is only a two-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Yangon (formerly
known as Rangoon), Myanmar, the third leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day
around-the-world mystery tour. We arrive at our five-star hotel, the Sule
Shangri-la, around noon. We will have our meeting at 2:30 pm when we will get
our booklets, spelling out the challenges we will face in the Golden Land.
60 years closed to the world, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was only
reopened to the outside world in 2011, so I am most intrigued to see it for
myself. The country has also received horrible press over the persecution of
the Rohingya people, which raises controversy for Bill Chalmers, who
meticulously organizes the Global Scavenger Hunt. But it encapsulates his
philosophy, bordering on religion, that appreciates travel as a way of forging
understanding, bringing people together and yes, fostering progress and change.
Throughout this Global
Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date With the World” – where we don’t know where we
are going next until we are told when to go to the airport or get ourselves
there, and along the way, complete scavenges and challenges – we are
encouraged, even forced, to “rely on the kindness of strangers,” to interact
with local people even when we can’t understand each other’s language. (Towards
this end, using cell phones or computers to research, access maps or GPS is not
Though it is a conceit
to think we can parachute into places and understand the nuances of complex
issues, travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding
of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly,
not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways.
In very real ways,
travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. Isolating people is not how
change happens – that only hardens views and makes people susceptible to
fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human
history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.
Chalmers offers this to ponder: The point of a travel boycott is
to force a government to reform their ways (corruption, human rights, democracy
and such) is based on the concept that tourism income mostly goes into the
hands of government, not the people, so enables their power and policy. But
others believe that tourism is not only economically helpful to locals, giving
them the means to improve their living conditions, but vital to pro-democracy,
humanitarian movements because of the two-way flow of information.
balance, Chalmers tells us, “I don’t like the idea of a boycott. Travelers are
serving as ambassadors, doing fact-finding. This country is emerging from decades
of isolation – there are problems, humanitarian problems on a large scale. It
is a troubled country with great suffering.
witness for yourself. Enjoy the rich culture, the people, play journalist,
bea reporter, have conversations, learn
and gain perspective. Parachuting in can’t give you full expertise. All acquire
more accurate idea, local perception. Talk with locals, see for yourself.
issue with not coming is you paint a broad picture about everyone. When we
travel, a lot of people disagree with our government but don’t take it out
against us as individuals. We practice diplomacy of engagement. Not coming
won’t change minds but possibly, coming can help change minds.” I contemplate
that point: imagine if the people we meet as we go around the world held us
personally responsible for caging migrant children and keeping parents
separated in conditions that wouldn’t meet the Geneva Conventions requirements
is breathtakingly beautiful,” Bill tells us. “Say yes to things. There are
extraordinary sights.” But he isn’t naïve. Anticipating the problems,
frustrations we will have, he gives us a list of to-do’s and don’ts (buy food
and water before getting on a train, ferry or bus; Myanmar roads are among the
most dangerous; have a safe word between
teammates that is code for “danger.” Travel,
he says, is about “conquering fears, heat, holidays.” Indeed, the fact it is
Myanmar’s New Year’s Day and many services are closed becomes a major issue for
The Global Scavenger Hunt is also about teamwork, and one of the rules is that you can’t separate from your teammate (Chalmers actually feels very guilty about the possible friction the competition can foment in couples). So, though we are not officially competing for points, I go along with my teammate, Margo, who wants to travel to Mandalay instead of Inle Lake, which I become extremely excited to see after hearing about this enchanting place, after visiting the temple city of Bagan.
learn that the Myanmar leg is designated a Par 5 (very tough, the highest is
Par 6). The challenge we are given is to spend the next two nights on our own,
that we have to go to two of the three cities (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle
Lake), but can only take two flights (necessitating ground transportation between
two cities of the triangle) and have to be back to The Sule Shangri-la in
Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday. Chalmers spends much of the time spelling out the
special rules for this leg of the contest, the winner of which is designated
“World’s Greatest Traveler”.
“Today the real travel test will begin. Our teams collective travel savvy and travel IQ will be tested here in Myanmar… in this daunting, breathtaking, frustrating, exhilarating haunting, sacred, dynamic, traditional, thrilling, rapidly changing (and I could go on and on) destination! It will be an interesting four days. Have fun and be safe folks,” Chalmers writes on the Global Scavenger Hunt blog.
We spend the next 3 1//2 hours organizing where and how we will travel to Bagan, Mandalay and back to Yangon. Under the rules of the contest, we are not allowed to use our own computers or phones to book flights or hotels, or even the hotel concierge, but have to go out and find a travel agent. That proves problematic because of the holiday, but Kim says that a fellow on the street has told her where there is a travel agency. Sure enough, he is waiting for us on the street (internal warning light goes off) to walk us down dinghy alleys to the agency which looks and smells like a hovel. Another team is already there, handing over a wad of cash, since the agency isn’t accepting a credit card (ostensibly because of the holiday). I get nervous and suggest we leave, and make the bookings on our own (since we are not competing, we can use our computers). But this proves an interesting experience.
By the time we finish, I only have time to walk down a modern boulevard to the Sule Pagoda, which sits at the center of the city as well as the city’s political and economic life.
According to legend, the stupa was built even before the
more famous Shwedagon Pagoda
during the time of the Buddha, which would make it more than 2,600 years old.
The Sule Pagoda served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and the
2007 Saffron Revolution.
the last day of the New Year celebration and place is packed with people
bringing offerings, lighting candles and spilling water at their Weekday
shrine. It is dusk when I arrive, and I watch the moon rise and the sky deepen
in color to azure blue, the brilliant gold of the pagoda a blazing contrast. A
guide immediately comes up to me to offer to take me around and checks his book
to see exactly what day of the week I was born, so I know which is my shrine
(Thursday is my shrine; the mouse is my animal); he shows me a photo of
President Obama striking one of the bells during his visit here.
the way back, I walk across a bridge that spans the boulevard for a sensational
photo of the pagoda.
have yet to see the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Fortunately, I will have more time
to explore Yangon when we return on Saturday.
are up at 4 am to leave at 5 am for the airport for a 7 am flight to Bagan on
Golden Airlines. The hotel has very kindly packed a to-go breakfast. It turns
out several of us are going on the same flight to Bagan.
morning in clearer light, having become entranced by the description of Inle
Lake, a villages built on stilts and only accessible by boat, and hearing one
team discuss the overnight bus they will take from Bagan to Inle Lake, I decide
to go on my own to Inle Lake instead of to Mandalay. But that depends on
whether I can get seat on all-night bus, a hotel in Inle Lake and a flight from
Inle Lake on Saturday morning to be back in time for the 6 pm meeting/deadline.
Saigon is the second leg of nine
during a 23-day, around-the-world Global Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date with the
World,” where we don’t know where we are going until we are given 4-hour
notice. Under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules, you are not allowed to use a
phone or computer for information or reservations, hire a private guide, or
even use a taxi for more than 2 scavenges at a time, since the object is to
force you to interact with locals. Though we were not officially competing for
“World’s Best Travelers,” my teammate, Margo (who I only met on this trip) and
I basically followed the rules in Vancouver and during our first day in Vietnam,
but we had to deviate on the second day.
It is shortly before 4 pm in Ho Chi
Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, by the time we have received our book of scavenges
from Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt ringmaster (as he likes to be
called), who has ranked Vietnam a “Par 3” in difficulty (on a scale of 1-6),
strategized what scavenges we will undertake, and after a swim in the hotel’s
pool (so hot even the pool was like a bathtub), we head out of the Majestic
Hotel, a five-star historic property, toward Ben Thank Market, one of the
scavenges on the list.
Built in 1870 by the French who
colonized Vietnam for 100 years, it is where then and now, you can find locals
and tourists alike, with row after row after row chock-a-block full of almost
everything imaginable. (Be prepared to bargain aggressively; the shopkeepers
are even more aggressive). I come away with a few things I can’t bear to pass
up, when Margo realizes a second scavenge we can accomplish: tasting three
separate fruits (there is heavy emphasis on “experience” scavenges that involve
food, and Vietnam, Bill says, is one of the great food places in the world).
