China in 1987 – Beijing to Xian

In June of 1987 I received an invitation from the Chinese State Economic Information Centre to conduct a GIS software training class in Beijing. By good fortune I had enough miles from Delta Airlines for two free First Class tickets on Japan Airlines. So I invited my good friend Leslie to join me for our first trip to China. The flight from LA to Hong Kong and on to Beijing was beyond our expectations, with incredible personal service by the young Japanese flight attendants. (During the dinner service one flight attendant was serving lobster bisque from a large silver tureen next to our seat when a drop of the bisque dripped over the edge of the bowl. We thought nothing of it, but immediately the chief purser stepped in, removed the bowl with the drip, and proceeded to instruct the young attendant in how to fill the bowl correctly!) The service aboard Japan Airlines remained impeccable throughout our journey. Arriving in Beijing we were met at the airport by Dr. Liang and Mr. Dai who would be our hosts and guides for the next two weeks. We were taken to the Yangjing Hotel near the center of the city and a few blocks from the site where I would be conducting the training class. The hotel was pretty basic, designed mainly for Chinese businessmen and not necessarily for foreign tourists. But it was clean and had two restaurants, and although very few of the hotel staff spoke English we managed pretty well.

Our room at Yanjing Hotel in Beijing
Our room at Yanjing Hotel in Beijing

My first day of training was in a hot, humid room where the windows were open to the street noise and large fans attempted in vain to move the stale air around. For my lectures I had only an old, poorly lit overhead projector and a dusty chalk board. (I’m certain that many of the students in the back of the room could neither see my slides nor hear me, but they may not have been able to read or understand much English anyway.) There were very few breaks, so speaking continuously for 6 hours every day became exhausting! In addition, the PC that I was assured would be provided never showed up, even on the very last day, despite Dr. Liang’s promises every morning that it would be there tomorrow. So I had no way to demonstrate any of the things I was lecturing about. For me it would have been terribly boring had I been in the audience, so what must it have been like for the poor Chinese students? Half of the time I had to resort to using the dusty old chalkboard, so at the end of each day I was covered in chalk dust. (After the first day the thought of two weeks of this was almost unbearable!) Thankfully, every evening after my marathon lecture, I had a leisurely walk back to the hotel and relaxed with a cold gin and tonic, prepared by Leslie. She spent her days being escorted around Beijing, seeing some of the tourist sites and shopping in the traditional open air markets. What I wouldn’t have given to be a tourist at this point. Every morning Leslie and I shared the “western breakfast” (fried egg, toast, fruit, and tea) in the hotel before I headed to the Institute to do my daily lecture. In the evenings we exchanged notes about the day and shared dinner in the hotel, with our favorite dish being slow cooked pork with young garlic tips, which was delicious.

Finally Sunday came, my only day off, and Dr. Liang took us to visit the ancient tombs of the first Qin dynasty and then to the Great Wall. Great_Wall_of_China  As we walked along the top of the Great Wall, the views were nothing short of spectacular as the wall stretched far beyond the horizon in both directions.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China
Leslie with Dr. Liang and Mr. Dai
Leslie with Dr. Liang and Mr. Dai

And amongst the incredible experience of the Great Wall, there were other experiences that were less memorable, such as the hot beer and soda in the car’s trunk at lunchtime, and the absolutely atrocious toilets at the visitor center. They were little more than gross holes in the floor. (Such was the ever present dichotomy that defined China) But the hospitality of our Chinese hosts was genuine and almost overwhelming, especially when were invited to the very traditional banquet given in our honor. It was always a very formal and structured affair with the same protocol each time. The meal always included a strange combination of delicious dishes and disgusting “delicacies” such as boiled Sea Cucumber which has the absolute worst taste and slimy texture, but is always one of the many dishes served. Despite the culinary challenges, our hosts were delighted that we had at least tried every dish. However, at the first banquet I made a valiant effort to finish the disgusting Sea Cucumbers I had been served by my host, only to find more of them on my plate. After that I always left some of them on my plate so I wouldn’t be served seconds. On the morning of the last day of the training class Dr. Liang took me to the “computer store” where he promised that we would pick up the PC that I would be able to use to demonstrate everything I had lectured about for the past two weeks. We were to meet Mr. Wong who was trying to make a Japanese PC work. Our taxi got lost on the way, and at one point I had to sit in the car, roasting in the hot sun for half an hour while Dr. Liang tried to get directions to the “store”. We drove into many dead end alleys, and even through a couple of back yards with laundry hanging on the line before arriving at the computer store, only to find out Mr. Wong had been unsuccessful! The “garage style” workshop was located in a small crowded room in some nameless institute where a large number of “technicians” worked to disassemble old PC’s and then reassemble a variety of different components into a new PC. Watching all of this reminded me of an old Marx Brothers movie! Despite countless attempts they were unable to make a PC capable of running the GIS software, even though I had been reassured countless times that there would be a PC for my training class to demo the software. (It was at this point I began to realize that in the Chinese culture no one likes to say NO!) So after two exhausting weeks my training class finally came to an end and I looked forward to becoming a tourist. That evening we were invited to join the Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences for a traditional dinner of the famous “Peking Duck” at his favorite restaurant near Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen_Square  The dinner was fabulous and afterwards we all walked into the enormous square where thousands of people had gathered to enjoy the warm summer night. The view of the main gate to the Forbidden City was awesome in the glow of the sunset. Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Entrance to the Forbidden City
Entrance to the Forbidden City
Symbol of the Emporer in the Forbidden City
Symbol of the Emperor in the Forbidden City

The next day we were especially looking forward to an overnight train journey to the ancient city of Xian in northwest China that had been arranged by Dr. Liang as a thank you for the training class. Our guides for the trip were Mr. Jin and his wife Ma, a young couple who worked at the academy. We arrived at the massive Beijing Central Station with just barely enough time to push our way through the crowd and board train #279 bound for Xian. Soon we found our First Class sleeping car #7 (aka “soft sleeper”) that was conveniently next to the dining car which was reserved for First Class passengers and train staff.

Train #279 bound for Xian
Train #279 bound for Xian
Lunch with Jin and Ma in the dining car
Lunch with Jin and Ma in the dining car

As we began to settle into our compartment, an attendant came by with a set of pillow, blanket, towel and soap for each of us, as well as a large pot of hot water for making tea. Soon we were rolling along, heading west through the hills covered with rice fields and small villages, a very peaceful scene. Then all of a sudden the loudspeaker above our heads began blaring out an announcement followed by loud martial music at full volume! As I began to wonder how long this would last, I spotted what looked like a volume control knob with no name on it, but as I rotated it the volume went down so I turned it just as far as it would go and we were spared the military band music at last. Later on I walked through the train and found very crowded cars of “hard seats” (straight backed wooden benches) with narrow aisles crammed with people, boxes, bags, and anything else they could bring on board. Beyond the hard seats were the “hard sleepers”, with long rows of 4 bunks stacked one on top of the other, very much like a military barracks. At the end of each car was an old cast iron coal burning stove to boil water for tea. Returning to our First Class compartment I was really thankful for the luxury we had during our 22 hour journey! After dinner in the dining car, Leslie and I spent the evening trying to learn a few words of Chinese from Mr. Jin and Ma. We had a lot of fun sorting out the words from the Chinese/English dictionary as the train sped into the gathering darkness. At one point before we all retired for the night, the train made a short stop in a small station somewhere west of Beijing and immediately a large group of vendors descended upon the platform selling all manner of food and drink. From our open window, in the midst of all the activity, I heard the sound of bells approaching. Then two men passed by, each carrying a bundle of small bamboo cages tied to long poles, running in a smooth gait that was perfectly in time with the bouncing of the bundles. The sound of the bells in the bundles of bamboo cages was beautiful and haunting, when all of a sudden I realized there were crickets in the cages, not bells! But what a magical moment it was.

Early the next morning we awoke to a totally different landscape of deep yellow earth and red brick houses along the great Yellow River valley. Many of the houses were actually built into the cliffs on either side of the valley. Further on we began to see several old and a few new steam locomotives pulling long freight trains.

Old steam locomotive still in operation
Old steam locomotive still in operation

Seeing the steam locomotives still in operation, as well as large modern tractors working alongside peasants plowing fields with oxen just reinforced my impression of China as being a strange but fascinating land of contrasts and contradictions. As our train sped westward I felt like we were seeing a very long, narrow strip of the Chinese landscape.

