A Day as a Tourist in Afghanistan


When I started planning my trip across Central Asia, I always had the idea that it would be fascinating to visit one of the most talked about places on the planet.  A place where tourists really don’t get.  In 12th century Spice Route Afghanistan was an important stop to visit the shrine of Ali, even Genghis Khan felt it was worth a visit or a razing.  If you think about it, Afghanistan hasn’t been as safe as it is now, for the past decade, and even before that it may have been since the 50’s that it was a place that outsiders could visit.  After getting all my visas for the variety of places I was going I got in a good conversation with my traveling partner about the possibility of visiting the city of Mazar-e Sharif.  I had a friend on Facebook who I connected with over the past couple of years and have been asking him all about life in Afghanistan.  Zaki, my good facebook friend said he’d be willing to show me around his town.  It really came together and Zaki fulfilled his promises.  Not only that, he ended up spending a couple of extra hours waiting at the border for us to get through.  After getting through security and walking across the bridge at Termez going through Uzbekistan and Afghanistan security we finally made it and what an adventure it was.

Strolling in a Burka in the Park

Is there really anything to see in Afghanistan?  Oh Yes!!

Shrine of Ali and Blue Mosque Afghanistan

Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue MosqueThe Shrine of Hazrat Ali, also known as the Blue Mosque, is a mosque located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. It is one of the reputed burial places of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in law of Prophet Muhammad. The site includes a series of five separate buildings, with the Shrine of Hazrat Ali being in the center and the mosque at the western end. The site is surrounded by gardens and paths including an area with white pigeons.  You can see more of them in my pics in this post. Read more about the Ali shrine on Wikipedia

Our Afghan Driver

Our driver, the head of security in Mazar-e Sharif, and the uncle of our friend Zaki.

Driving in Afghanistan

We all piled into Zaki’s uncles taxi and headed out from the border for the city.  We decided we didn’t have enough time to make it to Balkh, but we were anxious to see the Blue Mosque and Shrine of Ali.

Afghan House

On the drive to Mazar-e Sharif, about an hour from the border, we drove by a number of homes build by mud bricks and natural elements.

Desert Sands of Afghanistan

The sands of the desert working their way to the road.  It won’t be long before the sands need to be handled.

 

Peace in Afghanistan

Peace to Afghanistan!

Blue Mosque Begging

This little guy was persistent.  He didn’t speak a word of English and I don’t know what he was saying, but he was carying a can of hot ashes and mumbling something in a persistent manner.  He wouldn’t let go of my clothes.  I’m sure he was very poor and hoping for assistance, but not sure what I could do to help.

Do you want Gum

These young boys were a joy to talk to.  While language wasn’t our forte, I had some real moments where we exchanged smiles and introduced ourselves.

Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif

My friend and I with our Afghan Friends Zaki and Hamid in front of the Shrine and Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan IT University

IT University.  Talking with Ahmad professor at the technical college in Mazar-e Sharif.

 

Full Burka with kids

Mother in Burka with her sons…

Full Burka with hand holes

Burka with Arm holes and lady with Hijab

Burka Peek

Burkas

One of the differences between Afghanistan and all of neighbors to the north is the Burka.  In terms of cultural differences I found it to be the most start contrast.  I’ve been around a lot of Hijabs (head scarves) in a variety of places, and even ran into a lot of Saudis in black full burkas in Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai.  I haven’t gotten use to it.  It’s really a fascinating thing.  The women cover up when they go out.  It not only keeps the sun off their faces, but keeps them from being attractive to men outside the home.  The thing that really surprised me was seeing women that would pull up the burka to interact with their kids at the park.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Based on what I’d heard and gathered on TV I was really worried they were going to get in trouble.  In this far north town in Afghanistan, there were plenty of women in the city that both wore and didn’t wear the burkas.  It did seem like most that didn’t wear the full burka would wear the hijab.

I grew out my beard for months in planning on my visit across Central Asia and “the Stans” coming to Afghanistan hoping to blend in, but ended up not noticing too many beards.  I did see some good beards, but for the most part the young men in their twenties would shave, and the older men involved in business seemed to shave into mustaches.

Afghanistan Beard

I wore an Uzbekistan hat and a shirt I also got in Uzbekistan a couple days earlier.  I’m sure it confused the locals, but at the time I wasn’t going for American, even though I’m sure I came across as traveler or tourist which may not necessarily be a be a best practice.

The locals were a mix of stand offish, and quite a bit curious.  I only had a couple of stares that came across as mean ones.  I ended up in a line at the mosque and park to visit the toilet, or what was really just a line of Turkish style toilets or better said, hole in the ground.  First time I’ve waited nearly 5 minutes in a toilet line for a squat style toilet.  The conditions weren’t great.  A few more public toilets would be a good thing when they decide to open up the town as a tourist attraction.

Why did I decide to come to Afghanistan?

I have been told that I’m crazy for wanting to visit a country at war.  In reality, I found a people very in need of outside love.  They are ready for outside investments, education, access to more.  I’m sure there are many challenges to getting the right kinds of services in.  The youth are very anxious to better understand the world, and connect.  I’ve had a number of facebook messages since my visit.  There’s so much hope.  I pray for my friends Zaki and Hamid, and the Admad at the technical school.  Be anxiously engaged in a good cause.  Hamid wants to be involved in security, and Zaki wants to be successul in consulting and IT.  Personally, I’m very anxious for this area to blossom. 