We find a fruit stand and sure
enough, there are fruits I have never seen before, including one, called dragon
fruit, which looks like it was divined by JK Rowling for Harry Potter; the
others we sample: rambutan, mangosteen, longan. We are standing around these
ladies, asking them to cut open the various fruits so we can sample them to
complete the scavenge, taking the photos we need to document.
Among the other scavenges on the
list here in the market: to find a cobra in jar of alcohol; the tackiest
souvenir in market; and a wet market (which befuddles most of us and turns out
to be the meat market which is hosed down).
We ask locals for directions to our next stop: the Water
Puppet Show of Vietnam at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater. It seems
walkable but we get lost along the way (technically we can’t use the GPS on the
phone, but we aren’t competing – we still get lost) and are simply amazed at
the rush and crush of mopeds (mainly) and cars in this city of 9 million where
there are an estimated 7 million scooters, and the range of what people carry
on them without a second thought. I literally stand in a traffic island to get
the full view.
We are also amazed we are able to
function having departed Vancouver, Canada, for Vietnam at 2 am for a 14-hour
flight to Taipei, followed by an hour lag time before a 3-hour connection to
Saigon. Time has become a very fluid, meta thing.
But we forge on (the secret to
avoiding being taken down by jet lag is to stay up until bedtime). This is also
on the scavenger list and as it turns out, we meet several other teams from our
The performance proves fabulous and unexpected – the puppets actually emerge out of water; water is their platform. There is musical accompaniment on traditional instruments and the musicians also become the characters and narrators and sing. This is quite an outstanding cultural performance – the artistry and imaginativeness of the puppets (who swim, fish, plant rice which then grows, race boats, dance, catch frogs and do all sorts of things with incredible choreographed precision, is incredible.
These seem to be folk stories, and the music is traditional. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand Vietnamese. It confounds me how they do such precise choreography from the water (the puppeteers are behind a gauze curtain; controlling with bubble wands horizontally). The artistry is magnificent and the experience an utter delight. (Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, 558 Ngyuyen Thi Minh Kahi Street, Dist.1, HCMC, www.goldendragonwaterpuppet.com).
From there, we take a taxi to hit
another scavenge, going to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitesco Financial Tower, which
affords beautiful scenes of Saigon. From here, all you see is a very modern
city. Many of the buildings below are decorated in colored lights. This is an
example of modern Saigon that is rising. (Skydeck senior rate $5; some places have
senor rates, others don’t, so ask)
at the Hotel Majestic, we go up to the 8th floor M
Club, a delightful rooftop bar, where there is a band playing. The open-air
views of the Saigon River and the skyline are just magnificent. Margo orders a
“Majestic 1925” which is Bourbon, infused orange, sweet vermouth, Campari,
orange bitter, orange zest, and smoked – the whole process done on a table
brought to us, as a crowd gathers to watch the mixocologist light a torch to
generate the smoke. Quite a scene.
Day 2 in Vietnam: Confronting the Horrors of War
my first afternoon and evening in Ho Chi Minh City was devoted to seeing the
city as it is today – albeit dotted with centuries old buildings, markets and
heritage – the second day is a somber, soul-searching journey back in time.
Indeed, as I wander around the city, you don’t see any obvious scars of the
One of the signature sights of a
visit to Ho Chi Minh City is the Cu Chi Tunnels. My teammate Margo has already
been there and doesn’t want to return, but I feel duty-bound to see it for
myself. I wake up early and go down to
the hotel concierge to see if I can get on the 7:30 am half-day trip to the Cu
we travel outside through the city, the guide points out sights and gives us a
history of Vietnam, going back to the Chinese who came in the 1600s, the French
who came later, the Vietnam War and the aftermath, while hardly disguising resentment of the
North Vietnamese who have flooded into the city since the war. Ho Chi Minh City has grown from a city of 2 million to 9
million today, with 7 million scooters (here, instead of Uber car, you summon a
an opportunity to see more of the city and soon we are in the countryside,
traveling through small villages and farms where we see cemeteries, markets,
houses, a few animals, rubber plantations. We see new agricultural techniques
being used on farms and pass an agricultural research center. It is about an
The Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense
network of connecting tunnels located in the
Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which the
Viet Cong used to launch guerrilla warfare against the Americans during the
Vietnam War. The site has over 120 km of underground tunnels with trapdoors,
living areas, storage facilities, armory, hospitals, and command centers, and
were used going back to 1948 against the French, and later against the
The visit is profound, and though
the script is written by the victors, is appropriate to represent the side that
wanted to push out colonists (though in retrospect, I realized that there was
no real mention of the fact that the South Vietnamese leadership didn’t want
the Communist North Korean leadership to take over, either – nothing is simple,
especially not in the world of geopolitics).
You have to appreciate the
commitment and courage and sacrifice of the Viet Cong in living the way they
did – creating a virtually self-sufficient underground community, planting
booby traps for the Americans, repurposing unexploded bombs into weapons and
old tires into sandals, cooking only at night and channeling the smoke to come
up in a different place (where it would look like morning steam, so not to give
away the location of the tunnels).
We get to climb into a tunnel, and
can go 20, 40, 60, 80 up to 160 meters, seeing just how tiny they were – you
have to crouch all the way through and sometimes even crawl. It is hot,
uncomfortable, you feel claustrophobic and it is a bit terrifying.
Our tour guide leads us through – he
is incredibly kind and considerate. He gives special attention to the children
who are visiting – grabs them when they want to go down into a tunnel where he
fears there could be scorpions (he shows us carcasses), snakes or rats.
There is also a shooting range where
you can shoot an AK 47 or M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire
gives you some sense of what the people were living through. There was a
hospital, a sewing area where they would make uniforms, there is a trap door to
escape. We see where they would have made sandals from old tires. We watch a
woman demonstrate making rice paper; another at a sewing machine where she
would be making uniforms, a rifle hung close by on the wall.
All of these things which we see
above ground are recreated from what they would have looked like underground.
There were also constant bombings –
B-52s could fly from the base in just two minutes time.
We get a sense of that in
documentary-style films that are presented at the end. The film uses grainy
black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save
the Fatherland from US aggression, which basically depicts much of what we have
visited in the tunnels, but as these places were used during the war. I must
say that as gruesome as the film is, the only “propaganda” element is that it
does not discuss the civil war between North and South Vietnam, only that the
war was perpetrated by the Imperialist United States.
Many of the scenes show women and
girls as soldiers. “They took unexploded bombs and turned them into their own
weapons; they took from the Americans the new guns but never stopped using
traditional weapons – the traps devised to hunt animals were used against the
American enemy… Every person can be a hero. They had to live in poverty but
wouldn’t retreat. A rifle in one hand, a plow in the other. Attacked in the
morning, they farmed at night so they had enough food to win the war. The
Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into a dead zone, but they lived underground.”
what we see in the film looks exactly like what was put on view here. We see
people climbing through tunnels to the sound of gunfire.
and female enrolled to kill enemy..Cu Chi guerrillas would rather die and
become hero for killing Americans… never afraid of hardship to kill
Americans. In hardship, they came together.”
Believe it or not, they actually
make the experience as pleasant and as comfortable as possible, which somehow
masks the terror of the place. Children smile and laugh as they get to descend
through the camouflaged openings in the ground.
We leave the tunnels after spending about two hours here.
On the way back, the guide asks if we would like to make a detour to visit a factory, created by the government to employ people who were handicapped because of coming upon unexploded ordinance, or who had birth defects as a result of the chemical weapons used against the Vietnamese. Originally the factory, 27-7 HCMC.Co.Ltd, produced cigarettes, but today, Handicapped Handicrafts produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered and inlaid items.
returning to Saigon, I go off to continue my theme – visiting the buildings
that the French built, starting with the magnificent Post Office (where I wind
up spending close to an hour choosing from a stunning array of post cards,
buying stamps and writing the cards, the sweat streaming down my face and
stinging my eyes so that a nice lady hands me a tissue). Then onto the
Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at
4), so I go on to the War Remnants Museum.
have trouble following the map, so when I ask directions of a young man, he
leads me through back alleys to the entrance of the museum, which I visit until
it closes at 6 pm, because there is so much to see and take in.
