Kenya – The East African Plains: On the Ground and from the Air

In July and August of 1991 I embarked on my second “around the world” trip to conduct software training classes in Singapore, Kathmandu, New Delhi, and Nairobi. My itinerary included stops in Anchorage, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Calcutta, New Delhi, Mumbai, Nairobi, Frankfurt and New York before returning to Los Angeles. One part of the journey was especially memorable, the time I spent in Kenya, specifically the opportunity to visit Masai Mara National Park, on the border with Tanzania. After landing in Nairobi on an Air India flight from Mumbai, Mike picked me up and we drove to the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service where I would spend the next five days training the staff in the use of the latest GIS software. During the daily commute to the training facility, I observed the traffic, a chaotic mix of old buses, and small mini-vans called “Matutus”, all of them “packed to the gills”, with people “hanging from the rafters”! In the midst of this chaos, hundreds of pedestrians made mad dashes across the streets, deftly dodging the traffic. But the most unusual sight had to be the huge dump trucks hauling people in the back of the truck, even during the rain. What a ride it must have been, but at least it must have been cheap. One evening Mike suggested that we have dinner at the world famous “Carnivore Restaurant”, which is known for its extensive menu of wild game. I ordered the smallest plate, but even at ¼ kg it was huge, so I couldn’t imagine what the 1 kg plate must have looked like. When the plate arrived, it had a large assortment of meat, including Hartebeest, Zebra, Cape Buffalo, and Crocodile tail, which was especially tasty – sweet and tender.

Downtown Nairobi
Serena Lodge – Nairobi

At the end of the week, we left class early so that Mike and I could drive down to Masai Mara National Park for the weekend. Mike’s friends Monica, Bridgette, and Suzanne joined us, and soon we were on our way south through the “White Highlands” and the Great Rift Valley.

White Highlands

The girls had prepared all of the food, enough for a two week safari, though we would only be gone for two days. Slowly the highway climbed up to the top of the Kikuyu Escarpment at an elevation of 8,000 feet, through a region of lush forest, rolling hills, and beautiful tea plantations. Later we turned off the main highway on to a narrow, unpaved road that dropped steeply over 5,000 feet down the side of the escarpment to the floor of the Great Rift Valley – a much warmer and drier environment.

Great Rift Valley – Kikuyu Escarpment

The road had been built in the early 1940’s by Italian prisoners of war, and it had way more deep potholes than road surface. We stopped for petrol in the small town of Narok, and as we drove through the town, I made note of some very interesting landmarks that included “California Grocers”, “Side View Hotel”, and “Supa Dupa Dressmakers”. Leaving Narok we drove across vast expanses of grassland, dotted with scattered Acacia (Thorn) trees, and occasionally a large wheat farm. The sight of huge green and yellow John Deere combines harvesting grain, as herds of cattle and goats were being tended by Masai warriors nearby, was a stark contrast of cultures! All along the side of the road, we saw Masai warriors dressed in their traditional red cape and carrying a long spear – very primitive, yet proud and majestic.

Masai Warrior

Further on, the road deteriorated rapidly into a narrow dirt track, so we locked the hubs in 4WD. As we approached the National Park boundary, we began seeing more wildlife, including large herds of Gazelle, Impala, Kudu, Ostrich, and Cape Buffalo. When we arrived at the park gate, Mike handed the guard a letter from Dr. Andere, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, granting us entry without having to pay the park fee. Leaving the ranger station, we drove over a low hill and onto another dirt track that took us to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Research Station where the Aerial Survey staff were camped. Nearby, the British Army had a small camp, as they were working to renovate the research station. The KWS staff had their tents pitched in the tall grass beside a small grove of trees, overlooking the hills to the east – an ideal setting for a safari camp. We set up our tents on the edge of the circle and the girls promptly laid claim to the large tent, “assigning” Mike and I to the small alpine tent!

KWS Aerial Survey Camp
KWS Camp
Mike and our Alpine Tent

As dusk approached, the KWS staff had a roaring campfire going, so we joined them and grilled our marinated beef over the flames. It was delicious, along with the German potato salad and cold Tusker beer. Later in the evening, we shared our meager ration of Johnny Walker whiskey with the KWS guys around the campfire and related our experiences of being in Africa. As we talked, the fire burned slowly, and the stars above us shone bright in the night sky – the surrounding hills became beautiful silhouettes! (a magical evening) As I lay in my sleeping bag that night, I listened to the occasional sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. There was a guard (“escari” in Swahili) posted on duty throughout the night, just in case. Our camp was the only one permitted in the park, as all other visitors were required to stay in one of the park lodges, for safety reasons. Visions from the film “Out of Africa” filled my head that night.

The next morning, I was up with the sun – the early morning air was cool and the tall grass glistened with heavy dew. There were a few lingering sounds of Hyenas in the distance, and the surrounding hills were awakening under the early rays of the sun. Just then I noticed a troop of Baboons slowly making its way around the edge of the camp toward the grove of trees beyond. They scampered through the tall, wet grass, lead by a large male. Meanwhile, several youngsters played tag with each other and generally “harassed” the rest of the troop! It was a fun scene to watch, but one had to be careful, since Baboons can be dangerous if they feel threatened.

Troop of Baboons

By this time, Mike was also up, so we got the water boiling for coffee and waited for the girls to wake up, which finally came around 9am. Then it was off to Keekarok Lodge for breakfast, where the girls also took advantage of the washroom facilities.

Keekarok Lodge
Keekarok Lodge

After breakfast in the lodge, we headed west on the main track (aka dirt road) toward the Mara River, and along the way we spotted our first large herd of Wildebeest and Zebra. The scenery was very classic East African plains – high rolling hills and wide valleys, covered in tall grass and scattered flat-topped Acacia trees. It was beautiful! When we reached the crossing of the Mara River, we saw a large pool of Hippos, some of them stretched out on the river bank, sunning themselves. As we stood on the edge of the river watching the Hippos, a couple of Vervet Monkeys sat in the tree watching us.

Hippos in the Mara River
Vervet Monkey watching us

The Hippos periodically surfaced, blew their nostrils, and submerged again. All of a sudden, a great upwelling of Hippo manure appeared in the middle of the river – it just kept bubbling up and bubbling up – massive! It was a sight not easily forgotten. We bid farewell to the Hippos and headed north to Serena Lodge, with the 5,000 foot Olooyou Escarpment in the distance. The lodge was located atop a large hill overlooking the Mara River and designed to resemble a traditional Masai “Manyatta”, built into the side of the hill facing the river.

Serena Lodge

The view was spectacular as we sat on the terrace by the pool, with our cold Tusker beers. Below us, Elephants and Cape Buffalo grazed in the tall grass near the river – the vast East African plains stretched to the horizon. While we relaxed by the pool, a young Hyrax scampered past us on the rock ledge. It’s so strange to see one of them and know this overgrown Guinea Pig is the closest relative of the Elephant!


Later, we drove south, following the river on a little used dirt track, and stopped at a large bend in the river to have a picnic lunch beneath the lovely Acacia trees. That’s when we noticed two large Crocodiles “lounging” on the opposite bank, while a group of Hippos bathed in the water downstream – so we named the place “Crocodile Point”. Across the river we could see a large herd of Wildebeest in the distance and hear the faint sounds of their “snorting”.

Crocodiles in the Mara River

That afternoon, on our way back to Keekarok Lodge, we came upon a large, black-maned male lion and a lioness on the edge of the track, no more than 20 yards away. Further on, we encountered a group of tourist “combis” that had surrounded 6 – 8 lions asleep in the bushes. The lions paid no attention to the efforts of the tourists to get them to respond!

Lion and lioness
Giraffe on the plains

Back at the lodge, we sat on the veranda with cold Tusker beers in hand, and watched a group of young Vervet Monkeys steal some small jars of marmalade from one of the tables in the restaurant. At the same time, their “criminal activity” was captured on film and video by several tourist cameras – the monkeys were definitely not camera shy!

Monkey stealing marmalade

I took a short walk to a platform overlooking a large water hole, and along the way I discovered a camera bag that had been left by an Indian family I had passed earlier.

Boardwalk to Water Hole
Water Hole Observation Point

When I returned their bag, I found out they were from Palos Verde, California and the entire family of two adults and five children were on a month long safari to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary! (they had to be very wealthy to afford such a trip) To my surprise, their two teenage daughters didn’t like Indian food – it was too spicy! Before leaving the lodge, Mike and I bought a case of beer from the staff canteen to take back to the guys in the KWS camp. (they really appreciated the gift and it was soon gone) As we drove back to the camp, we could see some large grass fires burning on the northwest horizon. It was possible that the fires were set by the Masai to encourage the growth of fresh, new grass. As we pulled into camp, there was a red glow on the horizon that was reflected in the clouds above us. While we began to prepare dinner, a herd of Cape Buffalo grazed near the perimeter of the camp, reminding us that we were indeed in Africa.

Cape Buffalo
Wildebeest and Zebra
Thompson’s Gazelle
Hyenas stalking Hartebeest and Gazelle at a waterhole

After dinner, the British Army contingent paid us a visit from their camp nearby. They brought along an ample supply of rum and cokes, but alas, no ice. The entire camp joined in singing old songs around the campfire, accompanied by Mike on his guitar. It was a wonderful evening as night fell upon East Africa. I headed to my sleeping bag around midnight, since I had to be up before dawn the next morning for a hot-air balloon safari. (Mike continued partying with the army) During the night I was awakened a couple of times by the sounds of Hyenas and Lions in the distance. Finally, I woke up before sunrise to a strange mix of African radio music and the sounds of Hyenas. I was excited about joining the balloon safari, but it took a bit of prodding to raise Mike so that he could drive me to the lodge. He was very hung over from the evening of rum, but we arrived at the site of the balloon launch just as the faint light of dawn broke above the horizon. We watched the raising of the balloons as a cool wind came out of the east. The final stage of the raising was the spectacular firing of all the gas jets – lighting up the sky with a brilliant yellow glow!

Final stage of balloon raising
Balloon raising

Then I joined a group from England and we lifted off at sunrise, slowly gaining altitude until we were silently floating a couple of hundred feet above the vast African savannah. A gentle breeze pushed us southwest over Masai Mara toward the border with Tanzania. As we rose higher in the sky, so did the sun, illuminating the plains with a soft orange glow. It wasn’t long before we saw a pride of lions stalking a small herd of Gazelle and Impala. (the tourist combis were stalking the lions!) As we slowly drifted over the grassy plains, the silence was amazing, broken only by the occasional sounds of animals below us or a short burst of the balloon’s gas jets. No one on board made a sound, except to quietly point out some animals.

Floating over the plains of East Africa
Balloons on the horizon
Migrating Wildebeest from above

The experience of silently floating 100 feet above the ground over some of the most productive wildlife habitat in the world was almost like a dream! (I had to pinch myself at times, just to make sure it wasn’t a dream) In general, the animals ignored us – at one point, a group of Waterbuck “jousted” with each other for the privilege of “soliciting” the attention of the females. The whole African wildlife scene played out before us, while we were a very transient audience, as it should be. As we neared the Tanzanian border, our pilot Chuck became concerned about finding a suitable landing site, before we ended up crossing the Sand River and entering Tanzania. He related one incident where two of his Kenyan crew were arrested by the Tanzanian border officials and spent two months in jail! But as we descended to 50 feet above the ground, Chuck spotted the track along the border and sat the balloon down with the greatest of ease, so that we did a light “touch and go” and then a gentle landing very near a Warthog den in an old termite mound. Luckily, the Warthogs were not at home! The crew had already arrived and rapidly deflated the balloon as we all climbed out of the basket.

Deflating the balloon
Kenyan crew

At the same time, other crew members were busy setting up tables and stools in the grass for our Champagne brunch. Soon the tables were overflowing with a dazzling array of fresh fruit, pastries, quiche, bacon, and eggs. The champagne glasses sparkled in the brilliant morning sunshine, and were soon filled with the chilled bubbly! We all raised our glasses to toast our pilot Chuck, and the two British couples on their honeymoon. The luxurious experience of enjoying delicious food and drink amid the vast African plains was almost indescribable, but definitely unforgettable!

Champagne brunch on the plains of East Africa

Following brunch, we all jumped into the waiting Land Rovers for a pretty rough ride back to Keekarok Lodge over a seldom used track in a remote corner of the park. Back at the lodge, we sat in a special area on the veranda reserved for balloon safaris, and shared our experiences over coffee, while Chuck filled out our official certificates, that included a list of all the animals we had seen that morning. Later, Mike and the girls arrived, and a few minutes after that, his friend Jack “buzzed” the lodge in his plane, having just returned from the morning wildlife aerial surveys. Jack was from Canada and the official pilot for the Kenya Wildlife Service. We all headed to the airstrip to meet him, along with the hope of joining him for a flight over the park. As it turned out, Jack was eager to take us up, so we climbed into the plane.

Boarding Jack’s plane

Jack was insistent that I take the front seat next to him so I could get the best photos, as I was the only one of the group with a camera! We taxied out to the runway and before we knew it, we were climbing into the bright blue African sky, headed northwest to find the great herds of migrating Wildebeest and Zebra, which number in the hundreds of thousands. As we flew over our campsite, we saw the herd of Cape Buffalo grazing nearby, along with a small group of Elephants.

KWS Campsite and Research Station

We continued northwest, and passed over herds of Gazelle, Impala, Giraffe and Zebra, before spotting the main band of Wildebeest. Suddenly the plane swerved and dropped abruptly as Jack maneuvered to avoid a collision with one of the huge vultures circling above us! The impact with one of these birds having a wingspan over 6 feet could be serious, even fatal! Jack was always on the lookout for them. Soon we began seeing long, sinuous black lines in the distance, stretching out across the savannah. These were the great herds of Wildebeest, migrating northward from the vast Serengeti plains of Tanzania, in search of new grass, following the annual short rains. As we neared the eastern side of the Mara River, Jack estimated there were well over 500,000 animals in our limited view! Then, as Jack circled around to the river, we saw a large number of Wildebeest scrambling down the steep bank and diving into the swift current, being swept downstream and emerging in a cloud of dust on the opposite shore.

Migrating Wildebeest crossing the Mara River
Mara River crossing

It was the exact spot where we had enjoyed our picnic lunch the day before. We wer

Mara River

e witnessing an event that had been repeated for thousands of years – magnificent! Jack took us down for an even closer look with a steep, banking turn, which was great for taking photos, but a bit rough on the stomach. As I clicked away with my camera, Mike finally lost it and had to grab the airsick bag – so much for his late night partying with the British Army! By now it was time to head back to the lodge, and Jack followed an old DC-3 to land at the airstrip. Mike and I bought another case of beer for the guys back in camp, and then began the drive back to Nairobi. Along the way, we passed three large trucks overturned on the side of the road, which wasn’t that unusual, since at times there was no shoulder, just a sharp two foot drop-off.

Overturned trucks

As we reached the main Naivasha – Nairobi highway, a light rain began to fall, so that by the time we got to the turnoff to Kijabe, the unpaved road looked to be quite muddy. We got out and locked the hubs in 4WD, but we were only able to advance about 300 yards up the steep muddy road before the SUV began sliding all over the road. As other vehicles ahead of us became stuck, Mike decided to abandon the shortcut and reverse back down the road – something much easier said than done! Everyone’s nerves were on edge as the vehicle slowly “slid” down through the soupy mud. At last we reached the main highway again to continue our journey to the city, albeit by a longer, though safer route. (however, by that time my boots were covered with sticky, red mud – a souvenir of our weekend trip perhaps) As we negotiated the heavily pot-holed highway, sometimes at a mere15mph, we passed through a small village and suddenly saw a man “dart” into the incoming traffic. He was almost hit three times, but continued chasing the mini-bus that had almost him! It was a really wild scene to watch, and probably happens almost every day. Slowly the road climbed the steep Kikuyu Escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley, through a lush, green forested region with yellow-green tea plantations scattered amongst the forest. The region was known as the “White Highlands”, where the English colonials settled, having displaced most of the native Kikuyu people. (eventually, the resentment of the Kikuyu lead to the “Mau Mau Rebellion”, and finally the independence of the country)

The White Highlands

From the top of the escarpment we had spectacular views of the Great Rift Valley thousands of feet below, and in the distance were the legendary Ngong Hills, made famous in the film “Out of Africa”. At last we arrived at Mike’s house, unloaded our gear, and enjoyed a “hot-n-spicy” pizza at a local pizza parlor.