View of the Yellow River Valley from the train
View of the Yellow River Valley from the train

Shortly after our lunch in the dining car, featuring boiled pork tripe and dumplings, we finally arrived in Xian. (As the train had approached Xian, one of the train porters sat down beside me and began to practice his English on me.) By the time we pulled into the station it was very hot and humid, and feeling particularly sweaty, I was looking forward to a nice shower in the hotel. We were met by 4 people from the Xian Research Institute of Surveying and Mapping, and after a long walk through the crowded station we were taken to the Scarlet Bird Hotel. Xian No sooner had we taken the luggage to our room than I was “invited” to a short meeting to discuss our “schedule”. As I sat there feeling like I was in a steam bath, I was suddenly informed about my “lecture” that afternoon at the Institute – surprise, surprise! Not having been told about this in Beijing I didn’t bother to bring any of my slides or notes of any kind. So while Leslie joined Mr. Jin and Ma for an afternoon of sightseeing, I had to spend it giving a lecture about GIS to 50 staff, using nothing more than a dusty old chalkboard! (This was not the trip I had imagined) But all was not lost, for after having delivered my 4 hour lecture on the chalkboard, I was allowed to return to the hotel and take a shower before the gala banquet that evening. Once again the dreaded Sea Cucumbers appeared on the table, despite the fact that we were almost 2000 miles from the ocean. Among the “local” delicacies were Camel Tendons, and the only way I can describe them is to simply say that old shoe leather would be more tender and taste better. But the highlight of the evening was the “surprise” dish at the end, for which we were given specific instructions about how to eat it. We were to quickly pick up a piece of it from the first bowl with our chopsticks, then quickly dip it into the second bowl, followed by a quick dip in the third bowl before popping it into our mouth. These instructions made it sound like another Chinese delicacy like roasted grasshoppers or fried crickets, so to say we were a bit apprehensive would be an understatement. Soon the surprise dish arrived and we followed our hosts in grabbing a piece from the first bowl, dipping it quickly in the second and third bowls, and then popping it into our mouth. The taste and sensation were absolutely the most amazing culinary experience of our entire time in China! So what was it you ask? In the first bowl were large cubes of chilled watermelon. The second bowl had hot honey and the third bowl was filled with ice water. So by the time the “surprise” reached our mouth it was an explosion of sweet, hot, icy flavor that was to die for! And all along we had been imagining roasted grasshoppers or fried crickets – what a beautiful surprise.

The next day we were treated to a tour of the zoo and an encounter with a rare brown Panda. But the absolute highlight was a visit to the ancient tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, where thousands of terra cotta statues of the Emperor’s army were buried over 2000 years ago and only recently discovered by local farmers in 1974. Since then the Chinese government has been excavating the site and restoring the statues. Terracotta Army Standing on the observation platform overlooking the tomb, the Terra Cotta Army seemed to be ghostly figures slowly rising from the earth after 2000 years asleep. Besides the immense scale of the tomb, one of the most unique aspects is the fact that the face of each and every clay warrior is different, having been modeled after the real warriors of that time. And amazingly it’s believed that only a small portion of the tomb has been discovered. The site has been very carefully preserved and it certainly ranks as one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Tomb of Emperor Qin in Xian
Tomb of Emperor Qin in Xian
Warriors of the Terra Cotta Army
Warriors of the Terra Cotta Army

The following day we were taken to the airport for our flight back to Beijing on CAAC (Civil Air Administration of China), the one and only Chinese airline. The flight was scheduled to depart at 1:30pm, but as luck would have it we had to endure several delays. The terminal was very basic, having only one small gift shop and a tiny café, so we did what so many of the Chinese were doing, sitting on the floor playing bridge, a popular card game in China. Finally, 3 hours later we were told to board the old Russian jet that had been sitting outside on the tarmac in the hot sun. There was a mad rush of people running to the plane and by the time Leslie and I stepped on to the plane there were only two seats remaining and they were in the very last row, next to a flight attendant in a jump seat across the aisle from the toilet. As we took our seats we immediately became aware of the stifling heat in the cabin, obviously a result of the plane sitting in the hot sun for 3 hours. Seeing our sweaty faces, the flight attendant picked up the “barf bag” from the seat back pocket and began using it as a fan, motioning us to do the same. (perhaps this was the A/C?) At last, as the flight took off I noticed that all of the emergency instructions were in Russian. Shortly after we were airborne, the flight attendants served a choice of a warm orange flavored drink or a cup of hot tea, along with a piece of hard candy. My first thought was that this was the prelude to a meal, but for the remainder of the 3 ½ hour flight there was nothing else served. So by the time we landed in Beijing that evening we were famished. However, when we got to the Friendship Hotel near Beijing University the one and only restaurant was closed and the only food available was a small dish of cold noodles and rice. (such was travel in China during 1987)

Friendship Hotel, Beijing
Friendship Hotel, Beijing

So the next day when we boarded the Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo and settled into our First Class seats, the experiences of the past 3 weeks slowly began to mellow around the edges, aided by the chilled glass of champagne. Despite the challenges and sometimes less than comfortable conditions, the first experience of being in China is one that has stayed with me. Over the next 25 years I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to China several times and witness the tremendous changes that time brought to the country. But the 1987 trip remains as the one I remember most!

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Adventures with Roger and Lila in the Sultanate of Oman

In late October of 2007 I boarded a flight from Los Angeles to London to spend a few days with my old friends Jiggy and Andrew, before going on to the Sultanate of Oman to attend our Middle East User Conference in the capitol city of Muscat. The overnight flight from London to Muscat in Business Class aboard Gulf Air was superb in many ways, especially when Dom Perignon Champagne and sweet Arabic dates were served by the on board chef. Upon arrival in Muscat the next morning I was met at the airport by the driver from our local office for the short trip to the beautiful new Barr Al Jissah Resort beside a spectacular beach on the coast of the Arabian Sea just south of the city.

Barr Al-Jissah Resort in Muscat, Oman
Barr Al Jissah Resort in Muscat, Oman

The ride was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that the car was a brand new Jaguar XKE! (it had only two speeds, 20 kph or 200 kph) Over the course of the next three days I helped manage the conference, as well as presenting a couple of technical workshops. On the last evening we all enjoyed the Gala Dinner where we dined on an enormous selection of traditional Arabic mezzes and delicious Omani seafood dishes as we overlooked the ocean and the rising moon on the horizon. A traditional Omani dance group provided beautiful music and entertainment that made the evening a magical moment, not to be forgotten.

The next day I joined my old Canadian friends Roger and Lila for a three day tour through the mountains and deserts of Oman by 4WD Land Rover that included what is known in this part of the world as “dune bashing”. This “recreational activity” involves driving the vehicle up and over huge dunes as fast as possible, thus creating the feeling of being in a roller coaster ride! Our driver named Hamed picked us up at the resort and drove west over the high mountains surrounding Muscat, some of which reach heights of more than 10,000 feet and can experience periods of snow during the winter.

Muscat and surrounding mountains
Muscat and surrounding mountains

These rugged and often barren mountains, create a stunning backdrop to the deep red sand desert beyond, known as the “Al Sharqiya Sands”. On the way to the desert we drove to the edge of a deep canyon known as “Wadi Bani Khalid” where we all stood on the rim of the abyss gazing upon an amazing landscape of unique rock formations. These canyons, otherwise known as “wadis”, collect the meager rainfall in this part of the world and channel it into some fairly large rivers that empty into the Arabian Sea, along the way supporting an extensive agricultural system.

Standing on the edge of Wadi Bani Khalid
Standing on the rim of Wadi Bani Khalid
Wadi Bani Khalid
Wadi Bani Khalid

Near the entrance to the wadi Hamed stopped at a small local restaurant where we enjoyed a very traditional Bedouin meal of roasted chicken, lamb and rice, all of which was served on a large round platter in the middle of the table and eaten only with the right hand, although the owner of the place graciously provided Roger with a fork and spoon in the event he felt he needed some help.

Lunch near Wadi Bani Khalid
Lunch near Wadi Bani Khalid

After lunch we were on our way to the Al Sharqiya Sands, with Hamed driving at least 120kph skillfully following a faint track in the sand toward our destination for the night, Al Raha Desert Camp. The ride was so smooth at the high speed that it gave us all a feeling of floating over the sand. We made a short stop to visit one of the Bedouin families that inhabit this area and were treated to the gracious hospitality for which the Arabian culture is so well known.  As we sat on the beautiful woven carpets laid out on the sand to form the floor of the tent they called home, the family served us traditional strong Arabic coffee along with very sweet dates and a sort of gelatin made from local honey, cardamom, and saffron that was wonderful and a nice contrast to the bitter taste of the coffee.

Coffee and dates with Bedouin family
Coffee and dates with Bedouin family

Leaving the Bedouin family we drove for another hour deep into the beautiful red sand dunes and then suddenly Hamed turned sharply to the south and bolted up the side of a huge dune several hundred feet high. Upon reaching the summit of the dune he sped across the top of several more dunes and then stopped near the highest point to give us a splendid view. As we stepped out of the Land Rover onto the soft sand we stood among a magnificent collection of red sand dunes beneath a clear blue sky and nothing else! If anything would remind one of Lawrence of Arabia, this was it.

