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

merv

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

Touring Iraq – Travel Adventures in Kurdistan

Iraq travel

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.

1450075_10152091590808783_164980458_n

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.

Mysteries of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Barbary Apes


Barbary Apes

 

I love travel mysteries and Gibraltar has lot of deep stories that make it one of the most powerful, interesting and mysterious places.  It’s said that this place once held greek temple to Hercules and the caves inhibited by early man… maybe even the last hold out for the Neanderthal.  There is a labyrinth of tunnels that are longer than the trails that go over the top and caves filled with mystery from early inhabitants.  It is first recorded in history as the “pillars of Hercules” from Greek Mythology. Until Columbus it marked the edge of the known world.  It’s a magical place filled with mystery that transcends time.

Here are a few of the things we saw..

  • Wild Barbary Apes in Europe – Living on the Rock of Gibraltar are the only wild apes in Europe
  • An International Airport runway that people can drive across, the only road into Gibraltar
  • A gigantic gun that can shoot from Europe to Africa
  • A viewpoint for viewing the straights of Gibraltar to Africa
  • Hop a ferry to Africa or Spanish Morocco on the African Continent
  • Century’s old military Tunnels and caves inhabited by Neanderthals and Neolithic times

gibraltar map

Here’s a snippet on the history of Gibraltar… “It was first inhabited over 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals and may have been one of their last places of habitation before they died out around 24,000 years ago. Gibraltar’s recorded history began with the Phoenicians around 950 BC; the Carthaginians and Romans later worshipped Hercules in shrines said to have been built on the Rock of Gibraltar, which they called Mons Calpe, the “Hollow Mountain”, and which they regarded as one of the twin Pillars of Hercules.”

One of the craziest airports in the world, Gibraltair International (GIB) has daily flights to and from Heathrow, Gatwick, and Luton.  Went through all 3 airports in one day once.  I don’t recommend it.  As well Malaga is only 120 kilometers away.  Notice how the airport goes through the only road that goes into Gibraltar.  Locals call it Gib (sounds like jib).  The locals even have a British sounding accent, but they used GIP Pounds or Euros in most of the places where I went.  There are a number of Spanish as well that live in Gib.  While the Gibraltarians have their own culture, it’s definitely a mix of english and spanish supporting a very strategic military installation mostly turned tourist attraction.  I don’t think the apes realize just how important that little strip of land has been over time.  It get’s stirred up every 50-100 years it seems to me.  Spain still doesn’t seem too happy for it to be there.   

Gibraltar is not part of the Schengen Area. This means that there are immigration and customs controls when travelling between Spain and Gibraltar. Citizens of the European Union are required to have a national identity card or passport, while all others are required to have a passport to enter.  Right after you cross the border you cross the airport.  Hopefully while you’re there you’ll see a plane coming in or out… it’s a beautiful site.

I do encourage you to read the history.  The wikitravel article on Gibraltar has a sview of africa from europehort but decent write up.  The history of Gib goes all the way back to Neolithic times, some evidence in St Michael’s cave. 

As far as visits go, take the gondola up the rock and spend time with the apes.

Quite the view… across the straights, you can see Africa!

There are very few spots in Europe where on the other side you can see Africa.  It’s a real treat as a traveler to be able to be this close to two of the huge continents and see history reveal itself.  I had no idea that it was real UK territory. It’s fascinating.  If you like traveling to unique places this is a real draw for a number of reasons.  The Apes, the military arsenal, the huge iconic and powerful rock, the majestic views, and the point at which Africa is close to Europe.  There’s a lot of symbolism and exciting parts to this story.  I’m sure you’ll love it.  I mean come on, it’s also very close to Morocco, one of my favorite places to time travel, and to some of the most relaxing parts of Europe.  The Ferry is just down the road to visit the islands… It’s a great destination.

When I visited, we went to Spanish Morocco and then a night taxi ride to Fez.  What a fabulous place cultural that is. 

 

big guns

The Barbary macaque or Barbary ape, is a species of macaque with no tail. Traditionally found in the Atlas Mountains.  There is a small population, about 5 troops and 300 individuals in Gibraltar with an unknown origin.  They are the only monkeys or apes in Europe. The Barbary apes are the best known species from the old world.  They are recognized as an endangered species.  If you visit Morocco you can visit a troop in the forest. 

The Rock is beautiful and iconic.  It rises in such a way that you can understand why it’s used in Greek Mythology, and why companies even now like Prudential take advantage of it’s symbolism.  It carries power.  Over time it has been one of the most densely fortified and fought-over places in Europe.