This far north the risk wasn’t as great.  It really is tightly controlled.  We saw the drone balloon, and there were reminders that we were being watched.  Even crossing the border we went though a couple of check points, and got some strange looks, but overall, it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be getting in and out. 

Getting the visa for Afghanistan took less than a week, the easiest of the visas on our Central Asia tour.

I felt like we timed this right.  We spent an afternoon, I wish we could have seen Balkh which was another hour and has so much more history, but based on our plan of get in and out while seeing what we could in daylight, we did pretty well.  I have no regrets really.  I have been blessed in my life to live where I do and I hope the time I spent in this part of the world has helped me and my perspectives and outlooks on life, and I hope that the time I spent with my new Afghani friends helps spread peace and inspires them in their righteous pursuits.

Peace Tree Afghanistan

These pigeons look like doves.  They bring peace and happiness to the people.  They make people smile and laugh.

So do I recommend Afghanistan?

I think for those who are real travelers, yes. Mazar-e Sharif has a lot to offer as does Balkh based on my research.  At this point, our strategy of in and out, worked quite well.  We weren’t there long enough to cause a stir, which I find has been a great strategy for us. Whenever we feel like we might be going to an area involving any kind of risk, we play it safe and not spend too much time in any one area, and we don’t back track.  We’re always moving.  That’s been a great strategy for us.  We try to be unpredictable, so no one could plan anything.  I don’t have a death wish, it really was a fairly safe and calculated risk.  On my pursuits to see and connect with folks in every country in the world, this was an important one for me.  I still have strong feelings for the people I met.  It really makes this place very real to me now.  I think that’s really important.  When there’s a war on the other side of the world in an unknown place that’s being fought in a way that’s unimaginable, it’s easy for ignorant people to say, just bomb the place.  I have friends there, and it means something to me.  The only way to find peace is to find empathy and understanding.  Travel has helped provide a mechanism for that.  I’ve never met a military person who would want to go back to Afghanistan to visit, but I would.  I have friends there that are great people who are making a difference for life in there town.

I admit I am a bit of a travel junkie, and I believe that there are good people everywhere as do many of those that visit every country in the world… a pursuit of mine.

You can read about some of my extreme travels to Iraq (Kurdistan), Tunisia, Venezuela, Egypt

Traveling the Silk Road from across the “STANS” Introducing Central Asia


wild camels

I recently got back from traveling across Central Asia. Some things have changed and some things haven’t.  The road is now mostly paved roads, but you will still find sheep herders, and wandering camels in some places.  When I shared with my friends I was going to Central Asia and even mentioned some of the countries by name… Most don’t know what I’m even talking about even when I added Silk Road or Central Asia.  I needed to fill in the detail between China, Russia and Turkey.  In this post, I want to give you some of the highlights and background.

My friend Michael and I have been planning to travel the silk road and visit “the stans.”

Our plan involved spending time in each of the following countries:

  • Kyrgyzstan – Serene Kyrgyzstan Land of Mountains
  • Kazakhstan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Afghanistan – A day as a tourist in Afghanistan
  • Tajikistan

I plan to share some of my experiences from each of these amazing and diverse countries.  Each of them is different in their own way and I saw amazing and fascinating things in each of these places.  There are incredible people in every country.  I continually get asked if I ever felt threatened or at risk.  No, I didn’t.  I did have some moments where I was feeling eyes watching me and moments where I felt like I was out of place, but I really enjoy that feeling of being the minority and feeling odd.  If I’m traveling and I’m not feeling that then I’m not challenging myself enough.  This trip was the most logistically challenging.  It took over 3 months just to get visas and I still didn’t get all the visas I wanted.  I missed out on Pakistan due to my Jamaica and trip to Quebec and Montreal earlier this year.  The only country that didn’t require a visa for US Citizen was Kyrgyzstan, and the hardest to get into ended up being Turkmenistan who assigned us a monitor and required traveling company which ended up being our most expensive of the trip.  In addition Pakistan was a challenge for time.  The visa would have been an additional 4-6 weeks and I couldn’t surrender my passport long enough make it with my Jamaica plans.

Samarqand, Bukhara, and so many of these places stir up the magical and mystical old world of East meets west.  Where Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a variety of old faiths like Zoroastrianism met through caravans and trade routes.  I had the incredible opportunity to visit some of these places and soak up the influence of this melting pot of culture, religion, food, and history.  I plan to share the highlights and some favorite stories, but wanted to get this post out as a placeholder.  I’ll link to the subsequent posts from this one to be as a landing page of the best of Central Asia.

 

Women of the desert of Turkmenistan

Turkmeni ladies of the desert selling camel hair trinkets on the side of the road

 

desert yurt

Desert Yurt in Turkmenistan

furry camel

One of the friendliest camels I’ve ever met. This friendly hairy camel enjoyed posing with us.