On top of the dunes - Wahiba Sharqiya Sands
On top of the dunes – Wahiba Sharqiya Sands

While Roger and Lila took in the sights, Hamed and I climbed a short distance up to the crest of the highest dune from where we could see beautiful red sand dunes as far as the horizon would allow. As we started to leave the dunes and head for Al Raha Desert Camp, Hamed took one last fling at the dunes and suddenly we found ourselves stuck in some very soft sand, not what we wanted to happen this late in the day and this far from camp. After about 20 minutes of very skillful maneuvering by Hamed he was able to slowly extricate us from what could have been a serious situation, especially since Roger has a heart condition that would most certainly prohibit him from walking very far in the soft sand. Finally we pulled into the camp as the desert sun was setting and we were shown to our rooms, which from the outside looked to be made of palm leaves and wood. But once inside our small rooms it was clear that the structure wasn’t built from any natural materials at all. In fact, the entire room was one giant cast of concrete, including the bed, table, and the wash basin! (at least there was a foam mattress on top of the cement bed)

Al Raha Desert Camp
Al Raha Desert Camp

That evening I joined Roger and Lila for dinner in the open-air dining hall where we enjoyed some very tasty grilled chicken, rice, and vegetables that were being cooked over an open fire outside. Roger was looking forward to having wine with dinner so he enquired if there was any wine available and was told he could purchase a bottle of French Chardonnay, which he promptly ordered. Upon tasting the wine he declared it a case of “false advertising” as it didn’t resemble any French wines that he was familiar with, and Roger is admittedly very familiar with good wine! I sampled a small glass and came to the same conclusion as Roger, whereupon I enquired whether beer was available, to which the response was “of course”. Both Roger and I had to agree that the ice cold can of beer from Hannover, Germany was the genuine article! After dinner Roger and Lila invited me back to their room for a “nip” of Scotch whiskey which they had carried from the duty free shop on their stopover in London. The three of us sat on the cement beds sharing some of our best travel stories, savoring the fine taste of the whiskey, and enjoying the company of old friends. At one point Roger offered a toast to our small band of desert adventurers and christened our group “the desert rats”! It was a perfect toast offered at the perfect time – thanks very much Roger!

I awoke very early the next morning, looking forward to a shower, but when I tried both the taps there seemed to be no difference in temperature between the Hot and Cold, so I resigned myself to a cold shower. Later I discovered that both taps were connected to the “same” water line (duh!) But at least I was reasonably clean, if a bit chilly when we met up for breakfast, which consisted of boiled eggs, hot dogs, flat bread, and lentil stew!

Breakfast at the camp
Breakfast at the camp

Before leaving the camp, Roger and Lila were among a select group of people invited to go for a short ride on a camel. I was designated as the photographer to capture this moment for posterity, as well as for the folks back in the Muscat office who were convinced there was no way Roger would consent to riding a camel. Well he certainly proved them all wrong and the photo is the proof!

Roger and Lila riding off into the desert
Roger and Lila riding off into the desert

A couple of hours later we were back on the paved road and headed for the old coastal town of Sur where we looked forward to seeing one of the last surviving places where the classic Arabian boat known as a Dhow is built. Just outside the town of Sur we stopped beside a beautiful stream to admire the contrast of the deep blue water against the bright red rock above.  The view of the old harbor in Sur was beautiful with whitewashed buildings everywhere and three old stone lighthouses still standing after hundreds of years. Fishermen were busy on the beach tossing their nets into the bay in the hopes of landing some fish for the day.

The ancient lighthouse in Sur
The ancient lighthouse in Sur

Later in the afternoon we began our return journey to Muscat via the coastal road which used to be nothing but a dirt track and now is undergoing modernization into a new 4 lane highway. However, this meant that we encountered long stretches of beautiful smooth pavement interrupted by miles of narrow, rough dirt road. There were many areas along the route where we could see new bridges and roads washed out as a result of the devastating cyclone that ravaged Oman barely 3 months earlier. One of our most pleasant stops was at “Wadi Shab”, a narrow gorge with vertical cliffs that rose several hundred feet above a beautiful river of clear blue water surrounded on both sides by an oasis of date palms.

Roger, Lila, and Hamed beside the water at Wadi Shab
Roger, Lila, and Hamed beside the water at Wadi Shab

This was supposed to be the place where Hamed intended for us to have a picnic lunch, but he had forgotten to buy some food the day before and this was now Friday, the day of prayer in the Muslim world so no shops were open! Nonetheless, we carried on and in the late afternoon we finally found a small Indian sandwich shop that was open in the coastal town of Quiraryat. Here we were presented with a menu of sandwiches that included “chicken sandwich”, “chicken cheese sandwich”, “super chicken sandwich”, and “chicken egg sandwich” – it was pretty obvious that we should order the chicken whatever! The food was actually quite tasty and served with a mountain of French fries, along with some really delicious fresh pineapple and mango juice.  Our last stop before arriving back at the hotel in Muscat was a place called “the Sinkhole”, a deep depression in the middle of the coastal plain that was apparently the result of water dissolving the limestone over thousands of years and not caused by the impact of a giant meteor as Hamed suspected!

Back at the resort that evening I shared dinner with Roger and Lila at the “Samba Restaurant” where we were treated to an enormous buffet of an incredible variety of foods, ranging from fresh Sushi and Sashimi to Malaysian curries, authentic Mexican dishes and even a full side of English roast beef with horseradish sauce. The desserts were equally amazing and delicious although it was virtually impossible to sample them all. During our dinner outside around the pool, a Mariachi Band strolled among the tables singing old Mexican folksongs. It continues to amaze me how versatile these Filipino musicians can be! It was a delightful evening with delicious food shared with wonderful friends. The next day the Jaguar XKE took us to the airport for our return flight to London. After checking in we made our way to the Gulf Air First Class Lounge for a glass of “real” French Chardonnay and some delicious hors d’oeuvres before boarding the plane. Once again the service was impeccable, and included a “sky nanny” on board to assist the families travelling with young children! As the dinner hour approached the Chief Purser came to my seat in Business Class and invited me to join Roger and Lila for dinner in the First Class cabin where we savored a delicious array of curry dishes with cardamom rice prepared and served by the on board chef. We finished the evening with a fabulous and fragrant Arabic rice pudding served with a cup of strong, traditional Arabic coffee.

After landing the next morning in a chilly damp London I bid farewell to Roger and Lila as they headed by train to a reunion with Roger’s family in Cambridge. Although we had spent just a few days together, we had shared adventures that will last a lifetime! The next day I took a train to the historic city of Ely to visit its famous cathedral and the ancestral home of Oliver Cromwell who changed the course of English history forever. That evening I returned to the airport and boarded my return flight to Los Angeles, carrying with me a bundle of great memories.

In Memorium

I dedicate this blog to my dear friend Roger who passed away a year ago this month. He was the “Father of GIS” but he was always humble about his achievements, processing of a sharp intellect, a subtle but keen sense of humor, an unfailing desire to teach the next generation, and a love of travel to far-away places. I shall miss his stories, but I carry many memories of him with me as I travel. Rest in peace Roger!

Roger on top of the dunes
Roger on top of the dunes

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Israel and Palestine – A Region Divided by Common Ground

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, 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. We purchased a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from the winery since there would be chance to buy any wine 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 to report for duty, in case of possible war with Iraq!

When we reached the Israeli checkpoint on the border with Gaza it was heavily barricaded and fortified with guard towers, high 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. Then, in order to continue our journey we had to unload our luggage and carry it 500 meters through a virtual “no man’s land” to get in another taxi on the other side. Now we were officially in Palestine, and the scene abruptly changed to one of poverty, filth, and crumbling buildings – basically a crowded “refugee camp”. Finally we arrived at the “Beach Hotel”, a new small hotel where most of the UN staff were staying. In stark contrast to the refugee camp, only a couple of kms away, the hotel was located on a nice beach with beautiful views of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

View from the Beach Hotel in Gaza
View from the Beach Hotel in Gaza
Breakfast room at the Beach Hotel
Breakfast room at the Beach Hotel

In the morning I joined Giovanna for a typical Palestinian breakfast of hummus, falafel, warm pita bread, olives and a feta cheese omelet – a delicious combination. Then it was time for the first day of training class at MOPIC headquarters, located across the street from Yasser Arafat’s house, locally known as the “Presidential Palace”. Actually it was a very modest place, with the exception of a large array of satellite dishes and antennas on the roof. Every day the training class began at 9:00am and quit at 3:00pm, with two short breaks for coffee and prayers. After the first training class, Frank, a young Norwegian who was assisting the work of the Ministry, invited us to join him for a beer at the “UN Beach Club”. As we entered the austere, military like concrete building we were not prepared for the décor and atmosphere of an old English gentlemen’s club inside. It looked like it had been transported directly from the colonial days in India. Soon a local Arab waiter dressed neatly in a white coat and black tie appeared and informed us that we must become “members” for the week and buy a book of coupons that were required to purchase food and drink. (over the course of the week the club became our second home, a haven of relaxation from the chaos of activity in Gaza) I enjoyed many evenings in the company of the UN staff from Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as we sat around the table with our pints of cold Carlsberg beer discussing the world news, especially the escalation of tensions between the US and Iraq. Bets were being placed daily about the odds of when the US bombing of Iraq would begin. One day I asked the hotel staff if it was possible to send postcards from Gaza, and the response was “not really”, which was to say “you can try but probably with little chance of success”.