The next morning I awoke to the startling news of a military coup in the Soviet Union! It sort of made my training class seem somehow less important, but this was the last day of the class and everyone was looking forward to a small party to celebrate. I gave the office secretaries 1500 Kenyan schillings (about $40) to buy the food, and they cooked the entire meal in the tiny canteen kitchen. Later in the afternoon, we all gathered in the canteen to share a traditional Kikuyu meal called “Jama Choma” – a simple dish of boiled beef and vegetables, served with lots of bread and fresh fruit. (most Kenyans did not like spicy foods) During the party there were speeches by the managers of several departments, but people kept eating. Finally, at the end of the meal, Dr. Andere presented me with a very special gift – a gorgeous ebony carving of a rhinoceros! The party concluded with a class photo outside in front of the KWS headquarters. The next morning, I reconfirmed my airline ticket and went to the New Stanley Hotel to have a coffee in the Thorn Tree Café, just as I had done many years before. As I sat on the terrace, watching the action on the street, many fond memories of my trip overland across Africa in 1974-75 filled my head. A lot of things had changed in Nairobi, but there were still some familiar experiences that made my time in Kenya very enjoyable. Later in the afternoon, I joined Mike, Bridgette, and Monica for a visit to a special place called “Kazuri Beads”, where beautiful jewelry and ceramics were on display, all of which were handcrafted by young single mothers. The shop was part of Karen Blixen’s estate in the heart of the Ngong Hills, a lovely region of low hills, small villages, and green coffee and tea plantations – so reminiscent of the film “Out of Africa”.

Kazuri beads
Karen Blixen’s estate

After the customary British tradition of afternoon tea and biscuits, we returned to the city by way of Nairobi National Park. It was an amazing experience to see Zebra, Wildebeest, Lions, and Giraffe with the backdrop of Nairobi skyscrapers shining in the distance. Only in Africa! Arriving back in Nairobi, we joined Jack and his wife Daphne at their house for the “requisite” drinks before dinner, a long-standing custom with most “expatriates”. After dinner, we arranged to meet Jack at Wilson Airfield the next morning for an “air safari” to Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

As we took off the next morning, there was a heavy ceiling of clouds around 5,000 feet, but Jack flew a mere 100 feet above the ground for a real “bird’s eye” view of the country. In fact, we were often below the birds! On the way to Amboseli, we flew over dozens of Masai “Manyattas” – huts surrounded by thick high fences made from Acacia branches whose sharp thorns kept lions at bay so the cattle could be protected at night. It was a very effective building technique passed down through many generations of Masai. Occasionally we passed children who excitedly waved to us as they jumped up and down.

Masai “manyatta”

As we neared Amboseli, we began seeing long green stretches across the brown grassland. These were the “seasonal swamps” that result from the short rains. Flying over the swamps, we could see long, thin tracks that looked like “snakes” in the grass. Actually, they were made by Elephants wading through the swamps as they chomped on the tall, dark green grasses. From above, the Elephants looked more like giant pigs “wallowing” in the grass.

Elephants in the swamp – Amboseli National Park

After flying over the lodge, we turned southeast toward Tanzania and flew over a large lake that had formed in an ancient volcanic crater. Then Jack climbed through the thick clouds, up to 10,000 feet, in an effort to get a view of Mt Kilimanjaro, but the massive peak remained shrouded by the heavy cloud cover.

Mt Kilimanjaro in the clouds

As we descended, I recalled the memories from 1975 when I had climbed the mountain and saw the sunrise over the East Africa plains from the 19, 340 foot summit. Before long we were flying over Tsavo National Park, home to large numbers of Elephants and Rhino. Jack circled Kilaguni Lodge, landed at the airstrip, and taxied right up to the front door! The lunch buffet was served in the beautiful open-air restaurant overlooking a large water hole, where we watched all manner of wildlife come to take their daily ration of water. As we enjoyed the many delicious African dishes, we noticed several Baboons sitting on rocks in front of the restaurant.

Kilaguni Lodge – Tsavo National Park
Baboon at Kilaguni Lodge
Baboon “scouting” out the restaurant

Suddenly, one of them rushed forward and “charged” the table next to us. And just as quickly, the Baboon was on top of the table, “screeched” loudly, and grabbed a dinner roll from the plate of one of the ladies at the table! She jumped from her chair, but it all happened so fast that no one got it on film, despite the large number of cameras on hand. In order to combat the “Baboon attacks”, the restaurant staff carry sling shots, and the very sight of one would scare the devil out of the Baboons! One time, Jack “pretended” to have a sling shot and it was enough to scare them off. Having lunch while we gazed upon the plains and mountains of Tsavo, with the abundant wildlife that visited the water hole, was like watching a National Geographic film, but in real life! Eventually, it was time to leave the lodge and head back to Nairobi. Several children stood patiently on the edge of the airstrip, as Jack warmed up the engines, and as we took off from the red earth runway, they waved excitedly!

Children at Kilaguni lodge awaiting our takeoff

On the return route, we followed part of the Nairobi – Mombasa railroad main line. All of a sudden, Jack spotted a large bull Elephant standing a few feet from the tracks, as a freight train approached. We circled around for a closer look, just as the locomotive passed the huge pacaderm, missing it by only a few feet! It almost seemed as if the Elephant was “challenging” the locomotive – a poor contest at best!

Nairobi – Mombasa railway

As we approached the hills east of Nairobi, we could see they were extensively terraced fields of tea and coffee – the dark green color in beautiful contrast to the deep red volcanic soil of the Central Highlands. After having landed at Wilson Airfield, Jack and Daphne invited us for a BBQ at their house. It was a lovely way to end our air safari!

The next morning, I packed my bags for the return flight home. Mike picked me up at the hotel and said that he had arranged a short meeting with Dr. Richard Leakey, on our way to the airport. It was a very special event for us, and even though Dr. Leakey was a very busy man, he still gave us his full attention – we felt that he had made the time just for us. As we told him about the work of KWS using the new computer mapping software, he seemed genuinely interested and asked many questions. I left the meeting having felt his “presence” – clearly a brilliant and impressive man. Dr. Leakey gave us a National Parks pass and insisted that we drive through Nairobi National Park on the way to the airport. The drive afforded us the opportunity to once again see Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Gazelle and Ostrich, along with a huge Cape Buffalo that insisted upon walking in the middle of the road! We had to pull off to the side of the road to avoid a confrontation. The highlight of my final “wild game tour” came when we spotted a den of young Black Jackal pups sitting alongside the edge of the road. They were really cute as they sat and stared at us – sort of bewildered, but at the same time, overcome with curiosity!

Young Black Jackal pups

It was a perfect way to say farewell to Kenya and the East African plains. All too soon I was boarding Lufthansa flight 581 bound for Frankfurt, continuing on to New York and eventually Los Angeles. As I settled into my Business Class seat, I noticed a young boy walk up beside the Dutch man sitting across the aisle from me. The little boy began “adjusting” the man’s channel selector and volume control of his stereo headset while the man was reading. Suddenly the man looked up to see what was going on, and he laughed! As we flew over Sudan, Libya, Italy and Switzerland, I recalled all the fond memories of my most recent visit to Kenya, a place which remains among my favorite destinations in the world! (Stay tuned for more adventures in Africa!)

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook


Jerusalem – Heart of the Holy Land

In February of 1998 I was invited by the UN to conduct two GIS software training classes for the Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MOPIC). One of the classes would be in Gaza and the other in Ramallah, the Palestinian capitol in the West Bank. My trip began with a flight to Vienna and then on to Ben Gurion airport located halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My UN contact, Ms. Giovanna O’Donnell, a Somali national who spoke fluent Arabic, met me at the airport and soon we were in a taxi on our way to the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian section of the city. From my hotel balcony I had a beautiful view of the hills surrounding the city. (It should be noted that this was a time when the threat of a war with Iraq was very real and came to fruition a few years later in Operation Iraqi Freedom) The following morning we took a taxi south to the Gaza Strip, making a short stop at an old Trappist monastery in Latroun, famous for its vineyards and fine wines. The old monastery resembled a large Italian estate built from beautiful local yellow sandstone, sitting amid vast fields and orchards.

Latroun Monastery

We purchased a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from the winery since there would be no chance to buy any in Gaza. As we drove through many of the small Israeli towns we saw many soldiers carrying duffel bags and with machine guns slung over their shoulder, waiting for buses and to report for duty, in case of possible war with Iraq! When we reached the Israeli army checkpoint on the border with the Gaza Strip it was heavily barricaded and fortified with guard towers, high concrete walls, searchlights, and lots of barbed wire! Our passports were checked by several soldiers and permits to enter Gaza were issued, but only after many questions about our purpose for travelling to Gaza. (the week in Gaza will be another story)

At the end of the training class in Gaza, Frank, a Norwegian aid worker, along with one of the Palestinians from the class, picked us up at the hotel and took us on a wild ride through the crowded streets of Gaza City, past one of the many refugee camps and on to the heavily fortified Israeli Army border crossing. Since our Palestinian taxi was not allowed to cross the border, we had to get out of the car and haul our luggage through the 100 meter “no man’s land” to the Israeli side, where we would pick up an Israeli taxi. Our documents were checked again and our luggage searched before being allowed to exit the border post. As I passed through Israeli immigration control I felt like I was leaving prison! Meanwhile, we had to wait for our Palestinian colleague to pass through a much higher level of security. The whole process was very complicated and time-consuming, yet many Palestinians make the crossing every day to work in Israel.

Our taxi ride back to Jerusalem passed through verdant farmland and modern, neat Israeli towns. Finally, we arrived in East Jerusalem as a light rain began to fall and dusk descended upon us. Being the beginning of the Sabbath, our taxi had to take a longer route to avoid the Orthodox Jewish areas which were closed to traffic. My room at the Ambassador Hotel had a beautiful view overlooking the Mount of Olives. The next morning I took a taxi to the Ministry of Planning headquarters in Ramallah, just a few kms north of Jerusalem.

MOPIC Headquarters in Ramallah

We had to pass through an Israeli army checkpoint where the Palestinian National Authority controlled the area on the right side and the Israelis controlled the left side. I learned later that “commuters” sometimes faced very long delays in crossing into and out of Jerusalem, resulting in many people arriving late for work! (on a side note, the taxi was from the “25 Hour Taxi Company”) Upon arriving at the training classroom it became necessary to remove the large portrait of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in order for me to project my slides. I hoped that Yasser didn’t hear about it. After a long day of training, our Palestinian representative, Michael, met me at the hotel and invited me for dinner at a traditional Arabic restaurant in Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. The restaurant was located in the middle of a 100 meter long zone between two Israeli army checkpoints! In traditional Arabic hospitality, Michael ordered lots of food, including several dishes of mezzes (Arabic appetizers). There were cold salads, hummus, olives, and hot, fresh pita bread. Then came lamb shish tawook and spiced beef kabobs, followed by a huge bowl of fresh fruit for dessert, including a large grapefruit-like fruit called Pommel. We finished dinner with a small cup of strong Arabic coffee and a glass of an Anise flavored liquor called “Arak”, which was very much like Greek “Ouzo” and Turkish “Rakni”. Michael was a very gracious host and someone I would come to know as a good friend. As we drove back to Jerusalem, the sight of the Old City wall lighted at night, shining high on the hill, with the golden stone in sharp contrast against the pitch black sky was spectacular!

Old City wall at night

After the training class the next day, which ended at 2:30pm, I changed clothes, put on hiking boots, grabbed my camera , my guidebook and headed down to the Old City. I had intended to walk along Nablus Road , which according to the map would lead me directly to Damascus Gate.

Damascus Gate

But somehow I “leaned” too much to the east and walked through an old Arabic shopping area before coming to Herod’s Gate instead. As I entered the Old City, I found myself immediately “engulfed” in a slow moving “sea of humanity”, winding its way down into the dark, narrow streets of the Arab Quarter, known as the “Souq”. At first it was a very eerie, claustrophobic feeling, but after awhile, I found myself adjusting to the “current” and began “swimming with the rest of the fish” – so to speak! Even though I had studied the map of the Old City before, and even checked it several times along the way as I “flowed” with the crowd, I found it difficult to orient myself and make my way to a particular place – so I decided to just “wander” in whatever direction that looked interesting!

Souq in the Arabic Quarter
Street in the Old City

As I looked around, the narrow streets, which were covered by tent awnings in many places, resembled “tunnels”, even on a sunny day. In some places there were small, arched doorways, barely large enough for a person to “squeeze” through, and often with steep stone steps descending into total darkness. (who knows what lurks beneath the Old City!) On either side of the narrow, dark, crowded streets were small shops selling everything from A to Z. As I passed the spice shops, the smell of exotic fragrances was often overwhelming at times. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Arabic Souq were a real challenge to the senses – at times overpowering, and yet utterly unique and fascinating!

Arabic Quarter in the Old City
Arabic Quarter

I wandered along through the Souq until I spotted a doorway to my right which looked inviting, so I turned and followed a much less crowded street that lead me to a small square next to the “Lutheran Church of the Redeemer”.

Steps leading to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer

Surrounding the square were countless small souvenir shops with their owners standing out front hawking their wares. I declined to buy any of the cheap items by ignoring their questions – “Hello, how are you my brother. You want to see my shop?” As I wandered around the area, I suddenly found myself back where I had started! (so easy to do in the Old City) I had been trying to follow the map to find the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre”, and when I turned the corner and entered a large courtyard I suddenly found myself in front of the church!

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It was “managed” by several Christian sects from around the world, each with their own special areas and separate hours for visiting. I entered the massive main door and stepped into a dark, smoky cathedral with a narrow passageway leading to a small underground chapel, from which I could hear the faint echoes of chanting. I followed the beautiful, eerie sound and came to a place where a priest and a group of monks stood in front of an alter, chanting verses from their liturgy – reading the small hymnals by the dim light of a small candle that each of them carried. It was a beautiful and ethereal experience in which I became lost in another world – very memorable!

Alter in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Suddenly they all turned and began climbing the stone steps leading up and out of the chapel, and before I knew it, I found myself in the middle of a procession that lead to another chapel upstairs. There the priest offered lots of sweet, pungent incense in front of a richly decorated alter that had several large silver icons, and was lit by hundreds of candles and old oil lamps. It was a scene from a thousand years ago! Soon the “procession” moved on, now joined by a large group of elderly nuns from eastern Europe. They knew all the responses to chant along with the monks. Being the only one not chanting along in Latin, I began to feel conspicuously out of place, but no one seemed to notice, as they were almost in a trance-like state. Soon we all stopped in front of a large wooden structure situated under an elaborate gold and marble basilica. When the small wooden door was finally opened, we found ourselves standing at the entrance to the “Holy Sepulchre” – the site believed to be the tomb of Christ, and one of the most holy sites in the world for all Christians!

The Holy Sepulchre – Christ’s tomb

Nearby was the site where Christ was crucified, his body anointed, and then buried in the tomb (aka cave), now preserved in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Later in the afternoon, as I sat in an outdoor café in the Jewish Quarter, I had to pinch myself as I reflected back on the incredible experience I had just witnessed.

As evening approached, I walked to a terrace overlooking the eastern part of the Old City, where there was a stunning view of the Western Wall of the Old Jewish Temple, now known to all Jews as the “Wailing Wall”. And just beyond stood the brilliant golden “Dome of the Rock Mosque”, one of the holiest sites in the Muslim world.

Terrace overlooking the Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock Mosque
Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock Mosque

As I marveled at the scene, I couldn’t help feeling how truly “ironic” was the western wall of the old temple, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, but which served to divide them! It’s so amazing that the very same stone could be capable of such power. In order to approach the wall, I had to go through an Israeli army checkpoint. There were separate areas of the Wailing Wall for men and women. I stood there watching a scene of men in very traditional Orthodox Jewish dress (long black coat, large round black fur hat, black shoes) with full beard and long, braided pigtails, standing face to face with the ancient stone wall, and going through their complicated rituals. All were making emotional appeals to God on behalf of something of obvious importance in their lives. As I watched the scene unfold in front of me, it felt as if I was watching a documentary film, except it was no film – it was real life!

The Wailing Wall

Looking back, it was an incredible experience, to be standing at the center of the world for all western religions  – a moment I will never forget! As I walked from the Wailing Wall back into the Arab Quarter, I soon found myself on a narrow street named “Via Delarosa”. Walking along I saw a small shop named “Souvenirs at the 12th Station”, and it was at that point I realized I was walking the same route as Christ on his way to the crucifixion! Christians everywhere know this route as the “way of the twelve stations of the cross”, and during the time of Easter, thousands of devout Christians make the pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Christ. By the time I reached the end of the Via Delarosa, the sun was setting and the dimly lit streets were becoming very dark. As I reached Damascus Gate, most people were leaving the Old City, madly rushing to catch taxis and mini-buses along the crowded, noisy street. Exiting the gate, I climbed the old stone steps and looked back to see the ancient stone wall illuminated by hundreds of floodlights, making the wall glow softly in the dark night. (had it been Disneyland, I’m sure there would have been fireworks and a laser lightshow to end the evening, thankfully not here!)