Did I wet your appetite?  Maybe you’ll consider this amazing place filled with mystery.

The Rock Hotel Barbary ape looks over the Gibraltar cliffs

Traveled Anywhere “Dangerous?”

Tunis in Razor Wire Tunisie

I knew I had been to some sketchy places, but I didn’t realize in our small world that I had been to some of the most dangerous borders and places on the planet.  That being said, to a large extent dangerous places aren’t always what they are made out to be.  Your bias and perspectives based on news, history, among biases and other things will be incorrect until you visit.  It’s amazing how wrong I’ve been some times…

Last week I visited Tunisia, currently on the hot list of places that would be considered dangerous.  We were planning on avoiding the hot areas, but just a couple of blocks from the medina we came across a roll of razor wire that was stretched around the block in front of the French embassy.  They are trying to discourage people from gathering in large numbers around the embassy.  I think they saw the movie Argo.

Tunis cathedral with razor wire

Tunis has a rap for being the first in the Arab Spring.  The first to overthrow their leader and attempt to start a new government.  Trying to find the right balance of religion in the government is a tough call for the Tunisians.  They don’t want it too hot or too cold.  Egypt is trying to figure the same thing out.  They have a hard time figuring out what model to use, because there aren’t a lot of successful Islamic government models to fashion themselves after.

I really really enjoyed my time in Tunis, Sidi Bou Said, and Carthage.  Beautiful cities, incredible people, and tons of history.  In many ways I find people who have to deal with this kind of stress are either fighters or leaders.  The people that Tunis has created are real movers and shakers.  Tons of passion.

Sidi Bou Said

The same could be said for some of the other amazing places around the world where conflict ultimately creating a generation that will rise above the conflict and help us all.

Here’s a list of my favorite places where recent conflict leaves behind a city and a people who cry to be visited.  Some of the most beautiful places on the planet with darkness that is parting to light.

1. Lebanon – Beirut is one of my favorite cities in the world.  It’s incredible.  The food is fabulous.  If you eat much Mediterranean food you will find that it’s either influenced by Lebanese or is actually Lebanese food.  Lebanese… they rule in food in the middle east as well, that’s where is at it’s best.

Visiting some of the old historical sites you’ll find that this area of the world has been in conflict since the time of Cain and Abel.  I jest, but really since man has been sentient there have been battles for this fertile land with awesome sea access.  Byblos pictured,  has 10 different kingdoms that have claimed it over time and built it up.

2. Sarajevo – One of my favorite cities in Europe.  Beautiful Sarajevo, Bosnia.  In Bosnia you also have to visit Mostar.  A tragic past, which you can research before, during or after. It really redefines the way you travel.  Sarajevo is not dangerous today.  The same people who fought against each other live together.  They have been forced to find ways to move on. A visit to the very historical city library in Sarajevo makes this all very fresh.  A walk over starimost the bridge in Most will also bring the highest of highs and lowest of lows as you see the land mines and research the tragic history of the bridge.

Sarajevo bombardment
History is visible

3. Egypt – I still consider Egypt one of the safest places on the planet.  The people are so kind and caring.  Yes, Cairo is a large busy dusty city, but the people really do care about their future and are having a challenging time finding the right balance for the majority and minorities in the country.  Still find that Luxor is one of the places in the world where I can truly relax riding in a felucca letting the wind take me where it will.

I wrote all about how I feel about visiting Egypt post revolution.  I have friends who have recently visited within the past 2 weeks and they love it as well.

Relaxing on the nile

4. Nicaragua – This third world country has a tough rap.  Due to bias from leaders in the US government this poor country has had a rough time.  Definitely some of the poorest conditions in the Americas, but the beauty and simplicity is incredible.  I’ve felt very safe and the amount of crime isn’t what you might perceive.  Outside the capital, Managua it’s a very incredible country with much to offer the adventurer and for incredibly cheap prices.  I stayed at a villa on the lake for $30 with the shores lapping right up near the doorstep.  Sitting out on the balcony watching the waves… listen and you’re likely to hear monkeys just as birds, and look up to see incredible volcanoes, just beautiful.

5. Zambia & Zimbabwe – What happens when money becomes worth nothing… when 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) notes are worth more as a collectible?  I’ve found desperation a scary thing.  I once ran into someone who said they would never go back to Africa.  To me Africa is the place that keeps giving back.  Every trip I go on is incredible, because it’s so raw.  It’s primitive.  As an anthropologist at heart, and Indiana Jones as my example, there’s no better place to explore than deep dark Africa.  Believe me, there are some dangerous situations, but again even these seem safer than many of the large cities in the US where most wouldn’t think twice to visit.  Victoria Falls is worth it.  Amazing place.  We ended up travelling around the whole area and really connected with locals, and it was one of my favorite trips ever.