You should begin on the third level, which provides the “historic truths” (actually the background) for the Vietnam War, which more or less accurately presents the facts. On this level is a most fascinating exhibit that presents the work of the multinational brigade of war correspondents and photographers, along with a display of the dozens who were killed in the war.
The photos are presented in an extraordinary way: showing the photo, then providing notes about the background, the context of the image, and the photographer. Here too, the language (which was probably produced by the news organizations that put on the exhibit), was accurate. Among them is the famous, Pulitzer-prize winning photo of “Napalm Girl” where, for the first time, I notice the soldiers walking along as this young girl is coming down the road in terror, their demeanor in such jarring contrast to these fleeing Vietnamese. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame and wonder why there has never been accountability for war crimes.
only gets worse on the second level, where the atrocities committed during war
are provided in the sense of artifacts, and details that could have, should
have properly been used at war crimes trials. But none took place. Another
exhibit documents the effects of Agent Orange.
The first floor, which should be
visited last, addresses the Hanoi Hilton, the place where American prisoners of
war, including Senator John McCain, were kept. Here, though, is where it can be
said the propaganda offensive takes place – there are photos showing a female
nurse bandaging an American’s head wounds, the caption noting how she had put
down her gun in order to care for him. This exhibit brings things up to date,
with the visits of President Clinton in 1994; in another section, it notes that
Clinton’s visit brought the end of economic sanctions, and with the country’s
shift to market economy, produced revitalization, as measured by the boom in
But on the bottom floor, they show
photos of Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.
This floor also has an exhibit
devoted to the peace movement in the US and around the world, with some famous
incidents, such as the shooting of the Kent State four. There is a photo of John Kerry, who
went on to be a Senator, Secretary of State and candidate for president, testifying to Congress in his military
uniform, on the necessity of immediate and unilateral. “how do you ask a man to be the last man to
dies in Vietnam? How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
special exhibition, “Finding Memories” attempts to recreate the struggle of the
people of Hanoi and Haiphong to overcome the pain and loss of war. “It helps
those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane
wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in the
‘Hilton-HaNoi’. Finding Memories is an opportunity for Vietnamese people to
develop greater pride for their victory – a 20th century miracle;
for American pilots to recall a serene period of their lives; as well as for
each and every visitor to understand the severe destruction and painfully grim
nature of war, in order to call for all people to work together and dedicate
our efforts to build a world of peace and love.”
are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.
I look around for an American who
might have served in Vietnam to get an impression, but did not find anyone, and
saw a few Vietnamese (most of the visitors were Americans or Europeans), but
only one or two who might have been alive during that time and wondered what
they thought. Clearly the conclusion of the displays was in favor of
reconciliation when just as easily, and using a heavier-handed propagandist
language, could have stoked hatred. The exhibit is careful not to paint all
Americans and not even all American soldiers as monsters but one photo caption
is particularly telling: it shows an American hauling off an ethnic minority,
noting “American troops sent to the battlefield by conscription knew nothing
about Vietnam, thought the Cambodia people of ethnic minorities were living
near Cambodia were collaborators for the enemy.”
I leave feeling that the experience
is close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and
remorse that is deserved.
meet at 8:30 pm to hand in our score sheets and share stories – one team got up
at 5 am in order to get to the floating market; a team was able to get on the
street market food tour, where they take you around by scooter (they only take
8 and it was closed out); another took a cooking class.
get our notice of where we are going next:
be up at 6 am for 7 am bus to airport for 9:35 flight…. to Myanmar!
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I had last visited Vancouver, British Columbia, when it was the departure point for an Alaska cruise, and learned too late (from photos in the airport) about Capilano Suspension Bridge. That image stayed in my mind, and I always felt a loss not having seen it for myself. So, when I learned that our Global Scavenger Hunt – a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour where you don’t know where you are going until they tell you to get to the airport – was starting in Vancouver BC, I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity twice. I arranged to arrive a day ahead to be sure to have time to visit. And even after years of built-up anticipation, the attraction was even better than I imagined.
Capilano Suspension Bridge, it turns out, is a sanctuary to nature, and so much more than one (albeit) spectacular bridge, high above a rushing river – it isn’t just the view of the bridge, its setting, but actually walking over it and feeling it bounce and roll that is so sensational. You feel it through your entire body.
The bridge suspends you 230 feet above the Capilano River (that would be shoulder height of the Statue of Liberty), and is 450-feet long. It was built to hold 200,000 lbs. (that is the trepidation most people have as they cross), which means it can hold 1300 people standing on it at the same time, or parade 96 elephants across.
But it turns out that this is an entire nature park, with many “attractions” that enable you to become immersed in nature – the relatively new Tree Tops Adventure, which is a network of bridges that let you walk in the canopy of a rainforest and a new Cliff Walk, another network of bridges set out from the cliffs that make you feel like you are dangling over the gorge. All throughout, there are signposts that inform you about the trees, the rocks. It pays homage to sustainability – not just of nature, but as a tourist attraction that minimizes its impact and promotes consciousness.
I was surprised at the heritage aspect of Capilano – its homage to the First Peoples who inhabited this area – stunning totem poles in addition to a display about the original founders and how Capilano Suspension Bridge came to be – how the first owner, George Grand MacKay, purchased 6000 acres for $1 in 1889 (the land is now worth over $1 million), and built his house on the wrong side of the river. A civil engineer, he built a rope bridge, and then people wanted to visit. George Grant MacKay was a visionary who, as Park Commissioner for Vancouver, also set aside the land for Stanley Park, North America’s third largest urban park nestled in the heart of Vancouver. He sold off 27 acres to a guy who changed the rope to cable and charged visitors 10c to cross. (There is a wonderful love story that is also part of the history).
It’s been a paid attraction since 1907, employing just a single gatekeeper.
Today’s Capilano Suspension Bridge has been a family-run business for the past 60 years. Nancy Stippard’s father, Rae Mitchell, bought the bridge in 1953 and 30 years later sold it to his daughter.
The bridge was torn down and rebuilt in 1956 with thick cable (it took just five days to install), but under the ownership of Nancy Stippard, beginning in 1983, went through a major transition – her vision was to enable visitors to walk in the trees to get a perspective like a squirrel, so she created Tree Tops Adventure; then in 2010, she had a vision to walk along the cliffs, so created the Cliff Walk.
When Nancy took over the park in 1983, admissions totaled 175,000 visitors a year. Today, the Park sees 1.2 million visitors annually. Vancouver’s oldest attraction is one of its most popular and has won many awards including British Columbia’s Best Outdoor Attraction in 1999 and 2000.
On Treetops Adventure, you venture from one magnificent old growth Douglas-fir to another on a series of seven elevated suspension bridges, some reaching 33-metre (110 feet). Some of the trees, we learn, are 1500 years old; we meet “Grandma Capilano,” the tallest tree at 250 feet high and 1300 years old. History and nature guides, signage and interactive human and natural history exhibits throughout the park help guests in their understanding of rainforest ecosystems and the sustainability of this environment. As I walk, I am literally euphoric breathing in the pure, cool air.
Treetops Adventure was the first of its kind in North America when it opened: some 700 feet of cabled suspension bridges link eight Douglas fir trees; at its highest point, you get the perspective from 110 feet above the forest floor. The towering Douglas-fir trees showcased by the attraction range in height from 130 to 300 feet tall – equivalent to a 20-story high-rise.
To protect the fragile forest during construction, the elements were crafted off-site by hand, then brought into place with pulleys and ropes.
The bridges themselves are constructed of hemp netting, wooden planks protected with environmentally-friendly preservatives and other natural products, reflecting and enhancing its surrounding rainforest environment; antique wooden beams and pegs lend a unique historical flavor to the attraction’s handcrafted, two-story Treehouse.
Treetops Adventure is an engineering marvel: an innovative compression system safely secures each tree’s observation platform using only 20 pounds of force per square inch, or the amount of pressure exerted by pressing your thumb on a tabletop.
There is a lovely café tucked into the forest on a platform amid the Treetops Adventure.