I walked back to the American Colony Hotel through dark, crowded streets, and went to the Cellar Bar for a drink before dinner. The bar had been converted from the estate’s original wine cellar and retained much of its ambience. It was very cozy and comfortable, and as I sat with a large, cold glass of Carlsberg, I heard the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York”. Then, all of a sudden, Frank was “drowned out” by the evening call to prayer, at full volume, from the mosque next door! The “duet” was not pleasant, and the “duel” was clearly won by the caller in the mosque, not Frank! Leaving the Cellar Bar, I went upstairs to the restaurant overlooking the pool. There was a nice fire burning in the huge fireplace that took the chill out of the night.

The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem
American Colony Hotel restaurant
Cellar Bar – American Colony Hotel
American Colony Hotel
American Colony Hotel
American Colony Hotel

Dinner was fabulous – grilled lamb tenderloin, topped with a wafer-thin slice of eggplant and covered in fresh mushrooms and garlic sauce. It was incredibly tender and delicious, accompanied very well with a half bottle of Israeli red wine. I finished dinner with a traditional Arabic dessert of creamed rice pudding, served with a small cup of strong Arabic coffee.

The next morning, and every morning for the next five days, I took a taxi to Ramallah, through the Israeli army checkpoint, conducted the training class, and then a taxi back to my hotel in East Jerusalem, once again through the checkpoint. Passing through the checkpoint could take anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour, depending on the amount of traffic, the level of “aggression” of the taxi driver, and most importantly, the “mood” of the Israeli army soldiers! What I never understood was the cost of the taxi, which was 35 shekels to Ramallah, but only 20 shekels for the return trip to Jerusalem. One afternoon, after the class, I walked down to the Old City under beautiful blue skies and once again sat at the Terrace Café in the Jewish Quarter. The café had the most spectacular view of the Old City, overlooking the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock Mosque, with its golden dome shining brilliantly in the sunshine. And just beyond, outside the wall, was the Mount of Olives , which is the site of a large Jewish cemetery and where it is believed that Jesus ascended to heaven. So much ancient history was there before my eyes – once more I had to pinch myself to really believe it wasn’t all a dream! As evening approached, I visited the Wailing Wall again and then exited the Old City through the Dung Gate to explore the ancient ruins of “David’s City”.

David’s City outside the wall of the Old City

Ironically, the Old City of Jerusalem was built upon the crumbling 3000 year old stone walls of David’s City. It appeared as if the entire area was a series of remains from several civilizations, each built upon the one before it. That makes one wonder just who was “first”? Everywhere around Jerusalem new construction was underway and everywhere it constantly encountered the remains of an older era. Perhaps it was like building on top of an “archeological waste disposal site”. In many areas of the Old City, the present level of the streets was sometimes two feet above the level of the floors in the adjacent buildings, having been raised by the accumulation of waste from many generations of residents!

After a dinner of traditional Jewish corned beef sandwich and potato salad at a small New York style deli in the Jewish Quarter, I walked through the Armenian Quarter to a very old part of the city called David’s Tower. It forms what remains of an ancient gate to the city, which at one time was surrounded by a deep moat. As I walked back to the hotel that evening, I passed a large sign for “Holy City Rent-A-Car”, if one dared to drive in the chaotic traffic! The following morning, on my daily taxi ride to Ramallah, I got quite an earful from the driver about the inequities and injustices of the current Israeli/Palestinian situation – he was very emotional, with a deep undercurrent of anger, yet he still wanted peace. (I found that was a very common and pragmatic view shared by the majority of Palestinians that I met) After class the next day, I once again walked down to the Old City and passed a lot of tour buses, one of which caught my eye, having a sign in the front window that read “Reverend Snipe’s Guiding Light Tours”. It begged the question of who was the Rev’s guide? Upon reaching the Old City, I walked to the entrance leading to the Dome of the Rock Mosque, but I was prevented from entering by Israeli army soldiers who told me it was closed to all non-Muslims until Saturday. So I wandered around the old streets and did a bit of shopping, where I found some posters of ancient Jewish prayers inscribed in beautiful Hebrew script. Returning to the hotel that evening, I met up with Frank, along with another Norwegian aid worker, and we drove to the “Al-Karawan restaurant” in Bethlehem for dinner with Michael. As usual, it was a huge table of 20 different dishes of delicious mezzes, excellent tabbouleh, and a massive plate of many grilled meats, including a very tasty lamb shish kabob. After dinner, Michael ordered a bottle of Rakni and a couple of Hookahs (water pipes). Then came a large plate of fresh fruit, with oranges, bananas, persimmons, tangerines, and a large Pommel. Finally, after being totally stuffed, as is the Arabic custom of hospitality, we were served a cup of strong Arabic coffee. Then it was time to drive back to Jerusalem, once again through an Israeli army checkpoint.

The next morning was the beginning of the weekend and Frank Frank invited me to join him and his Norwegian colleagues for a day trip to the historic town of Nablus, north of Jerusalem. After passing through several Israeli army checkpoints, we were beyond the crowded urban area and into a beautiful pastoral countryside of new green grass, wildflowers, and blossoming almond trees, all celebrating the beginning of spring. As we descended into the Shiloh Valley, the hills became lovely terraced fields built from the local white limestone, probably well over 2000 years ago. All of the fields were neatly cultivated with new crops, as well as olive and almond groves sporting new blossoms.

Shiloh Valley on the way to Nablus
Grove of Olive and Almond trees near Nablus
Sheep herders in the Shiloh Valley
Hills north of Jerusalem

Occasionally there were large fields of brilliant red poppies. As we descended from the hills of Jerusalem, we had gorgeous views of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, many thousands of feet below. On the road to Nablus we passed through the region of Samaria, the homeland of the legendary Samaritans, an ancient tribe with a rich culture thousands of years old. Nearby was the small village of Sebestaya where we found some very well preserved Roman and Greek ruins, including a large forum and amphitheater.

Ancient Greek ruins near Sebestaya
Ancient Roman amphitheater
Old church in Sebestaya

The site also had many old Roman tombs, as well as an ancient church where the body of Saint John the Baptist was buried, although his head remains buried beneath the Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque) in Damascus. Early in the afternoon we arrived in Nablus, a very old city established over 2000 years ago. Besides the historical sites in the city, the thing I remember most was the sight of old, aging electric lines and rusting water pipes in very precarious positions. We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant run by a Palestinian refugee from Kuwait.

Having lunch in Nablus

As we enjoyed lunch outside on the street, lots of children came by, constantly asking “what’s your name?” or “how are you”, but that was pretty much the extent of their English. We finished lunch with a cup of strong Arabic coffee flavored with Cardamom, and then came a traditional dessert known as “Kanofle – a delicious dish of toasted shredded wheat, honey, pistachios, and soft cheese. On our return to Jerusalem, we stopped at “Jacob’s Well” to partake of the water from a 2500 year old spring, the same spring from which Christ also drank 2000 years ago! It was an amazing moment and we were given small bottles of the water as we left. Later in the evening, as we approached Ramallah, we passed many new Israeli “settlements”, which were always located on the highest hills and surrounded by high concrete walls topped with barbed wire, tall guard towers, and high powered searchlights! They all looked like military installations or prisons – perhaps the “residents” also felt like prisoners, especially since they needed an army escort whenever they had to leave the settlement, as all of the settlements were located in the West Bank, Palestinian territory.

After the training class the next day, I walked up the hill to the new Hyatt Regency Hotel, situated in West Jerusalem behind the large Central Police Headquarters compound. From the hotel lobby bar there was a spectacular view of Jerusalem and the Old City, beautifully lighted in the evening. From looking at the “Shabbat menu” and seeing the inhouse Synagogue, as well as the “Shabbat door” and the Kosher restaurant, it became clear the hotel was specifically designed for American Jews. As I sat down to enjoy a cold glass of local Goldstar beer, writing in my journal, I overheard many conversations in a thick New York accent. The design of the hotel was beautiful, with lots of gorgeous white limestone, as well as a stunning view of the city and surrounding hills. But in comparison to the American Colony Hotel, it seemed to be a very sterile place. So after finishing my beer, I walked back down the hill to my hotel, but as I encountered an area of road construction, I stumbled and fell head first onto the sharp edge of the asphalt pavement. I hit my head really hard, knocking out one of the lenses in my eyeglasses. Immediately I felt blood streaming down my face, but I made sure to pick up the loose lens before grabbing my handkerchief to stem the flow of blood. I picked myself up and continued on my way to the hotel, by which time, my handkerchief was soaked with blood. As I stepped up to the front desk to pick up my room key, it was a bit disconcerting to see the “anguished “ look on the face of the desk clerk. When I finally got to my room and looked in the bathroom mirror, even I was shocked! I had a deep gash in my forehead and the whole right side of my face was bruised, puffy, and swollen. It quickly became a priority to apply antiseptic ointment, and just then I noticed my right hand was deeply scarred, but not seriously bleeding. My first thoughts focused on how to cover up the wound, but I had nothing for that purpose, unlike a woman having her cosmetics. I even considered, briefly, trying to use my shoe polish to conceal the wound, but quickly rejected the idea. Finally, I had to resign myself to appearing in public with my large black and blue face, though I was concerned that people might assume I had been “mugged” in a dark alley, which couldn’t be further from the truth. My next task was to fix my eyeglasses, and having successfully reinstalled the lens, I headed for the hotel restaurant, where I enjoyed a fabulous dinner of lamb chops, pan fried in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. The hotel staff were curious about my accident and offered any help they could give. After the delicious dinner, I sat in the Cellar Bar and wrote in my journal as I sipped a cold Maccabee beer. But I couldn’t help “imagining” that everyone was staring at me, even when there was no one looking at me! I think it was a paranoiac state of “self-consciousness”. Before retiring for the night, I fashioned an “impromptu” bandage out of toilet paper, antiseptic ointment, and scotch tape!

The following evening, I decided to try the “Arabesque” fine dining restaurant in the hotel. It was richly decorated with many traditional pieces of folk art that represented several regions of the Middle East. I began dinner with a glass of Baron Rothschild Chardonnay from the Mount Hermon Vineyard in northern Israel, and it was a very nice, crisp wine with a subtle note of grapefruit. As I was perusing the menu, I read the very interesting story of the history of the “American Colony” and the hotel.

The hotel buildings were originally built by an Ottoman Pasha named Daou Amin Effendi al-Husseini in the mid-1800’s. He lived there with his harem of four wives until his death in 1895, and it was sold to a group of messianic Christians from America. In 1896 they were joined by a number of Swedish settlers, and the group became known as the “American Colony”. Then in 1902, hotelier Plato von Ustinov, the grandfather of famed British actor Peter Ustinov, turned the estate into the hotel it is today. Since 1980, it has been managed by a Swiss company and has become a preferred hotel for diplomats, politicians, and foreign correspondents. Some of its most famous guests have included Lawrence of Arabia, Bob Dylan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and author John LeCarre, who wrote one of his books while staying in the hotel. The hotel remains one of the most famous and preferred hotels in the Middle East.  

Dinner began with a sumptuous, rich “Persian Soup” of sweet rice, garbanzo beans, fresh parsley, saffron cream, and spiced lamb meatballs. The main dish was a delicious shish kabob of grilled shrimp, onions, tomatoes, and lemon, served over a bed of Persian rice and covered with a sweet, yet pungent curry sauce. The plate was topped with fresh parsley and it was absolutely fabulous! Then my server insisted that I try a traditional Arabic dessert called “Mulacabieh”, a cornflower crème custard served chilled and topped with walnuts, dates, fresh mint leaves, strawberries, and spiced sugar. It was divine, not overly sweet and very smooth, delicate and fragrant! It was like what might be the “flavor” of a woody perfume – incredible! It was a memorable culinary experience and finished with the traditional cup of thick, strong Arabic coffee.

At the end of the training class the next day, Michael picked me up at the hotel and drove to Bethlehem, passing through two Israeli army checkpoints, before stopping near the center of the ancient city to show me the historic and sacred “Church of the Nativity”.

Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity

It’s here that Christians believe is the site of Christ’s birth, in the manger of a small stable. We entered the 1500 year old church through a small door meant to keep out large animals, after the church had been converted to a stable during the Ottoman period. Inside the dark interior we saw the remnants of the original tiled mosaic floor under the present-day stone surface. To the right side of the large alter was a steep, narrow stone staircase leading down to a small room directly beneath the alter, where there were two lavish golden shrines, lit only by the light from many small candles, softly glowing in the darkness. They marked the spot believed to be where the manger had been and where Christ was born. We were standing at a most holy site, revered by all Christian faiths, though at least five denominations lay claims to various parts of the church. In addition, access to the ancient stable beneath the church is restricted. For instance, Catholics can only enter from a small passageway leading from the new chapel! As I stood in front of the small, golden shrine, I tried my best to imagine what it must have been like almost 2000 years ago – a very humbling experience. As Michael and I emerged back into daylight and the present day, we were immediately thrown back into the noise, hustle and bustle of modern Bethlehem – a far cry from the time of Christ! Michael was eager to share the plans that the city had for celebrating the dawn of the new Millennium, 2000 years after the birth of Christ, with a spectacular festival. It would attract millions of people to visit the most ancient of lands. Leaving Bethlehem, we drove to Tel Aviv where I would meet with staff of our Israeli office. Along the way we passed through beautiful, pastoral countryside, with old fields surrounded by low stone fences, and cultivated today in much the same way as for hundreds of years. There were men in traditional long robes and the traditional Arabic keffiyeh on their head, plowing the fields with donkeys!

View of Jerusalem on the way to Tel Aviv
Along the road to Tel Aviv

It was as if time here had stood still. At one point, shortly after leaving Bethlehem, we could see all the way down to the Dead Sea, thousands of feet below, and far beyond to the Jordan Mountains. Soon we could see the bright lights of modern Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, and before we knew it, we found ourselves among hundreds of cars speeding along a modern freeway, past new 30 story high steel and glass skyscrapers – a stark contrast to the Old City of Jerusalem! At last we reached the new Radisson Moria Hotel, located on a lovely beach not far from downtown Tel Aviv.

Hotel in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea

Later, as I sat on my hotel room balcony overlooking the beach and the Mediterranean Sea, I reflected upon my first visit to the Holy Land and the amazing, unforgettable experiences I had been given, and I looked forward to returning someday. (little did I know at that point, that I would be given another opportunity to experience Jerusalem and Gaza two months later – stay tuned!)

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook

San Antonio – The Alamo and a lot more

In early January of 2017, I rode the train into LA Union Station and took the express bus to LAX. Traffic at the airport was horrendous, so the bus driver drove to the arrivals level instead, and got everyone to their terminal in no time. I had enough time for a cup of coffee in the newly renovated Delta Airlines SkyClub before boarding the non-stop flight to San Antonio. As we departed Los Angeles, there were stunning views of the snow covered mountains of southern California. As we passed over southern Arizona, a very nice lunch was served in First Class – BBQ chicken sliders, kettle fried potato chips, and a delicious lemon drop cookie for dessert. Arrival in San Antonio was on time and soon I was on the Super Shuttle van to downtown, where I checked into the historic Menger Hotel. It was a beautiful old building built in 1859 from local hand carved limestone and located across the street from the Alamo.

The Alamo
The Alamo at night
Mission Park at the Alamo

I was given one of the original rooms that had been “updated” in the early 1900’s to install running water and electricity! It was a beautiful, classically furnished room, including several antiques and a lovely view overlooking the courtyard garden.

My room at the Menger Hotel
Courtyard of the Menger Hotel

Later, I went downstairs to the Menger Bar for a cold beer before heading to the nearby Convention Center to register for the International Imaging Conference. In the historic old bar were displays of artifacts and memorabilia from the 10th Texas Cavalry that had seen action during the “Border Campaign” in 1916-17. From 1910 to 1919, during the Mexican Revolution, there were several occasions when the US Army’s 10th Texas Cavalry fought on both sides, the rebels and the Mexican Federals. In 1915, Mexican rebel leader, Pancho Villa, launched an attack on a US Army supply post in southern New Mexico, destroying the small town and inflicting several casualties. In response, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General Pershing and 5,000 soldiers to march into Mexico and capture or kill Pancho Villa. However, the rebel leader evaded capture and retreated into southern Mexico. As an interesting side note, early in 1918 the US Army Intelligence Command at Fort Huachuca, Arizona detected a German military presence in northern Mexico and began surveillance activity. It was later discovered that the German government had attempted to persuade Mexico to enter WWI on its side, with promises to aid Mexico in recovering land it had lost in the Mexican-American War. (namely the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California!) In 1919 hostilities ceased along the border, bringing an end to the Border Campaign. It’s a fascinating part of Texas history.

