By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, and are filing these dispatches periodically. Here’s their report after a month in Mexico before moving on to Asia.
We finally did it–rented out our house, packed a tiny sliver of our possessions into four packing cubes inside a large backpack, strapped on our water shoes and hit the road for the adventure of a lifetime–six months of uninterrupted travel! We have now been traveling together for exactly five weeks and we’re delighted to share that we still like each other!!
We’d come to learn that this sort of deep, bold and soulful flavor was uniquely Oaxacan, and was pervasive throughout their history, cuisine & art. They have a fascinating history of protest and human rights advocacy that permeates the art all throughout the city – from the large format street murals to the gallery walls in fine art museums. It is dark and expressive with lots of skulls, fire, protest depiction & political symbols. Learning more about this history brought new meaning to the intense flavors of mole and mezcal.
We continued our journey on a 7-hour drive almost entirely on mountain roads with dramatic switchbacks to the coast of Oaxaca (Eric drove and Sarah passed out on drowsy Dramamine). Over the next week, we made stops at three beach towns: Puerto Escondidio, Mazunte, and Playa Bocana. Puerto Escondido prevails for its cliff-like coast line and amazing street entertainment (imagine our surprise when a man with a guitar and an amp shows up on the beach, usually a nightmare scenario at any Bay Area park, and ends up providing the most perfect sunset vibes)!
Mazunte gave us some good laughs because its “hippie” vibe is out of control and almost cartoonish; you’re weird if you actually wear shoes around town/on hikes, and if you don’t like acai and bulle proof coffee you need to get your ass out of there. But, thankfully, we (gladly) dabble in some aspects of the hippie lifestyle, so the vegan nomz, acai bowls & a two-hour (very stinky) yoga class were a welcome change-of-pace. Eric even bought a turquoise pendant (maybe a Buddhist symbol? We’re not sure; we’re posers) there that he wears most days now as a lucky charm 🙂
And the last stop on the Oaxacan beach tour was La Bocana; a true surprise gem. It is a tiny town with just two restaurants, one boutique hotel and several local women who provide mud scrubs (with the special mud from this beach) daily.
Our cute little airbnb was a mere 50 yards from a spectacular long stretch of beach that felt like it was all ours. And when we started exploring the beach, we’d come to discover that a 15-minute walk up the beach led to the intersection of a gorgeous river with the ocean; which was utterly picturesque and made for a best-of-both-worlds situation of enjoying the beach while swimming in the calm of the river. During our short stay at La Bocana beach, we made both sunset and sunrise pilgrimages to this beautiful spot. Anyone who knows Eric knows he can’t resist a sunrise/sunset swim. And we ate delicious camarones a la diabla (shrimp in spicy sauce) and fresh langosta from that river basically every meal there, happily.
The return to Mexico City was a happy one because we were excited to spend more time exploring and Sarah’s mom Marci came to join for a week! Major highlights included visiting a Luis Barragan house, discovering more neighborhoods/parks & going to the Mexico vs. El Salvador World Cup qualifying futbol game (where we tried nearly every food item sold in the stadium.. even Cup of Noodles with shrimp & hot sauce which yes, is cold and soggy by the time they sell it to you at your seat!)
Another gem we discovered in Mexico City is the weekly shut down of major streets on Sundays (up to 50km we learned) to promote safe and uninterrupted biking/running/roller blading. We stumbled upon this by accident in our first CDMX stint, and were so excited to show Sarah’s mom! We went basically the entire route out to the big park, down to the neighborhood of Coyoacan, and back. Mexico City is truly as lovely and vibrant as everyone says it is. It’s like the best of both worlds of East and West Coast US cities; it has the serendipitous cosmopolitan feel of NYC with the wide open green spaces of LA/SF. Everyone is in love with Mexico City these days and it’s obvious why.