There are some people who like to visit where natures destructive force has made impact.  As a child I remember going to Bountiful Utah after a flood.  It was fascinating to see rivers going through people’s yards.  A fascinating juxtaposition.

Now seeing buildings that were bombed by Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal in Belgrade, Serbia…  Modern history is pretty wild.

The irony here in all of this, is the *real* most dangerous places I’ve visited would not be where most Americans would think.  I have felt most unsafe in Detroit, Orlando an some parts of Chicago & LA.  There are a few places in Mexico that aren’t so safe, but even Mexico city has felt more safe than some of the large run areas in the US.  People outside of the US, may think so too.  Johannesburg does have real dangers based on desperation.  Many who live there carry a second wallet.  There are techniques for traveling safe and a lot has to do with keeping your wits about you.  Having local contacts can really help in visiting these WILD places of the world.  Travel brings perspective and erases prejudice.

Road Less Traveled: Top 5 Travel Destinations of Armenia

Crazy Foot bridge

Rickety Old Foot bridge

Armenia view Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark landed, according to Genesis 8:4. In addition, Armenia has the distinction of being the first country to adopt the Christian faith (301 A.D.) and being evangelized by two of Jesus’ apostles (Bartholomew and Thaddeus). The landscape is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries.

Armenia may not currently be a top of tourist destination due to the challenge of getting there, but my experience is there is a lot of hidden gems and may be one of the top emerging religious tourist destination yet to be discovered, it’s off the radar for most.  It’s definitely an ancient kingdom that has been passed from empire to empire until it gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union.  Since that time it’s had a hard time with a couple of it’s neighbors.  There’s some disputed Territory that was a gift from Stalin to Azerbaijan and another to Turkey.  The Turkish relationship isn’t as strained it appears, but the Azerbaijani relationship is still strained with land disputes.

Khor Virap Monestary

(Above: Khor Virap Monestary)

There are some amazing destinations in Armenia.  The history of Armenia is fascinating.  I do think it’s worth visiting and not one to overlook in your visit to the former soviet union and in your visit to the Caucuses.  You really have to plan your routes through this region of the world.  For example simply flying into Armenia is a challenge.  We found getting from Georgia to Armenia was a great way of seeing the region and there were many more flight options into Tbilisi such as through Istanbul (one of my favorite cities for extended layovers).  Both Georgia and Armenia are Christian nations.

1. Where Noah landed the Ark – Mt Ararat viewing from Khor Virap Monastery – The Khor Virap Monastery is a 17th century Church provides a spectacular and majestic view of Mount Ararat and one of the most visited church and tourist spot of Armenia.  Saint Gregory was imprisoned in a pit for 13 years and as the story goes came out and the miracle of surviving this pit resulted in a conversion of the King and further prostylting led to the country converting to Christianity in 301 AD.

Khor Virap - The pit

The Pit – Climbing down these steps is a freaky experience.  It feels like the latter isn’t straight up and down.  It feels like you’re leaning backward.

Khor Virap in the shadows of Mt Ararat

Khor Virap Monestary with the Bible famous Mt Ararat in the Background.  There were some farmers burning their fields that day, so the mountain isn’t as looming in this photo.

2. Garni Temple – The oldest and best preserved Pagan temple in the world.  This building plays a significant role in the establishment of Armenia as a country and hence has been preserved where a lot of pagan temples around the world were destroyed with the rise of Islam and Christianity.

Garni Pagan Temple in Armenia

The nearly 2000 year old temple has some older structures around it including some interesting mosaics and likely one of the most incredible views of river valley which remind me of the Ihlara Valley in Turkey and have similar looking basalt columns of the Giants causeway of Ireland.

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(View inside of the Garni temple)

While we were there, some pagans were holding a ritual for one of their members who was off to join the military.

3. Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world.  While meditating in the old capital city of Vagharshapat, Gregory had a vision of Christ’s coming to the earth to strike it with a hammer. From the spot rose a great Christian temple with a huge cross. He was convinced that God intended him to build the main Armenian church there. The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world. The original vaulted basilica was built in 301-303 by Saint Gregory the Illuminator with the Kings help when Armenia became the first officially Christian country in the world.He renamed the city Etchmiadzin, which means “the place of the descent of the only-begotten.”  This UNESCO herritage site is a 4th Century church with a rich history of the Christian nation of Armenia.