 

dome

Old Dome in Merv

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Merv, Turkmenistan

bukhara, uzbekistan

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

blue mosque of mazar-e sharif afghanistan

Blue Mosque and Shrine in Mazar-e Sharif Afghanistan

uzbekistan yurt

Countryside in Uzbekistan

sheep herding

Wandering Sheep in Uzbekistan

 

shakrazabh

Old Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

ark in shakrazabh

Ark of Shakrazabh, Uzbekistan

Georgetown Guyana Picture Guide On the Road Less Traveled


In my travels across South America, I had the opportunity to visit some rarely visited parts of South America.  The former colonies of the Dutch, France, Portuguese, Spanish and the British.  Guyana was both Dutch and then most recently a British colony but became independent from the UK in 1966 and in 1970 became a republic.  The official language is English, the only country in South America where that’s the case.  While I’ve been to Belize a central american former british colony that speaks English, it wasn’t the best trip.  It is one of my least favorite.  It was a mainland drive and I had a run in with the police.  On my trip across Belize I found more depressing moments than not.  I do plan to give it another chance sometime in the future.  Guyana had a few sad moments, but  I don’t let poverty keep me from visiting a place.  I feel I both gain a greater appreciation for what I have, and I find what really matters in life.  Our families, relationships, faith and shared experiences.  I met the family of a couple of my local friends I met first on facebook through SharePoint the technology that I work with.

This post on Guyana will be part of a series on that part of the world.  When I was looking to visit I found very little written on it.  I’ll add the links as the stories go live.

Road less traveled series…

Traveling Georgetown Guyana Land of Waters

Paramaribo Suriname

Saint Laurent du Maroni French Guiana

 

“Guyana was originally colonized by the Netherlands. Later, it became a British colony, known as British Guiana, and remained so for over 200 years until it achieved independence on 26 May 1966 from the United Kingdom. On 23 February 1970, Guyana officially became a republic. In 2008, the country joined the Union of South American Nations as a founding member.” – More on Wikipedia article on Guyana

Map of Northern South America

 

Georgetown is pretty raw.  It’s a fascinating colonial town, but much of it looks like it hasn’t had much care since 1966.  This isn’t going to be a history lesson more than sharing what I saw and experienced.

 

Welcome to city hall… GeorgeTown

Georgetown City Hall Guyana

 

One of the most fantastic experiences was wandering the city.  I’ve collected 5 things to see in Georgetown and surrounding.

 

 

Guyana Light house and Beach

Guyana Beach

Guyana LighthouseGuyana Lighthouse

 

Colonial House in Georgetown Guyana

Back side of Georgetown City Hall

 

Starbroek Market

1. StarBroek Market… Fresh Meat and Food Market, Ferry Terminal and the heartbeat of the town.  The name of the market is the old name of the city during dutch times. The beautiful architecture is an important part and key attraction of the city.  It is organized chaos.  This country really doesn’t get much tourists and you can tell that by the reactions you’ll get at the market.  They aren’t pushy, they are simply surprised to see you.  The homeless people sleeping near the docs are really sad, but it gives you a temperature on the city.

Starbroek Market Vegtables

The market is raw, and it’s a great way to see life in Georgetown.

Georgetown Ferry

Ferry system in Georgetown to cross the great river

 

2. Capital and Grounds

Republic of GuyanaCapital of Guyana

In the national library we met a guy who wanted to show us something really cool… The real signed documents for independence!

Queen Elizabeth Signature

The actual signatures of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the Independence documents

Queen Elizabeth Statue Guyana

Judicial Court including statue of Queen Elizabeth herself

3. Promenade Gardens – a nice walk through the city will lead you to the gardens.  Everything is all pretty close and an easy walk.

Guyana Gardens

Gardens… While we didn’t end up spending so much time here.  I hear there are places where you can see manatees.  Virtualtourist Georgetown page has some more info on that.

 

Guyana Streets

There are some nice walking areas of town where you can get a feel for the bustling of the city while enjoying the people watching and soaking up the atmosphere.

homeless sleeper

A common site in Georgetown and a dose of reality is the sleepers.  Homelessness is a global phenomenon, and I don’t mean to be unfair, but this is the reality of Georgetown.  Lots of them.

sad horse

You can tell by the look of this horse that they’ve had some tough times.

You need to be ok with seeing a lot of poverty to visit this city, but believe me… there is hope.  There is a generation of powerful youth with a bright hope for the future.

Guyana Technology Youth

I had lunch with five bright young people that represent hope.  They are the future of Guyana.

There is a hindu influence that is also felt.  There are really 3 major groups of people that I came across while in Guyana.  The Blacks (former slaves), the Indians (former british labor), and the natives or AmerIndians.  All groups have been exploited and feel marginalized, but it was both my lunch with the technical group shown above that gives me hope and my visit to the Amerindians that also made me excited about the potential.  The teens were dancing to native songs that were designed to carry a positive message of pride in being an Amerindian.   Any travel to a country should and must involve really getting into the culture and trying to understand the people.

4. Local Small Temples and Churches

Guyana Hindu Temple and MosqueGuyana Hindu Temple and Mosque

Small temples and mosques from the Hindustani locals as seen on a short drive through the city.

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4. Amerindian Village – Ask Elvis…

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In the city there are a few reminders about the original inhabitants of Guyana.  They call the native people Amerindians.  They are comfortable with that name as well.