The Park’s newest attraction, Cliffwalk, follows a granite precipice along Capilano River with a series of narrow cantilevered bridges, stairs and platforms extending 700 feet. The granite formations are 160 million years old, dating back to the Mesozoic Age. At the highest point, you are 300 feet above the Capilano River – making for a thrilling experience. Cliffwalk is high and narrow and, in some sections, open metal grates are all that separate guests from the canyon far below. With just an 11-square meter environmental footprint (about as much as a parking stall), Cliffwalk is unobtrusive as it winds its way on a heart-stopping cliff-side journey through rainforest vegetation. Educational signage along the route shares information provided by the David Suzuki Foundation, speaks to the delicate interaction between water, granite, salmon, flora and fauna, broadening the experience.
After rappelling down the east face of Capilano Canyon into jungle-like ferns and mosses, John Stibbard, Capilano Suspension Bridge’s VP of Operations and Nancy’s son, conceived his plan to give this thrilling ecological experience. With only 16 anchor points in the granite cliff supporting the structure; It can support 100,000 pounds, the weight of 35 killer whales.
Cliffwalk is environmentally sensitive. No two bridges, platforms or stairs are alike – each piece of Cliffwalk is custom-fabricated. The signature 7-shaped bridge utilized a first-of-its-kind construction technique that relied upon 3D digital information to establish the geometry for each segment of Cliffwalk.
The visitor facilities are fabulous – really restful and appropriate for the place. There is a trading post (absolutely superb items and crafts), an ice cream shop, a fudge shop, a café, tucked along the cliffs.
Come early in order to maximize the perfect peace of this place.
Capilano operates a free shuttle bus service from downtown Vancouver – five in the off season, up to 11 departures a day in summer that makes it a pleasure to make the day trip (there are also public buses that go). We took the first shuttle at 8:35 am. The driver turned it into a narrated tour for our benefit because of the questions we were asking over the course of a delightful, 40-minute drive. As we cross over the bridge (designed by the same guy who built San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge), he tells us to look below to see a First Peoples reservation – or actually a residential community.
There are several pick-up points. We caught the bus at Library Square (go inside, it is spectacular), just a five-minute walk from the Victorian Hotel (built in 1896, an absolute gem which serves breakfast).
We are among the first to arrive at Capilano and the only sound we hear is the rushing water below the bridge.
Walking through the forest of Douglas fir, you feel so small. If you are there early, you can feel the peace of the woods that the Native peoples who first lived here must have felt.
The signposts are very informative, and get you in the spirit. “Take a moment.” “Breathe In.” “Water is the lifeblood of the environment.”
Another sign notes that in one year, the Capilano Rainforest of 7 acres can absorb the same amount of carbon that is emitted by a car driven across the continent 19 times.
“Rainforests are sometimes referred to as the Earth’s lungs, and they are responsible for 28% of the world’s oxygen turnover…Just one of these giant trees releases enough oxygen to support a family of four.”
The atmosphere is so vivifying, we saw a marriage proposal during our visit as we walk through the Treetops Adventure.
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. That is exactly what I am feeling when I find this signpost.
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” William Blake’s words seem particularly relevant today.
We explore on our own, and then catch one of the complimentary guided tours offered hourly within the park. We take the history tour that offers an interactive synopsis to the attraction’s colorful past including the endeavors of past owners (one chapter is a love story), the involvement of local First Nations and information on the Capilano Suspension Bridge.
There are also guided nature tours, Kids’ Rainforest Explorer program and the Living Forest exhibit; seasonal musical entertainment and First Nations culture.
This place is reminiscent of San Francisco in other ways besides the bridge that takes you to Capilano that was built by the builder of the Golden Gate. Much like Muir Woods is a refuge for the urbanites crammed into the city, Capilano is a refuge for the city dwellers of Vancouver.
Every moment was precious and rejuvenating.
Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, 3735 Capilano Road, North Vancouver, BC, Canada V7R 4J1, 604-985-7474, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.capbridge.com.
Scavenger Hunt Begins
We ride the shuttle bus back to town, pick up our stuff from the Victorian Hotel (stopping for some refreshment they so kindly provide. Victorian Hotel (514 Homer St, Vancouver V6B2V6, BC, CA, 1604-681-6369, which proved a short walk to Gastown and just about every place we wanted to go), and walk over to the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (900 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6C 2W6 , 800-257-7544, 604-684-3131, www.fairmont.com/Hotel-Vancouver) to meet our fellow Global Scavenger Hunt travelers.
I still have time before the meeting to run across the street from the Fairmont to Vancouver Art Gallery, where I catch a sensational special exhibit of Impressionist Art, with many of the works, ironically, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. (750 Hornby Street Vancouver, BC, 604.662.4700, www.vanartgallery.bc.ca)
The afternoon meeting is really a meet-and-greet and orientation with Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer of our “traveling circus,” along with his wife Pamela (with cocktails), before we all walk over to a restaurant for dinner.
Our adventure begins the next morning.
We gather at 9 am on the first day of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, a “Blind Date with the World,” where 10 teams of two people each don’t know where we are going until Bill Chalmers, the Global Scavenger Hunt Ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, gives us our four-hour notice to get to the airport. We have come to the meeting prepared for anything – a notice to pack up to our next destination, perhaps? – and learn that we will spend the day doing a practice scavenger hunt, to level the playing field between newbies (me) and troopers/vets (one of the teams has done it 12 times). He has prepared the same kind of booklet and score sheet as we will get on arrival at every mystery destination.
We can choose the scavengers out of the selections – they each have different points. Among them are a choice of “mandatory” including at least one “experience”. Many have to do with experiencing local foods. During the course of this day, we will have to complete 10 scavengers by 8 pm when we get together again. We are told this is a Par 1 in terms of difficulty, which can go as high as Par 6, so is the easiest we will encounter.
My teammate, Margo (who I have just met upon arriving at Vancouver International Airport) and I start in search of “Affluent Alley” – after all, we are staying in Vancouver’s famous Fairmont Hotel Vancouver in a toney boulevard off Robson Street where we were told you used to have to drive a Rolls or BMW in order to park on the street. We look at a couple of streets which are called Vancouver’s Fifth Avenue and Rodeo Drive. We are only allowed to ask locals – not the hotel concierge or any actual guide (and there are tourism ambassadors on the street)– but no one has heard of Affluent Alley – possibly because everyone we ask is either too young or a transplant. One woman at a bus stop is extremely helpful when we ask where a certain high-end shoe store is located, and about how the bus system works. As for Affluent Alley, I suspect that it actually refers to the opposite (maybe East Hastings), or is the red-herring (and doesn’t exist at all).
But now we are in search of the high-end shoe store, John Fluevog. We go into several stores, finally Coach, and the salesperson directs us… We walk the several blocks to the store – unbelievably wacky, creative, magnificent (better art than the modern art I had seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery). We learn we are the 6th team to ask
We walk to the Olympic cauldron, take our selfies, record the time. It’s pouring rain now when we walk to the bike rental shop on the list to rent bikes to ride around Stanley Park’s seawall, find the Totem Poles, stop at the Teahouse (fantastic carrot soup to restore our energy and warm our souls).
We go to Gastown to find more scavenges – we have the same problem trying to find Hotel Europe, but as we are gazing at the statue of Gassy Jack, the garrulous bartender that gave Gastown its name, and, of course, the steam clock, we turn around and find the building. It turns out that Hotel Europe, built in 1908-9 by Angelo Calori, is no longer a hotel, but now is “social housing.” And haunted, as we discover when a fellow who works in the art store that is now at its street level, takes us on a tour into its basement recesses. The building looks remarkably like a smaller version of the Flat Iron Building in NYC.
Indeed, even this practice session reveals the essence and why the Global Scavenger Hunt is such a different experience. Scavengers give purpose to your wandering – more than that, they become a platform for a completely different perspective on a place and people. The Global Scavenger Hunt is designed to have us interact as much as possible with local people, to trust strangers. That’s what we have been doing all day long, and finding how incredibly friendly and kind the Canadians are (even the many who have come here from all points of the globe and made Vancouver their home. But, as we come to realize, these exercises foster new knowledge about ourselves, self-confidence in our ability to handle the unknown, and personal growth in knowledge and experience.
We gather at 8 pm, the deadline, and Bill tells us we are off tonight on a 2 am flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, hands us our airline info and visas, and we are off.