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Courtesy Wikipedia

There was construction going on on the turrets while I was there so my photo didn’t turn out this great.  The church is part of a greater complex of religious buildings including religious seminaries.

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Above: Seminary Students and Armenian Priests in the greater complex

4. Armenian Genocide Complex – Memorial Complex of Tsitsernakaberd

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Right near the national stadium is the Genocide memorial with an eternal flame and a pillar pointing toward heaven.  My friend Marvel told us stories of his families making the experience very personal.  The Government of the Ottoman Empire ordered the  destruction of Armenians in Anatolia (Eastern Turkey) in an organized expulsion and extermination of Armenians. Women, children and elderly were from February 1915 sent on death marches towards the Syrian desert.  Some 1 million to 1.5 million died.

Apparently there is controversy in the use of the term “genocide” as Turkey and Azerbaijan choose to say these events were part of the war.  It’s very sad.

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Armenian Genocide Memorial 1915-1922, the flowers pile up in a circle around the flame.  Online there’s a 3-D video of the Armenian Genocide complex including the ability to place flowers.

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5. Yerevan Republic Square – The Republic Square is the place where ceremonies and meetings are held. The statue of Lenin used to be located in the southern forehead of the square, but when Armenia regained its independence, the statue was brought down.  Now you’ll find dancing fountains in the summer.

The square is surrounded with seven major buildings:

  • The National Gallery and the History Museum building (north).
  • The Ministry of Territorial Administration (north-east).
  • The Government House: holds the main offices of the Government of Armenia (north-east).
  • The Central post-office of the Republic of Armenia (south-east).
  • The “Mariott Armenia” hotel (south-west).
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (north-west).
  • The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (north-west).

Republic Square Yerevan

Republic Square Yerevan

Christmas in central republic square

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan Armenia

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan, this is a must see on the weekends.  Lots of fun things for travelers.  Lots of crafts involving Noah and the local landscapes.

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This is the Old Yerevan Restaurant Band.  There were tons of fun.  Lots of great food to eat.  The food was one of my favorite things about Armenia.  Lots of great food.

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O Little Town of Bethlehem: Touring Palestinian Territories


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With all this talk about air raids in Palestine and rockets in Israel makes you think it must be pure chaos.  It’s far from the truth.  The people I’ve met are use to the rockets coming from Gaza into southern Israel and haven’t been really concerned until as of late, but the latest special rockets with targets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem bring in a whole new dynamic.  That’s serious when random rockets can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv! I probably won’t be taking my family to Jerusalem for a couple of years, but it is one of my favorite cities in the whole world.  I love hearing the stories in church and thinking about the places I’ve been.  I’ll tell you more about Bethlehem as well.  There’s nothing like it. Seeing the struggle in person is unreal. Tours can be organized to go to areas in the West Bank from Jerusalem. My first encounter with Palestinians was in Jordan, a real must in the middle east and required on your collection of the 7 wonders of the world to see Petra the amazing place made famous by Indiana Jones. Later I met a friend of a friend in Qatar who took me around Doha and discovered this national Judo champ was Palestinian.

Also make sure to pull out a map of the middle east.  There’s still a big difference between the West Bank and Gaza.  Here are some clips from the BBC maps that show the complication.

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The two governments (3 if you count Hamas, but lets focus on the West Bank) while attempting to be united are still not there.  I’ve even had friends who have visited Gaza while rockets were going off, and felt unaffected.  It’s wild.

I’ve visited Israel and the West Bank three different times, and outside of security and check points…  I really enjoyed my time.  I do have friends in the technical community in the Israel Office/SharePoint User Group and in Palestine SharePoint Users Group.  In fact I randomly came across SharePoint training on the streets of Bethlehem! If you don’t know what SharePoint is, don’t worry.  For me it’s what gets me around the world.  It’s the technology that I speak about and cover on my technical blog at http://sharepointjoel.com

On your holiday you must go to the dead sea.  Believe me, the mud that is shipped all over the world is amazing.  You must cover yourself from head to toe and then take a dip.  The worlds lowest bar in the world (Kalia –418 meters) is next to the dead sea.  There are rumors that Sodom and Gomorrah from the Old Testament is the same location as the dead sea.  Avoid your eyes and ears from the salt water, but do lay back and float.  It’s amazing.  I’ve tried it in the Salt Lake in Utah, and it works, but the salt content isn’t as dense and it sure stinks in Utah because of the brine.

Dead Sea Mud Bath

Must see places in Palestine

1. Bethlehem – Church of the Nativity (in the West Bank)

O little town of Bethlehem.  I sing about it every Christmas season.  You may too.  I will now never have a Christmas come and go where I won’t be thinking about the little town and what I experienced.  There are pilgrims that visit all the time.  I’m sure the numbers will be less this season than last, but it should be bucket list item for all Christians if not Muslims and Jews as well.