On another day I was in the middle of my lecture, just after the noon call to prayer, when we heard lots of shouting outside on the street as a large crowd carrying signs, flags, and banners, along with large pictures of Saddam Hussein, marched toward Yasser Arafat’s house. The demonstration was loud but peaceful and only lasted 20 minutes. But I was unclear to any of us whether the demonstration was in favor of the agreement just reached between the UN Secretary General and Saddam, or against the potential US military strike. But class resumed and afterwards I joined my UN colleagues at the club for a delicious dinner of roasted lamb, rice, potatoes, and fresh steamed vegetables as we discussed the latest developments in the situation with Iraq. So went the rest of the week with breakfast by the beach, training class during the day, and evenings with the Norwegians, Aussie’s, and Kiwi’s at the club sharing stories over pints of cold Carlsberg.

The day after the close of my training class and the start of the weekend, my Palestinian colleague, Naim, invited us to join him for a tour of the Gaza Strip. Our first stop was the busy Friday morning market in the bustling “beach refugee camp”, only a stone’s throw from the luxury of the Beach Hotel. The market had an abundance of appealing fresh fruits and vegetables for sale amidst the chaos of honking car horns, braying donkeys, and shouting voices.

On the streets of Gaza
On the streets of Gaza

Throughout the Gaza Strip buildings looked shabby and run down, the streets dirty and not maintained, and vast amounts of plastic shopping bags that littered the countryside, all of which was in stark contrast to the neat and well maintained Israeli areas beyond Gaza. Later Naim took us to the old city where we walked through narrow streets to the historic site of the Church of Saint Porphyrius, built in the 5th century AD and located adjacent to an ancient Mosque. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Porphyrius

The Church of Saint Porphyrius
The Church of Saint Porphyrius

Naim knew the Greek Orthodox Rector who gave us a fascinating tour of the old church. As we entered one of the old wooden side doors we suddenly became aware that we were now standing almost 8 feet above the floor of the ancient church. It was clear that the old city was much lower 1500 years ago. The church was filled with hundreds of gold icons, chalices, and scepters, but the Rector was especially proud of his 150 year old family bible, all of which was handwritten in Arabic script. Further along the narrow street we came to an old Turkish bath that was at least 1000 years old and still in operation. Even though the sign above the door said it was men’s day, Giovanna was also invited to join us on a tour of the historic bath house. So we made our way down a very steep, narrow stone staircase into a large domed room with a beautiful floor of marble and old tile in an intricate design. Our old guide told us the fascinating history of the ancient structure as we entered the steam and sauna room, which was very hot indeed, as one would expect. In ancient times it was heated by charcoal and wood fires under the marble floor, but today it’s heated by petrol stoves. As we were about to leave we were invited to come back later and partake in a traditional Turkish bath. Upon leaving Giovanna drew quite a few stares from the men on the street!

1000 year old Turkish bath
1000 year old Turkish bath

From the old city Naim drove us along the coastal road where we passed a large area of beautiful new marble villas, some costing well over $5 million, belonging to many of the Palestinian Ministers. (it’s both an embarrassment and travesty when you consider the appalling conditions of the refugee camp only a few miles to the north!) The locals joke about this being the “Minister’s refugee camp”. As we drove inland we came in sight of tall observation towers, and high steel walls topped with razor sharp barbed wire. These were Israeli “settlements”, surrounded by Palestinian villages. It seems that the Israeli “settlers” require a military escort whenever they need to leave their home to travel to Israel. Seeing this, my first thought was of being in a prison! (who in their right mind would choose to live this way?) It’s certainly understandable why the Palestinians are very upset by the sight and continued existence of these settlements in a region that’s supposed to be Palestine.

After passing through several Israeli military checkpoints we came to a small amusement park on the beach where lots of Palestinian families were obviously enjoying themselves, the children running up and down the beach playing tag with the waves. At one point on our tour in southern Gaza, just a couple of miles from the border with Egypt, the highway bisected a new Israeli settlement, and a high, heavily armored walkway that spanned the highway to connect the two halves of the settlement. From the highway, with its 15 foot high steel walls topped with barbed wire, electrified fences, searchlights and guard towers the settlement looked exactly like a “maximum security prison”! (it made me wonder what kind of “quality of life” its Israeli inhabitants must have? But there was no way to know for we were forbidden to enter or even take photos) About a mile further on we came to a large compound with a sign reading “Gaza European Hospital”, and as we neared the main gate we could see a huge new modern facility but with no one home, so to speak. The guard at the gate told us the hospital was fully equipped with the latest medical technology, but there was no staff to operate it! (what a tragic waste) As we left the unused facility, a herd of goats and sheep grazed in the fields surrounding it. On the main highway north Naim took a narrow, unpaved road to a large, beautifully manicured cemetery with several hundred graves arranged in long neat rows where Allied soldiers from WWI were buried. It’s been maintained by the British government ever since the end of the war. As we walked among the rows of headstones bearing the names and units of those who died in the disastrous assaults against the heavily defended Turkish defenses, we saw two important dates inscribed on most of the headstones when the young men had died – 20th of April, 1920 and 6th of November, 1920. Ironically, all three faiths were represented among the dead – Christian, Muslim, and Jew. They all fought for the liberation of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire!

WWI cemetery
WWI cemetery

Following the sobering experience of the cemetery, Naim took us to the new Gaza International Airport, and as we got closer a long convoy of black police vehicles flew by us at high speed. As we approached the main gate a TV camera crew was busy packing up their gear, so the consensus of our group was that Yasser Arafat had just returned from Geneva. Naim knew the airport manager and arranged for him to give us a tour. As we walked into the main terminal building we saw a beautiful, traditional Arabic geometric design constructed with local yellow sandstone and pink marble from Hebron by a well-known Moroccan architect. We were informed that the airport had a runway 3 km long, capable of landing a 747, but Israel has yet to grant airspace for the airport. However, the airport manager was very proud to show us the control tower which has yet to receive all of the necessary equipment required for landing commercial flights. Meanwhile, the national airline of Palestine has three airplanes ready to fly, all of which were donated by other countries. Interestingly, from the top of the control tower we could see both Israel and Egypt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasser_Arafat_International_Airport

The new Gaza International Airport
The new Gaza International Airport
Entrance to Gaza International Airport
Entrance to Gaza International Airport

Leaving the new airport, yet to open for commercial flights, (I could only wish them good luck) we drove north through many small villages and verdant farmlands to Naim’s home for a lovely dinner of grilled spiced lamb cooked over an open fire, and a salad of fresh cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, parsley and lemon. We all sat on a large carpet in the middle of a small olive grove, making fresh sandwiches with warm pita bread, hummus, and spiced lamb from large bowls in the center. It was so typical of the warm and generous Arabic hospitality I’ve encountered throughout the Middle East.

Enjoying dinner in the middle of an Olive grove
Enjoying dinner in the middle of an Olive grove

My evening ended at the UN club with the Norwegians and Aussies, but my day with Naim and his family was the memory I remember most. Such friendly and hospitable people as you’ll ever hope to meet, but in one of the most difficult of living situations you may ever encounter. The resilience and optimism of the Palestinian people I met will remain with me long after I leave Palestine. Soon I was on my way to Jerusalem and an encounter with the Holy City. Stay tuned!

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Travels Near and Far – West Virginia, Take Me Home Country Roads

    In late August of 2008 I took my annual vacation following another successful User Conference, to visit the state of West Virginia. My only view of the state in the past had been at Harper’s Ferry, a very scenic and historic part of the country. On this trip I planned to drive the back roads to discover some of the experiences that inspired John Denver to write the song “Take me home country roads”. I started my journey aboard Amtrak train #51, “The Cardinal” which travels from Washington, DC to Chicago by way of Charleston, West Virginia. The first part of the route followed the beautiful Shenandoah Valley to Charlottesville, Virginia where a large group of university students disembarked. Along the way our car attendant “Larry” introduced himself and read us the rules and guidelines, as if he were our platoon sergeant. He made no apology for the fact that our car had only two settings for the AC – on or off, even though he had been assured by the conductor that the AC had been fixed in DC! So he made the decision that half of the time the AC would be on and the other half of the time he would turn it off. (if he thought this would somehow please everyone he was dead wrong!) Despite the issue with the AC, when the train crossed over the Appalachian Mountains the scenery was stunning. As evening approached, the train made a short “flag stop” in the old, nearly abandoned town of Thurmond, situated at the bottom of the New River Gorge. From Thurmond we followed the river as it wound its way through the mountains and the sun slowly set. Later that night we arrived in Charleston and I shared a taxi ride to my hotel with a local couple who were anxious to give me lots of suggestions for touring around the state, of which they were very proud.