Global Scavenger Hunt teams arrive in New York City for the last leg of the
Global Scavenger Hunt that has taken us to 10 countries in 23 days. Bill
Chalmers, the ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of this around-the-world
mystery tour, in which the challenges and scavenges are designed 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.” Back
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.
leading teams vying for the title of “World’s Greatest Travelers” as we enter
this final leg of the contest in 4th place, SLO Folks from
California with 96 points (where the low-score wins); in 3rd, Order
& Chaos, doctors from San Francisco with 81 points; in 2nd
place, Lazy Monday, computer networking consultant and think tank professional
from California with 46 points, and Lawyers Without Borders, from Houston, with
33 points, five-time winners who are competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt for
the 12th time.
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. Those in contention must complete at least one of
the scavenges in New York, and complete their time sheet and hand in by the 4
of the scavenges: take in a
Yankees game or a Broadway show; 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, pay John Lennon tribute; do one scavenge in each of
the five boroughs of New York City.
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
like language, money, streets, drink water, eat salad), and I delight in
walking up Madison Avenue to 82nd Street to the Metropolitan Museum
of Art on Fifth Avenue.
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 just a bit 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.
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
about aspects of art and culture with the in-depth discussion of the pieces the
docents select to discuss.
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.
Obviously, finding an object from Greece is going to 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 succeed). Morocco and Jordan (Petra) proved trickier than I expected, but brought me to an astonishing 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.”
exhibit features 190 works from museums in the Middle East, Europe and the
United States in an exhibition that 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
was 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.
The World between Empires
The landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, which is 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 regional control.”
The exhibition focuses on the diverse and distinctive
cities and people that flourished in this environment by featuring 190 outstanding
examples of stone and bronze sculpture, wall paintings, jewelry, and other
objects from museums in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
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) and whose imagery 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,” said Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “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 had 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 distances.
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.
In Athens and Petra, particularly, you appreciate this synergy
between trade, migration, environmental sustainability and technology (in
Petra, the ability to control water supply was key), economic prosperity and
political power, and the rise of art, culture, and community.
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 people.”
upon this exhibit made the travel experiences we had to these extraordinary
places all the more precious.
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.
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
3rd – Order & Chaos, Sal Iaquinta & Vivian Reyes, doctors from San
2nd – Lazy Monday, Eric & Kathryn
Verwillow, computer networking and think tank professional of Palo Alto, California
(“I am in awe of how hard worked beginning to end – embraced the spirit,”
1st Lawyers Without Borders, Rainey Booth and Zoe Littlepage of Houston, who have competed in the Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times, and won it for the 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 dinner.
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 promote
voluntourism (one of the scavenges is to volunteer at an orphanage or school
during our stay in Yangon, Myanmar, and in the past travelers visited & 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) and raised money for the
“The foundation is one of main reasons we do the event,”
Chalmers says. 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
Through the event this and last year, the
foundation will build 2 more co-ed elementary schools , in Ethiopia and Haiti.
TheGlobal Scavenger Hunt travel
adventure competition is aimed at returning the romance of travel while testing
IQ of the most travel savvy of globetrotters. The travelers
(who must apply and be accepted to compete) completed a series of highly
participatory, authentic and challenging cultural site-doing scavenges
in ten secret countries over a 23-day circumnavigation between April 12 and May
4, 2019 designed to bring people out of their comfort zone and trust strangers
in strange lands.
“The Global Scavenger Hunt covers a lot of
extraordinary travel bases,” says Chalmers, who dubs his mystery tour, “A blind
date with the world.”
I am overwhelmed by the beauty of Seville, Spain. From the moment the bus from La Línea de la Concepción (the closest bus stop to Gibraltar, which is in Spain) turns into the city, the exquisite architecture, the vast green parks, the bike lanes. The atmosphere is just breathtaking.
I have booked
Apartements Hom Seville through hotels.com, choosing a place that seemed
closest to the city center (and The Cathedral, which seemed the major landmark)
that also was within the budget allotted by the Global Scavenger Hunt (under
$100 since my teammate went to Porto instead). It is a 15-minute walk from the
bus station to the hotel.
It is the late
afternoon, the golden light spreading across The Cathedral that takes up much
of Avenida de la Constitution. A tram moves smoothly, virtually noiselessly
down the boulevard; cyclists stream by, pedestrians meander by. The hotel is
right in the midst. Fortunately, the manager is still on duty when I arrive and
walks me through how to use the espresso coffee maker (the hotel is
self-service after hours), how to get around, gives me a map of the city and
suggests places to go to restaurants that are less touristic, more typical.
I rush out to catch the
remaining light, and am treated to an amazing sunset. I wander along the river,
across the bridge over the river. The lights of the city come on, reflected in
the cobblestone streets. Seville is one of the most beautiful cities I have
I delight in just
walking around, taking in the exquisite architecture, the peace of this place.
There is such a wonderful feeling, that even a fellow riding his bike is
Unfortunately, under the
Global Scavenger Hunt challenge, I am only here through early afternoon –
having elected to fly out to Porto, rather than take a nine-hour bus ride
through Faro and Lisbon to Porto by the deadline of Friday, 11 am, in advance
of the 3:55 flight to New York, our final stop of the 23-day around-the-world
mystery tour. (Those teams that are still in contention are not allowed to fly;
instead, they have to take bus and/or train, a 9-hour proposition from Seville.)
I plan the morning
carefully – getting up extra early to arrange my bags (to avoid paying baggage
fees on Iberia) – and walk over to the Parc Maria Luisa – one of the prettiest
parks I have ever seen, and the Plaza Espagna which is overwhelmingly
I get to the Real
Alcazar, the major attraction for my time in Seville, by 9:38 am (it opens at
9:30 am) – only to find about 1000 people ahead of me. I didn’t understand the
sign that said (limited access, 4-5 hours wait), since they only let in about
30 people every 15 minutes who do not have pre-purchased tickets. As it turned
out, the wait was 3 ½ hours for those without pre-purchased tickets
(recommended to purchase online, they give you a time to come, or come visit in
the afternoon when it is less crowded). It was touch-and-go as to whether I
would get in in time with enough time to see the Alcazar before having to go
back to the hotel, pick up the luggage, get to the bus to go to the airport.
I get in at 1 pm (my
Though you take loads of
photos, none can do the Alcazar justice because the beauty is in the exquisite
details of architecture, pattern in the decoration, the symmetry, the delicacy
and grace, the different scenes you come upon as you wander through the
labyrinth of rooms and gardens. You look up at magnificent ceilings, at the
gorgeous archways, the passages that lead on and on. I thought I had seen it
all in about 45 minutes, only to discover two other palaces and gardens. (A
separate ticket is required to visit the personal apartments used by the royal
family when they visit Seville).
I am out by 2:30 pm, the
time I had planned to pick up my luggage from the hotel and get to the bus to
the airport (about 30 minutes away but I do not calculate for the extra stops
the bus makes; still, I make it in an hour and just on time).
I arrive in Porto at
about 8 pm after changing planes in Madrid. Coincidentally, I meet up with two
other teams from the Global Scavenger Hunt who are following the same
At Porto, they go with
Uber to the Sheraton Porto Hotel; I hop on the light rail (the Metro), amazed
at the convenience and speed of the service and the low cost (just about $3 to
get into town about 20 minutes from the airport).
I get up early to hop on
the metro again for the 12 minute ride to Center City, to be able to absorb the
gorgeous ambiance and color of Porto before having to meet the deadline of
11:30 am for the Global Scavenger Hunt, and prepare for the 3:55 pm flight to
New York City, our final leg of our 23-day, around-the-world mystery tour, and
the crowning of the World’s Greatest Traveler.
Porto, which I have
visited way more extensively years ago (the bookstore and café which J.K.
Rowling frequented when she was writing the “Harry Potter” books are now
overrun with tourists who queue up and pay admission), is absolutely lovely.