 

Amerindian Elvis

On a drive outside of Georgetown we saw a coconut stand and fresh coconut juice sounded refreshing.  In our conversation with “Elvis” we found an Amerindian village just down a small unmarked dirt road.  Our local friends had no idea the village even existed.  Elvis is the little guy between the two big white guys.  My friend Michael Noel, Sharing the Globe is the one with the massive camera.

Guyana Ameridian Dancing

The kids danced and sang songs of Amerindian bride and culture.  I really enjoyed seeing this. Loved it.

Stickball

Pickup game of stick ball or crickett.  I did try a whack at it, but all I got was laughs.  You gotta love an impromptu gave of cricket with a stick.

Cute little ameridian girl

How can anyone have racial prejudice?  This cute little amerindian little girl melts my heart.

 

5. Black Water Creek Park – an excursion about an hour outside the city is this beautiful palm tree surrounded creek with calm waters is setup as a swimming area with nice little huts.  It’s a beautiful escape, and the water is really funky.  Our local friends took us out here and we had an amazing time wading through the black water.

Kevon in the black water

 

Black water escape

 

Blackwater escape with friends

My hopes and dreams for Guyana are in the youth.  Thanks Kevon for showing us your amazing country!

Bob Marley Adventure Guide to Reggae Jamaica


I’ve been wanting to go to Jamaica really bad.  When a few of my friends were asking when we’d go,  I knew I was going to be in Orlando and said why not?  At first I was planning on a dive, but most of my friends that were joining weren’t divers, so instead we made this an interior trip.  Why not explore the parts of the island that the tourists miss and be real travelers and go on adventures .  I did see a lot of Jamaica and I write about the other parts of Jamaica in my follow up post “Get all right in Jamaica”.

I was excited to connect with one of the greatest artists  Bob MarleyRobert Nesta “Bob” Marley (6 February 1945 – 11 May 1981) He’s had such an impressive impact on the music industry with popularizing Reggae on the world scene and bringing light to Rastafarian way of life.  More than just having a few Bob Marley songs, I’ve met some real Rastafarians that helped me understand it’s more of a lifestyle.  Many wouldn’t realize the commitment of the Rasta folks including not drinking alcohol and eating veggie.  Most seem to focus exclusively on the fact that marijuana is accepted and taken religiously.  It was in Zanzibar where I really gained an appreciation for the Rasta music and sacraments.  It was then that I really wanted to visit the island and see what it was all about.  In addition, it was visiting the grave of Haile Selassie I and the castles of the empire of Ethiopia that made me feel like I both needed to learn the ancient and modern manifestation of what was going on with the line of Solomon and Bob Marley as a Prophet?  There was a lot I needed to learn.  There were really three main places on the island we visited.  Most of the tours be prepared to pay $20 USD on the spot.  For some reason most of the attractions on the island are twenty US dollars and yes you can pay in USD or Jamaican Dollars (approximately 9 or 10 to 1), while we were there it was even better to pay in USD as the dollar was stronger, wasn’t even worth exchanging the money…

1. Bob Marley Experience – House and Record Label on 56 Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica (also where the attempted assassination took place) Tour required to see the house.

2. Trench Town Culture Yard – Birthplace of Reggae and where Bob Marley learned to play and where he lived after running away a few blocks. (a bit rough) Tour available. More on Trenchtown on Wikipedia

3. Birthplace, Mausoleum, and first home of Bob Marley in Nine Mile, his real retreat on his grandparents land.  Deep inside the island. (Multi hour drive from Kingston or much closer from Ocho Rios) Tour required to get to the mausoleum.

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There are a few ways to see the islands of the Caribbean, and while many simply get the all inclusive resort and catch a cab or van to their particular resort with a big fence and a private beach.  If they leave they are visiting a tourist attraction called an excursion where the entire path and time is laid out where very little interaction with the *real* islanders happen.  This trip on the other hand was the complete opposite.  While I did see a few attractions, where I drove, slept, ate, and spent my time was amongst the people.

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Popular Bob Marley Statue… One Love, One Life!

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I had some great opportunities to visit the homes of Bob Marley.  There are really three main areas to visit.

Bob Marley House on Hope Road – Bob Marley Experience

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This is the house where Bob Marley lived until his attempted assassination in 1976.  The house is now known as the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica dedicated to the reggae musician Bob Marley. The museum is located at 56 Hope Road, Kingston 6, and is Bob Marley’s former place of residence at his peak. It was home to the Tuff Gong record label which was founded by The Wailers in 1970.  They don’t allow any pictures to be taken inside the home, but there’s a great collection of the news, records, and history.  The guide takes you from room to room giving you history about Bob Marley and his success concluding in the theatre where they show a number of music videos and you get to listen to his music as it evolved over time.

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Trench Town, Kingston Culture Yard – Birthplace of Reggae and where Bob Marley learned to play guitar – Not a place some tourists will want to drive by themselves.  But for the adventurous traveler you’ll find a poor part of Kingston where the cement is the walls, floors, and many live in small spaces.  The place itself has a rough history.

Bob Marley’s mom moved to Trench town, a poor but cultural part of Kingston a few streets up from the Culture yard.  Bob moved to Trench town when he was 12 and wanted to stay on first street.