Also on display above the old dark hardwood bar were several white footballs that were souvenirs from the annual Alamo Bowl game. The cold bottle of Saint Arnold’s Elissa IPA from a craft brewery in Houston was an excellent recommendation from the bartender. He told me stories about the fascinating history of the old hotel, including the fact that electricity came to the hotel in 1897. It was one of the first buildings in the city with electricity, and amazingly, the original light bulbs behind the bar were still working! Meanwhile, the music was mostly traditional country and western, but suddenly there was a song that one could only describe as “Redneck Rap”, titled “Talk About Me”! At the same time, the NFL wild card game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers played on the one and only TV screen. As I left at halftime, the score was Green Bay 14 and New York 6. (eventually Green Bay won 42 – 20)

Leaving the old bar, I walked over to the new Convention Center by way of the RiverCenter Mall and part of the RiverWalk – a lovely route that avoided crossing any streets.

Convention Center
The Riverwalk
The Riverwalk and RiverCenter Mall

I arrived in time for the Welcome Reception and enjoyed lots of delicious pork and beef BBQ. During the reception I met a nice guy named Marty who had driven 12 hours from Slidell, Louisiana through an ice storm. Later in the evening, I walked back to the RiverCenter Mall and stopped in the Yard House for a cold point of local “Southerleigh Darwin IPA” from San Antonio – a very nice, smooth, yet crisp finish. As I’ve done in every Yard House, I asked the bartender what was the most popular of the 137 beers on tap from around the world. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be Bud Light, with Michelob Light a close second! I closed out the evening back at the Menger Bar with another Saint Arnold’s Elissa IPA. I noticed there was a large portrait of Teddy Roosevelt above the bar, so I asked the bartender what was the story behind it. Turns out that Teddy had frequented the bar often and recruited many of his “RoughRiders” in the bar as well. Apparently, they trained in San Antonio for the Spanish-American War. That explained why the bar was selling T-shirts with “Honorary RoughRider” printed on them.

I began the next day with a visit to the “Tower of the Americas” in HemisFair Park, site of the 1968 World’s Fair. From the observation level at the top, 800 feet above the ground, I had spectacular 360 degree views for more than 50 miles around the city.

Tower of the Americas
Tower of the Americas
View from the Lounge atop the Tower of the Americas

As I walked around the observation deck, I discovered a fascinating exhibit of Texas history under six flags – Spanish, Mexican, Texas Republic, USA, Confederacy, and USA again. Later I took the elevator down one level to the Charthouse lounge for a cold beer and watched the scenery as the room slowly rotated. But later, when I pressed the elevator button to return to the base level, it didn’t light up. I thought it must be malfunctioning, so I pressed it two or three more times. After about 10 minutes, I walked over to the bar and asked the staff if the elevator button was actually working. Sure enough, they confirmed that the button was not working and promptly called the elevator operator on the radio to request a stop at the lounge level. So why wasn’t a sign to that effect posted at the elevator door? No one seemed to have an answer, but we all agreed on the need for it!

That afternoon, I attended a couple of very interesting conference sessions and received a positive critique on some of my photos by a professional photographic competition judge, which made me feel pretty good. On my way back to the hotel, I took several photos of the beautiful RiverWalk and the historic Menger Hotel.

Menger Hotel lobby
Menger Hotel main entrance
Christmas decorations – Menger Hotel
Rotunda – Menger Hotel

Then I asked the hotel concierge for a recommendation of a “local” neighborhood place for dinner. Immediately he said, “you should go to The Friendly Place Ice House, just a 20 minute walk from the hotel”. So I bid him farewell and headed south down Alamo Boulevard, passing through an old neighborhood of San Antonio. What I found was indeed a very local, neighborhood outdoor bar with lots of tables placed under massive Live Oak trees. The bar had over 40 craft beers on tap, so I chose a local San Antonio Brewery IPA. I found a seat outside, under the trees, in the warm evening, among many neighborhood locals and their kids and dogs. Throughout the evening we all watched the National Championship NCAA College football game between Alabama and Clemson, on an enormous 20 foot high TV screen. It felt like being at an old drive-in theater, but without the cars! (a lot of fun) At halftime I walked back to the RiverWalk and stopped at the Patio Bar in the Hilton Palacio Rio Hotel alongside the river. I ordered a “Perdenales IPA”, brewed in Fredricksburg, and a fantastic spicy chicken quesadilla, as I joined a lively crowd for the second half of the game. Clemson trailed the whole game, but won in the last few seconds – a very exciting ending!

The next morning, I walked to the historic “Market Square and Farmers Market”, where I took many photos of the lively and very colorful scene.

Market Square
Market Square
Farmer’s Market

On the way back to the hotel, I discovered the fascinating “Casa Navarro Homestead State Historic Park”, which just happened to be next door to the Central Texas Detention Facility (aka jail). In the small visitor center was a very interesting video about the history of the Navarro family and the original founding of San Antonio. As I walked around the old homestead in the beautiful warm weather, the display of history of the Navarro family and that of early Texas was fascinating. The displays and exhibits were very well designed. The State Historic Park had preserved the original house and buildings that were the residence of Texas patriot Jose Antonio Navarro (1795 – 1871). He was a rancher, merchant, and the leading advocate for the rights of Tejanos (native born Texans). He was also only one of two Tejanos allowed to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. The lovely structures of hand cut native limestone and adobe were built between 1832 and 1855. The site along the San Antonio River formed the heart of original San Antonio, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2016.

Casa Navarro Homestead State Historic Park
Casa Navarro
Casa Navarro
Jose Antonio Navarro

Later, near the Menger Hotel and the RiverWalk, I came to an old historic area known as “La Vallita”, with many old buildings of hand cut limestone and original adobe construction. The historic La Vallita village was one of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods, dating back to the late 1700’s when the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known today as the Alamo, was active. At the height of its growth, La Vallita village was home to a myriad of artists and craftsmen, including stone cutters, watchmakers, painters, sculptors, dressmakers, and shoemakers. It was also home to several boarding houses and a few saloons. But by the early 1900’s, the area had declined significantly and was labeled a “slum” by San Antonio locals. When work began on the RiverWalk in 1939, as a project by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick, a close friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, pushed to have the restoration of La Vallita included in the project. The old village was revitalized, while retaining its historic past and charm, and today is a lively and popular place to browse galleries, shops, and restaurants. La Vallita was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

The Little Church of La Vallita
The Little Church of La Vallita
McAllister House & Store – La Vallita
TeJeda House – La Vallita
King Philip V Street – La Vallita

A short walk south along Alamo Boulevard brought me to the historic “German-English School”, which today is the San Antonio Marriott Conference Center. During the years when the school was operating, the policy was that both languages would be taught equally. The school was established in 1858 by German immigrants to teach the language of their newly adopted country, while retaining the essence of their native language and culture. In addition, the basics of writing, arithmetic, geography, and even music were part of the curriculum. The activity of the school was financed through “subscriptions” from the families of the students. It closed in 1897, and over the next 75 years became a public school, junior college, and at one point, office space for the city of San Antonio. During the development of HemisFair in 1965-68, the school was restored and turned into a conference facility for the Marriott Hotel. It remains a significant historic San Antonio landmark and a gorgeous example of traditional hand cut limestone architecture. After visiting the old school (aka conference center), I walked next door to the Marriott Hotel to enjoy a cold beer in their lovely garden overlooking the pool. As I sat on the patio, two gorgeous Peacocks strolled through the garden, as if they owned the place.

German- English School
San Antonio Marriott Hotel
Peacock on the patio

Later in the evening, I strolled back to the RiverWalk and was intrigued by a small restaurant named “Little Rhein Steakhouse”, in a beautiful, old limestone building built by German immigrants in the early 1800’s. I chose to sit outside on the terrace overlooking the river, where I enjoyed a fabulous filet mignon, served with crisp steamed fresh asparagus, au gratin potatoes, and fresh baked German dark bread! Meanwhile, I watched the riverboat tours slowly pass by, and as I listened to the tour guides, each pointed out the German heritage of the old restaurant, but each narrative was a bit different.

Little Rhein Steak House – La Vallita Village
Dinner on the terrace overlooking the Riverwalk

As the sun was setting, the colorful lights along the RiverWalk were beautifully reflected in the river. Walking back to the Menger Hotel, the view of the “Tower of the Americas” lighted up against the dark night sky was spectacular!

Tower of the Americas at night

By this time the Closing Party at the Convention Center was in full swing and I was inundated with more great food and drink that followed a Tex-Mex theme. Entertainment included an old cowboy doing amazing tricks with a lariat, and he was very good, especially when “roping” pretty young ladies as they walked by, totally oblivious to his intentions! (it was a lot of fun for those of us watching) I filled a small plate with delicious tacos, grabbed a couple of cold Dos XX’s, and sat outside on the terrace in the warm evening. From the terrace, I had an incredible view of the Tower of the Americas, brilliantly lighted against the night sky. Inside the Convention Center was a very popular “slow motion video booth”, where people could dress up with crazy costumes and props, then act “wild” in front of the camera for one minute. A few minutes later, we all could watch their video in slow motion – lots of fun!

Following the Closing Party, I stopped at the Yard House bar in RiverCenter Mall for a cold pint of Weihenstephan Hefeweizen, my favorite wheat beer, and as I sat at the long bar, I noticed a very strange and unusual program on one of the TVs.

RiverCenter Mall

It was a show about the DRL (Drone Racing League), which turned out to be an international competition among drone “pilots” from six countries. The races involved flying drones by remote control through a very challenging 3D course inside the atrium of a large office building. The action was fast paced, and required exceptional skill from the pilots. Whenever a drone crashed on the course, it was eliminated, along with the pilot! It was really fascinating to watch and quite unusual.

I started the next day attending a couple of excellent technical sessions, and then met up with my longtime friend, Bob, from our days in Seattle and Anchorage. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Ruth Chris’ Steakhouse, and spent a couple of hours catching up on the time since our last get together many years ago. Despite the five hip replacement surgeries, Bob looked great and was getting around just fine. After lunch, I showed Bob a very interesting exhibit in the Convention Center of life size bronze sculptures of famous Texans in history. Then we walked along the RiverWalk to the Menger Hotel Bar for a beer and a visit to the history of Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders. Before leaving the bar, Bob bought a Roughrider T-shirt for his nephew, an extra, extra, large size, since his nephew is a huge high school football player. Reluctantly I had to bid farewell to Bob, collect my luggage, and then board the shuttle van to the airport for my return to California. When I got to the airport, I found the LA flight was two and a half hours late incoming, due to a mechanical issue at LAX. So I proceeded to a very crowded airport bar, the one and only in the terminal, for a beer. The barmaid very friendly lady who called everyone “babe” or “hon”, regardless if they were man or woman, young or old. Once the flight departed, a delicious dinner was served, featuring a Charcuterie Plate having slices of Black Forest ham, roast beef, grilled chicken breast, sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, and along with an assortment of pickles, pearl onions, fresh baked focaccia and a fantastic spicy brown mustard! It was the first time I had ever seen this served on a domestic flight, and not that often on international flights for that matter. (really nice surprise)

Since the flight was quite late arriving in LA, I had to catch the last train to San Bernardino, and finally got home around midnight. However, the trip to San Antonio was a memorable one!

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook

San Antonio Cathedral
Historic San Fernando Cathedral – Old San Antonio
Historic home – San Antonio Mission Park
Historic home – San Antonio Mission Park
RiverWalk near Convention Center
RiverWalk near Convention Center


California to Alaska by Land, Sea, and Air (part 3 of 3)

After having left Skagway and crossed the White Pass summit, I came to the Canadian Customs post, where the agent was particularly curious about why I was “driving” to Anchorage, more than 850 miles away, and not taking a much faster route by plane. So I just said simply that I wanted to see the beauty of the Yukon on the ground. That resonated with her and as she handed back my passport, she wished me a pleasant journey and said that I should be on the lookout for Mountain Goats on the steep cliffs as I approached Tutshi Lake, some 20 miles down the road. The drive through the orange and red tundra alongside Lake Bennett was gorgeous under clear sunny skies. The brilliant yellow and orange fall colors of Aspen, mixed with the deep green Spruce forest amid the steel grey rocks and alpine lakes, was simply an amazing display of nature.

Lake Bennett – White Pass summit
Lake Bennett

Later, just like the Customs agent had said, as I looked up at the steep rocky cliffs along the shore of Tutshi Lake, I spotted a white “speck” that appeared to move. And sure enough, my binoculars confirmed that indeed it was a Mountain Goat, so I took out my telephoto lens and snapped several photos as it slowly picked its way among the rocky cliffs. Meanwhile, the passengers of a tour bus parked nearby were oblivious to the presence of the goat directly above them.

Mountain Goat on the cliffs above Tutshi Lake
Tutshi Lake
Fall colors of the forest – Yukon Territory

Further down the road, I had to stop while workers hung huge metal screens from the top of the rocky cliffs to deflect falling rocks from the roadway. For almost an hour I watched them working, as they dangled hundreds of feet above the road. Just then I noticed a little chipmunk dash across the road and under a large truck to get a handout from the flagman! When traffic finally resumed, I passed through the small town of Carcross, which derives its name from being near a traditional “Caribou crossing” just on the edge of town.

Carcross, Yukon Territory

A couple of hours later I arrived in Whitehorse, the Territorial Capitol of the Yukon, and home of the historic steam powered sternwheel riverboat named “Klondike”.

Steam Sternwheel River Boat “Klondike”

It transported passengers and freight on the mighty Yukon River from the late 1800’s up until 1955! Beginning in 1866, the first steam powered boats began travelling on the lower Yukon River from the village of St Michael on the Bering Sea coast upriver to Nenana and Fairbanks. By the time of the 1898 gold rush, over 300 riverboats were operating and had reached both Dawson City and Whitehorse. For over 45 years, they were the only means of commercial transportation for both freight and passengers into the interior of Alaska and the Yukon. Most of the steamers were built in Seattle or San Francisco, and either sailed up to the Bering Sea or were shipped overland in pieces over White Pass to Lake Bennett to be assembled in Whitehorse. But with the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in 1900, and the US Government Railroad (now known as the Alaska Railroad) from Anchorage to Fairbanks in 1923, the steamboats suffered a rapid decline in service on the river. However, at the peak of riverboat traffic, they served over 2,000 miles of the Yukon River and its major tributaries. The last two steamboats in regular service were the “Nenana” in Fairbanks and the “Klondike” in Whitehorse. Both vessels were retired in the 1950’s and put on display in their respective cities, but their place in history has lived on for many decades.

Just as I was leaving Whitehorse, I spotted the Yukon Brewing Company, so I had to check it out. I was just in time to join a tasting session and ended up buying a six-pack of “Lead Dog Lager”. Nearby were some of the original tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, long since abandoned. The railroad now terminates in Fraser, BC, on the shore of Lake Bennett, where thousands of 1898 stampeders ended their arduous trek over the Chilkoot Pass and began the 300 mile journey down the Yukon River on boats and rafts they had to build to reach Dawson City. The route west from Whitehorse took me to Haines Junction and afforded me lovely views of Kluane Lake at the foot of the 18,000 foot high St Elias Range, which was covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow. There were even a few remnants of snow alongside the road.

Kluane Lake
Sunset near Burwash Landing

Several hours later I was rewarded with a gorgeous sunset over the mountains as I passed the small village of Burwash Landing. I stopped to get some coffee at the one and only store/café, and as I went to pay for it, the clerk said it was no charge, since they were about to throw it out anyway! So I just had to ask the question “is it that bad?” (no, it was fine) Leaving Burwash Landing the road became very rough, due to a lot “frost heaving” from the previous Spring Breakup. (that’s the time of year when the winter snow and ice begin to melt during the day and then freeze again overnight) In 1979, when Marion and I drove from Seattle to Anchorage, most of the highway in Canada was unpaved and without any frost heaves. Paving the road with asphalt has exacerbated the frost heave problem significantly.

Alaska Highway – Yukon Territory

As night fell, I was still over 50 miles from Beaver Creek, Yukon – the most westerly community in Canada, and I had passed the last gas station over 100 miles back. I pulled into town just as the “empty” light came on, and then discovered that the Westmark Inn had closed for the season. The only other choice for lodging was “Ida’s Motel”, and fortunately, I walked into the office just as it was closing for the night. An elderly Indian Sikh man took pity on me and gave me the key to the last available room. Then he recommended “Buckshot Betty’s Café” across the road for dinner. (of course, it was the only place that was still open!) I ordered a huge buffalo burger, fries, and a cold LaBatts beer – a welcome sight after 12 hours on the road. Meanwhile, the same vacuum infomercial played continuously on the one and only TV, and at the same time, the radio station played rap and hip hop music – weird! After dinner, I walked back across the road in the light rain and snow to my room, took a couple of beers from the SUV, and turned on the TV. It wasn’t long before I discovered there were only 4 channels – 99 (no signal), 93 (no signal), VID (blank screen) and channel 3 (CTV). So it was pretty obvious that I had only one choice – channel 3, and I was resigned to watching the 11pm national news on CTV (Canadian Broadcasting Network), followed by the “local news” from Vancouver, BC – over 1000 miles south of Beaver Creek!