Charleston, West Virginia
Charleston, West Virginia

    Early the next morning I rented a car and started my exploration of the “Mountain State”. As I headed east on Highway 60 I passed a roadside business with a huge sign “Wreck-A-Mended”. (more unique signs were to come) My first stop was at Hawk’s Nest State Park on the bluffs overlooking the New River, which geologically is actually the oldest river in the Eastern US. The views from the overlook at the top of the mountain near the old lodge were nothing short of spectacular. At more than 1500 feet down to the river it’s the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi. Nearby was the New River Gorge Bridge, which at 1500 feet high and over 3000 feet in length, is one of the longest single span bridges in the world!  [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_River_Gorge_Bridge ]

Hawk's Nest State Park overlooking the New River Gorge
Hawk’s Nest State Park overlooking the New River Gorge
New River Gorge bridge
New River Gorge bridge
New River Gorge bridge
New River Gorge bridge
The sign says it all!
The sign says it all!

Further east, along a narrow county road I came to Thurmond once again, but this time in the light of day. There were several old wooden and red brick buildings along one narrow street, squeezed in between the steep bluffs, the railroad, and the river. During the heyday when steam locomotives ruled, hauling heavy loads of coal east to the blast furnaces in Pennsylvania and the shipyards in Virginia, Thurmond was a vital maintenance and coaling facility for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. But now huge diesel locomotives move the coal and Thurmond is no longer needed.

Main street in Thurmond
Main street in Thurmond
Abandoned buildings in Thurmond
Abandoned buildings in Thurmond
Moving coal with diesel now
Moving coal with diesel now

Returning to Charleston that evening I had a couple of delicious “chicken club tacos” (mesquite grilled chicken, Applewood smoked bacon, guacamole, and black beans with rice) at a local Hispanic café.

    The next morning dawned cloudy and humid with a few light showers from the remnants of hurricane Fay. I drove south through the beautiful Kanawah State Forest to the small town of Madison on the Little Coal River, which calls itself the “Gateway to the Coal Fields”. In the center of town, on the lawn in front of the Boone County Courthouse stood a large bronze statue of a coal miner, in honor of the memory of hundreds who have died in the mines.

Monument to the memory of coal miners
Monument to the memory of coal miners

Then I continued south following a twisting, narrow road along the river through many small mining towns with names like Bobwhite, Bim, and Bald Knob. It was very slow going as the local drivers rarely exceeded 35mph, even in the 55mph zones. In stark contrast were the heavy trucks hauling coal from the many working mines along the way. These trucks were definitely not the slowest vehicles on the road. By the time I reached the tiny, almost abandoned coal mining town of Welch the rain had become a steady downpour, so reluctantly I headed back to Charleston. Just north of Hanover the route was blocked by a serious accident where a pickup truck had lost control on a sharp curve, and the only thing that kept it from plunging 150 feet into the river below was a guardrail, now seriously damaged by the collision. The State Patrol Officer directed traffic on a detour to another narrow, twisting state highway where I ended up following the Sears Repair guy for 30 miles before I could overtake him. Back in Charleston I had a fantastic dinner at the Tidewater Grill of Maryland Crab balls in fresh ground mustard sauce, followed by sesame steamed fresh Atlantic halibut served over a bed of green onions and spinach, topped with ginger soy sauce and slices of fresh ginger. (the chef called it “Shanghai Style” – not what most of us would expect to find in the middle of West Virginia)

    The next day I headed southeast toward the coal mining town of Beckley, and along the way were a couple of interesting signs – “Poke-N-Tote” (a convenience store) and “Yes, Coal – Clean, Carbon Neutral Coal” (really?) Arriving in Beckley I spotted another sign advertising “Coal Mine Tours” so I decided to check it out. It was an old working coal mine until 1964 and since then it has become essentially a living history museum. [ http://www.beckley.org/exhibition_coal_mine/ ]

Coal mine tour in Beckley
Coal mine tour in Beckley

I joined a group of US Marines on the tour that took us on an actual coal mine railroad deep into one of the mine shafts. Our guide was an old retired miner named Marvin who spoke with a very thick, heavy hillbilly accent. He was very funny, making jokes all the time, but also very informative. Many times he would say something quite funny, but never crack a smile. Then once in a while he would suddenly grin and spit a wad of tobacco into the muddy water at his feet. He was a wonderful, authentic character and the Marines loved him, always addressing him as “sir”. Leaving Beckley I visited the Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park where a crucial Civil War battle took place that kept West Virginia in the Union. Now the site is home to hundreds of deer and spectacular views of Sandstone Falls on the New River. Later that evening I checked into the Pipestem State Park Lodge, but the view of Bluestone Gorge below was obscured by rain and clouds. Later on I sat in silence on my balcony above the gorge and watched the clouds drift by around me, lighted in a ghostly fashion by the lights of the lodge. (the clouds looked like soft white cotton floating effortlessly in the dark night sky)

Sandstone Falls
Sandstone Falls
Bluestone Gorge
Bluestone Gorge

    After a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, and homemade biscuits smothered in sausage gravy, I drove to the historic railroad town of Hinton where there was a small, but very interesting museum about the history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, including photos of some spectacular accidents. Not far from Hinton was a statue in memory of John Henry (the “Steel Driving Man”), a real person who won a contest with mechanical equipment to bore the “Big Bend Tunnel” for the C&O Railroad.

Statue of John Henry
Statue of John Henry

Later, on my way following the Greenbrier River I came to the small town Lewisburg where I discovered “Carnegie Hall” (a public library built by Andrew Carnegie), many beautiful old homes dating from the late 1700’s, and a small Confederate cemetery.

Inn from the late 1700's - Lewisburg
Inn from the late 1700’s – Lewisburg

The route through the Monongahela National Forest in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains past White Sulphur Springs was gorgeous under clear blue skies. I passed through the tiny village of Frost where an old wooden church stood alongside the road, with a single electric candle lit in every window.

Old village church in Frost
Old village church in Frost

But my destination this evening was the old railroad town of Cass, home of the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, an old logging railroad and lumber mill. The State Park had several of the old houses in town for rent, so I spent the night in one of the original 2-story houses furnished and with 3 bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, living room and veranda, all to myself. In the past this would have been home for the family of one of the railroad workers. [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_Scenic_Railroad_State_Park ]

State Park houses for rent in Cass
State Park houses for rent in Cass

    The next morning I took many photos of the old town with its company store where the men in the logging camps who earned $1.25 a day had to buy their food and essentials. (the highest paid men, at $3.00 per day, were the cooks, but they were expected to work every day from 4:00am until 11:00pm!) Soon I boarded the train to Whittaker Station, an old logging camp near Bald Knob. The train was pulled by an original Shay steam locomotive, one of six operating on the old logging railroad. I stood in the open car right behind the locomotive as it pushed its way up the steep 9% grade. (being just 3 feet from the hot, steaming locomotive was a real thrill) The train travelled through two steep switchbacks in order to gain 1500 feet of elevation on the eastern slope of Cheat Mountain.

Cass Scenic Railroad
Cass Scenic Railroad
Old Shay steam locomotive
Old Shay steam locomotive

Arriving at Whittaker Station we enjoyed a picnic lunch and a fascinating tour of the old logging camp where a huge steam driven cable yarder mounted on rails was on display. Before the return trip to Cass, the engineer invited me into the cab of the old locomotive! ( a highlight of my trip)

Whittaker Station logging camp
Whittaker Station logging camp

Leaving Cass I travelled north past the Green Bank National Radio Telescope Observatory, a large collection of huge radio antennas that search the vastness of space for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Nearby, in the beautiful Green Mountains and Smoke Hole Gorge were the spectacular granite spires known as the Seneca Rocks. Further on I took the road up to the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state at 4,861 feet for incredible views of the Allegheny Mountains.

Green Bank National Radio Telescope Observatory
Green Bank National Radio Telescope Observatory
Seneca Rocks
Seneca Rocks
View of the Allegheny Mountains from Spruce Knob
View of the Allegheny Mountains from Spruce Knob

After spending the night at the Canaan Valley State Park Lodge, I visited the Blackwater Falls that derives its name from the tannin stain of the surrounding forest, darkening the water. Descending 219 steps down a wooden staircase through thick forest I came to the bottom for a beautiful view of the falls.