Bethlehem Nativity Entrance

Go through a small opening, then venture through some amazing columns then wind yourself behind the alter and back under and down some stairs to a small little area where you’ll find a star.  This star marks the place where the Christ child was born.

Bethlehem Star

Holy Church of Nativity Rules

Jesus is special to both the Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  So while he may not be the Son of God to all faiths, you can have conversations about Jesus in all circles and they know where he was supposedly born.  Many assume that Palestine is nearly all Muslims.  This is also not the case.  There are a lot of Palestinian Christians and many Israelis that may or may not be Jews referred to as settlers, and Bedouins that may or may not be Muslim.

2. The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Mosque in Hebron (in the West Bank)

Tomb of the Patriarchs and Mosque Hebron

The burial place for Abraham, Sariah, Isaac, Rebeccah, Jacob (Israel) and Leah.  Built by King Herod King of Judea about 2000 years ago.  Sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  2nd holiest site for Jews after the Western Wall.

Another fascinating part of Hebron is the fact it’s divided in two.  As is the Tomb and caves.  You’ll find 10 days where the Jews have the whole thing, and that’s the day we happened to have been visiting, so we didn’t get inside, but we did get to experience what it was like peering in from the Palestinian side into the Jewish settlement side.

3. Dome of the Rock – Jerusalem and nearby Al-Aqsa mosque (silver dome)

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock is located at the visual center of a platform known as the Temple Mount.  For Muslims this was where Muhammad’s night journey took place.  Many believe it was the site of the Solomons Temple.  In 2006, the Temple Mount was reopened to non-Muslim visitors between the hours of 7:30–11:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during summer and 7:30–10:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during winter. Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering after 2:30 pm and may not enter on Fridays, Saturdays, or Muslim holidays.  In the few times I’ve tried to visit, I keep missing the cutoff.  You really do have to plan ahead for this one.  I’ve seen the guards do a quick test to determine the faith of Muslim believers in off hours.  The nearby Al Aqsa mosque is believed to be the location where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Note: Many Orthodox rabbis regard entry to the compound to be a violation of Jewish law. This is based on the belief that since the time the Temple was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the precise location of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary entered only by the High Priest, is not known. Hence a restriction applies to the entire compound.  I’ve heard religious Jews should not plan on visiting for this or other reasons.

Jews have traditionally regarded the location of the stone as the holiest spot on Earth, the site of the Holy of Holies during the Temple Period.  According to Jewish tradition, the stone is the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac; Muslims believe it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was to be sacrificed.

4. Arafat’s Tomb in Ramallah

Tomb of Arafat

Yasser Arafat who for years represented the Palestinian Liberation Organization for years and years is buried in this tomb. 

Abbas’s palace or equivalent to the white house is nearby

Growing up and seeing Arafat on the television is still fascinating.  Now there’s a mystery surrounding his death.  Was he poisoned?  He body is going to be Exhumed on November 26th to determine the cause of death according to China Daily News and Aljazeera.  Also just outside where the compound was you’ll find the flags of the nations that recognize Palestine as a nation.

While the UN doesn’t yet officially recognize it, UNESCO has joined the ranks, and has sacrificed US support as a result.  It will be fascinating to watch to see if there’s a two state solution in the works.

5. Jericho and the Mount of Temptation

It’s a beautiful view, and there is even a gondola ride.  This is the supposed place where Christ was tempted by Satan and told to jump and have the angels save him.  Great views, and old monasteries.  We walked it on a beautiful night followed by some gelato.  As I walked the roads of Jericho, I thought of my Sunday school stories of Joshua and marching around the city.  “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve, but as for me in my house, we will serve the Lord…” this is still a very powerful statement and one I use with my kids.

Jericho at Night

Getting from place to place between Israel and Palestine, and even getting to places like Bethlehem require passing through checkpoints that become bottlenecks.  As well, large walls divide the settlers from the Palestinian people.  These walls fashioned after the ones formerly in Berlin are huge, and tower above the people.  It does restrict travel and movement for sure.

There are some political prisoners that are often touted in political prisoner exchanges.

the Wall dividing Israel and West Bank

I was pointed to this map of Israel and Palestine while in Bethlehem.  While controversial it shows a perspective of the Palestinian people and their concerns of over land.  It’s not my point to say who’s right or who’s wrong.  Visit Israel and Palestine.  You’ll get both perspectives.  The people, the governing, depending on political alignment, and depending on where the person lives and the color of their card all may tell you different stories.  Keep an open mind.