Last stop on the tour landed us in San Miguel de Allende, a shorter 3-4 hour drive from Mexico City. San Miguel is a very charming town, known for its colonial architecture which drew many artists in the 20th century. It’s a must to find a terrace to enjoy the sunset, taking in the gorgeous pink church and red rooftops while obliging every other couple’s request for a photo (Eric is a hot commodity because he takes multiple angles and never skimps on the portrait mode). Eric did finally succumb to the first round of food poisoning of the trip here (which is shocking given what he’d eaten in the previous 4+ weeks), though he recovered in a day and we’re happy to report that Sarah’s stomach of steel is still going strong (knock on wood).
Eric and Sarah in San Miguel de Allende, get ready to continue their around-the-world odyssey in Asia.
At the present moment, we’re in Seoul after a failed attempt at Vietnam entry (and over 50 straight hours of travel), but were super stoked to begin the Asia chapter of our travels, where Sarah’s love for headbands and bucket hats is bound to flourish. It’s crazy and refreshing how “home” has become having each other, and our backpacks….
is marvelous to listen to the other nine teams in the Global Scavenger Hunt, a
23-day mystery tour around the world where we don’t know where we are going
until we get the call to get to the airport – excitedly relate their separate
adventures and experiences. This happens when we gather at airports (which the
teams use as time to do peer-review of each other’s lists of scavenges
completed and points won), on the bus to a hotel, at breakfast, or when we come
together for the meetings where we get our booklets describing the challenges
in a destination or find out where we are going next. Indeed, even though this
is in a theoretical sense a contest, a competition, it is a friendly
competition and people are helpful even though the rules prohibit actual
those who have dropped out of the competition still pick up on organizer Bill
Chalmers’ (the Chief Experience Officer and ringmaster) challenges because they
invariably lead us to wondrous and fascinating things that we may not have
considered, or some experience at a highlight that we might not have considered
that prompts new perspective and understanding. And since the competition is
intended to crown “World’s Best Travelers” it is designed to challenge one’s
ability for logistics and handling the inevitable trials and tribulations of
travel. That’s the sport.
Without Borders, the team of Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, of Houston, has now
done the Global Scavenger Hunt more than a dozen times and won it five times,
in addition to being avid adventure travelers on their own. But they appreciate
the difference in traveling this way – first as a mystery tour, so you have no
ability to research or plan in advance what you will see or do at a
destination; second, the challenges force you to experience things or see
things from a different point of view and become immersed, even in an
abbreviated way, in local culture and society; and third, the rules (such as
not being able to use your cell phone or computer to research or book, not
being allowed to book through the hotel’s concierge, not being allowed to hire
a taxi driver for more than two trips) are aimed at making you “trust in
strangers” and interact with local people.
through our adventure, the Lawyers are currently leading the contest (no
surprise). Rainey explains that a lot is luck (for example timing), but I think
it is more art and willingness to embrace challenge as opportunity. And an
ability to plan so effectively you can accomplish more scavenges, higher-point
scavenges, and simply amass points. The problem is, if you fail to achieve any
of the “mandatory” challenges, you don’t get any points at all for that leg.
different than regular travel,” Rainey tells me. “Play the game. The sheet
gives purpose to do things you wouldn’t do. You have to plot. It’s a brilliant
way to see things… You decide how many to do, but you turn to look and find
another. How between trains you might
have an hour, and get 3 scavenges done. It’s an experience to get it done. I
feel pity for those who are just there
– no points.”
things bring a sense of accomplishment (like identifying local fish at the
market). “How you solve. I love the game. We have been lucky this year,” he
says, pointing to how one of the mandatory challenges in Jordan was to be at
the Citadel in Amman at sunset – no mean feat since they had to get there from
Petra. The sunset was at 7 and they arrived at 6:15 only to discover the
Citadel closes at 6 pm. It was cash, not luck, that got them in: they paid the
guard $5 to let them in to get the photos they needed as proof at sunset. “We
would have lost the whole competition if he didn’t let us in.”
the Dead Sea, where the mandatory challenge was to swim, it was nighttime when
they arrived, but found someone (the kindness of strangers, is a theme of the
Global Scavenger Hunt), to let them take the required dip.
