the historic Agora from the Acropolis that commands Athens’ hilltop,
and I walk down the stone promenade.
historic Agora is one of the most fascinating archaeological sites and museums
anywhere and tremendously exciting to “discover” as you walk through the paths
lined with colonnades, statues, and come upon the ruins. Here you see the ruins
of what is in essence the “downtown” and Main Street of ancient Athens. The Agora was the political center for Athens, and because it was a
gathering place, also became a commercial center. Courts were held (though
capital crimes were tried outside its boundary, so the blood on a murderers’
hands not pollute the public space).
are the important institutions including what might be called the first
“parliament,” the Bouleuterion, where those
participating in the Assembly of the Five Hundred sat. I actually find
it more intriguing and interesting to explore than the Acropolis. Here in this
one site, is the essence of the Greek Republic that birthed democracy.
Walk down the boulevard lined with statues of Giants (in Greek tradition, Titans were first, then the Giants, then the Olympian gods), to a headless torso of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who respected and admired Athenian culture and enhanced it with his Library and other institutions, but threw Christians to the lions (and wasn’t so great for Jews, either).
The homage Athenians paid to him is indicated
by the decoration on his breastplate depicting the goddess Athena standing on a
wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. But
the headless statue was contemptuously thrown into the sewage ditch by early
Christians (who also defiled the Parthenon and most of the statues denoting
devotion to paganism), and only discovered in the sewer when they excavated. The
Hadrian Statue stands near the Bouleuterion, or Council House, where the 500
representatives of the 10 tribes met, would have been – in essence, the first
House of Parliament.
Above, on a hillside, is the beautiful Temple
of Hephaistos (5th C BC) but just to the side is believed to have been a
synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since
3rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC. This is based on finding etched
marble – in essence, a sign for the synagogue, which comes from the Greek words
“synagein,” which means “to bring together” and the same root word as
“agora” which means “a place of assembly.” (I learned this on my
previous trip, during a Context walking tour, which then led me to The Jewish Museum of Greece, where you
learn about Europe’s oldest Jewish settlement, 39 Nikis St., 105 57 Athens,
Greece, [email protected], www.jewishmuseum.gr).
You should allocate at least an hour or two at the Ancient Agora in order to have
time to visit a superb museum, housed in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, a
2nd C BC building that was restored in1952-56 by the American School of
Classical Studies to exhibit the artifacts collected at the site.
Artifacts on display show how citizens (a
minimum of 6000 were necessary) could vote to “ostracize” a politician
accused of corruption. You also see the lottery system used to pick jurors
(they paid 1/3 drachma to buy a strip in which to write their names, and if
selected, would receive a drachma pay), and the devices used to record their
verdict. There is an intriguing collection of small cups that were used by
prisoners sentenced to death to take hemlock, considered a more merciful end; one
of these cups could well have been used by Socrates, who was sentenced to death
for teaching the heresy of denying 12 gods at a time when paganism was the
official religion (he supported the idea of a single spirit, which makes me
think he might have been influenced by the Jewish community that was already
established in Athens).
tickets are available that provide access to the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum,
Ancient Angora and several other important sites.)
walk through the flea market at Monasteraki, which, interestingly like the
market next to the synagogue in Yangon, Myanmar, was originally Athens’ Jewish
Quarter, and through neighborhoods and shopping districts to reach the National
Archaeological Museum. The museum (which closes early at 4 pm because of Easter
Saturday, forcing me to rush through) has the most magnificent collection of
gold from Mycenae; statues, bronzes. I also come upon a special exhibit
examining the concept of “Beauty.”
You see the Golden Mask of King Agamemnon, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at
Mycenae in 1876 (which I learned from my last visit’s tour with a docent is
actually centuries older than Agamemnon’s reign, but they keep the name for
“marketing” purposes), and spectacular gold ornaments and funeral
objects that suggest a belief in an afterlife.