Blackwater Falls
Blackwater Falls

After spending some time to enjoy the sound and sight of the rushing water I headed northwest toward Morgantown, home of the University of West Virginia “Mountaineers”. Along the way I saw a signpost for the “Cathedral State Park” which piqued my interest about what a cathedral would be doing in the middle of the forest. As it turned out the park protects the last remaining stand of ancient Hemlock forest in North America, some of the trees are over 500 years old. Walking among these giants, some of which were over 150 high was amazing and not what I had expected to see in West Virginia.

Cathedral State Park
Cathedral State Park

Further north, along the highway to Morgantown I came to the small village of Philippi, which holds the distinction of being the only town in America having an original covered bridge still in working condition on a US Highway. The small Barbour County Museum was housed in the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot where I found the usual local historical information and artifacts, with one notable exception – the “Philippi Mummies”. Apparently a local undertaker had taken a great interest in the Egyptian process of mummification and developed his own “recipe” for embalming fluid. Then he mummified two old women from the local mental hospital in the early 1920’s. (weird but true!) [ http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1848 ]

    As evening approached I arrived in Morgantown and was able to get a room at the famous Hotel Morgan in the heart of the historic district. Soon I was sitting in the hotel’s rooftop rose garden sipping a cold beer, writing in my journal, and listening to the sounds of a local guitarist – very relaxing, especially with the crab stuffed Portobello mushroom appetizer. Then suddenly, sirens were going off all around us on the streets below, the signal that the Mountaineers had just won the football game with Duquesne University. Later in the evening I walked down to the Allegheny River to the West Virginia Brewing Company where I enjoyed a huge blackened hamburger, homemade potato chips, and a cold pint of the local pale ale as I sat outside on the deck.

Allegheny Mountains near Morgantown
Allegheny Mountains near Morgantown

The next morning I toured the city and discovered a unique mass transit system serving the university. It was a “personal rapid transit system” with fully automated light rail cars similar to what one would find in many airports. But this system has been in operation since 1972 and spans more than 8 miles up and down the steep hills that surround the town. After taking many photos of the historic district I headed south toward Charleston where I would catch the train back to Chicago. Along US Highway 19 I came to the small town of Weston, and as I followed the route through the town I spotted a sign pointing to the “Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum”, and who could resist the urge to find out what it was all about?

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

To my amazement, what I discovered was a massive stone structure that had been built in the 1880’s, over half a mile long. It is the second largest cut stone structure in the world, the first being the Kremlin in Moscow! I had arrived just minutes before a tour was taking place, so I immediately joined it. I learned that it had been in operation until 1994 when a new facility was constructed nearby. As our guide lead us through the long, dark corridors past row after row of rooms (aka “cells”) she explained that many of the “patients” were actually people who had been admitted (aka “committed”) by their family who could not or would not care for them. The whole scene was very depressing and I often got the feeling that the entire place was filled with ghosts. (the asylum had appeared on an episode of the Ghost Hunter TV series) One of the saddest moments came when our guide told us about all of the “frontal lobotomies” that had been performed in the asylum, sometimes just for the purpose of dealing with an unruly patient. As we ended the tour she told us the story of an old man of 80 years who had spent virtually all of his life in the asylum, and he cried when he was told that he would have to leave when the facility closed in 1994. (he died two weeks later)   [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Allegheny_Lunatic_Asylum ]

Inside the asylum
Inside the asylum

The asylum remained vacant until 2007 when a local businessman purchased it with the idea of turning it into a Civil War period hotel – after my tour I can only wish him good luck! Leaving Weston I drove through a lovely landscape of rolling hills, farms, lakes, and forests before arriving back in Charleston in time to turn in my rental car and board the train bound for Chicago. As we departed Charleston that evening, we marveled at the fireworks above the river that signaled the opening of the annual “Charleston Regatta”.

Charleston Regatta celebration
Charleston Regatta celebration

To my dismay I found the dining car closed, but I was able to talk the chef into fixing me a Cheeseburger and a couple of cold Budweiser’s for dinner, after which I settled in my roomette for the night. All in all this was a trip to a place that I discovered was far more than the stereotype I had imagined. I will most certainly return to West Virginia to explore it again.

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Travels Near and Far – Syria, before the Civil War

In November of 1999 I was invited to give several GIS Technology presentations in Syria. My journey began with a flight to Atlanta and on to Munich for the Esri European User Conference, after which I flew to Damascus by way of Vienna and an overnight stop in Amman. The flight from Vienna to Amman was very crowded in a small plane, and as I sat cramped in my seat I pondered the following math problem. [ 30 rows of 5 seats per row = 150 passengers. At 3 minutes per passenger to visit the toilet = 450 minutes (7 hours). With only 2 toilets on board that’s equal to 3 ½ hours of toilet time. But the flight time was only 2 ½ hours! Let’s just say that some of us never made it to the toilet. ]

After clearing customs and immigration upon arrival in Amman, I hailed a taxi for a wild ride to the city at 140 KPH (90 MPH), driven by a taxi driver who looked like an Islamic Jihad terrorist. But he delivered me safely to the Radisson SAS Hotel where I would spend the night before continuing on to Damascus the next afternoon. [ In May of 2005 a tragedy struck the hotel when a suicide bomber blew up the grand ballroom and lobby, killing over 60 people attending a wedding reception. ]

The next day I went back to the airport to check in for the Royal Jordanian Airlines flight to Damascus. All of a sudden, as I was standing in one of several very long queues, there was an announcement that the queue next to me was only for passengers to Jeddah, and everyone else in the queue would have to find another queue! A howl of anger roared out as people scrambled to join another queue. (note: there were no signs indicating the destinations) After a short 45 minute flight on a route passing over Jerusalem, I arrived in Damascus, along with a large group of Italian tourists. While they waited in long lines to clear immigration and customs, I was met by Samaan, our representative in Syria, and escorted to the VIP lounge for expedited clearance. Then it was a short taxi ride to the SemiRamas Hotel downtown where the GIS and Remote Sensing Conference would take place the next day. Samaan had arranged for dinner at his favorite restaurant near the Le Meridian Hotel.

Le Meridian Hotel, Damascus
Le Meridian Hotel, Damascus

From the outside the restaurant looked like just another large grey warehouse, which raised some apprehension in my mind at the thought of what we might find inside. But once we had passed through the large French doors, I discovered the old grey warehouse had suddenly transformed itself into a beautiful European Baroque Palace, very ornate with gold leaf trim everywhere, lots of fine Italian marble, frescos on all of the walls, statues in every corner, and elaborate Romanesque paintings decorating the ceilings. It was if we had been transported to Rome! In the center of the restaurant was a huge atrium filled with lush foliage, gorgeous tropical flowers, sparkling fountains, and exotic birds. Samaan proceeded to order a huge table of Arabic mezzes, along with dishes of roasted lamb, spiced rice, shish kabob, shish tawook, and a large tray of Arabic cream desserts smothered in honey and roasted pistachios, along with another tray of fresh fruits. (It was enough to feed an army – such is the typical Middle Eastern hospitality!)

The next day was the opening of the conference where I gave my presentation to delegates from throughout the Middle East. They were seated at tables lavishly decorated with ornate plaques, national flags, and huge bouquets of lovely fresh flowers. In addition, huge pictures of President Hafez Assad were everywhere, staring down at us. I was provided with a simultaneous translation of the Arabic presentations, but the translation slowly deteriorated into long silences, followed by short sentences as the translator struggled with the technical jargon. At one point he said “and in conclusion……(long pause)……I would like to conclude”!!

Following my presentation, also translated into Arabic, Samaan had arranged for an interview on Syrian National TV in which he “coached” me about what to say that included a very important point about mentioning the name of the President’s son, Bashar al-Assad, as much as possible for his strong support of GIS technology in the country. (apparently the interview aired on national TV that night but I never saw it)

The next morning I gave a presentation to the Housing Ministry, located in an old Russian built structure where the one and only electrical outlet in the room hung precariously from the wall, sparking occasionally. There was no projection screen, so at the last minute, Imad improvised a white sheet of cloth hung from the wall and secured by the picture of President Hafez Assad. (once again TV cameras were there to record my presentation)

Typical street in Damascus
Typical street in Damascus

Later, back at the hotel finally I finally had a chance to catch my breath and have a cold beer in the hotel lobby bar. Meanwhile, a fierce wind was blowing outside, light Jazz music was playing indoors, and the afternoon call to prayer echoed throughout the city. Sitting in the bar I had an unobstructed view of the chaotic traffic. Policemen waved their arms as if directing traffic, but drivers seemed to pay no attention to them and near misses were constant and an accepted part of driving in Damascus! Pedestrians “darted” in between fast moving cars, as if in a cat and mouse game, or perhaps more like matadors facing the bulls. Both driver and pedestrian must connect with their eyes to establish communication in a “silent” dialogue lasting only a brief second, the result of which is a mutual decision about who will yield the right-of-way! (a fascinating scene to watch for sure) Amongst all the traffic was a constant stream of very colorfully decorated old Mercedes buses, all belching large plumes of black diesel smoke!

