Tag Archives: global travel

Global Scavenger Hunt: Whirlwind Travel Through Iberia to Conclude Leg 8

Seville at sunset © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.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.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 ever seen.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 singing.

Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.)

Alcazar, Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 beautiful.

Alcazar, Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Alcazar, Seville © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get in at 1 pm (my absolute deadline).

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).

Porto, Portugal

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 itinerary.

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). 

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When we 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):

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

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

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

We’re off to the final leg, in New York City, and the crowning of the winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt.

See more at www.globalscavengerhunt.com.

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

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 6: Petra, a True Wonder of the World, is Highlight of Jordan Challenge

The Treasury, Petra, Jordan in the early morning © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

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 hotel.

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 clear.

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 Competition

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 logistics.

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 points.

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

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

At Wadi Rum, 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.”

(Read Zoe’s blog: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com)

Think of it as “Around the World in 80 Days,” where Phileas Fogg had to use such ingenuity to get place to place (and out of trouble) by a deadline to win the bet. Or how Indiana Jones, who had that powerful scene at Petra, in “”The Last Crusade used the clues in his father’s notebook which ended with a “leap of faith.”

We are now midway in our 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.

Here are the points after the Amman, Jordan leg:

5th place, Transformed Goddesses with 13 scavenges, 4 bonus, 1065 points

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 30

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.

And we’re off to Athens for a 30- hour leg.  

See more at https://globalscavengerhunt.com/

Global Scavenger Hunt: Searching Abu Dhabi

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

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Abu Dhabi is one of those places where the impression you have is either completely wrong or nonexistent. At least for me. Coming here on the Global Scavenger Hunt 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 on.

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

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.

Hall of Artisans, Abu Dhabi © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We get to watch a falcon being anesthesized – they quickly pull off his hood, at which point he digs his claws into the gloved hand holding him, and his face 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.

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

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.

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

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 spectacular.

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 time).

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 year).

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 pm).

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

Global Scavenger Hunt, Leg 3: A Perfect Day in Inle Lake, Myanmar

The distinctive way the boatmen paddle their wooden boats with their leg. Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

My perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, 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).

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

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.

A village on stilts. Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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).




Inle Lake, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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, Myanmar:

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 go next.