There are two of only five full-scale bronzes
left in the world: one, a national symbol of a standing god (Zeus or Poseidon,
it isn’t clear because the tool he would have held, a lightning bolt or a
trident, has been lost) was saved because the boat sank that was carrying it to
Rome to be melted down for weapons, and was found in 1926 by fisherman; the
other is a magnificent bronze statue, 1000 years old, of an African boy on a
racing horse made during the time of Alexander the Great, when the expansion of
Greek’s empire brought exotic themes into the art, that was saved by being
shipwrecked – it is so graceful, so elegant, so charged with energy, it looks
like it could run away.
There is also a vase with the first sentence
(or rather, the oldest known sentence) written in Greek language: “Now I belong
to the man who is the best dancer.” (I think to myself, what pressure on a
person to write the first sentence to go down in history! Or, for that matter,
the inventor of the “space” between words, which had not existed in
stay in the museum until they literally kick me out, fascinated to read the
descriptions, which I find enlightening and surprisingly current, with lessons
for today in the interplay between trade, migration, innovation, science and
social and political movements:
“In the 6th C BC, the Greeks dominated the
Mediterranean and the Black Sea….The impressive dispersion of the Greeks and
the founding of new Greek colonies and trading posts were the result of long
processes of migration…
nature of the economy underwent a radical change as a result of the growth of
trade. A new class of citizens emerged who were conscious of liberty and its
potential and now demanded the right to play an active role in the running of
public affairs. The 6th C BC saw the consolidation, after major
social upheavals and political changes, of the distinct personality of the
Greek city-state. Intense social disturbances set most of the cities on the
road to democratic constitutions, making an important stop along the way at the
institution of the tyranny.
liberty that was characteristic of the Greek way of life and which governed
their thinking finds eloquent expression in their artistic creations…Works of
art and artists moved freely along the trade routes. The wealth and power of
the city-states were expressed in the erection of monumental, lavishly adorned
temples and impressive public welfare works.
turned their attention to the natural world and to phenomena that gave rise to
philosophical speculation, formulative ideas such as those of matter, the atom,
force, space and time, and laying the foundations of science. Flourishing Ionia
was the region in which philosophy and science first evolved. By the end of the
century, the thriving Greek cities of Southern Italy and Sicily, known as Magna
Graecia, were sharing in these astounding intellectual achievements. At the
same time, the first prose works were written, taking the form of local
histories or geographies containing an abundance of mythological elements and
continuing the brilliant tradition of 7th century poetry.”
of the Easter holiday, and our limited time, and the fact that I have visited
twice before, I miss an otherwise not-to-be-missed Athens attraction, the New
walk through Athens is fabulous, taking me through neighborhoods, and I get to
see Athens’ gallery of street art, with its political and social tinge. Indeed,
taking photos of at least five street art murals is one of the scavenges (you
have to explain where you found them, 25 points).
back through the Plaka, I bump into Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of our 23-day
Global Scavenger Hunt, Pamela and their son Luka – it turns out to be a team
challenge to photograph them (whichever team sends in the photo first wins the
been a challenge to “see” Athens in just 30-hours, let alone venture out to the
Peloponnese. But our quick visits, one country, one culture, after the next,
paints the rarest of pictures of our common humanity in our mind’s eye. We are
becoming global citizens.
helps us along with the design of his scavenges, and in each location, he
provides language sampler (for Athens, he offers “I am sorry”, “what is your
name,” “Can you speak more slowly,” as well as icebreakers to start
conversations with a local, and questions to ponder.
walk back to the hotel to meet several of us who are sharing a van to get back
to the airport. Our deadline and meeting place is 8:30 pm at the airport.
to Marrakech, Morocco.
Excellent visitor planning tools of Athens are at www.thisisathens.org. Also, the Athens Visitor Bureau offers a wonderful program that matches visitors with a local Athenian volunteer who goes beyond the traditional guidebook sights to take you to local neighborhoods, http://myathens.thisisathens.org/
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.)
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
…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!
are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery tour and en route to
Athens for a 30-hour challenge.
all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things, trust strangers, found
balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace that,” Bill Chalmers, says.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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!
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
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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?)
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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.)
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.
My walk lets me revel in the
skyscape. I come upon an intriguing road sign pointing toward the Federal
Authority for Nuclear Regulation.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.”
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
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
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 ).
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
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.
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.
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.
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