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Today Trench Town boasts the Trench Town Culture Yard Museum, a visitor friendly National Heritage Site presenting the unique history and contribution of Trench Town to Jamaica. Trench Town is the birthplace of rocksteady and reggae music, as well as the home of reggae and Rastafari ambassador and prophet Bob Marley.

“Though raised as a Catholic, Marley became interested in Rastafarian beliefs in the 1960s, when away from his mother’s influence. Marley formally converted to Rastafari and began to grow dreadlocks. The Rastafarian proscription against cutting hair is based on the biblical Samson who as a Nazarite was expected to make certain religious vows including the ritual treatment of his hair as described in Chapter Six of the Book of Numbers.”

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Trench Town Culture Yard… birthplace of Reggae and where Bob Marley ran away from home and learned to play guitar.  There you can see his first guitar and see his room.

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Left: Bob’s first guitar.  Right: Statue of Bob Marley in the Culture Yard.

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Out in Ocho Rios the Ganja smoking is not welcome in some areas, but you can find people who can get you whatever your heart desires.  There are many plants all over the island.

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This weed seems to spring up everywhere.  I can’t say I tried any, but I did see a few plants and was offered much of the Reggae sacrament.

Bob Marley Mausoleum, Resting Place, Birth Place and first home in Nine Mile.

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Bob Marley’s home where he grew started his life on his grandparents property.  The mausoleum in Nine Mile (deep in the island) contains family members on his mothers side of the family.

 

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While I couldn’t sit on the bed, I was offered the rock which was where many songs of inspiration came to the Bob.

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I had an incredible time on the island.  I’ll follow up this post with the non Bob Marley things I saw, but felt like the Reggae experience was worth a post alone.  I hope this post can stand as a reference that there’s a lot to see to better understand the great legend of Bob Marley, one of the most influential singers of the decade a man taken before his prime.

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The landscape in 9 mile is beautiful.  In my opinion it’s worth the drive.  You get to see a very different part of the island and if you can find a way to relax with the people… I recommend slowing it down and listening to the music.  Don’t be so afraid to leave your resort.  Jamaica is amazing!

In my search for the origins of Reggae I found Marcus Garvey and read all about Haile Salasie I, then looked up more quotes on his rein.  You can also get a lot more history of Bob Marley with tons more detail on Wikipedia.

Touring Iraq – Travel Adventures in Kurdistan


Middle East Peace Talks - Iraq

Everyone I know who have ever visited Iraq were there for military reasons.  When I told a local in Iraq I was a tourist, they said… “Tourist?” What’s that? Tourism is really a foreign word, but no longer.  The Kurdistan region of Iraq is open.  Visa restrictions in Iraqi Kurdistan aren’t bad for many western countries.  For Americans you can currently get a 15 day visa on arrival!  I was impressed how easy it would be to get into such an incredible place.  The cradle of civilization.  Abraham himself is said to have traveled to this area.  Chaldeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, there is a serious history to this region of the two rivers.  I stayed in the Kurdistan region my entire stay, but traveled through a number of check points going both ways between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.  We ultimately took two routes between the two cities by cab.  One went on the highway and through check points.  We were worried there might be problem with driving between the cities, but the road itself was controlled by Kurdish forces.  So while we did get our passports checked a couple of times.  We did avoid entering Kirkuk and we avoided Mosul.  I really wanted to go to Nineveh and the tombs of the prophets, but instead stuck with our plans to spend time exclusively in the cities.

Iraq road map

Our route through the Iraqi-Kurdistan region.  Syria just on the other side of Mosul and the hills of Iran on the other side of Suliamaniyah.  Yep those hills!  While we were in Erbil (Arbil/Irbil) we met a man in the square who was a Syrian refugee.

Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan

Citadel fountain

I started my visit with the best, the ancient Citadel.  At 6000 or 7000 years old this citadel is the one of the longest continuously inhabited cities.

Erbil Iraq Clock Tower

The fountain and clock tower attract vendors and families coming to the beautiful square to shop and take pictures.

Old pictures of Erbil show the Citadel and the Minaret.  Over 500 years ago the city of Erbil was only what was on the hill protected by the city walls, and the minaret.

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We walked nearly all the way around the citadel hill.  “A city on a hill cannot be hid.” I have to wonder if this old saying came from this city.  As we walked I saw a group of old men.  I needed to find a restroom.  I just had to go and decided to ask them.  We found this tea house was actually a game center.  The men were drinking tea and playing some high volume game of dominoes involving slamming tiles.  Even though they spoke little english and we spoke little to no Kurdish or Arabic we were able to build trust enough after playing a couple of games and getting tips from our new friends.  In travel I have found there are moments to really dive in.  It’s not all about going to tourist destinations.  It’s about learning to understand people and visit new people and cultures.

Playing Dominoes game in Iraq

Most people if you told them you were going to Iraq to visit.  They would say avoid crowds.  Well, in a local market in Erbil we seem to have met the real masses.

Iraq Crowd in the market

The faces on the people do seem to be hard, but I can attest that the Kurds are some of the kindest people you will meet.  They have sacrificed much.  It has not been an easy life.