Palestine Map

To the Garden TombBelow: Damascus gate is near the Garden tomb, another of my favorites and one that has a very peaceful spirit.  Watch the hours… it’s closed on Sunday and closed for lunch and not open late.  Be sure to get some awesome food, and enjoy the Muslim quarter in East Jerusalem, considered the capital of Palestine while.

In a traditional Palestinian scarf with some traditional Muslim women with head scarves. Just because they wear the scarf does not mean they are Muslim though.  Some women in Palestine will wear it for fashion.  As well, some Muslim women may decide not to wear it.

Palestinian Scarf

Palestinian food is good food.  They love their savory meats, stewed veggies, mezze, mixed grills and deserts.  Lots of lamb, goat, but hold the pork.  No pork for Muslims or Jews.

Palestinian Beef

Let me leave you with a final caution.  The situation between Israel and Palestine is complex and goes back for many generations, not just since 1967.  I don’t pretend to understand the full complexity of it, but I do appreciate the desires of the people on both sides to have freedom and peace.  I appreciate the desire of a two state solution, and even the one state solution with full citizenship, but there are people on both sides that aren’t happy with anything on the table.  It’s incredible to me that there really isn’t anything that will make the radicals on either side happy without horrible repercussions.

While I posted this blog with the intention of showing those that travel that there are some really interesting places to visit, I hope as well that those that visit will get to know the amazing people that have had some really rough times and a very bad rap.

I also hope the Israeli security will give me a break and allow me to visit every once in a while without interrogating me for 3+ hours.  By the way if you are visiting Palestine, make sure you focus on your trip in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but any time spent in the west bank be prepared for a few hours in interrogation.  You’ll likely end up getting my treatment involving many trips through the scanners and someone going through all your socks and underwear with their wand.  So far I’ve never missed a flight.  Ironically the interrogation is always on the way out.

Israeli’s, don’t be offended by this post.  I love you guys too.  Tel Aviv is amazing, great beaches, love the Golan heights and I’m happy to attend a bar-mitzvah any time!

Petra Jordan Prehistoric Nabataean Caravan-city and Wonder of the World (4 of 7)

Petra Jordan the Treasury

The Treasury at Petra in Jordan

The Treasury in Petra, Jordan

When I left Microsoft in 2008, I was planning a major trip.  It was my first trip to the middle east, I was to speak in Dubai and Istanbul.  I reached out to my technical blog audience at the time and asked the question… Where should I go… Petra, Jerusalem, or the Pyramids?  A Facebook friend of mine from Jordan named Mo, responded… come to Jordan and we’ll take you to Petra and setup a meeting with our user group… and more!  I was crazy excited such a simple question could be answered so well. As well a blogger in Israel offered up a visit to Jerusalem and opportunity to speak at the User group in Tel Aviv.  What a great opportunity to visit the middle east and really see it from a local perspective.

When I laid out my plans originally I would spend a week between Jordan and Israel.  The first plan involved me flying between Amman and Tel Aviv, but my time in Jordan wasn’t enough to spend the time I wanted to at Petra, so I changed my plans to meet my Israeli friend Avi, at the border.

Amman is a fascinating city.  It is a great modern city, but has a great mix of the old as well.  The shops alone you get a mix of modern and ancient.  There are places were you can easily find people doing trades such as selling clothes, handicrafts, but my favorite is the food.  In Amman there is great humus, meats, and breads.  Some say a lot of the food has it’s roots in Lebanese food.  It’s common to start with finger foods and then work to the beef, and lamb.  You can also find great chicken and turkey.  No pork!

Very common to have big platters of food where you can decide what you want.

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

There are remnants of Rome, and old ruins throughout the city as well.  This Roman Amphitheatre dates back to the before the time of Christ and has some amazing acoustics.  I’m pictured here with my friend Mohammed Zayed from Microsoft, who helped setup a lot of my appointments in Amman, he kept me very busy, and personally made sure I was well taken care of and safe.

As well, there are lots of flavored smoke, Houka, hubbly bubbly, smoke shops for just hanging out and chatting.

For tourists I recommend the King’s car collection.  One of the best exotic car collections around. Bugatti’s, Ferraris, Rolls Royce, and more…

Well, after spending a couple of days with the technical community with a little tour here and there, and some great food.  I was ready to go see Petra.  I couldn’t wait!  My Jordanian friends suggested that I would really like to see the Dead Sea after all our meetings to relax… So I took their advice, and we headed for the Dead Sea.  Once we got there I covered myself head to toe… literally in Dead Sea Mud.