Approaching Beaver Creek, Yukon

The next morning, I woke up to find light rain and snow with the temperature hovering around 33 degrees. I headed across the road to Buckshot Betty’s for a huge ham and cheese omelet, served with an enormous side of fried potatoes and sourdough toast. The entire place, including reception, serving, cooking and cleaning was handled by one woman! After my coffee cup was refilled a half dozen times, I packed up my gear and headed west to the US Customs post on the Alaska border. A couple of inches of snow remained on the road from the storm, but even under the heavy overcast skies, the brilliant orange and red fall colors of the tundra literally “shined”. A few hours later, as I approached Northway Junction, the skies began to clear and hundreds of lakes in the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge sparkled under the bright sunshine, for as far as the eye could see.

Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge
Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge

And in the distance, the 18,000 foot high peaks of the mighty Wrangell Mountains, covered in a heavy coat of new snow, began to peek through the clouds. By the time I reached Tok Junction, the road had become an unpredictable combination of perfectly smooth pavement, intermingled with long stretches of rough gravel. Arriving in Tok Junction, I was disappointed to find the old Tok Lodge, a classic log structure, had been demolished and replaced by a new “Mini-Mart”. (at least the coffee was still free)

Alaska Highway – on the way to Glennallen

On my way to Glennallen, the only town for the next 60 miles, I suddenly came upon an elderly native man sitting in a wheelchair by the side of the highway at the turn-off to Gakona Village. He obviously needed a ride, so I stopped, helped him into the SUV, and loaded his wheelchair into the back of the vehicle. His name was David Gene and he was on his way to an appointment at the hospital in Glennallen. During the next 45 miles to Glennallen, he told me his life story, that included drugs, alcohol, throwing his wife out of the house for using drugs, a sister dying of liver cancer in the Anchorage hospital, and on top of that, his left foot was amputated the previous January due to complications from frostbite! David was a very nice guy who had no money and hadn’t eaten in three days. (he was waiting for his welfare check at the end of the month) When we arrived in Glennallen, he asked me to drop him off at the new IGA grocery store. As I helped him into his wheelchair, I reached into my pocket and gave him a $20 bill, for he most certainly needed it far more than me, though he had never asked me for money. He thanked me and said “the wheelchair won’t do me any good in the winter snow”. Then he laughed and I bade him goodbye. As I left, I had no idea how he would get back to his village, but surely another kind stranger would take pity on him. Leaving Glennallen, now bound for Anchorage, I reflected back on my encounter with David, and how he spoke of his life and the challenges he had faced, all rather matter of fact, as if it was his destiny. Although he was only 52 years old, he looked well over 80. And though his body odor was particularly strong, I really had to admire him for taking the “straight road”, as he put it. I hope he survives long enough to pass along his native culture to the younger generation in his village. As we had parted company at the IGA store, David repeated his name and invited me to his home in Gakona Village. His parting words to me were “I’m in the phone book”. And as I drove to Anchorage, I considered it a privilege to have met David, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll see him again! A few hours later, at Eagle Summit, there were incredible views of the rugged Chugach Mountains and several glaciers, including the enormous Tazlina Glacier.

Chugach Mountains
Tazlina Glacier

Further on was the rustic Sheep Mountain Lodge, and as I scanned the steep, rocky cliffs with my binoculars, I spotted a dozen Dall Sheep slowly making their way across the mountain single file. So there’s an obvious reason why it’s called Sheep Mountain.

Sheep Mountain
Dall Sheep
Matanuska Glacier

Later, just outside of Anchorage, I saw a sign for Reflection Lake State Park, so I stopped briefly to take some photos of the jagged snow covered peaks reflected beautifully in the still water. It was a little gem to discover just a few hundred feet from the busy 4-lane Glenn Highway.

Reflection Lake
Reflection Lake
Reflection Lake

Once I arrived in Anchorage, I checked into the Captain Cook Hotel, and then walked over to the Snow Goose Brewery for a cold Pale Ale. Later the bartender offered me a taste of their latest brew, a seasonal “Pumpkin Spice Ale”, with a distinct taste of blackstrap molasses and pumpkin pie spices. It would be delicious with a chocolate dessert. Then it was over to the Glacier Brewhouse for a fantastic dinner of fresh halibut baked in Thai chili sauce, served over garlic mashed potatoes with kale sautéed in bacon. The next morning was cold, wet, and cloudy – a very typical day in Anchorage. The huge Dungeness crab omelet with sourdough toast and huckleberry jam was a perfect start to the day, which I spent visiting familiar sights around the city.

Anchorage, Alaska
Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

That evening I joined Marion and Michael for a delicious dinner at a new restaurant named Kinley’s. Dinner began with a superb calamari steak in a mild chili sauce, followed by a fantastic crispy duck breast. The main dish of pistachio crusted, baked Alaskan Black Cod, served with tomato risotto, a mix of sautéed local vegetables and wild Alaskan mushrooms was superb! During dinner, we had a great conversation about the twin boys, Ben and Sam, as well as Michael’s new position as the general manager of the Snow Goose Brewery and Restaurant, and Marion’s new job managing the Bridge Restaurant. Both Marion and Michael were excited about attending Sam’s graduation from basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma the following week. From Fort Sill, Sam will be assigned to Fort Huachuca, Arizona for advanced training in military intelligence. Before we left the restaurant, Michael told us about the weird history and design of the Snow Goose building, which has five levels, was once the Elks Club, and had a bowling alley on the ground level. A fascinating bit of history that few people were aware of, but a very difficult challenge for remodeling.

Talkeetna Mountains

The next morning, I drove north of Anchorage to Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains, under sunny skies. As I passed through the Matanuska Valley, there were lovely views of farms and snow-capped peaks beyond. The road followed the Little Susitna River up some steep inclines until finally reaching the pass.

Trail to Independence Mine State Historical Park

Just beyond was the trail to the Independence Mine State Historical Park. As I hiked among the old buildings, the State Park had placed some very interesting interpretive signs detailing the history of the mine, the mill, and the small town that grew up around it. The mine yielded over 150,000 ounces of gold between the time it opened in 1938 until it closed in 1951. Since it had been established relatively recently, most of the buildings were pretty modern , well maintained, and with all the amenities of the period. At the height of mining activity, it was home to over 800 people and had a post office, church, general store, and a school. The State Park did a great job of preserving the history of a gold mining region in the heart of the Talkeetna Mountains, just two hours north of Anchorage.

Independence Mine State Historical Park
Independence Mine State Historical Park
Independence Mine State Historical Park

The first mining activity in the region dates back to 1897, but the serious operations began in 1934, and at the peak of production, the area was the second largest hard-rock gold mining operation in the state. The Wasilla Mining Company built a substantial work camp (town) consisting of wood frame buildings, originally connected by sheltered wooden “tunnels”, due to the very heavy winter snow that could bury many of the buildings. Since the mine operated until 1951, the structures remain in excellent condition, with the exception of the mill, where most of the heavy machinery was salvaged and removed. Alaska State Parks has done an outstanding job of maintaining the town (work camp) and establishing many interpretive signs and exhibits explaining the history of the area. It was a fascinating and educational experience walking around the old town.

Independence Mine State Historical Park
Independence Mine State Historical Park

The landscape surrounding the mine was well above timberline and the fall colors of the tundra were gorgeous, especially with the rugged mountains covered in fresh snow. At one point, I noticed a young couple being photographed for their wedding – a most unique and beautiful location for the event.

Later in the afternoon, I hiked down to the Hatcher Pass Lodge for lunch and enjoyed a delicious grilled black forest ham and Tillamook cheddar cheese sandwich, along with a cold Alaska Pale Ale. As I sat in the old log building, savoring the sandwich, I had a spectacular view of the Matanuska Valley 3000 feet below and the rugged Chugach Range beyond. On the way back to Anchorage, I made a short detour to Eklutna Lake in Chugach State Park. There were lovely views of the brilliant fall foliage reflected in the steel blue glacial water.

Eklutna lake
Fall colors of the tundra

Back in the city, I checked into the Millennium Alaska Hotel on the shore of Lake Hood, so as to be close to the airport for my departure early the next morning. After walking around the lake taking photos of the seaplanes taking off and landing, I ended up in the Fancy Moose Bar for a fantastic dinner of fresh halibut and chips, along with a cold pint of Alaskan Pale Ale. (note: Lake Hood is the largest and busiest seaplane base in the world)

Seaplane taking off from Lake Hood – Anchorage

Meanwhile, a young man played some great music on his guitar in one corner of the bar, but unfortunately, no one else seemed to notice. Later in the evening, as I headed to my room, I passed a large group in the hotel lobby with heavy loads of luggage and equipment. My first thought was it must be some sort of expedition. Early the next morning, I dropped off the rental car at the airport and checked in for the Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle and on to LA. The departure was pretty bumpy as we passed through the heavy layer of clouds, but once above 15,000 feet there were incredible views of rugged mountains and glaciers peeking above the clouds. Further on, as we passed over Prince William Sound, the view of massive tidewater glaciers, some larger than the state of Rhode Island, was nothing short of astounding!

Columbia Glacier – Prince William Sound

Later, as the cloud cover returned, I watched the new movie “Inception” on the personal digi-player. The film was incredibly complicated, being about dreams within dreams, within dreams – but it was certainly fascinating. During the short layover in Seattle, I had a pint of Goose Island IPA at the Marketplace Bar, as a very crowded Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo boarded nearby. On the flight to LA I ordered a gin and tonic with a lime from an elderly male flight attendant who said, “sir, a gin and tonic without a lime is not a proper gin and tonic”! As the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, we landed in LA and I took the express bus to Union Station where I boarded the train to San Bernardino. During the ride home that evening, I looked back on my trip and knew that I had been richly rewarded with tons of amazing stories and hundreds of beautiful photographs that are memories I will carry with me forever. Alaska will always remain a special place in my heart!

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook

California to Alaska by Land, Sea, and Air (part 2 of 3)

After checking in to SGT Preston’s Lodge, I spent a couple of hours walking around the small town of Skagway, taking photos of the beautifully restored old Victorian buildings, many of which form part of the Klondike National Historic Park managed by the National Park Service. (another part of the park is in the Pioneer Square Historic District in Seattle, where the vast majority of gold seekers began their journey north to the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon)

Main Street in Skagway, Alaska
Old Newspaper Building from 1898

One of the most fascinating historical restorations in Skagway was the “Mascot Saloon”, which was a very realistic re-creation of a typical bar scene from the gold rush days of 1898, complete with lifelike models and sound effects. It could easily “fool” passersby into thinking it was a real-life saloon. However, once inside it was very clear that the men standing at the bar, as well as the bartender, were not real. Throughout the saloon were lots of historical exhibits and old photos, as well as information about the saloon and its place in the colorful history of Skagway.

Inside the Mascot Saloon

Later I visited the White Pass and Yukon Railroad depot to buy a ticket on the excursion train the next morning, but I found the doors were locked. As I walked around to the front of the building, I came upon two men talking, so I asked the older man if he worked for the railroad, to which he replied “I used to run the railroad, but now I’m the mayor of Skagway – is there any way I can help you?” He directed me to the depot entrance and introduced me to a very nice lady at the ticket window, who sold me a ticket for tomorrow’s train. I thought I would be one of a very few passengers on the train, but lo and behold, she said two large cruise ships were due in port tonight and had fully booked one of the trains. Apparently these two cruise ships were the last ones of the season, which explained the preponderance of signs posted around town announcing the closure of most businesses for the season on Thursday!

White Pass & Yukon Railroad Depot

Next door, the National Park Service Visitor Center had a fantastic display of exhibits and information, including a film, about the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush that put Skagway on the map. Over 100,000 people “stampeded” to the Klondike, and amazingly, over 30,000 of them actually made it all the way to Dawson City in the heart of the Yukon Territory.

Klondike National Historical Park Visitor Center
Exhibit of the supplies each gold seeker had to carry to Dawson City

After spending a couple of hours in the Visitor Center learning a great deal of fascinating history, I headed for the infamous “Red Onion Saloon”. (reputed to be Skagway’s favorite watering hole, then and now) However, I found that it didn’t open until 4pm, so I walked down to the dock to take a photo of the Alaska Ferry MV Malaspina as it left port for Sitka and points south to Bellingham. As I approached the dock, the smell of delicious food wafted past me, being prepared in a small restaurant called “Harbor House”. The lovely smells invited me into the restaurant and I discovered a neat little place with only 3 booths and a couple of tables, all of which had a beautiful view of the harbor.

Skagway harbor and MV Malaspina ferry

Josh, the owner, welcomed me and highly recommended the fresh, local Rockfish in a tempura fry, served with a delicious pineapple-mango salsa, black bean chipotle sauce, and basmati rice. It was superb, and a most unexpected surprise for such a small, remote town! The warm, crusty sourdough bread and butter to start with was very tasty and went quite well with the cold pint of Alaskan IPA. As I savored dinner, I watched the MV Malaspina depart from the dock. Meanwhile, a young Italian couple at the next table were having some difficulty understanding Josh’s heavy Brooklyn accent, so I did my best to translate for them! After the fabulous dinner, I walked back to the Red Onion Saloon, and as I approached the historic old structure, a little girl in a bright pink dress said hello and walked in. Once inside, as I looked around the classic old bar, I was struck by the view of a long row of old “bedpans”, of every conceivable size and shape, nailed to the wall on one side of the room. On the opposite wall, above the ornate, old fashioned carved wooden bar, hung the painted portraits of Skagway’s most notorious “Ladies of the Night”! (the upper floor of the old bar was a brothel during the heydays of the gold rush) At first, as I sat down at the long bar, I was only one of three people in the whole place. Then suddenly, a very large group of young people invaded the bar, and soon I found myself surrounded and outnumbered. It was clear that they all knew the bar staff and the bar staff knew them. In no time, there was a lot of beer flowing and food being consumed. Then suddenly, a bell was rung and shots of Jameson Irish whiskey were poured for everyone in the bar, at which point, we were all told to stand up and “salute” our shot! One of the girls climbed on to a bar stool next to me and proceeded to take a photo of the group. I asked her what was the occasion and she replied “it’s the “Skagway Brewing Company” staff party. That explained the sign I had seen earlier on the front door of the brewery announcing it was “Closed for Staff Party”, which I had assumed was being held in the brewery. Ironically, the Red Onion Saloon did not have a single beer from the Skagway Brewing Company on tap. Meanwhile, old 60’s and 70’s tunes played on an old jukebox in the corner. Around 7:30pm, a local band by the name of “The Windy Valley Boys” began to play and soon, the old bar began to fill up with local families and small children. As I looked around the bar, it was hard to imagine what it might be like when two huge cruise ships dock in port tomorrow. The Windy Valley Boys played some great Irish and Cajun music, and it wasn’t long before people began dancing, especially the young kids. One cute little blond boy kept racing around between the tables while his young mother ran after him, trying in vain to catch him. And the whole time he was laughing and having lots of fun. Later in the evening, as the band took a break, I talked with their leader and bought a copy of their one and only CD titled “Alaskagway”. Before I left the saloon that night, I asked the tall blonde bartender what the place was like when cruise ships were in town. She told me that she and all the waitresses dressed up in tight corsets and 1890’s dance hall dresses! Then she showed me a copy of the saloon’s new 2014 calendar with classic “pin-up” photos of her and the waitresses – they were gorgeous girls, but like night and day from their “everyday” look!

Red Onion Saloon
The “Windy Valley Boys”

The next morning I was up early to catch the 8:15am train to White Pass summit, and as I turned the corner on the Broadway, I encountered hoards of people on the street, where the previous day I might have seen only 2 or 3 people! (it was a bit of a shock) Alongside the depot was a long train already filled with cruise ship passengers and ready to depart for Fraser, BC and a transfer by bus to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. A short time later, a smaller train of antique coaches pulled into the station for the 8:15am departure. As we boarded the train , we were greeted by two vivacious young ladies named Erin and Kylie, our tour guides. The journey would take us up to the White Pass summit at over 3,000 feet elevation in a short and steep 20 miles. The first half of the trip followed a narrow valley along the banks of the Skagway River, as the fog and clouds began to lift and the skies cleared. It wasn’t long before the route began the steep climb up the slope of the canyon, which gave us spectacular views of the other train as it climbed up the very steep, rocky mountain on the opposite side of the canyon over 1,000 feet above us. We could see several wooden bridges and trestles “clinging” to the rocky ledges – an amazing sight!

Route of the railroad up to White Pass
Climbing up the mountain

And hundreds of feet below us were the rails on which we had just come up earlier. As our train rounded the steep mountain, heading north again, we had spectacular views down the valley, all the way to ocean – the huge cruise ships looked like tiny white “boxes” on the edge of town! Soon the train approached the first tunnel, and then past an enormous, old wooden trestle bridge, long since abandoned and replaced with a steel girder bridge.