Wadi Rum in Jordan, where they stayed in a tented camp, another mandatory was
to be on a camel wearing headdress. But it was night and camel rides were no
longer available. They found somebody to provide the camel and even let him put
on his headdress. They then paid a guy with a pick up truck to bring them fro
the tented camp to a taxi at 3:40 am to get to Petra by 6:15 am (when I met
them). They completed the challenge of making it all the way through Petra,
hiking up the Monastery Trail (about 8 miles altogether) by 9:15 am when they
dashed off to Jerash (by 2:30 pm), accomplishing in three hours what it takes
most 4-5 hours.
had to sit through an hour-long church service before the required element
would appear, took a Turkish bath, went to a café to smoke a hooka, ate falafel
at a particular place, sent a stamped postcard from Petra to Petra (Bill and
Pam Chalmers’ daughter who couldn’t come on the trip), and for the “beastie” challenge,
pose on a camel. “Points are king,” he tells me.
here’s an example of real luck: Getting back from Inle Lake in Myanmar, Zoe has
her plane ticket but Rainey did not (again, they had to be back in time for the
6 pm deadline). Rainey was 30 on the waitlist, when a man offered his place on
the plane. “I had to run to an ATM down the street to get the cash to give
him.” (Read Zoe’s blog: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com)
of it as “Around the World in 80 Days,” where Phileas Fogg had to use such
ingenuity to get place to place (and out of trouble) by a deadline to win the
bet. Or how Indiana Jones, who had that powerful scene at Petra, in “”The Last
Crusade used the clues in his father’s notebook in pursuit of The Holy Grail,
which ended with a “leap of faith.” (If the trip sounds a lot like “The Amazing
Race,” that is not coincidence – rumor has it that the reality TV show
producers got the idea from the Global Scavenger Hunt.)
think upon Chalmers’ pep talk during our 8-hour layover challenge in Bangkok:
You escape the
airport albeit for a short time with only one rule…don’t miss your flight!
…you embrace this short window of opportunity
…you take a mini-excursion…explore a neighborhood…see something you’ve always
wanted to see
…you stretch your legs in an exotic location
…you go out and see and do as much as possible
…you maximize your exposure to a new place, a new culture
…you engage with real human beings
…you have a good time
…take a whirlwind hit n’ run no-time-to-waste tour
…but the clock is ticking— you have to be time sensitive
…you won’t turn into a pumpkin—but you will miss your flight!
…so efficiency matters…you have to know when to walk away—it’s just not working
…forget lines and mass tourism spots
…our layover challenges test their Travel IQ…their situational awareness…
…but they have to be careful, be smart
…remember the vagaries of local logistics
…and the airport boogaloo awaiting them: check-in, security,
customs & immigration queues…
…Remember: don’t miss your flight!
are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery tour and en route to
Athens for a 30-hour challenge.
all feel confident, comfortable, would do new things, trust strangers, found
balance between event and joy. Maximum joy, embrace that,” Bill Chalmers, says.
Chalmers created the Global Scavenger Hunt not just to promote the benefits of international travel to cultivate Global Citizens, and all the benefits of travel – from providing economic foundation to sustain places of history, heritage and culture that might otherwise be abandoned, provide jobs and improve the living standards for communities and societies, and promote an exchange of understanding and ideas just as Marco Polo did centuries ago, where we are also encouraged to engage in voluntourism projects along the way – but serves to support The Global Scavenger Hunt’s cause-related, charitable purposes. The annual event raises funds for GreatEscape Foundation’s twin goals: building co-ed elementary schools in low & middle income nations, and distributing interest-free no-fee micro-loans to budding global entrepreneurs (mostly mothers).
“Both our methods of helping others help
themselves are designed to facilitate their great
escape from the cycle of poverty—one person at a time!
Happily, we have improved the lives of thousands: building a dozen schools, a
mid-wife training facility, and funding thousands of mothers wanting to make a
better life for their families,” Chalmers writes.
The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
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
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!
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, [email protected], 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