Dead Sea Mud
Dead Sea Mud

It was all the rage.  I did get some footage of a family getting all muddied up.

Having Fun with Dead Sea Mud

Being so close to the holy land it was fascinating to imagine that Moses, Jesus, Elijah, and so many of the ancient prophets use to walk these lands. My Muslim friends were so kind as to take me to the River Jordan where Christ was baptized, and the same river where Naaman was told to dip in the River Jordan 7 times in (2nd Kings) to be healed of Leaprosy.  You can see the milky muddy river wouldn’t be that appealing.  This little river is the border… right next to this platform is an armed guard, and right on the other side of those reeds is an Israeli fort with its flag waving.  I’m sure both sides were watching my move.  A catholic priest who was part of our tour group offered to baptize my Muslim friends.  Poor timing?

Waters of the River Jordan

After the Dead Sea, and Jordan River, we headed out toward the desert to go track down Petra.  We wanted to get into Petra the city and spend the night there to see it at first light.  That was a great recommendation… although the route was a bit challenging.  On the road, my friend got a flat tire.  We had a rough time getting the tire off, and while all of us, and the military that happened by couldn’t get it off, a couple of friendly neighborhood chicken farmers figured it out.  This one guy got under the car, and was kicking it so hard I was sure we was going to knock the jack out.  I thought he was going to get crushed.  I tried to stop him, and warn him, but he didn’t understand me.  It was through his efforts we got back on the road with a donut for a tire.

After a number of check stops it didn’t seem like we were getting any closer.  Hours passed, and we started getting to know each other better.  In this chatting, something came up about Palestinians.  What?  After being with these guys for the past few days I thought for sure they were Jordanians.  They were, but their Parents were displaced.  Their parents were refugees from Palestine and had built homes, and families and lives in Jordan.  Wow.  Amazing.  At first I was a little shocked, and scared, but that was simply a media response.  It wasn’t a year earlier I had been watching footage and hearing about what Palestinians teach their children about life.  It was my first experience with Palestinians and since I felt like I knew these guys I really wanted to know what their perspectives were.  It was extremely enlightening to hear how they both knew where their families homes were in Jerusalem.  They both were from the same neighborhood even.  They had different perspectives on the war and the post war effort of how things were dealt with.  I think that’s something that is often overlooked is the literally dozens of collective perspectives of how things are currently being dealt with and how best to end the occupation (as it is explained by most in the West Bank and Gaza), and how to arrive at peace.  While I didn’t have much of an opinion on this, I was eager to understand as much as I could.  I was after peace, and felt like the better educated I was, I could share what I had learned.  A few days later, I’d find out the perspective of my Jewish/Israeli friends, and again in Dubai with even more Jordanian and Palestinian friends, and a year or so later with friends in Egypt, and then even more in a visit to Ramallah.

There is still a lot of animosity.  Most wars end with clear lines and boundaries, and some kind of plan to work toward.  Instead there’s a lot of confusion, and neither side has found an arrangement that works for the other.  It’s a bad situation and the leadership on both sides of the last few decades hasn’t allowed it to work out for either side.  Those in the West Bank have tried very hard to make a better life for their families.  More on that in my blog on Palestine… to be written.

I’ve made a lot of Palestinian friends… My second trip to Jordan I had a whole crew that made a special trip to see me.  I was so touched by their sacrifice, I made a special effort to visit them.  There are some very special people and when you get to know them individually, you start putting stories to faces, and see different perspectives… it’s all eye opening and touching.

Evil Camel in Petra Jordan
Evil Camel in Petra Jordan

After driving into the desert and realizing this wasn’t the best idea with a donut on, we drove back to Amman and found another more direct route and arrived in Petra at around 5am.  We crashed on a couch at the Marriott, which was also the resort we used when we were putting on the mud.  It was great to see Marriott was doing so well. (I collect Marriott points.)  We washed up, and after some breakfast, we got entrance tickets and started down the canyon.  The sun was coming up, and we were alone as we arrived at the Treasury.  WOW!!! It was so amazing.  What an incredible building carved right into the stone, a building cut out of a cliff.

The Monastery at Petra Jordan
The Monastery at Petra Jordan

Petra was as amazing as it looks and as Indiana Jones makes it look.  It’s awesome.  Totally worth the trip.  Wish I could have spent more time exploring.