The gorgeous “exuberant Baroque style with
some Rococo touches” of the buildings, coupled with the colorful tiles
facades is absolutely lovely. I wander to the port where the Port wineries are
located (popular for tours and tastings), and enjoy the ambiance before getting
back to meet the group.
meet in Porto, we hear the results for this most difficult leg of the Global
Scavenger Hunt (our “final exam” as world travelers), that took us to four
countries (Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal):
place having completed 92 scavenges, 5
bonuses and 5310 points, Order & Chaos (the doctors from San Francisco).
place with 102 scavenges (that’s 20 a day), 7 bonuses and 5680 points, Lazy
It is clear why Bill
Chalmers, the ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt, inserted Gibraltar on
the “final exam” in which we needed to get ourselves from Marrakech to Fes to
Gibraltar to Seville to Porto in five days – it was a challenge to figure the transportation
and prove ourselves as world travelers. Some of the rules are relaxed for this,
the most arduous of travel legs (a par 6) – 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 points for booking an AirBnB and for the cheapest hotel night.
The next day we are out
at 9 am to catch the 10 am train to Tangier, where we will get the ferry to
Algeciras and from there go to Gibraltar. 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, we were allowed to share information and travel
This day, the third in
our 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 was unnecessarily
difficult to get information about which port at Tangier to go to for which
ferry. There were about four different ferry lines, but two different ports.
The group 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, but the port is less suited to
passengers than cargo. The immigration process takes forever. What we thought
was a 5 pm ferry turned out to be a 6 pm ferry. Then we had to figure how to
get from Algeciras (Spain) to Gibraltar (a colony of Great Britain), so the
taxis can’t cross the border.
A bus was a 15 minute
walk and would have left at 9:30 pm so we decide to take the taxi to the
border, where, we are told, 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 (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. Halfway, we find a cab that takes four of us and
the luggage, and two of us continue walking. It is absolutely charming – and
also culture shock – having gone from Fes, 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-style pubs.
We have arrived so late,
though, the small town (the whole country only has 36,000 residents) is
shuttering for the night. We can’t find a cab to take us the mile to the hotel,
so we begin walking; eventually we find one cab and two of us continue walking
to the hotel. It is absolutely delightful to walk in the quiet of the night,
through this place that evokes in my mind an image of Brigadoon, a town from
long ago that emerges from the mist.
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.
Our hotel, The Rock, is
well situated, just opposite the Botanical Gardens and an easy walk to the
cable car that takes you to The Top of the Rock. I purchase ticket 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 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, 6
minutes, immediately brings me to one of the highlights of Gibraltar: its
Barbery Macaques (tailless monkeys). (I realize that’s why I am told to wear my
backpack in the front, watch for pickpockets and guard my passport.) They are
there to greet 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
There is a whole chain
of things to see: St. Michael’s Cave (way too touristic for my taste, it was
developed in the 1950s), Great Siege Tunnels that dates from 1779-83 to defend
against the Spanish), World War II tunnels (separate admission 8E for 45-minute
tour), 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
There’s a lot I don’t
have time to get to: The Military Heritage Centre in Princess Caroline’s
Battery; UNESCO Gorham’s Cave Complex which has evidence of Neanderthal and
early modern humans.
I make my way to the
charming historic district. It’s May Day and I come upon a labor rally in John
MacIntosh Square. Amazingly, the themes could be 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; there are 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).
The brief time here has
been really enchanting.
I get myself to the bus
station across the border (disappointed there is no Gibraltar border person to
stamp my passport) in La Línea de la Concepción (not realizing that you couldn’t travel
directly from Gibraltar to Seville was the problem in figuring out the travel
arrangements in advance of coming to the hotel) and take 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.
Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” of the Global
Scavenger Hunt, launches us our biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of
the trip, a par 6,in which our challenge is to get from Marrakech 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 of the 23-day around-the-world mystery
tour, and the final and decisive leg of the competition to be crowned “World’s
We have arrived at the Savoy Le Grand (a massive
resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall
and a casino, about half-mile from the gate to the 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 in the
lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”
Bill allows certain rule changes for this part of
the competition: the four teams that are in contention can team up in one country,
can rent a car but only once and only in one country, can use cell
phones and GPS but they are still not allowed to fly between points. There are
loads of “bonus” opportunities and “experiences” among the 100 or so scavenges –
there are extra points for booking an AirBnB accommodation and for booking a
hotel on one of the nights for $50 or less (we have a $200 allowance per team
for the three nights we have to book for ourselves).
I am not competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge, use hotels.com. It takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline of how we will cover the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakech to Fes, book hotels in Fes and Gibraltar. Margo, my teammate, decides to spend an extra day in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there, so we will travel together from Marrakech to Fes to Gibraltar and then travel independently until Porto.
There are some 131 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to
figure which ones to do for points and logistics), including mandatories like
#51 (Within the bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate; the
gates of Karaouine Mosque, explain the door for sacrifices, learn something
about University of Al-Karaouline; ; either/or enjoy a beverage in the Jardins
de la Marche Verte or atop Nejarine Museum and explain Nejarine Square; obtain
from within the market a stylish zellj; locate the Chouwara Tannery for a
rooftop photo (what are some of the materials used in the process you see,
explain); Locate six of the over 800 registered crafts in Fes el-Bali; Visit
the Dar ai-Magana, explain; In the courtyard of Fondouk Kaat Smen, there are
three purveyors – sample four types of Nafis Hicham’s products. This is worth
Also mandatory, #63: Enter Gibraltar and obtain either a
passport stamp or some other 100% iron-clad proof (other than photos) that you
did enter the country (300 points)
It is also mandatory to complete at least one scavenge in
all four primary countries: Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal.
For a bonus: stay in hotel below 50E Tuesday (apr 30)
Bonus in Morocco: either camp out in the desert one night or
stay in traditional riad
In Morocco, venture to Atlas Mountains (Day Four) to visit Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka.
Bonus: in Morocco visit the blue city of Chefchaouen
In Morocco visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman;
visit nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss
By 5:30 pm, I am frustrated and angry not actually
seeing Marrakech, and still haven’t figured out how to get from Tangier to Gibraltar
or Gibraltar to Seville (answer: you have to get out of Gibraltar to the town
in Spain, so I leave that for when I get to the hotel in Gibraltar), so drop
everything so we go into the Old City.
We walk to the famous Koutoubia grand mosque that so dominates the
city. As soon as we enter the massive
square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion. And activity – snake charmers,
Berbers, musicians (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them).
Fruit stands, stalls where cooking fish, meats,
kebabs, vegetables, just about everything and anything anyone would want.
Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the
souks to find the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue.
We weave through – asking people who point us in a
direction – a fellow leaves his stall to to lead us down narrow alleyway.
From there, we go to the Jewish cemetery which should
have been closed, but the man lets us in.
Margo hails a taxi to
head back, and I walk back through the markets to the square. I find a stall to
have dinner – seated on a bench with others.
Next morning, we catch the 6 am train to Fes – 6 ½ hours
– a beautiful ride.
We are in a first-class compartment that seats six
people very comfortably. During the course of the trip, people come and go. A
stop or two away from Fes, two fellows come in to the compartment and we have a
pleasant conversation that ends with the one fellow saying he knows a guide for
us to hire. Sure enough, by the time we get off the train, the guide has
We make our way to the Riad el Yacout (the guide has
obtained a taxi as well).
The Riad (guesthouse) is absolutely enchanting – it was
the home of a professor at the famous university (founded in 859 AD by a woman)
in the Medina, and had remained in the family until 2000, when her father
bought it and spent five years restoring it as a guesthouse (it is actually
three houses that have been linked, with a pool; and there are plans to build a
third floor and add a rooftop pool). The mosaics, decoration, furnishings are
exquisite – all the rooms set around the most magnificent interior courtyard. (Riad
is a home that inward facing, meant to maximize family interactions.)
The riad owner strongly advises hiring an approved
guide from the tourism office, and a driver – we only have the afternoon and
evening here to see Fez, and have been told that you absolutely need a guide to
go through the Medina – the largest, with some 11,000 alleyways with no
The price seems fair and we only have the afternoon,
and it proves a great way to see Fez in such a brief time.