Old wooden trestle bridge from 1898

As we neared the summit of White Pass, the landscape abruptly changed from alpine forest into tundra, with low brush scattered among the rocky ground and alpine lakes. As I looked to the side of the rails I could see the remaining traces of the original and infamous “Trail of 98”, where thousands of “stampeders” spent weeks hauling heavy loads of supplies up the steep trail to White Pass. From there they had another 50 miles to go to the shores of Lake Bennett where they needed to build a boat or raft for the 300 mile journey down the Yukon River to the gold fields of Dawson City. As I gazed at the unforgiving, desolate, and remote landscape, I could not imagine how those stampeders had managed to even reach the summit in the dead of winter when the depth of snow could be over 20 feet, let alone survive the hazardous trip down the mighty Yukon River where dangerous rapids awaited them. The trek from Skagway to Dawson City, a distance of 450 miles, would have been a serious challenge for experienced explorers, let alone young office clerks and salesmen who left everything in 1898 to strike it rich in the Yukon! Even today, with our modern outdoor gear and technology, it still remains a challenge.

Nearing the summit of White Pass

As the train crossed the Canadian border, there was a replica of a Northwest Mounted Police checkpoint where every stampeder had to show he had supplies for a year before being allowed to proceed. (it could take 15 – 20 trips up the 3,000 foot steep trail from Skagway to White Pass summit in order to transport the thousands of pounds of supplies required by the mounties) As the locomotives unhooked and moved to the rear of the train for the return journey to Skagway, there was an announcement by Kylie that this was Erin’s last trip of her first season, and as tradition goes, she would take the “plunge” into the freezing waters of Summit Lake on the edge of the tracks. Most of us were a bit skeptical, thinking it must be a “stunt” for the tourists. But then, as we all were poised with our cameras, she stepped off the train, with the conductor, and approached the water’s edge. And to our amazement, she dove into the icy lake! The whole train applauded and cheered as she quickly climbed back on shore. Then Kylie came on the PA system and announced that today was also her last day for her first season, so she would be taking the “plunge” in the afternoon! (we all wished her good luck)

Replica of Northwest Mounted Police station on the Canadian border

As our train slowly made its way back to Skagway, descending the steep slopes, we could see the other train on the opposite side of the narrow valley, over a thousand feet below us – a spectacular sight. Back in Skagway, I walked over to a small outdoor café for a delicious lunch of fresh halibut and chips while sitting under brilliant, sunny skies. An elderly couple seated nearby struck up an interesting conversation about the experience on board their cruise ship versus my trip on the Alaska Ferry. Later in the afternoon I hiked along the old railroad line to the historic “Gold Rush Cemetery” on the north edge of town, and along the way I discovered an old, rusting steam locomotive sitting on a short spur – weeds growing up through the big drive wheels. As I walked up to it I could almost hear the history of the old iron horse echoing softly through the surrounding forest. I could only imagine its glory days as a part of the 1898 gold rush. Nearby was another silent resting place of gold rush history and some of the colorful characters who left their mark on Skagway.

Old steam locomotive
Graves in the Gold Rush Cemetery

A short trail weaved its way among the old graves to Lower Reid Falls, named in honor of Frank Reid who shot and killed the notorious gang leader “Soapy Smith”. Soapy was killed outright, but unfortunately, Frank died 12 agonizing days later from a gunshot in the groin. As I looked at Frank’s headstone, I recalled that earlier in the day, aboard the train, the way Kylie had put it, Frank lost his golden nuggets! The falls were gorgeous, dropping over 300 feet in a very steep, narrow, rocky gorge. As I left the cemetery, I saw a small grave that marked the site of a baby who was born on July 21, 1899 and died July 22, 1899. I couldn’t help feeling rather sad at that moment, even though it happened over 100 years ago. Just then, a large group of tourists arrived in a classic old antique National Park Service tour bus. On my way back to town I spotted the remains of another old steam locomotive, but there was an unusual aspect about it. Of the six large drive wheels, the two in the middle were smooth, without the usual “flange” to keep the wheels on the rails. Not far away was the “Gold Rush Brewery”, which unfortunately was closed for the season, but I had an opportunity to take photos of an old gold dredge that was left at the last place where the gold had finally run out many decades ago. In a way, it marked the spot like that of a headstone on a grave. Eventually I reached downtown and stopped at the Skagway Brewing Company for a cold pint of their “Chilkoot Trail IPA”. At first there was only a handful of people in the bar, but soon the cruise ships invaded the place, and among the crowd were a significant number of Aussies who added a lot fun and cheer! Later in the evening, I walked down to the cruise ship dock and took photos of the two enormous ships as the alpenglow of the sunset reflected beautifully on the rugged mountains rising thousands of feet above them. (“Zuiderdam” of the Holland-America Line and “Sapphire Princess” of Princess Cruise Lines) As I looked north up Main Street, a steady stream of people were headed toward the ships, as they would soon be departing for Glacier Bay. And soon the town would be deserted once again!

Cruise ships in Skagway port
Fishing boats in Skagway harbor

As the sun slowly set and stars began to appear, I looked for a place to have dinner. Suddenly I spotted a tiny restaurant by the name “The Curry Bowl”, on a small side street. As I entered the little place, I quickly realized that I was the only customer. The restaurant had a limited menu, but my favorite Indian dish was on it – Chicken Tikka Masala! As I enjoyed the spicy food, several Bollywood musicals played on the TV in the corner. A short time later, an elderly Indian couple came in, and immediately the owner and his wife greeted them as old friends. Then they all began a lively conversation in Hindi. (that’s when I knew this was an authentic Indian restaurant – the last thing I had expected to find in Skagway, Alaska!) By the time I finished dinner, night had fallen and the streets were virtually deserted. I walked over to the Skagway Brewing Company once more, and it was packed with locals celebrating the end of the tourist season. Luckily there was one empty seat at the bar, and the bartender recognized me from the previous night. He suggested that I try the specialty of the house, a cold pint of “Spruce Tip Blonde Ale”. It definitely had a most unusual taste – that of spruce, fir, and pine trees! It was an interesting tasting experience, but I preferred the Chilkoot Trail IPA. As the evening progressed, it became a wild celebration, with several rounds for the whole bar. I managed to make my exit before midnight and walked back to SGT Preston’s Lodge, along the dark, silent streets, as a light rain began to fall.

Early the next morning, under wet, cloudy skies, I walked over to the Avis Car Rental office and picked up a new Ford Explorer that would take me to Anchorage. But before leaving Skagway, I drove to the nearby Dyea National Historical Site and the start of the famous Chilkoot Trail. The town of Dyea sprang up almost overnight at the start of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, when it became a port for unloading supplies being shipped from Seattle and San Francisco. It was also a point of departure for prospectors seeking their fortune in the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon. Dyea was the nearest port to the beginning of the Chilkoot Trail, an old native route over the mountains to the interior, that rapidly became a major route for gold seekers on their 500 mile journey. The Chilkoot Trail rises steeply over 3000 feet to Chilkoot Pass and the Canadian border. In the winter of 1898, men spent weeks hauling heavy loads on their backs up and over the pass to a staging area on the shore of Lake Bennett. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police required each man to have a minimum of 2000 pounds (1 ton) of supplies at the border before they were allowed to proceed to the lake. The most famous image of the Klondike Gold Rush remains a photograph of the Chilkoot Trail where hundreds of men with heavy packs on their back, were lined up, one behind the other on the steep snow covered slope up to the pass. (the image also became imprinted on the Alaska state license plate for many years)

Stampeders climbing the trail up to Chilkoot Pass – winter 1898

By the summer of 1899, the trail was eclipsed by the opening of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Skagway, a much shorter and more efficient route. Today the Chilkoot Trail is a popular hiking adventure during the summer months, and a fascinating historical journey back in time.

From the old townsite of Dyea, I began the long drive up the steep Klondike Highway to White Pass summit, on my way to Whitehorse. Along the way were spectacular views of Skagway far below, and upon reaching the summit, the views of the rugged Coast Mountains in British Columbia were equally spectacular. Then it was on to the Canadian border crossing and into the Yukon Territory. (stay tuned for part 3)

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook

California to Alaska by Land, Sea, and Air (part 1 of 3)

In September of 2013, I made my annual trek to Alaska to visit friends and family, but this time I decided to take a different and rather unusual combination of transportation modes. By train from Los Angeles to Seattle, by ship to Skagway, car from Skagway to Anchorage, and finally returning to Los Angeles by plane. This blog post is about that journey and the unique experiences along the way.

The trip from LA to Seattle would be aboard the Amtrak “Coast Starlight” train that follows the same route as the legendary Southern Pacific Daylight, before all passenger rail service was taken over by Amtrak. The route would closely follow the ocean to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo before heading inland, over the coast mountains to the Salinas Valley and north to San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento. At nightfall, the train would depart Sacramento, bound for the Oregon border. Then the following day at sunrise the snowcapped summit of Mt Shasta would come into view before a maintenance stop in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The morning would be spent in eastern Oregon before crossing the Cascade Range over Willamette Pass into the Willamette Valley and Portland. In the evening, the train would continue north through the thick forests of western Washington and along the shore of Puget Sound before arriving at the final stop in Seattle.

The route to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo afforded us spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, beautiful beaches, and the rugged slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Along the Pacific Coast
Near Santa Barbara

On board was a large tour group travelling with Great Western Tours, and were mostly well over 65 and constantly commenting on everything, from the mundane to the truly unique. For lunch I chose to go to the Pacific Parlour Car (reserved for sleeping car passengers), where I enjoyed a delicious sandwich of smoked salmon with horseradish cream sauce and sliced red onion on a honey and cranberry multi-grain bagel! Soon the train began the long, slow climb up and over the Coast Mountains, through the Los Padres National Forest to Paso Robles and into the heart of the Salinas Valley.

Agricultural fields in the Salinas Valley

During this time we were treated to a wine tasting in the Pacific Parlour Car, where we tasted four wines from California, paired with four cheeses from Oregon. (there were some really delicious and impressive pairings) As we enjoyed the wines and cheeses, along with some expert information from the Amtrak wine steward, we passed enormous fields of produce, vineyards, and citrus groves that went on for mile after mile. It’s an amazingly productive agricultural region. A young mother and her 10 month old son Travis, sat with me during the wine and cheese tasting – Travis had gorgeous blue eyes, was well behaved, and thoroughly enjoyed his crackers as we enjoyed our wine. Later, as the train approached San Jose, thick fog rolled in from the ocean and strong winds stirred up a lot of dust from some of the fallow fields.

Evening near San Jose

When dinner time came upon us, I once again returned to the Pacific Parlour Car for a fabulous dish of braised short ribs in Ancho chili and molasses sauce! A cold pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale complimented the meal very well. Later in the evening I returned to my roomette with another cold Pale Ale, put on my headphones, and listened to beautiful music as the train rolled into the dark night, across the vast Sacramento River delta and northward to Redding and Mt Shasta.

The next morning, I awoke early, just as the sun was beginning to rise over the ancient lava fields in the remote corner of northeastern California. The dense ground fog from nearby Tule Lake made for a very “mystic” landscape in the early morning light – quite beautiful. The summit of Mt Shasta was shrouded in heavy clouds, but some of the volcanic foothills rose above the fog, resembling “islands” amid the sea of fog. I went to the Dining Car for breakfast as the train rolled north to the Oregon border. The scrambled eggs, Applewood smoked bacon, and cheddar cheese on the honey cranberry focaccia roll was superb!

Breakfast in the Dining Car

We arrived in Klamath Falls almost an hour early, under perfectly clear, cold skies, where frost covered the car windshields. During the one hour maintenance layover, there was plenty of time to take a walk in the chilly morning air. Just as I approached the end of the station platform, a monstrous Union Pacific freight train pulled into the station, headed southbound. Two UP crewmen stood next to the track with their bags, as the lead locomotive stopped exactly at the point where the bags were placed. (it turned out that this was a “game” they always played with the incoming crew, to see just how close they could stop the massive train, as if “on a dime”)

Southbound Union Pacific Freight Train
Train crews changing

The crews changed and within a few minutes the southbound freight was underway again. I stood on the platform and watched the heavy train as it moved slowly south, lead by four huge locomotives, and eventually they disappeared into the dense morning fog on the edge of town. But the line of rail cars continued to roll past me, long after the locomotives were out of sight. As I stood in the early morning light, watching car after car pass me, I noticed both engineers who had brought the train into Klamath Falls were also standing nearby on the platform. At that point, after what seemed like forever, rail cars were still rolling by, so I walked over to one of the engineers and asked, “how long is the train anyway”? He told me it was 6,840 feet long and weighed 94,000 tons! Just then the rear of the huge train rolled by, powered by two more locomotives. As I continued the conversation, I found out they had brought the train from Eugene and it was destined for the Union Pacific freight yard in Roseville, California. He and his teammate would spend 12 hours at a hotel in Klamath Falls, and then drive a northbound freight back to Eugene that night. (no one else on the Amtrak train had any idea what had just taken place at the station)

Soon it was time for the departure of the Coast Starlight, and upon leaving Klamath Falls, we had spectacular views of Klamath Lake where there were thousands of migratory waterfowl and the snow-capped peaks of the Cascades in the distance.

Klamath Lake National Wildlife refuge

Beyond Klamath lake, the train continued its journey northward through tall Ponderosa Pine trees in the Winema National Forest to the small logging town of Chemult, before turning westward toward Willamette Pass and across the Cascade Mountains. As we made our way through a series of tunnels and snow sheds, the forest changed from open stands of Ponderosa Pine to dense forests of Douglas Fir and Spruce.

Western slope of the Cascades in Oregon

It was a long, slow, twisting descent down the steep slopes on the west side before finally coming into Eugene – but not before suddenly coming to a screeching halt just short of the station. (I knew something was wrong when the locomotive horn continued to blast away for over a minute) Then the conductor came on the PA system to say that we had come to an emergency stop because of a homeless man laying on the tracks, but that he was gathering his things together and moving off the rails, so we would be underway shortly! (he added that luckily our train had not hit him) As the train slowly passed by, I caught a glimpse of an old bag, blanket, plastic chair, and an old bicycle on the edge of the tracks – but I never saw the man. I could only imagine what would have happened to him if we had had been a mile-long freight train travelling at 60 mph! After a short stop in Eugene, we rolled north through the heart of the Willamette Valley, past large fields of produce, apple orchards, and vineyards.

Eugene, Oregon
Willamette Valley

Day two of wine tasting in the Pacific Parlour Car featured four very nice wines from Oregon and Washington, paired with Oregon cheeses. Of special note was the pairing of the “Hogue Genesis Syrah” from the Columbia Valley in eastern Washington with a “Lavender Touvelle” cheese from the Rogue River Creamery – a perfect pair! As part of the wine tasting experience, Amtrak sells bottles of any of the wines on board at very reasonable prices. Later in the afternoon we pulled into Portland Union Station about an hour early, so I had time to walk around part of downtown under clear, sunny skies. When I returned to the station, the “Empire Builder” train was being made ready for its journey east to Chicago. The Coast Starlight departed Portland on time and crossed over the Willamette River on a vintage iron drawbridge built in the early 1900’s.

Portland Union Station
Main Waiting Room – Portland Union Station
Old Iron Drawbridge crossing the Willamette River

A short time later, we crossed over the mighty Columbia River on a new, modern bridge to Vancouver, Washington. Our route north took us through heavy coniferous forest, as if we were in a long green tunnel, until we emerged at the southern tip of Puget Sound and made a short stop in Olympia. Then as evening approached we had gorgeous views of Puget Sound, the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge, and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Nearing Seattle there was a lovely view of Mt Rainier, highlighted by the soft pink and orange glow from the setting sun. Upon arriving at the historic King Street Station, I was astounded by the gorgeous pure white marble interior. In year’s past, the old station had been a depressing scene with most of the marble covered up and a low, false ceiling that made it feel more like an old bus station than the elegant structure it was when it had opened in the late 1800’s, as the final destination for the Great Northern Railway.

King Street Station in Seattle

As I gazed at the beautiful revival that had taken place I was amazed and pleased. I picked up my luggage and took a taxi downtown to the Sheraton Hotel, where I was given a great corner suite overlooking Puget Sound and the Space Needle.

The next morning I awoke to find beautiful clear skies and walked down to the Pike Place Farmers Market, which was crowded with a lot of tourists.

Pike Place Farmers Market
Fresh fish for sale in Pike Place Market
Stands of fresh produce & vegetables – Pike Place Market

But from the market there were spectacular views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. I spent some time trying to navigate my way through the crowd, past stands of gorgeous flowers, colorful fruit and vegetables, before heading to the University District. There I met up with my old friend Gordon for lunch at the University of Washington Faculty Club. We had a couple of hours to catch up on all that had happened since our last get together several years ago. After lunch, I walked around the campus to see some of the changes that had taken place since my days as a graduate student in the 1970’s.