Cotton Candy Kids

Life goes on… Kids on their way to school

Chaldean Christian Church in Iraq

Our last night in Erbil we went to the Christian part of town.  This Chaldean church was in service.  My friend Michael and I enjoy visiting cathedrals, mosques, temples, and find that you can learn more about it’s people by understanding their passions, their worries and their faith in God.  We stayed for the entire service.  The prayer for the Filipinos was so strong it brought tears to my eyes.  The group of minority Christians in this vast land of Muslims with their faith prayed for those suffering in the Philippines.  It was so touching to see them turn their thoughts.  They have not had an easy life here in Iraq, but many came here to provide a better life for their families back home.  They saw this as a land of opportunity.  One of the people at the church had lost 30 members of their family in the Philippines.  It made the disaster personal talking with this group and hearing them pour out their hearts.

(This picture above and a couple of the others were taken by Michael Noel travel blogger at http://travelingtheglobe.com, my good friend and my traveling companion on this and may of my trips.)

Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi-Kurdistan

When we first planned to come to Iraqi-Kurdistan we tried to find connections in our technology.  You can read more about the visit to the University and our technology sessions with the Computer Science students and faculty of University of Human Development (UHD) in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.  Those who wonder how I travel the world best understand it is my passion to visit the world and connect with people of all cultures and people.  How I do it is through my connections and relationships. I sacrifice my time and money as well to visit places around the world like this, and not only are the people changed through our encounters but I am changed.  Hearing stories from the students blows my mind making Iraq real and the horror stories of Saddam’s rule.  One of the assistant professors told me about his 3 brothers being killed and how he barely escaped and just recently came back from spending many years in the UK. Amazing personal stories.  I feel for these people.  Over night I became friends on Facebook and LinkedIn with over 15-20 of the students in the room.  I hope I can help them in the future in their pursuits.

Iraq University Students

So after a couple of nights in Erbil, the next morning we left for Sulaymaniyah by cab.  We arranged for a driver to take us on the road through the hills through the Kurdistan region.  On the way back we were feeling more confident and drove back through the highway faster route through Kirkuk.

When we first arrived I did a quick search and came across the Amna Suraka Museum known as red prison or Red Intelligence Museum. This prison was the former Ba’ath intelligence headquarters and prison.  Just as some death camps and concentration camps have been preserved, this captures the essence of torture and death in the treatment of Kurds.  In my travels I have found it fascintating to visit places in the world where minorities have been treated poorly.  I see a lot of parallels in how the Armenians were treated by the Ottomans as the Kurds were by Saddam’s regime.

Amna Suraka torture

Turned into a museum at the behest of First Lady of Iraq, Hero Talabani, in 2000, the façade still bears the bullet holes evidencing the scars of its past.

Iraqi sorrow

Our cab driver shared his person experience having been there only 11 years prior.  His wife and 3 of his family were killed.

women and children suffering

You really could feel the emotion of the place. The prison was haunting with

hall of mirrors iraq

Hall of mirrors… represent those that were killed in the mass genocide

Unmarked graves

There are other reminders of mass death in this region.  So many unmarked graves, and these that are marked with simple rocks that dot the hillside.

sheep balls menu

Interesting food choices!

tower

Hope is strong in this region.  They are ready to bring in the New…  The tower in the background which looks like it’s from Dubai is made by the same architect.

iraqi gondola and ferris wheel

It still isn’t Disneyland, but would you believe that there is an amusement park and gondola?  The construction going on is also quite impressive.  There is a lot going on here.  Change is coming.  The people are ready to see change.

gold mosque

Their faith will carry them.

cable tower

On our final departure we saw this wild tower piece of metal near the airport.  It took at least 4 scans to work our way from the street to the gate at the airport.  They are very serious about security.  I felt safe while in Kurdistan.  Speaking of God, I felt like he was watching out for me on this trip.  The faith of so many in this region is very strong, and the people of this land itself has had a strong connection Abraham’s God for thousands of years.

One of my most fascinating trips.  I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.  It isn’t for everyone, but I do see reason for investment.  I see passion and interest in the people.  People are ready for change.  As well, the Kurds are great people, a great heritage that has suffered greatly, and will rise from the dust.  I made some great friendships that will last though the years.

Colosseum Ampitheatre of the Roman Empire – 7 New Wonders


The Colosseum or Coliseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre is an elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of the city of Rome, Italy.  Definitely growing up you hear all about the colleseum.  You hear about the stories of the gladiators the Ben Hur, the Christians and lions.  Colosseum could hold, it is estimated, between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, and was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas.  It is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

The Colosseum

This post is in a series of 7 posts on the 7 Wonders of the New World

  • Great Wall of China – Sacrifice of a Nation
  • Christ the Redeemer Statue – Religious Icon of Rio Brazil
  • Taj Mahal – Sacred Mausoleum of Agra India
  • Petra Jordan – Nabataean Cave City of the Desert
  • Machu Picchu – Lost Sacred City of the Incas
  • Chichen Itza – Ancient Mayan Temple Pyramid
  • Colosseum Amphitheatre of the Ancient Roman Empire
  • colloseumEmperor Vespasian had it built in around 70–72 AD, funded by the spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem, but since then it has been robbed itself of blocks to build other things.

    You do have to pay to go into the colloseum.  Despite the fact that huge parts of it are now decrepid and missing, it’s handled time quite well.  It really is huge and impressive… Definitely worth seeing.  People dress up in Roman costumes.  There’s a lot to see nearby as well with the arch, great restaurants, and museums… it really does feel like the center of town and hey, there are more things close to this tube station than most others.  Getting around this was one of the easiest ancient things to find.