The next day (Thanksgiving Day, at least for me) I gave a presentation to the Damascus Governorate in a very ornate assembly room with massive walls beautifully decorated with intricate geometric designs of light and dark woods. And of course, a huge picture of President Haffez Assad hung from the far wall, always staring down at everyone. To my great surprise, once again there was no projection screen in the room, so Imad did the old “white sheet” trick again! My whole presentation had to be translated – following every couple of sentences, which became difficult and frustrating, especially since it seemed to take twice as long to say the same thing in Arabic. Once more the cameras were there to capture the moment for another episode on Syrian National TV. That evening Samaan invited me to his home for dinner, and along the way we encountered several “sleeping policemen” in the road, otherwise known as “speedbumps”. (I never saw any turkey all day)

The next morning we headed north out of Damascus on the new 4 lane AutoStrade past dry, barren hills. As we approached Homs we encountered some light rain and a sudden, dramatic change in the landscape with fertile green fields and lots of trees. All of this is due to a large gap in the coastal mountain range that allows moist air from the Mediterranean Sea to make its way inland. At one point we pulled into a petrol station and were served by a “talking” pump that even bid us “Shukran” (Thank You in Arabic) at the conclusion of the sale. As we entered the city of Homs we came upon a large sign alongside the road which read “Make light speed – place full of inhabitants”. (seemed to sum it up quite nicely) Just to the west of the city atop a steep mountain is the famous 10th century crusader castle known as “Crac des Chevaliers”, that remained remarkably well preserved. (at least until the recent outbreak of civil war in the country) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krak_des_Chevaliers

Crac des Chevaliers - 10th century crusader fortress
Crac des Chevaliers – 10th century crusader fortress
Cloisters in Cracs des Chevaliers
Cloisters in Cracs des Chevaliers

As we walked through the ancient stone fortress there were beautiful examples Greek, Roman, Persian, Crusader, and Ottoman architecture everywhere. The castle commands a stunning view of the fertile valley below and what was once the main trading route from Turkey to Egypt and the Orient. Later on Samaan insisted that we visit another ancient site known as “Afamia”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apamea,_Syria

Ancient Roman Collonade in Afamia
Ancient Roman Colonade in Afamia

It is a fascinating combination of several periods of history and architecture, from Greek, Roman, and Persian empires, with the most impressive structure being a huge Roman colonnade more than 2 km (6,000 feet) in length. At one time in the past more than 30,000 people called this site home, but now it’s totally deserted, save for the huge colonnade, some beautiful stone facades, and the ancient Roman road worn down over thousands of years!

As evening came upon us we drove further north to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city near the border with Turkey and continuously inhabited since the 6th century BC.

Grand Mosque in Aleppo
Grand Mosque in Aleppo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleppo Here we checked into the luxurious Sahaba Cham Palace Hotel and prepared for the next day’s presentations, which included a meeting with the University of Aleppo President. Later the next day, after sitting in the hotel lobby for 2 hours awaiting the arrival of the Mayor, Samaan suddenly suggested that we flip a coin – heads we visit another ancient historical site or tails we continue to wait for the Mayor. I was asked to call the coin toss and I chose heads as the coin landed on the marble floor. Soon we were driving northwest of the city to “Citadel Samaan”, otherwise known in the Christian world as “San Simeon”, named for the disciple Simon.

Citadel Samaan
Citadel Samaan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites The day was perfectly clear and we were rewarded with spectacular views of the ancient yellow sandstone church with its four chapels, each facing one of the cardinal directions of the compass. Off to one side was a large broken stone pillar, much eroded by the ages.

One of four chapels
One of four chapels
Another of the four chapels - this one facing East
Another of the four chapels – this one facing East

The story is that Simon spent the last 30 years of his life atop the 15 meter high pillar meditating and leading an extremely “ascetic” life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites Food and water were sent up to him by basket and rope. Periodically he would issue profound treatises to his followers gathered below.

Ancient site of San Simeon
Ancient site of San Simeon
My Syrian hosts, Imad and Samaan
My Syrian hosts, Imad and Samaan

On this day we were the only visitors to the site and it became a magical moment. The view north to the Turkish mountains under the deep blue sky was stunning.

Turkish Mountains in the distance
Turkish Mountains in the distance

As we left the citadel that evening I felt like this experience would be the crowning memory of my time in Syria. (there are now reports of major destruction of the site from the results of the civil war) Before we departed for the return trip to Aleppo, Samaan insisted on buying me a small piece of wood upon which was inscribed the ancient Syriac alphabet, one of the first of its kind and the root of many modern languages. He also bought me a beautiful marble plaque of Citadel Simeon with five different designs of the cross inscribed upon it.

Marble plaque from San Simeon
Marble plaque from San Simeon

Back in Aleppo that evening I gave a presentation to the students and faculty at the University of Aleppo, and again the TV cameras were waiting. The following morning we left very early to drive to the coastal city of Lattakia for, as you can probably guess by now, another presentation. The road was very narrow and steep as it crossed over the summit of the coastal mountains. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latakia We passed through several small villages and past lush fields and fruit orchards, touched by a light frost. As we made our way toward Lattakia we rounded a sharp curve and immediately found ourselves staring at the bumper of a massive truck. Instantly we all knew a crash was inevitable! We braced ourselves for the impact, and almost as if in slow motion, we slammed headfirst into the heavy metal frame of the truck. The sloping hood of our car plunged under the rear of the truck with an agonizing sound. It only lasted a couple of seconds but it seemed so much longer. At the same time the horrible screech of brakes and the smoke of rubber skidding on the tarmac reached us – I turned around just in time to see the massive front end of another heavy truck straining to come to a stop directly behind us! (it was a very scary moment to be sure) As we all gathered our wits about us, we got out and surveyed the damage. After much discussion among the drivers and passengers (of which I understood nothing) it was decided that we would drive on to Lattakia since there was no way to call the police at this point. (aka – this was a time before cell phones!) Our car’s front end was essentially “totaled” but luckily the radiator was not badly damaged and one headlight still worked. Imad was obviously stressed out by the experience but he kept us moving to Lattakia, where we arrived under beautiful blue skies and lots of sunshine to check into the lovely Le Meridian Hotel on the coast. (the hotel is still there but no longer a Starwood property) The view of the sea from my balcony was gorgeous, especially with the Turkish mountains in the distance.

Mediterranean Sea coast in Lattakia
Mediterranean Sea coast in Lattakia

Later that day, as I sat in the conference listening to the opening address, I understood only two words, GIS and Hafez Assad. Everyone applauded at any mention of his name, for obvious reasons. During a long break I took the opportunity to walk along the rocky seashore as huge waves crashed around me. It felt so good to be out in the clear, cool air and away from the stuffy atmosphere of the conference.

The next morning we drove back to Damascus along the coast to the city of Tartous and then inland following the border with Lebanon. The view of the snow covered peaks from a recent storm in the High Lebanon Mountains was spectacular. The conclusion of my trip to Syria came as I boarded a Syrian Arab Airlines flight to Athens by way of a short stop in Aleppo.

Aleppo International Airport (before the civil war)
Aleppo International Airport (before the civil war)

It was a very nice flight over the coast of western Turkey and the Greek islands. As I arrived in Athens to meet with Adonis, our Greek representative, I spotted a large black and white tabby cat sitting in the middle of the baggage claim carousel looking as if he were in charge. I grabbed my bags and hailed a taxi to my hotel in the northern suburb of Kiffissias. Over the next few days I conducted software training classes for the staff, and in appreciation, Adonis arranged a trip for me to the beautiful island of Santorini – thank you Adonis! (but that’s another story, so stay tuned)

The Island of Santorini
The Island of Santorini

It is with sadness that I dedicate this story to my Syrian host Samaan who died a couple of years later from cancer. He was a most kind and gentle man, the epitome of a Middle Eastern host. (rest in peace!)

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Travels Near and Far – Tibet and Yak Butter Tea at 15,000 Feet

My journey to Tibet began with a flight to New York and then on to Paris, Rome, Bombay, New Delhi, Kathmandu, and Bhutan. Why the complicated itinerary you ask? I had business with our distributor offices in Paris, Rome, and New Delhi before conducting software training classes in Nepal and Bhutan for the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP). (that’s another story) In Kathmandu I joined my UNEP colleagues for a rare visit to the Tibetan Institute of Agriculture in Lhasa. The evening before our departure from Kathmandu we shared a traditional Nepalese dinner at the new Hyatt Regency Hotel where the local whiskey flowed freely as everyone toasted everyone else several times over. On the way to the hotel I had spotted some very interesting signs along the road, such as “Glamour Public School”, Sleep Well for Years Mattress Co”, and “Royal Peace Restaurant and Bar with Dance”. But the most interesting sign was “The Moral Academy” with a picture of Mickey Mouse pointing the way! (this one is still a mystery to me)

The next morning we boarded a China Southwest Airlines flight bound for Lhasa. I was very fortunate to get a window seat on the left side of the plane (the “right” side to see the Himalayan Mountain Range) and I was rewarded with spectacular views of the entire snow covered range, including a fly-by of Mt Everest shining brightly in the clear blue morning skies.