University of Washington Library

Then I walked up to my old neighborhood on Capitol Hill, something I had done almost every day for the two years when I was working as a research assistant at the university. The walk took me through the beautiful forest of Interlaken Park and on to Volunteer Park where Marion and I had lived across the street in the Capitol Hill Apartments.

Interlaken Park – Seattle

The park and the apartment building had changed very little since the days when we lived in Seattle, following our return from the overland trek in Africa. (the park was named in honor of the volunteers who served in the Spanish – American War, and a final resting place for many of the war veterans)

Volunteer Park – Seattle

After enjoying the visit to Volunteer Park, I walked along 15th Avenue to a local pub by the name of “Hopvine” for a cold pint of local Fremont Pale Ale and watched people and their dogs strolling by. Soon it was time to head back to the hotel. As I walked down the hill toward downtown, I passed many beautiful old houses on the shady streets. Then the pathway crossed over busy Interstate 5 by way of a very high bridge that afforded some outstanding views of the city, Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the mountains beyond. Once I reached the shore of Lake Union I walked along a footpath to reach Bob and Blair’s houseboat for dinner with them and my old friends Lynne and Michael.

Lake Union – Seattle

As we all sat outside on the deck, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner of roasted peppers and Paella prepared by Blair, along with absolutely spectacular views of downtown Seattle across Lake Union. Later in the evening, a bright full moon highlighted the lake and the city lights – a beautiful late summer evening! After dinner, Blair showed us her latest artwork which uses only wire to sculpt familiar objects that only “reveal” their identity in the form of shadows when light is projected on them – really fascinating!

Dinner with friends on the houseboat
Blair’s new artwork (Jimmy Hendrix)

The next morning, following a delicious breakfast of crab benedict in the hotel, I joined some fellow travelers in a shuttle van for the trip to the Alaska Ferry Terminal in Bellingham, about 60 miles north of Seattle. Before boarding the ferry, I had some time to walk around the old historic Fairhaven district, where I spotted several interesting historical markers. One of them marked the spot where a large horse drawn wagon had disappeared into the quicksand back in 1880. On my way back to the ferry terminal, I bought some beer and provisions for the 3 day voyage to Skagway. At last the boarding began with several large trucks and trailers, buses, RVs, and finally cars.

Historic Fairhaven District – Bellingham
Loading of the Alaska Ferry “Malispina”
Leaving Bellingham Harbor

The ferry departed on time at 6:30pm Pacific Daylight Time, which was 5:30pm Alaska Daylight Time. (the ferry always runs on Alaska Time) A short while later, all passengers were called into the observation lounge for the mandatory safety demonstration, which the First Officer did his best to make entertaining. That evening I went to the cafeteria for dinner and had a fantastic dish of baked Alaskan Cod with a tarter mayonnaise soufflé sauce! A cold pint of Alaskan Amber went very well with dinner. Meanwhile, the ferry began its slow journey north through the Inside Passage, as night fell upon the coast of Vancouver Island and the rugged mountains of the British Columbia Coast Range.

British Columbia coast
Coast Range Mountains – British Columbia

As I sat in the cafeteria, I noticed that the majority of passengers appeared to be Alaskans returning home, since most of them knew the crew members. After a couple of Alaskan IPA’s in the bar, I headed for my stateroom for a quiet night of sleep as the ship sailed into the darkness.

Observation Lounge on the ferry
Purser’s Office on the ferry
Great Seal of the State of Alaska

The next morning, (somewhere along the rugged coast of British Columbia) I had a huge breakfast of corned beef hash and eggs, and watched the beautiful misty forest and calm sea slowly pass by. Later in the day, as there was a break in the clouds, the ship began the crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound, the only stretch of open ocean on the voyage. The ship pitched and rolled enough to make moving around a bit difficult. Even the elevators were shut down and a few people were obviously having an “uncomfortable” time. I stood outside on deck where there was plenty of fresh air and avoided any “discomfort”. A couple of hours later, as the seas suddenly calmed down, we were informed of the weather forecast – a storm warning with significant rain and wind, which is typical weather along the British Columbia coast. Meanwhile, during the many hours of sailing, we passed only a handful of small villages in this remote and isolated region of steep, heavily forested mountains plunging thousands of feet into the ocean – a remarkably peaceful place. At one point we passed a large ocean-going tugboat towing a huge barge laden with shipping containers stacked 6 high. That afternoon, as we encountered the rain, I sat in the bar and watched a lady from Australia outside on the deck painting a scene of mountains, forest, and sea as the steady rain continued to fall around her!

Painting the landscape of the Inside Passage

Then all of a sudden, a tall black man seated at the bar, got up, walked over to the old upright piano in the corner, sat down, and proceeded to play a beautiful piece of classical music! (I found out later that he and his buddy had just been transferred from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage)

In the Bar on the ferry

The ferry continued its slow journey north, threading its way through an endless sea of small islands covered with thick coniferous forest, as day gradually slipped into night. Eventually I made my way to the cafeteria for another delicious dinner of baked Alaskan salmon, topped with a spicy jalapeno cream sauce, and served with basmati rice and steamed fresh vegetables. Later that evening, as I sat in the bar, a young group spent their time playing some board games while the ship slowly sailed into the rainy night. (the journey from Bellingham to the first port of call in Ketchikan takes 38 hours nonstop) As I was about to retire to my stateroom, the bartender reminded us of the fact that this year was the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway System, better known as the Alaska Ferry! So we all toasted with a round of drinks.

The following morning, after another huge breakfast of ham, eggs, potatoes, toast, huckleberry jam, and coffee, I stood on the deck in the steady rain, watching countless emerald green islands pass by. With the strong winds, heavy low clouds, and 50 degree temperature, it felt like mid-winter, not late summer. As lunchtime rolled around, I once again headed indoors to the cafeteria for a delicious, light and crispy Halibut burger. Soon afterwards, we made our first port of call, Ketchikan, where a number of trucks and trailers were unloaded.

Approaching Ketchikan
Off loading in Ketchikan

A group of high school students from Petersburg boarded the ferry, on their way back home after competing in a sporting event in Ketchikan. Later in the afternoon, the ferry arrived in Wrangell, a small logging, mining and fishing town accessible only by boat or plane. It seemed like the whole town came out to greet the ferry, and from the deck I spotted a funny sign that read, “Fennimore’s B&B – voted #1 by select members of the immediate family”. On our way to Petersburg, I sat in the bar and downloaded photos to my laptop before enjoying another superb dinner in the cafeteria – baked Alaskan Rock Cod topped with tarragon cream sauce and served with baked acorn squash. As night closed in, I stood on the deck watching the remote landscape of the Inside Passage slowly pass as shadows in the darkness, sometimes almost close enough to touch and at other times, nearly beyond my vision – but constantly changing. The experience was made especially beautiful and memorable as I listened to some of my favorite music.

Sailing the Inside Passage

With the arrival in Juneau scheduled at 4:00am, we were all awakened with an announcement from the Purser at 3:30am! At that point I decided to get up and watch the offload, since the activity on the ship and the dock would make it impossible to sleep anyway.

Approaching Juneau
Juneau, State Capitol of Alaska

For the next couple of hours, I watched a lot of people disembarking, as well as the loading and unloading of many trucks and trailers from Alaska Marine Lines. It took exceptional skill from a couple of semi drivers to load the long trailers in reverse. Gradually the rain ended just as sunrise was peeking through the clouds, and the ferry departed on time at 6:15am. As we sailed north up the 60 mile long Lynn Canal, the early rays of the sun were reflected beautifully on the puffy white clouds hanging over the steep, rugged mountains on either side. Views of snow-capped peaks and massive glaciers of the Coast Range were spectacular.

A tidewater glacier – Lynn Canal
Rugged Peaks of the Coast Range – Lynn Canal

As the skies began to clear, the steep mountains slowly began to reveal themselves, cloaked in a thick green carpet of tall trees. In some places the huge ship had to navigate very narrow passages between islands of steep, rocky cliffs rising several hundred feet above the water – truly a wonder to behold.

Lighthouse – Lynn Canal

After several hours the ship came in sight of Haines, a small town where the highway to the Yukon Territory begins. The history of Haines dates back several centuries when it was known as “Dtehshuh” by the local Chilkat Indians, meaning end of the trail. The “trail” extended over 300 miles into the interior and was a major trading route to the coast. The first European settlement was established in 1880 by the Northwest Trading Company. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99 changed the region greatly, as the population grew to more than 30,000! Then in 1904, Fort William H. Seward was constructed and later renamed Chilkat Barracks in 1922. During WWII it served as a supply base for military operations in Alaska. The fort was decommissioned in 1946 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972. For many years, Haines was also the southern terminus of a 600 mile-long petroleum pipeline to military installations around Fairbanks. The pipeline was abandoned in 1973, although large sections and some facilities still exist in the Yukon and Alaska. At its height of prosperity, Haines was an important center of fishing, canning, logging, and milling, all of which declined significantly over the years, with the exception of commercial fishing. These days, tourism has become a major economic sector as Haines is now a major stop for Alaska cruise ships. During winter, just to the northwest of Haines on the Chilkat River is the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in the world, where they feed on thousands of migrating salmon.

Approaching Haines
The town of Haines

During the short stop in Haines I spotted several Bald Eagles perched on some of the high pilings at the end of the dock. Soon it was time for our departure to Skagway, the final port of call and my destination. Along the way, the views of the rugged landscape rising steeply from the sea were nothing short of amazing. At last we arrived in the historic town of Skagway, exactly on schedule, after a journey of more than 67 hours (2 days and 19 hours)!

Arriving in Skagway, Alaska

That was pretty impressive, especially considering the navigational challenges and stormy weather conditions. To my surprise, a lady from “Sgt. Preston’s Lodge” was at the ferry terminal to meet me and take me to the lodge, where I was shown to a very nice, cozy cabin. The lodge was conveniently located close to everything downtown – but of course, the whole town was just 3 blocks wide and 7 blocks long! This would be my jumping off point for the rest of my trip through the Yukon and Alaska, but not before spending a few days in Skagway to immerse myself in the colorful history of the old town during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99. {Stay Tuned for part 2}


Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook

Yemen – Land of the Queen of Sheba

In November of 1996 I made a journey to the ancient country of Yemen on a business trip, following meetings in India and Kuwait. The morning that I departed from Kuwait City I spent an hour at the airport in the Oasis Business Class Lounge, sitting under a Bedouin tent canopy in the middle of the room and being served fresh brewed Arabic coffee, orange juice, and delicious pastries from a silver trolley. Little did I know, as I boarded the Kuwait Airways First Class cabin, that I would have to spend the whole day travelling to Yemen. First was the flight from Kuwait to Bahrain, then a 3 hour layover before boarding the Gulf Airlines flight to Jeddah and another 2 hour wait for the Saudi Airlines flight to Saana, Yemen. (my 2 hours in Jeddah were spent in a small windowless room with two other foreigners, under the watchful eye of two guards from the Saudi military. We felt almost like prisoners!) Finally I began the last leg of my journey in First Class aboard the Saudi Airlines flight. Before takeoff we were served strong Arabic coffee from a beautiful traditional silver coffee pot, followed by a selection of dates. (travelling in First and Business Class really helped make the long trip a whole lot easier) As I sat in my seat, we passed over the Red Sea, beautifully highlighted by a brilliant sunset. Suddenly I realized that I had been travelling or working every day for the past two weeks, and it would continue for another week in Yemen! Upon landing at Saana airport, I was met by a young man from NATCO (National Trading Company) the Esri distributor in Yemen. It was a long drive to the hotel at night, through dark, crowded streets, and as I looked around, it became obvious that Yemen was still very much a third world country – like night and day from Kuwait! The Panorama Hotel was close to the NATCO office, but despite the new computerized elevators, it was definitely not a five star property.

Sunrise in Saana
Sunrise in Saana

I awoke early the next morning to a gorgeous sunrise over the mountains that surround the city, under clear blue skies. As I looked out my hotel window, I saw a group of soldiers marching and drilling on a dusty parade ground.

Army post next to hotel
Army post next to hotel

That’s when I realized the hotel was next to a large army post. Suddenly the hotel turned on the loudspeakers in the hallway, one of which was directly outside my door, and the “wailing” of a female singer blared out full volume! That’s when I decided it was time to head downstairs for breakfast. It consisted of one hard boiled egg, a piece of dry stale bread, a small glass of a mystery fruit drink, and a lukewarm cup of instant coffee. After breakfast I was driven to the office to begin teaching the GIS training class. (NATCO is the largest company in Yemen and sells everything from toilet paper to luxury cars!)

Typical street scene in Saana
Typical street scene in Saana
Streets of Saana
Streets of Saana

Looking at the street scene, most of the Yemeni men wore long white robes, small turbans, and a large, elaborately decorated leather belt with a long curved knife tucked into it. (I found out later that it’s the traditional dress of all Yemeni men, and the decoration of the leather belt is closely tied to each Bedouin tribe in the country) As it turned out, the training classroom was next to another army base, and around noon, after the call for prayer from the local mosque, several police cars, with sirens screaming, roared up to the gate behind the NATCO office. A large crowd gathered and a lot of “animated” discussion took place, after which several guys were loaded into the police cars. Then they roared off with sirens wailing! When I asked the students what had just happened, I got no answer – either no one knew or they didn’t want to say anything. (so it remained a mystery)

Over the next few days I observed many strange and fascinating things about Saana and the country of Yemen. Among them:

  • The city is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, dating back thousands of years. It’s also one of the highest capital cities in the world at 8,000 feet elevation.
  • Most buildings are only 2 -3 stories tall and the city is surrounded by high, barren mountains.
  • The land is very dry and barren, except for the occasional oasis.
  • There are a lot of traditional old buildings in the classical Arabic geometric style, but the streets are often very narrow and in poor condition, having many sections unpaved and full of deep potholes.
  • Streets everywhere were littered with garbage, plastic bags, rocks, stones, and even abandoned household items or broken car parts.
  • The narrow streets were lined with hundreds of small shops, and every one of them had large, heavy metal doors that opened out into the street – often dark, having no windows.
  • Traffic was chaotic and generally “unruly” – somewhat like I remembered of Cairo. Stop signs and traffic lights seemed to have no effect on driving. Whoever had the larger vehicle, louder horn, or perhaps more “balls”, had the right of way!
  • Late at night, men sat at small tables outside on the street under the dim glow of a street lamp, drinking tea and talking with each other. (I could only wonder what they discussed – world events, family affairs, local gossip, …)
  • There were a few beggars on the street near the main intersections, and young kids tried to “clean” car windows with a filthy cloth. But this paled in comparison to a scene in India.
  • The majority of vehicles were very old and dilapidated, in strong contrast to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

As I returned to the hotel later in the day, I suddenly became aware of a large stuffed hawk clutching a stuffed rabbit on display in the lobby, at the entrance to the restaurant! (it did nothing to stimulate my appetite) One afternoon, as I sat in the NATCO conference room preparing for class the next day, the sunset call to prayer suddenly blared out of the mosque next door. It was followed by a “lengthy” sermon delivered in the tone of “hell fire and brimstone”. Meanwhile, the sound of the army troops drilling on the parade ground echoed in the background. One evening, upon returning to the hotel, I had a delicious dinner of chicken escalope, deep fried and served with fresh sliced tomatoes and green peppers. But the next morning, it was another breakfast of one hard boiled egg, a piece of dry stale bread, a small glass of mystery fruit drink and a lukewarm cup of instant coffee. (obviously the breakfast menu never changed) When I arrived in the training classroom, I found an old, dusty overhead projector whose lamp was so dim that it barely illuminated anything on the screen, which was just one of the bare walls. And the floor to ceiling windows in the back of the room didn’t help the situation! As I started the class I discovered there was only one marker for the white board, and it happened to be red. (not my favorite color) Later on, I found out that two of the students had never used a computer before, and when you combine that with their very limited ability with the English language, it was an impossible situation, to say the least! When the class finished that first day at 1:30pm, I was ready for a cold beer – but there’s no alcohol allowed in Yemen! However, the general manager of NATCO invited me to join him for lunch at a very nice Lebanese restaurant where we sat outside in a beautiful courtyard and enjoyed an amazing array of traditional Arabic “mezzahs“ (appetizers) and lamb shish kabobs. Meanwhile, one of the gardeners was watering the lawn and flowers with a large “fire hose”, and huge volumes of water were gushing from the hose – drowning everything! During lunch Mazen told me some of the history of Yemen and the origin of the Arabic people. According to popular legend, Yemen was founded in ancient biblical times by Shem, the son of Noah, and was known as “Azal”. After lunch I changed to the Plaza Suites Hotel and was shown to a large apartment which had an office, living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. It was far more space than I needed, but it was a nice gesture. Suddenly the electricity went off, but a few minutes later the backup generator switched on and all was well. Later in the evening I called room service and ordered a couple of non-alcoholic beers. A few minutes later, a loud noise, like a foghorn, boomed out – it was the doorbell, and my drinks arrived.