    Italian in Italy with a view of the coloseum

    Great Italian food nearby!!

    When in Rome!

    As they say… When in Rome!

    I’ve been to Rome a few times and it’s a city that’s a great city filled with tons of things to see and do.  Very easy to spend a week in.  In fact we did that a few years ago as a family.  While driving was a challenge, after a couple of days I was getting around pretty well.  Driving in Rome has gotten a lot easier than it was a few years ago with tons more scooters.  I do have to warn you that if you have your own rental car make sure you understand there are areas you can’t park without a permit.  As well, certain lanes you can’t drive in (bus/taxi lanes).  I’ve gotten towed in Rome once, and a ticket in the mail once.  So let’s just say, I’ve had some experience in this area.

    Rome is filled with tons to do.  There have to be more nuns and priests in Rome/ Vatican city than anywhere else in the world!

    Here are a few ideas…

    5 Additional Places to go when visiting Rome (or Italy) when visiting the Coliseum

    Happy Nuns

    1) St Peters Basilica, PLUS Vatican Musuem, and the MUST SEE! Sisteen Chapel… Shhhh! No Photos!

    Spanish Steps

    2. The Spanish Steps…

    Great social place to meet the locals and throngs of tourists as well

    Trevi Fountain Rome Italy

    2. Trevi Fountain

    Florence

    4. Day trip to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David

    Track down the Catacombs.  There are a few different ones.  We absolutely loved them as well.  Depends on your interests…

    5. Day trip to Pompeii and YOU MUST GO TO POMPEII! It’s one of the most amazing places on the planet.  There is another amphitheatre there, but you’ll see ruins like no other on the planet… KM or miles of them.

    There really area ton of things to see in Rome, pace yourself so you don’t get “ruin”-ed out or museum’ed out.  The Blocks and Columns start looking the same and religious paintings as well start blending together.

    Coliseum

5 Incredible Alaska Adventures


Alaska is amazing.  Everything you’re heard and then some.  My visit to Alaska was my last state in the US (50/50).  For that reason alone I was excited to visit.  I was debating doing a cruise from Seattle or from Vancouver, Canada but ultimately decided on a flight to Anchorage.  It took me by surprise when I was trying to figure out what I should do with my Alaska Miles. I had 45,000 miles and after my move to Salt Lake City, I found my miles were going to expire.  What I discovered in my searches, I could fly from SLC to anywhere in Alaska even as far as Borrow, AK for 25,000 round trip.  That’s not the same case with Hawaii.  It was 40,000 round trip, but flying from Salt Lake City to Boise Idaho was the same number of miles.  At first I was thinking I should go with a friend to Alaska, but my wife expressed interest, and getting a multi day baby sitter to watch my 3 boys has never been easy, and they are all great travelers.  Then I was talking to my parents, and they expressed interest.  At first I thought I could go with my dad, but then my mom wanted to go as well.  Why not make this a super family trip?  With the partnership with Alaska I found a direct Delta flight from SLC to ANC (Anchorage.) I had to check to see how much the Delta points were for this same flight.  25,000 miles!  With this discovery I decided to book 5 award tickets on Delta in addition to the 2 on Alaska.  I even ended up buying 5,000 miles to make up the difference.

Lessons Learned:

  • Alaska/Delta miles let you book a flight to Alaska for the same price as a domestic (48 states) ticket – (Best Deal was 25,000 Award Miles)
  • Same number of miles for adjoining cities as it is for Miami to Alaska

One other thing that came in looking at the best way to book Alaska was in discovering that an Alaska Cruise would ultimately mean getting on a smaller boat to see the glaciers and getting closer to the wild life ultimately.  I did find that both food and hotels are pricey in Alaska.  So that was definitely points toward cruise, but I used some tricks to find a hotel in Anchorage for less than $100 using Priceline.com.  Food was a different challenge.  Most meals were about $5 more than in the states.  The 2 for 20 deal at Chilis was 2 for $25.  A large bowl of Pho soup was $12 in contrast to 6 or $7 in UT or WA.  The IHOP average meal was around $12 vs. 7 as well.  At fast food places, the $1 menu was $2.  Anchorage did have a lot of choices for food, and out in the smaller cities the deli’s and sandwich shoppes could get you a meal.

Rustic Cabin with fire

Some of my best advice for the adventure traveler is to think outside the box.  There are hostels that have much better rates, but also consider camping and cabins, some of the best deals and most flexible options are in this area.

5 MUST DO ACTIVITIES IN ALASKA

1. Glaciers and Fjords – The Glaciers and Fjords in Alaska are simply amazing.  The size and scale of these things dwarf most things on earth.  They sure seem like they are alive.  Calving, Moving, Groaning, Shrinking, Growing, Cracking, Carving…  There are multiple ways of reaching these amazing beauties.

Fjords with Calving Glacier

The best way is to get right up to the Fjords of Kenai by cruise.  Right out of Seward there are multiple cruise companies with multiple cruise options.  I took the 10am Kenai Fjords Cruise with Salmon Bake Dinner on the island.  I have no regrets.  It was a great cruise, we saw a couple of Fjords up close, but also amazing wild life.  I’ll talk about that later.