Two other teams come after (they went on a balloon
ride in Marrakech, one of the scavenes before catching the train to Fes), and
hired the same guide we were introduced to by a guy on the train (turns out the
second guy on the train was his son, who I spot while walking in the Medina –
what are the chances? Actually it is a scam – the fellows get on the train a
stop or two before Fes, find a seat in the first-class compartment and begin
the grift). If you are keeping count, altogether three of our Global Scavenger
Hunt teams all had either met the guide (us), used the guide or the son. And
everybody was happy.
We set out with our guide, Hamid, and to hear him tell it (and this is before he
makes the connection between “New York,” Jews – rendered refugees by the
Spanish Inquisition which expelled them in 1492 from Spain and Portugal- were
invited by the King to settle in Fes in order to develop the city, and settle
the nomadic Berbers. He gave them land adjacent to the palace and promised
protection – to show appreciation, the Jewish community create ornate brass
doors for the palace with the Star of David surrounded by the Islamic star.
He tells us that this community continued even into
World War II, when he gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. He
takes us into the Medina, starting with the Jewish Quarter, and leads me to the
synagogue, which dates from the 1500s. From the roof you can see the Jewish
During the course of the afternoon, we see weavers,
embroiderers, carpet makers, the tannery (all of us follow pretty much the same
itinerary). Since we have a driver, we also go to a mosaic factory.
We have a fantastic dinner at the riad – chicken tagine
and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere cannot be beat.
Still have to get from Morocco to Gibraltar to
Seville to Porto by Friday on this Par 6 leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.
is a relatively easy Par 2 on the Global Scavenger Hunt. We had just 30 hours
here, distinguished by the celebration of the Greek Orthodox Easter. We arrive
on Good Friday and one of the challenges was to experience the distinctive
celebration. You can’t miss it. Every church had a similar ritual. I walked
down from the Grand Hyatt to the Plaka, stopping to reflect on Hadrian’s Gate
before I took the narrow street that led me to the 11th century
Byzantine church, where devotees were coming. We were told that at 7 pm, the
priest comes out and the faithful ring the church. The service begins at 7 pm
that we can hear from outside; the crowds really thicken and about 9 pm, the
priest came out, leading a procession. People light candles and follow the
procession of the cross and a funerary flowers. We join the crowd as they wind
their way through the narrow streets below the Acropolis, and when we turned to
a different direction, we would meet the procession again. All the streets were
flooded with similar processions – candles moving like ripples of water. People
jammed the outdoor restaurants as well. We went into another small Byzantine
church where the frescoes were absolutely stunning.
The next day, I immersed myself in Athens (some of
the scavenges led teams out to the Peloponnese and the Theater of Epidaurus,
and to accomplish them in the brief timeframe, rented a car).I just wanted to
soak in Athens. I had a list of four major places to visit, starting with the
Acropolis, then the Roman Agora (one of the most fascinating museums, contains
artifacts that were gathered just from the Agora, including the tiny medicinal
ceramic cups that were found at the jail, with which prisoners could take
hemlock as their means of execution; one of them was Socrates; but the Agora is
also really significant as the place of the first “parliament,” and you can see
in the museum elements of democracy, including the ostracism pottery, where the
name of a leader they wanted removed would be scratched into pottery); next the
flea market at Monasteraki (originally the Jewish quarter), and the National
Archaeological Museum, which I found has a special exhibit examining the
concept of “Beauty.” The museum (which closed at 4 because of Easter Saturday)
has the most astonishing collection of gold from Mycenae (including the famous
Mask of Agamemnon); statues, bronzes, an amazing bronze 1000 years old of a
jockey on a horse that looks like it could run away. The walk was so fabulous,
also, because it took me through neighborhoods. I walked back to the hotel to
meet several of us who were sharing a van to the airport.
Walking back through the Plaka, I bump into Bill
Chalmers, the ringmaster of our 23-day Global Scavenger Hunt, Pamela and Luka –
it turns out to be a team challenge to photograph them.
At the start of Leg 6, in Amman Jordan, only four of the
original 10 teams competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt are still in
contention to win, many of the teams can now join together, use their cell
phones for planning and booking, get help from the concierge.
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 is requiring to go one way to or from Petra along the
ancient Kings Highway – the problem is that the Jett Express Bus doesn’t take
that route, the rules don’t allow a taxi from outside the city. Hearing how the
two top teams surmount the challenge is quite interesting.
All but one team is intent on going to Petra, but have
chosen different means to get there. I find myself on the Jett Express Bus,
departing 6:35 am, with three of the teams including one that is in second
place in the Global Scavenger Hunt, only a point behind the leader. Another 5
of us hired a car and driver (allowed because none of them were competing), and
Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of GSH, Pamela and son Luka are traveling
separately. Each of us left 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 at a New York Times Travel Show talk about Petra at night,
I have decided to arrange my own overnight stay. I learn that the Petra at
night is only offered twice/weekly and am lucky enough to be there for
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. 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 pm.
While the others have to move hastily through Petra – in fact, don’t even get as far as the Treasury (so what is the point?), I am able to move as slowly and contemplatively as I want, knowing I will return the next day. The bus – which is an hour late in departing because the company has put on a second bus – arrives at around 11 am. I use our Jordan Pass (which gives 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).
I am amazed by Petra. That now-iconic view that comes into focus as you walk through caverns with the most beautiful striations and shapes, then come upon the teaser of The Treasury through the opening, is as wonderful as I had hoped. But the rest of Petra was 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 in the Roman era had been built (The Great Temple, 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). 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 amazing views. One of the toughest is up to the Monastery – a mile each way up stairs and then back down again.
I decide to reserve that for the next day.
The “park” closes at about 6 and reopens for the 8:30-10:30
night program at 8 pm (it is operated separately and privately from Petra) – I
still have to get my pack, which I have left at the Exchange ($5 tip), and get
to the hotel, which I had thought was within walking distance (.7 mile), but
turns out to be totally up hill. I take a taxi (negotiating the rate).
My el cheapo-supremo hotel turns out to be exactly that –
the nicest part os the name and front entrance. When I am brought to my room, I
thought the fellow made a mistake and brought me to a room under construction
(or rather deconstruction) – plaster patches, exposed electrical outlet,
rusting shower, cracked bathroom shelf, an “armoire” that was falling apart,
only a bed and a stool (not even a chair), slippers left for the bathroom that
were too disgusting to contemplate putting on. Ah, adventure. But overall,
clean and no bugs. So this will do for a night (considering I had left behind
in Amman the five-star, ultra-hip and luxurious W Hotel).
I head out just after 8 pm, walking down the hill into the
park again, where I join throngs of people making their way along the stony
path illuminated by nothing more than lanterns and starlight, thinking how
dramatic and wonderful.
After 45 minutes, arrive at The Treasury where there are
perhaps 1000 people sitting on carpets. I am keen to reproduce the photo I had
seen of the event. 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 shown on The Treasury, completely
destroying the mood. And then it is over. 9:30 pm (not 10:30 pm). People start
leaving, and I am totally exhausted, so leave also. I hike up the hill to the
My adventure is redeemed the next morning when I am able to
return to Petra as early as 6 am. The hotel proprietor has packed my breakfast
in a baggie in the refrigerator. When I arrive, who should I come upon at 6:14
am but the last team (Lawyers Without Borders). What are the odds!
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 for selfies and posing. And once inside, there was perfect
peace also at The Treasury – the camels posing just perfectly.
A word about the guides – I didn’t use one and they try to
convince you that they will take you places you couldn’t go yourself – but what
I observed was that they were 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 provided the camels, the horses,
the donkeys (you can ride donkeys up to the Monastery), and the carriages work
exceptionally hard (the animals work even harder). And all through are the
souvenir stands (they actually look pretty good) – and you realize, 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.
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% and
hope I will be able to do the Monastery trail.
I go through the park again, this time to the Monastery
trail – get some scouting information and begin the ascent. 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 stands set up along the way.
And the Monastery proves to be a highlight – it is actually
bigger than The Treasury – the largest structure carved out of a rock face (if
I have that right). So worth it.
But back down, I am exhausted and have several hours before
the Jett Bus back to Amman (I expect to arrive after the 8 pm deadline but have
informed Bill that the bus likely won’t be back until after 9 pm, and I won’t
miss a flight, will I?)