View from my hotel room
View from my hotel room

After a few days, I felt I was getting burned out on Yemen. My hotel was miles from any tourist sights, restaurants, or shops, and taking a walk wasn’t much of an option either. Safety wasn’t the issue, there was nothing to see or do anywhere close to the hotel. (I began to feel as if I was under “house arrest”) My students were very nice and quite curious about the world outside of Yemen, but they struggled everyday with English and were constantly making spelling errors as they typed commands on the computer. It was very frustrating, both for them and for me, but somehow we managed. The weather continued to be very pleasant, with clear blue skies, cool temperatures at night and warm days.

Trash bin surrounded by trash
Empty trash bin surrounded by trash after collection

Though, on the negative side was the overwhelming amount of trash everywhere, along the roadside, covering vacant lots, and around almost every building. Yet there were large trash bins scattered around, but they were rarely used. Instead, people either tossed their trash out the window or deposited it “next” to the trash bin, creating large piles of trash surrounding the bin! Occasionally, a brand new garbage truck would come by to empty the trash bin – two guys would jump out , pick up a few things around the bin and then proceed to dump the bin into the truck. When the truck moved on, the empty trash bin was left sitting in the middle of a large pile of trash that remained untouched. (this would usually happen twice a day) Though I failed to understand the logic of the trash collection operation, the pile of trash left around the empty bin did appear to serve a purpose.

Goats and sheep "grazing" on trash pile
Goats and sheep “grazing” on trash pile

Once or twice a day a herd of goats and sheep would come along to “graze” on the trash pile! Besides the daily trash collection routine, the call to prayer echoed from every mosque in the city through huge loudspeakers five times a day, beginning at 5 am! It became my “default” morning wake up alarm. During my training session in Yemen, I became aware that the hotel and NATCO office had new British 3 prong electrical outlets, but all of the electrical appliances and computer equipment had standard 2 prong European plugs! On another occasion, I noticed that the NATCO office had brand new toilets, but they were not always functioning properly. One had no water, but the light fixture worked, while the other one had water, but the light didn’t work.

Army post at dawn
Army post at dawn

One morning I was awakened at 4:30 am by the sound of army troops running past my bedroom window, shouting out cadence. Right after that came the 5 am call to prayer from the mosque nearby. It was definitely a sign that I should get up. On the way to the NATCO office to continue the training class, I was met at the front gate by the guard, equipped with a submachine gun. It seemed that almost every large building had an armed guard. Back at the hotel that afternoon, I noticed that the “Beauty Salon and Boutique” still had not opened its doors since the day I arrived, despite the “open” sign posted on the door. Perhaps the sign wasn’t correct or it wasn’t really a Beauty Salon or Boutique?

After the training class the next day, Mazen arranged for Mr. Najeed to take me on a personal tour of the old city. We drove through the heavy chaotic traffic at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of lanes, dodging pedestrians. (or were they dodging us?) Finally, we arrived at the old city gate, or at least what remained from the 12th century. And at once the architecture became one of very old stone buildings, each one stacked upon the other, in the geometric style of classic Arabesque design and very distinctive. The beautiful red terra cotta and brown stone contrasted brilliantly against the clear blue sky.

Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana
Old City of Saana

We parked the car and began to walk the narrow, ancient cobble stone streets – very crowded, noisy, and bustling with activity. As we entered the heart of the old souk (market), we were “jostled” by the crowd around us, very much like we were just another corpuscle moving in the bloodstream of life! Deftly, Mr. Najeed lead me through narrow, dark, winding passageways, up steep stone steps worn down by many centuries of feet. We passed many quarters dedicated to various trades, such as leather work, shoe making, and iron mongering where everything from picks and shovels were forged. One quarter was exclusively for the production of the classic curved Yemeni knife. It was absolutely fascinating to look at trades that had changed little since the 12th century! It was another “time warp” that was so characteristic of Yemen. At one point we came to a small square and Mr. Najeed pointed out an old stone building and said it used to be the public water supply before a modern water system was installed – just 20 years ago! Then we re-joined the bustling crowd in the narrow, tent-covered street, and as we turned a corner the shops suddenly changed from trades to beautiful, brilliantly colored fabrics hanging from every available spot. Further on were carpet shops with hundreds of gorgeous silk and wool carpets from throughout the Middle East. The “rainbow” of color and design was truly astounding. At last we came to the main central square, a large open area with scores of merchants selling everything from dates, raisins, nuts, and various seeds to a fascinating myriad of exotic spices and fragrances. As we walked through the open-air market, it seemed like every ten feet the smells changed – a true “collage” of sweet, pungent, spicy, and even foul sometimes! It was a delightful, though hectic, trip for my nose – a true adventure for the senses. Not far from the main square, Mr. Najeed showed me a very old mosque, over 1400 years old, and one of the first in the world.

Old Mosque
Old Mosque

Islam has been here in Yemen for an incredibly long time, and its influence on the culture and traditions is unmistakable and deeply rooted. As we walked past the old mosque, Mr. Najeed said he would call his dear friend who lived nearby to see if we could go to the top of his building for a view overlooking the old city, which sounded great to me. Suddenly Mr. Najeed stopped at the street corner, looked up and shouted loudly – “Ahmed”!! (and all along I thought he meant he would “telephone” his friend – stupid me!) After “calling” his friend, who unfortunately was not home, we walked to a beautiful green garden surrounded on all sides by very old buildings.

Community garden in the Old City
Community garden in the Old City
Community Garden
Community Garden
Community Garden
Community Garden

Apparently, each family in the neighborhood had a small plot of land for growing fresh vegetables. It was a peaceful little oasis in the middle of a densely populated area. As we walked back toward the old city gate, we were treated to a spectacular pink and orange sunset that etched a lovely pattern in the dark blue evening sky. The silhouettes of the old stone buildings and the mountains beyond framed the glowing sunset perfectly. As we neared Mr. Najeed’s car, an old homeless man living under a cardboard shelter called out his name. It turned out that Mr. Najeed knew the old man as a young man, but now the old man was suffering was Alzheimer’s – truly a sad sight. Mr. Najeed gave him some money as we left. Further on we turned a corner and immediately found ourselves being literally “sucked” into the crowd, being pushed along, not necessarily in the direction we wanted to go, but we were definitely being moved somewhere. Then something caught my eye – several men walking among the crowd carrying huge sums of money. They were obviously “money changers” and somehow they felt safe from thieves who are punished severely by Islamic law, having their right hand chopped off! As we neared the car, evening was rapidly falling over the old city and shops were lighting up old kerosene lanterns, lending a new, softer glow throughout the narrow streets. As we drove back to the hotel, Mr. Najeed told me that 20 years ago the whole city was very clean, in stark contrast to today’s huge piles of plastic trash that litter the streets. I would have loved to see this city without all the litter and trash.

Old City of Saana at dusk
Old City of Saana at dusk

The next day I finished the training class, one of the most “painful” I’ve ever done, but all the students were very appreciative and presented me with a lovely gift. Later on, Mazen invited me to join him for lunch in his home, along with several of the country’s most influential business leaders, which was quite an honor for me. His home was an enormous estate constructed entirely of brilliant white marble and surrounded by a 15 foot high stone wall. There was a large, Olympic size swimming pool “inside” the house. But all around the outside of the estate were piles of trash, so typical of Saana!Upon entering the house, we removed our shoes and joined all of the men in the huge living room where we sat in a large circle on cushions and low couches only 6 inches off the floor. Many beautiful and very expensive Persian carpets covered the floor. After some conversation, we washed our hands and headed into the large formal dining room where we sat on more gorgeous carpets. In front of us was an enormous spread of traditional Arabic and Yemeni food. As people began digging into the various bowls , only with their right hand per Islamic law, I did the same, as Mazen introduced each dish to me. The grilled, spicy ribs of lamb were particularly delicious, but there wasn’t anything that I would not have eaten. I was very surprised to see Mazen, as the General Manager of NATCO, serving all of us. But later I was told it was a very old traditional Yemeni custom, even though he was probably the richest man in the country. During the entire time, there were no women visible as they were all in the kitchen and not permitted to enter the dining room or living room where the men were present. One of the guests for lunch was the nephew of the country’s president, and I noticed straight away that he carried a pistol the whole time. Many of the other men had the traditional Yemeni curved knife tucked in their belt. At the conclusion of lunch we were served a sour yogurt soup in a small stone bowl, along with a fantastic array of luscious Lebanese sweets. This presentation was followed by hot tea served in gold rimmed cups, as we sat in the living room on the cushions and low couches. For me it was a rare glimpse of traditional Yemeni culture. After the amazing lunch, Wael brought out large branches of a local bush with lots of new sprouting green leaves and passed them around the room. He informed me that the plant is known as “Qat” (pronounced cat) and when the young leaves are chewed they release a mild narcotic both relaxes and stimulates the body and mind. (chewing Qat seemed to be endemic in the Yemeni culture – could it be a substitute for alcohol?) As everyone sat around chewing Qat, Wael served hot Arabic coffee made from the ”husks” of the coffee bean, making it a strong acidic taste. I declined the invitation to join in chewing Qat, but after constant badgering by Wael, I relented and stuffed some leaves into my mouth. I was instructed that one should stuff just the left cheek, slowly chew the leaves to extract the juice, and “not” to eat them. I never did find out why only the left cheek – surely not another Islamic law! Soon cheeks were “bulging” and the conversation mellowed out considerably. I found the taste to be quite bitter and acidic – Wael said it was an “acquired” taste. I spent the next couple of hours “slowly” trying to acquire the taste, unsuccessfully. However, I did begin to feel a mild high, as if I’d had a couple of glasses of wine. Given the choice of chewing Qat or drinking wine, I’ll take the wine. During the afternoon session of Qat chewing, there was an interesting French TV show called “Qui est Qui” (Who is Who) where three contestants tried to determine the professions of a panel of six people, given a list of six possible jobs. They had to ask questions of the people in order to figure out how to match them with the jobs. The really interesting part of the show came when the people had to “demonstrate” some aspect of the job that the contestants had “guessed” as matches – it was often hilarious! I thought back to the days of Groucho Marx and the old TV game show “What’s My Line”. Meanwhile the bushes of Qat, having been stripped of their leaves, began to pile up in front of everyone. Eventually the conversation slowed and it was time to go home. The President’s nephew picked up his pistol and everyone else tucked their knives in their belts! I was offered a ride back to my hotel by a man named Tareq, who had not been chewing Qat. He must have been something like the Yemeni equivalent of the “designated driver”, I would guess. Back at the hotel that evening I ordered a couple of non-alcoholic beers from room service, and the same “foghorn” for a doorbell announced their arrival. Then I packed my bags in preparation for my departure in the morning. Later that evening I stood on the balcony and admired the spectacular show of stars in the dark night sky above me.

The next morning I awoke early to a beautiful sunrise outside my bedroom window. As I stood on the balcony, the air was cool, the sky clear and the streets quiet. I looked around and saw a young girl on the street below having trouble herding her goats past the large pile of trash around the trash bin. Apparently the trash was very attractive to the goats. I hauled my bags downstairs to the hotel lobby to wait for my ride to the airport, which was invariably late. Meanwhile, several Landcruisers arrived and men got out to join a group already in the lobby. One of the Landcruisers was elaborately decorated with colored ribbons and flower garlands, leading me to conclude that it was part of a wedding party. As I continued to wait for my driver, more men of the wedding party arrived.

Wedding party arriving
Wedding party arriving

Most of them with submachine guns slung over their shoulder and pistols in their belt. (there were no women to be seen) All of the men greeted each other with three kisses – then many photos were taken, each guy made sure his weapon was prominently displayed! Then another Landcruiser arrived with two older men who were greeted with special reverence. By this time, the hotel lobby was crowded with gun toting Yemeni men, while the TV in the corner blared out the sights and sounds of MTV! What a stark contrast of cultures – like being in an episode of the “Twilight Zone”. About then the hotel desk clerk leaned over to me and said that the old men who had just arrived were the fathers of the bride and groom, and this was the first meeting of the families. (the wedding had taken place the night before  and the newlyweds had spent their first night together in the hotel, being an arranged marriage) Even though my ride to the airport was over two hours late, I was grateful for having another fascinating glimpse into Yemeni culture. Finally Wael arrived with the driver and on the way to the airport he presented me with a very special gift – a traditional Yemeni knife in a beautiful gold braided leather belt. It was something I had wanted to buy but hadn’t had the opportunity to do so. So it was a very nice gesture on his part. Then it was another bare knuckle drive through chaotic traffic , dodging pedestrians, with the horn blaring constantly – apparently the only way to drive in Saana! Pedestrians scattered to the side of the road as we raced to the airport – sometimes overtaking cars on the left and sometimes on the right, as well as sometimes on the wrong side of the road. (at any time the road would suddenly go from 2 lanes to 4 or 5 lanes, depending on how big the vehicles were) At one intersection traffic was halted by a cop standing in the middle of the street. But after a minute or two, the drivers became impatient and began “inching” forward into the intersection, with horns blaring. At last the policeman waved his hand and we were all off to a Monte Carlo start – drivers waved their fists at the policeman and shouted insults! Finally (and thankfully) the airport came into view, surrounded by barren fields. At first the police stopped us from driving up to the terminal building – was I supposed to drag my bags up the road I wondered? But my driver convinced them that I was an important foreign VIP and they should make an exception to the rule. As soon as we pulled up to the terminal, three guys descended upon the car, ready to load my bags on the “free” luggage trolley. It rapidly became obvious that it would be virtually impossible to avoid their “services”, even though my driver steered the trolley to the terminal entrance by himself. Quickly my bags were x-rayed as I pulled myself away from the “luggage leeches” and headed inside to check in for the flight to Dubai. I walked up to the Emirates Airlines First Class counter, only to find out that my reservation had been cancelled! (I had forgotten to reconfirm it within 72 hours) On top of that, I was told First Class was fully booked and I might be downgraded to economy. I must have had a “pitiful” look on my face at that point because the station manager came up and took mercy upon me, personally guaranteeing me a first class seat, though I might have to settle for an economy class meal as they had only 15 first class meals on board. Luckily I was given a boarding pass for a first class seat, and after filling out the departure card and passing through immigration, I was officially “stamped” out of Yemen. I had a delicious cup of Arabic coffee in the Emirates First Class lounge before the Dubai flight was announced for boarding. Going through the security checkpoint involved not only the usual metal detector, but also a very thorough body search! As I boarded the bus that would take us to the plane, a ticket agent was collecting knives from men and tagging them with the passenger’s name and seat number. Upon boarding the 767 I found my seat was in row 1 and next to a console with fresh flowers. Just as I sat down, I was offered a hot, perfumed towel, followed by a cup of strong Arabic coffee and a selection of dates. All of a sudden, to my pleasant surprise, I was handed a chilled glass of Pol Roger Champagne – so refreshing! As the plane departed Saana, we had excellent views of the surrounding mountains – ancient geologic formations, deeply eroded by centuries of wind and water.

Leaving Saana
Leaving Saana
Ancient mountains of Yemen
Ancient mountains of Yemen
Southern coast of Yemen
Southern coast of Yemen
Desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula
Desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula

Unexpectedly, our route of flight took us southeast to the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, then along its southern coastline, and finally north to Dubai – in effect we skirted around the Saudi border for an unknown reason. Essentially, it made a normal 1 ½ hour flight into 3 hours. However, since the first class service aboard Emirates Airlines was outstanding, I didn’t mind the extra flying time. The lunch service was superb, beginning with a selection of Arabic mezzahs (hummus, goat cheese covered with fresh cracked black pepper, pickled vegetables), followed by a fresh green salad with baby corn and a delicious lemon-olive dressing. The main course was a fabulous plate of grilled prawns in herbed butter and coriander. And for dessert there was a luscious pistachio meringue tart, as well as a selection of cheeses and fresh fruit, along with a glass of Taylor’s 20 year old Port. All of this was served from an elegant silver trolley. I finished lunch with a cup of fresh coffee and a glass of Cointreau on ice – absolutely superb food and gracious service!

Upon landing in Dubai, it was very obvious that I was now in a world far removed from Yemen, and once again I experienced a time warp. As I walked off the plane, I looked forward to spending the next few days “decompressing”. But the experience of being in Yemen was unforgettable and one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t always comfortable, but always fascinating!

(Note: As I read about the civil war in Yemen now, I can’t help wondering what the old city of Saana must be like these days. And I can’t help but believe that the centuries old traditions and culture must still persist, despite the ravages of war!)

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook