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!
perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger
Hunt. Returned from Inle Lake to Yangon. Got back to the Shangri-la Sule Hotel
(tried to take the public bus but after two buses went by, hopped a taxi).
a day that included a visit to Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, the last synagogue in
all of Myanmar. By the time I got there, it was 1:40 pm (it was just about 15
minute walk from the hotel) – so lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm
(open daily except Sunday). A lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in
1896. At one point, the Jewish community in Yangon numbered 2500 before the
mass migration of WWII; today, there are only 5 families (about 30 people). The
Samuels, one of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue
for generations, a plaque notes.
there was interesting, going through all these street markets with sounds of
chickens (for sale), live fish for sale (one almost got away), and the scent of
Perhaps not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market, which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace. I was surprised at all the sellers of jade and jewelry (which is what the market is known for), as well as traditional longyi, and just about anything else you can think of. I came upon a seller of interesting post cards, and found the post office on the third level (one of my traditions of travel).
back to the hotel, which was just a few blocks away, to refresh (it was 104
degrees), in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda (one of the
mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger Hunt was to visit at dawn or dusk),
to be there at dusk (but back at the hotel by the 6 pm deadline for the scavenges),
but nothing, could have prepared me for the experience of seeing it.
Fortunately, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I went on to
Inle Lake, had to take a taxi back to Yangon (snafu with air ticket and all
flights booked, ironic because I had a ticket that I wasn’t able to cancel when
I changed my plan to go to Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into
marvelous adventures), but luckily, walked into the room at 4 pm, so we could
go off together.
cleverly hired a guide to show us around and it was fascinating: this was the
first pagoda in the world, and is one of the most magnificent, and also
considered one of the most sacred. It was built between the 6th and
10th centuries. We watch as workers on scaffolding work to restore
the 60 tons of gold that decorates the tower. Most interesting was coming upon
a procession of family celebrating the indunction of two young boys into the
monastery. (The Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived – was it
four days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of
dash back in a taxi to get back to the Global Scavenger Hunt group a few
minutes past 6 pm (we aren’t competing to win the challenge so we did not have
to turn in scorecards).
a hosted dinner (Japanese), where all of us traded our stories of exploration
from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, we return to
the hotel to learn where our 23-day “Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues
the door at 5:15 am (we will be provided breakfast boxes), on to Bangkok, for
an eight-hour layover challenge, and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having
breakfast in Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United
realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed, ordering our
My perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, began the night before, on the JJ Express bus that left Bagan at 10 pm and arrived at the bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am, where those of us bound for Inle Lake were picked up in a jitney. The jitney dropped me at the Sanctum Hotel Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel clerk called in housekeeping early so we could get into rooms by 6 am.
I am on my own – my partner on this 23-day “Blind Date With the World” mystery tour – went on to Mandalay with another team who decided not to compete for points. One of the nine competing teams is also here in Inle Lake (I got the idea to come from them and learned of the JJ Express Bus, but this also involves unraveling my previous plan to go to Mandalay and get back my flight from Inle Lake to Yangon while bouncing in the bus and texting my son to call the airline), but has to be scrupulous about following rules (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or get information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local people) so have arrived in Inle with no hotel, not even a decent map to start planning how they will attack the scavenges (challenges) and accrue the most points.
But the kindness of the hotel manager is immensely
appreciated. For me, it means I am able to take advantage of an 8 am boat tour
(that means a traditional wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power
motor) because most of Inle Lake’s special attractions are literally on the
lake – whole villages, in fact, are built on stilts on the lake; there are floating
gardens, floating markets, and the fishermen fish I a distinctive fashion,
paddling the oar with their leg and casting nets.
The Sanctum Hotel is on the list that was provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked on hotels.com. I am delighted to find it is a five-star luxury resort, and just being here fills me with a contented peace (Maing Thauk Villge, Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe Township Shan State, Myanmar, info@sanctum-Inle-Resort.com, www.sanctum-inle-resort.com). But that is only the beginning.
The resort is situated on the bank of the lake, and to begin
the tour I have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour,
while the competing team cannot), I am walked down to the hotel’s own dock
where the boat and the boatman is waiting. It turns out I am the only one, so
this is essentially a private tour. The boatman speaks only limited English –
enough to tell me where I am going – but it is sufficient (I just don’t expect
to get any commentary).
It is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake.