Walking up through the high walled canyon to Petra… as it is revealed

After seeing the Treasury, I really wanted to see the Monastery, but I knew it was a lot of hiking with steps involved.  I had very little time, since I was going to need to rush off to the border.  I was way behind, and I was fascinated by the Donkey ride idea so I talked my friends, one of them at least into riding Donkeys.  To this day, he won’t ride the donkeys to Petra.  It was a very scary dangerous ride up steps, on cliffs, with a saddle that looks like it could choke the poor little donkey.

Jordan Travel Tips:

1. You MUST see the Treasury.  That one is required.  The second best is the Monastery.  Once you arrive at the Monastery you should go and look at it from various points of view.  There are some great places to view it on the hills.

2. Early is best.  6am is the preferred time.  Ideally you want the experience of walking through the canyons and it seems dark because of the canyon walls, and as you walk out the sun is shining brightly on the Treasury.  Early light is best.  The crowds will come as the tour buses arrive and people start coming in on carriages and the routes fill up fast.  We didn’t see anyone when we first headed out, but on our way back the Treasury was packed with people and they had a hard time getting pictures without people in their pictures.

3. The Dead sea is worth it.  The MUD is amazing!  You should definitely try it.  The Sea doesn’t stink.  It is very relaxing and yes, you can float!  Very cool feeling.  Keep the water out of your ears and out of your eyes.  It burns like crazy.

4. The Jordan River did feel more authentic in the Jordanian natural setting than the one on the Israeli side.  In Israel they have a place where people line up to do baptisms, and groups gather to collect vials of water, and have spiritual experiences.  The Jordan side was not crowded.  There was an orthodox church, and you can ride in the back of a truck to see the ancient steps that show ancient proof that this could be where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

While this footage doesn’t look that bad.  You can tell by my expressions that the cliffs and the steps are crazy on the back of a little donkey.

Insane Donkey Ride in Petra

If you’ve got the time, you don’t need to ride the Donkeys.  There were also camels… but it wasn’t my day for camels.  After my amazing tour of Petra, I flew in a taxi to the King Husain Bridge crossing where I’d find that I was crossing not directly into Israel, but into the West Bank…

Read more about my adventures in the Palestinian Territories & West Bank…

Thailand Trekking: Traveling by Elephant in the Land of Smiles


I grew up really LOVING “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, reading the comic strip, reading the books, and later watching the shows.  I imagined myself having a job like his.  Travel the world and capture images and stories the bizarre and fantastic.   My trip to the golden triangle of Thailand included amazing animals including elephants, tigers, monkeys, and cobras, with people so far removed from my world, from indigenous people living off the land, to refugee hill tribes are simply happy to find peace.  The refugees escaping oppression and seeing extreme contrast in Thai joy and Burmese oppression. Visiting the hill tribes especially the long neck Karen tribe was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.  What a joy to spend time in the “Land of Smiles.”

Long Neck Karen - Giraffe Hill Tribe

The big question is why did they start putting these rings on their necks?

Long Neck Karen Children Weaving

There are a number of reasons to describe why they have the rings on their necks.

  1. The rings actually coils make them more beautiful are a sign of beauty and wealth
  2. The coils are designed to protect their necks from tigers!
  3. The coils make the women unattractive to the nearby tribes.

Continue reading “Thailand Trekking: Traveling by Elephant in the Land of Smiles”

Cultural Philippines in the heart of Manilla


Getting Ready for Battle

I really, really love South East Asia.  Going to Manila was a huge treat.  One thing that’s always important to me whenever I visit a place is to see the place in it’s authentic beauty and warts.  I want to see the best and not best of a place.  We were staying at the amazing Shangri la hotel, one of the most beautiful hotels in Asia.  They are famous as having 5 and 6 star hotels in the big capitals in Asia.

Paul (black t-shirt) and I (in the red shirt, yes flash, and yes Big Bang Theory) were happy to pose with the staff.  Beautiful hotel.  Very posh.  We were definitely very pampered.  One thing you should know about Manila is it is very easy to spoil yourself.  Manila is very modern, and you can get anything you need.  My friend Dux Raymond Sy, who is very popular in the SharePoint community grew up in Manila.  It was great to meet his family.  Dux moved to the U.S. and if you talked with him you’d have no idea where he came from in fact he speaks perfect English.  No accent at all, and smart, very smart guy.  We were all in town for Sharing The Point Asia which would get us to China and Vietnam as well.  Fabulous tour.

We had a day in the nicer parts of Manila, and had some amazing food.  I was then very anxious to try other foods.  One early morning Michael, Dux and I escaped early to catch the sunrise over the sea.  We got up early enough we could get the first catch.  We had squid in it’s ink, prawns, and very fresh sushi.  Amazing seafood breakfast.

Continue reading “Cultural Philippines in the heart of Manilla”