I have my plan: first I linger at the Basin Restaurant at
the entrance to the Monastery Trail, 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 had in the early morning – some 2,000
passengers off the MSC cruise ship, another 2,000 off a second MSC cruise ship,
and hundreds more off a Celebrity ship look like invaders – led by a guide with
a 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 prie).
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) – that
explains extremely well how Petra developed, the Nabateans, how they grew to
power first by controlling water through ingenious engineering, then the main
trade route, the King’s Highway, that linked three kingdoms. Artifacts
including art as wlel as everyday materials going back to the Stone Age, are on
display; there are excellent videos, graphics, displays that are engaging and
I board the Jett Bus (it is the first-class bus geared to
foreign tourists) for the 3 hour trip back. The driver is excellent, but
apparently, a taxi driver has accused him of knicking his cab and the entire
bus has to go to the police station. Surprisingly, this is handled within 20
minutes and we are on our way.
The bus station is not even a mile from the W Hotel (15
minute walk versus 5 minutes by cab) and I considered getting an Uber (much,
much cheaper than a taxi), but started walking instead. I am trying to get my
bearings when a taxi driver who solicited my business at the bus station pulls
up. I reluctantly agree – we settle the price and set out – in the wrong
direction. What should have b een 5 minutes, I see on my GPS is taking me 8 km
away from the hotel. The driver drives frantically, going the wrong way down
one-way streets, zipping here and there but essentially driving in circles that
go further away from the hotel. I show him the card, show him my GPS with the
hotel address. Finally, in frustration I think, he tries to dump me at another
hotel, saying, “W.” Perhaps he thought I
hadn’t been there yet and would be convinced this imposter was my hotel. I tell
him he is going the wrong way, the wrong hotel. Finally he sets out again, and
what should have taken 5 minutes, has taken 30.
I’ve missed the meeting when Bill Chalmers tells us our next
stop on our Global Scavenger Hunt. My teammate has texted the answer: Athens.
In the Throes of
It is so amazing to listen to everyone’s separate adventures
and experiences – even those who aren’t competing any more still pick up on
Bill’s 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. And since the competition is intended to crown
“World’s Best Traveler” it is designed to challenge one’s ability for
Lawyers Without Borders, the team of Zoe and Rainey
Littlepage, of Houston, has now done this trip more than a dozen times, in
addition to being well-traveled adventure travelers on their own. But
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.
The Lawyers are currently leading the contest (no surprise).
Rainey explains that a lot is luck, but I think it is more art and willingness
to embrace challenge as opportunity. And an ability to plan so effectively you
can accomplish more scavenges, higher-point scavenges, and simply amass points.
The problem is, if you fail to achieve any of the “mandatory” challenges, you
don’t get any points at all for that leg.
“It’s different than regular travel. Play t”he game. The
sheet gives purpose to do things you wouldn’t do. You have to plot,” Rainey
says. “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
Innocuous things bring a sense of accomplishment (like
identifying local fish at the market). “How you solve. I love the game. We have
been lucky this year,” he says, pointing to how one of the mandatory challenges
in Jordan was to be at the Citadel in Amman at sunset – no mean feat since they
had to get there from Petra. The sunset was at 7 and they arrived at 6:15 only
to discover the Citadel closes at 6 pm. It was cash, not luck, that got them
in: they paid the guard $5 to let them in to get the photos they needed as
proof at sunset. “We would have lost the whole competition if he didn’t let us
At the Dead Sea, where the mandatory challenge was to swim,
it was nighttime when they arrived, but found someone (the kindness of
strangers, is a theme of the Global Scavenger Hunt), to let them take the
At Wadi Rum, 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.
They had to sit through an hour-long church service before
the required element would appear, took a Turkish bath, went to a café to smoke
a hooka, ate falafel at a particular place, sent a stamped postcard from Petra
to Petra (Bill and Pam’s daughter who couldn’t come), and for the “beastie”
challenge, pose on a camel. “Points are king,” he said.
But here’s an example of real luck: Getting back from Inle Lake
in Myanmar, Zoe has her plane ticket but not Rainey (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.”
Think of it as “Around the World in 80 Days,” where Phileas Fogg had to use such ingenuity to get place to place (and out of trouble) by a deadline to win the bet. Or how Indiana Jones, who had that powerful scene at Petra, in “”The Last Crusade used the clues in his father’s notebook which ended with a “leap of faith.”
We are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery
4th Slow Folk with 15
scavenges 3 bonus, 1150 points
3rd Order & Chaos
with 25 scavenges 8 bonus, 1860 points
2nd Lazy Monday with 25
scavenges, 9 bonus, 2045 points
1st Lawyers Without
Borders with 22 scavenges, 12 bonus, 2190 points
So the standings in the Global
Scavenger Hunt so far (where like golf, the low score wins):
1 Lawyers Without Borders 25
2 Lazy Monday
3 Order & Chaos 57
4 Slow Folk 66
Still 4 legs, 6 countries to go
“You all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things,
trust strangers, found balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace
that,” Bill Chalmers, our Chief Executive Officer and ringmaster of the Global
Scavenger Hunt says.
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 was yet another instance of proving
what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself.
Yes, it 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 out of a chunk of desert. The skyscrapers and structures that
have grown up here in a matter of decades, not centuries.
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.
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) – both artful 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 just seems to be going
And then you consider: 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. We had just come for Bagan,
Myanmar, where the temples have been standing since the 11th
century, despite earthquakes and world events.
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.
From there, I went 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.
I found myself dashing to get to the 2 pm tour I had
to pre-arrange at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital which was at a surprising distance,
a 35-minute drive.
This proves most fascinating to learn how these
prized birds are handled. We are taken into a waiting room, surprised to see a
couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting room.
Their owners have dropped 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 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 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), which have to be the exact
same feather, 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”).
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 they are very kind and
gentle, and bond with their owner. The feeling is clearly reciprocal – the
falcons can fly with their owner in first class, have their own seat and their
own menu (fresh killed meat).
Next I go to the 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
(one of the largest mosaics in the world), 51,000 worshippers altogether for such
high holy events as Ramadan over 55,000 sq. meters – the largest mosque in the
United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world.
The experience of visiting is also surprisingly
pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected (after having
visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar). Women must be fully covered, including
hair, but they provide a robe (free); the public tour (an absolute must) is
also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free. When you
arrive at the Visitors Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you
go underground to where there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and
shops, then go through a tunnel like an airport (it kind of reminded me of how
Disney moves its visitors into its attractions).
I timed the visit to arrive about 4:30 pm – and go
first to what is labeled as the Visitors Happiness Desk – how could I resist?
The two gentlemen who manned the desk (surprisingly who were natives of Abu
Dhabi when 88 percent of the population here come from some place else) were
extremely well suited to their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am
asking my questions, who should arrive but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate
(small world!), so we visit together, and fortunately, she managed to get us on
the public tour which had already left.
We left just at dusk, with the lights beginning to
come on, and a touch of sunlight breaking through clouds that made the
structures even more beautiful if that were possible.
I asked the Happiness guys where to go for the best
view of the mosque after dark, and they directed us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al
Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view was
We arrived in Abu Dhabi about midnight local time
after having left our hotel in Myanmar at 5:15 am, flew 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 a day is), so for us, it felt like 3 am. Bill
Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of the Global
Scavenger Hunt said that this was the most arduous travel day we would have
(and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver to Vietnam was the longest airline
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
designation “World’s Best Traveler” (and free trip to defend the title next
The scavenges are designed to give us travel
experiences that take us out of our comfort zone, bring us closer to people and
cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that would earn 100 points is to
be invited for dinner with a family in the 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 was 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 did that, she said it was like 4G
force); visit the Emirates Palace, walk it 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 Prsidential Palace,
only recently opened to the public, and visit Qasr Al Watan (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. One of the scavenges here was
to assemble three flavors of camel milk from a grocery store and do a blind
taste test (35 points).
A lasting impression that I will carry away from
this brief visit to Abu Dhabi: the theme this year is “Year of Tolerance.“
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,
built for the tidy sum of $5 billion (open til 7 pm, then a lightshow at 7:30
And then we learn where we are going next: Jordan!