During the course of it, we encounter a young fellow fishing, go through an entire
village built on stilts, where there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops
we visit (I see how, unique to Inle, and one weaver whose techniques were
devised by a woman now more than a century old, producing thread from the lotus
flower, and get to see looms that are common across cultures for centuries;
silversmith; the maker of the traditional wooden boats); important pagodas and
temples on the lake. It is incomparable.
I skip stopping for lunch so am able to condense the tour
somewhat, which brings me back to the hotel at 2:30 pm.
I indulge in Sanctum’s utterly stunning pool – I would rank one of the best resort pools
in the world – an infinity pool that is
magnificently set with a view down to the lake, richly landscaped, a great size
for actually swimming as well as playing around. It is made of stunning black
and silver tiles that shimmer as you swim. It is also one of the most
magnificent places just to lounge.
I am back up by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from
the hotel into the nearby village of Maing Thauk, where I come upon a high
school holding a sports competition that has drawn tremendous audience. Even
though hardly anyone speaks English, we manage to chat (icebreaker: What is
going on? Where is the bridge). It’s a good thing I asked the fellow if I was
going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am looking for, where I
have been told is ideal for watching the sunset (and so much more), because he
directs me to turn left (I would have gone straight).
The Bridge turns out to be more of a pier over the water,
from which people can get onto the scores of wooden boats that gather here, as
well as link some restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just
magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.
What I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is
exactly what Bill Chalmers had hoped when he dealt with a question of whether
we should be in a place that has earned worldwide condemnation for human rights
abuses. Travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding
of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly,
not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways. In very real ways (and
especially now), travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. That’s not
how change happens – that only hardens points of view, and makes people
susceptible to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened
throughout human history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.
What I see in the
people I’ve encountered is a kindness, a
sweetness among the people here. I see it in how parents hold their children,
how the boatman, Wei Moi, shows such etiquette among the other boatmen, how
helpful people are.
Here are just a few highlights from my visit in Inle Lake,
This leg has been a Par 5 in difficulty (Par 6 being the
most difficult during this, the 15th Global Scavenger Hunt) – which has
entailed us going out of Yangon to Bagan (an ancient city with 3000 temples),
Mandalay and/or Inle Lake (many more rules on top of that, including no more
than 2 flights), taking overnight bus or hiring a taxi or train, and so forth.
But Chalmers devious design has worked – in just these four days, we really do
immerse ourselves in Myanmar.
The final challenge of this leg is to get back to Yangon by
6 pm, and for those competing to hand in their scorecards and proof of
completing the scavenges. That’s when we will learn where in the world we will
second day in Saigon, Vietnam. I am lucky enough to get on a Saigon Tours half-day
trip to Cu Chi Tunnels, 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
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 take a commercial tour, or 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. I knew that even though the visit was one of the “Bonus”
scavenges, I wouldn’t get points, also my teammate Margo, was doing her own
thing in Saigon, visiting the Botanical Gardens.)
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 community under ground, planting boobie 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 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. There is also a shooting range where you can shoot an AK 47, M16 (extra charge), but the constant sound of gunfire gives you some sense of what they were living through. There was a hospital, a wardrobe sewing area, we watch a woman demonstrate making rice paper. At the end is a film that uses grainy black-and-white imagery with a narration that spoke of the commitment to save the Fatherland from US aggression.
the way back, the guide offered to make a detour to take us to 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 produced
cigarettes, but today, they produce really beautiful handicrafts – mainly lacquered
and inlaid items.
trip provides an excellent opportunity to see other Vietnamese communities
outside of the urban center.
After 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), then onto the Reunification Palace (which I thought was open until 5 but closed entrance at 4), then on to the War Remnants Museum, where I visited until it closed at 6 pm, because there was 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, 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 American soldiers walking along and one who looks like he is casually lighting a cigarette as this young girl is coming down the road in terror. The photos then and now are chilling, but today, they properly evoke shame.
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.
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,
with the caption that noted 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 in noted 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 mopeds.
But on the bottom floor, they show photos of
Obama’s visit and most recently of Trump in Vietnam.
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
are displays of captured American plane, tanks, and other items.
I looked 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 was particularly telling: it showed an American hauling off an ethnic minority and noted that “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 left feeling that the experience was close to what you feel visiting a Holocaust Museum. And it is pain and remorse that is deserved.