Kenai Fjords Cruise

As well, you can hike up to the Glaciers.  Exit Glacier has a great hike that starts with a flat handicap accessible viewpoint within a mile, or add another mile and hike up the mountain to view them up closer, and add another mile to touch the glacier, or add another few miles and you can hike up the largest snow field in the US.

exit glacier sea ice kayaking

or even Sea Kayak to the Fjords, not too close because these things are very active and can create amazing tides.  I’m sure you could even dog sled in the winter.  There are options to take a sled with wheels to help the dogs practice for the Iditarod.

2. Whale Watching – Some of the best viewing of whales in the world is right here in Alaska.  On this short 8 hour Fjords and Nature cruise of the Kenai peninsula, Kenai National Park from the water, we saw a half dozen hump backs, a couple of pods of Orcas with many individuals covering a large distance, half dozen porpoises, hundreds of seals and sea lion and dozens of sea otters. Such a great feeling when you see these gigantic creatures of the sea.  It’s not the same as watching National Geographic, because you’re seeing it and experiencing it first hand.  I can imagine whale watching in a kayak or small boat would also be quite “wild.”

orca pod wild

Orcas, Hump Backs, and Belugas are all within reach, I saw a couple of pods of Belugas driving along the Arm headed to Seward.  I’m sure the population increases and changes based on the seasons, but the Orcas and Hump Backs and the Belugas all call it home.  I’m sure they have additional whale friends who come and visit.  I’m also sure it’s a different experience every time, but reading the reviews from the Kenai Fjords Cruise, I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t think it was incredible.

hump back whale tail

As a photographer, catching the tale of the whale, or the even more rare breach of a hump back whale is beyond exhilarating.  These are wildlife memories that will ruin any future visits to sea world, or at least remind me when I saw it IN THE WILD.

seal rock

While seeing large groups of seals and sea lions and the like, I am reminded of a number of encounters the docks in San Francisco or Seal Beach California, the docks in Ensenada or the elephant seals on the beach in Antarctica, but seeing them in their native habitat on rocks away from people is pretty darn cool.  I can’t tire of seeing these amazing animals.

3. Encounter the Animals of the Forrest – With more than 3 types of Bears, and some of the densest and largest populations of large land mammals, Alaska is the best place to find bears, moose, elk, caribou and more in their natural habitat.  You can go flight seeing and bear viewing they’ll take you right to where they are dinning on salmon.  We saw a little brown bear chewing on a carcass on the side of the road.

little black bear eating

While I can’t guarantee you will see a moose or bear while simply driving.  There are plenty of signs to watch for moose.  That’s a big concern.  They are big animals and cause serious damage to your vehicle if you hit one.

big rack carribou

If you are looking for guaranteed great sightings, I won’t send you to the Anchorage zoo which does have them, I would suggest going to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which has decent rates (carpool for even better rates).  You can definitely get up and close.  With a simple fence separating you.  While you don’t feed them, you can visit the Musk Ox or Reindeer center in Palmer (close to Anchorage) for even closer encounters.  The good news is the money goes to rehabilitating animals and reintroducing and strengthening the population of endangered animals.

big black bear in meadow

We saw…

  • Baby Musk Ox
  • Huge Herd of Wood Bison
  • Elk Herd
  • Black Bears
  • Moose
  • Caribou/Reindeer
  • Porcupine

baby musk ox cute

4. It’s a Birders Paradise – Eagles, Swans, Cormerans, Puffins, and way more.  If you love birds, you’re in paradise.  Even if you aren’t you’re going to see some amazing examples of some of the most beautiful birds.  Below this is one example.  We’re watching this elk herd and noticed a bald eagle in the tree nearby.  Incredible.

Eagle watching over the elk herd

This pair of swans was swimming with their three ugly duckling swan babies in a pond just outside of Seward.

Swan Family

Seems like every where you turn, there’s some amazing majestic bird watching.

bald eagle alaska

On our cruise we saw the funniest little puffins.  The rare crested puffins, and the more common puffin were so funny to watch trying to take flight.  Seeing them on their terms in these huge rock fortresses which seem designed for birds.

puffin bird rocks

5. It’s a Fisherman’s Paradise – Every where we went people asked if we were doing a charter.  No, we were there to observe, and observe we did.  We started stopping at the streams to see the salmon.  Amazing salmon jumping up their fish ladders and making their way to spawn.  Huge fish, many with their humps out of the water, finding their way upstream.  The rivers were teaming with life.

teaming with life spawning

Red Salmon

In addition as a sportsman’s paradise it wasn’t hard to find huge halibut and a variety of fish on the walls, and in boxes being shipped home.  Lots of great finishing and amazing catches.

After such an amazing trip, I can’t answer why it took Alaska so long to get on my list.  Amazing place… Highly Recommended.  Yes, it does rain and it get’s cold in the winter and dark 22 hours of darkness, but in the summer you get 16 hours of light, and 2 months without much rain in June and July.  Rain starts back up in August.  While I didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, I can see reasons why the time of year has it’s benefits.  It’s a different place with different experiences.  Do you’re research and consider Alaska a great destination to make the most of your miles.

 calving glacier with baby seals

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. | Mark Twain

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