Flying over the Himalayas
Flying over the Himalayas
Mt Everest
Mt Everest

Soon we crossed over the summit and were now flying above the high Tibetan Plateau that stretched for hundreds of miles to the distant horizon. An hour later we landed at Lhasa airport, over 12,000 feet above sea level and more than 50 miles (80 kms) from the city.

The Tibetan Plateau - approaching Lhasa
The Tibetan Plateau – approaching Lhasa

As our driver proceeded toward Lhasa along the main road parallel to a large river surrounded by high barren hills on either side, I couldn’t help noticing a pair of young Chinese soldiers standing at attention alongside the road every 4 or 5 kms. Apparently they were stationed there to “welcome” the new commander of the Chinese Army in Tibet who was also arriving today.

Once we reached our hotel we had a delicious Yak burger and a local Tibetan beer for lunch. As I enjoyed lunch I noticed a sign in the hotel that read “Place your order for Christmas pudding from the Eat Lover Bakery”. Later that evening we were invited by our Tibetan hosts to a dinner at the elegant Snowlands Hotel where we were treated to a fabulous combination of Chinese, Nepalese, and Tibetan dishes. After dinner we walked back to our hotel along the “new” main street of Lhasa in the cold, crisp air that was well below freezing. (Lhasa is located in a wide valley at over 12,000 feet) Along the way we passed a “gaudy” collection of neon lights, Chinese restaurants and nightclubs, mixed amongst old, traditional Tibetan shops. It was an odd and out of sorts collection of the old and new that reflects the enormous Chinese influence. (aka “invasion” of Tibet) Back in my hotel room it was a struggle to keep warm as the temperature inside hovered around 50 degrees F, no matter what the thermostat was set to! The following morning our driver took us to visit the 1600 year old Potala Palace, the cultural icon and religious center of Tibetan Buddhism. (8 of the 14 Dali Lamas are buried in the palace, but the current Dali Lama resides in Nepal in political exile)

Potala Palace
Potala Palace – religious center of Tibetan Buddhism
Potala Palace
Potala Palace

As we drove up the narrow winding road to the top of the mountain, hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims climbed a very steep staircase rising well over 300 feet, and some of them were making the ascent on their hands and knees in honor of Buddha as he struggled to achieve enlightenment. The palace has over 1000 rooms, most of which contain row after row of ancient manuscripts in very dark surroundings lighted only by a few Yak butter candles that make the air feel very heavy with smoke and a rancid smell. Hundreds of cats are kept in the palace to control the ever present population of rats and mice.

Potala Palace
Potala Palace
Steep steps to the top of Potala Palace
Steep steps to the top of Potala Palace

After touring several of the rooms we made our way to the terrace on top of the palace where we had spectacular views of the of the city below and the barren landscape beyond under the deep blue skies, in stark contrast to the brilliant white-washed buildings. As we gazed upon this idyllic scene around us, a sound reached our ears – the chanting of Tibetan monks softly in the distance, which made the moment very magical!

View of Lhasa from the top of Potala Palace
View of Lhasa from the top of Potala Palace

Later in the day we were invited to tour the Tibetan Cultural Museum to see beautiful displays of traditional Tibetan lifestyle, culture, and art. (in addition we heard the Chinese version of the “liberation” of Tibet by the Communist Party!) The next day I gave a presentation on GIS technology to the faculty and students of Tibet University, after which we visited the new GIS lab on the 4th floor. I discovered a spotless room of computers and staff dressed in sparkling white lab coats, with pictures of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison on the walls.

Albert Einstein picture on the wall of GIS lab
Albert Einstein picture on the wall of GIS lab

Surprisingly the only toilets in the building were located on the ground floor and were typical of the Chinese style “squat” toilet (aka a hole in the floor), with no toilet paper and atrociously dirty! (a stark contrast to the GIS lab upstairs)

That evening we were guests of honor at a lavish banquet hosted by the Vice-President of the university, where I was given the title of “Guest Professor” and presented with an incredible gift of a large brass sculpture of the Potala Palace. Among the dishes for dinner were the usual Chinese delicacies of boiled sea cucumber and jellyfish soup. In addition was a Tibetan delicacy, small whole roasted birds chopped into pieces, along with their head – eyes and beaks staring at us from the plate!

I was doing fine with the high altitude and very cold weather, but the fact that the entire country is in one time zone, being Beijing time, it was difficult to adjust since in reality “local” time would normally be 3 hours behind Beijing. So it was like living in LA on New York time!

For our last evening in Lhasa, our hosts invited us to experience a local Chinese nightclub where a table was reserved for us, and a case of cold Budweiser pre-ordered’ awaiting for our arrival. The beer was served in small shot glasses which one was expected to “chug” every time someone made a toast (“gombey”). Soon a large pot of boiling pig’s feet arrived at our table to accompany the case of beer. The nightclub was very bright, loud, gaudy, and crowded with young people drinking Buds and eating boiled pig’s feet! In a very pleasant contrast was a beautiful performance of traditional Tibetan dances and songs by Tibetan performers dressed in colorful native costumes from various regions of Tibet. But upon leaving the nightclub we saw a crew from the city busy tearing up the floor in the hallway and pumping out raw sewage from a break in the line. (didn’t seem to faze the nightclub patrons though)

Traditional Tibetan building on the main street of Lhasa
Traditional Tibetan building on the main street of Lhasa

Before we left Lhasa the next day our driver took us to visit the university’s Yak Breeding Station 100 kms northwest of the city. During our journey over the very rough unpaved road we passed a few small villages, each one with a lively market where nomads and herders traded sheep and Yak hides.

The road to the Yak Breeding Station
The road to the Yak Breeding Station
A brief stop at 15,000 feet
A brief stop at 15,000 feet

We stopped at one small village to sample the traditional Yak butter tea, served in a small ceramic cup. Here we sat at a little table in the midst of the busy market at almost 15,000 feet sipping the traditional Tibetan beverage – a very oily consistency, strong smell and rather rancid taste. (definitely an acquired taste for sure) On our return to Lhasa we passed many Buddhist pilgrims making the long journey to the Potala Palace, kneeling beside the road every 2 or 3 steps and offering a prayer. At that pace it would take them several weeks to reach Lhasa!

Tibetan pilgrims on their way to Lhasa
Tibetan pilgrims on their way to Lhasa

But for us it was only a couple of hours to reach Lhasa airport for our return to Kathmandu. However, as we checked in our trip became complicated by the fact that China Southwest Airlines had decided to cancel flights to Kathmandu for the rest of the winter season. So we suddenly found ourselves rebooked to Kathmandu by way of Chengdu, Kunming, and Bangkok! (there was an overnight stop in Kunming that afforded me the opportunity to visit the incredible “Stone Forest”, but that’s another story, so stay tuned) At least I made it home in time for Christmas.

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Travels Near and Far – England by Canal Boat

It was the middle of May in 1991 and I was really looking forward to taking a week off to visit my friends in England. My vacation began as soon as I stepped aboard Pan Am flight 124 bound for London. I had been very lucky to receive an upgrade to First Class, so I relaxed in my seat 1B on the 747 and enjoyed a fabulous dinner that began with an ice cold glass of vodka and a plate of Iranian caviar. Twelve hours later I was aboard a British Rail train to Crewe to catch a local bus to the small village of Church Minshull https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_Minshull where I would meet up with my friends Jiggy and Nick at the Badger Pub. http://www.badgerinn.co.uk/

Meeting up at the Badger Pub in Church Minshull
Meeting up at the Badger Pub in Church Minshull

They had arranged to rent a “narrowboat” for a week of cruising on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leeds_and_Liverpool_Canal , built in 1766 to connect the mines in the Midlands with the port of Liverpool. The canal operated well into the 20th century before finally giving way to the railroads and highways. Since then the canal has become a popular recreational resource for boaters, as part of an extensive network of old canals throughout Britain managed by the British Waterways Board. http://britishwaterways.co.uk/about Over the course of the next five days we followed the route of the canal through the beautiful spring landscapes and traditional villages of the Cheshire countryside that reminded me of the John Constable paintings from the late 1700’s. We motored along at a very leisurely pace of 3 mph, the maximum speed limit permitted on the canal. In fact, sometimes I chose to walk alongside the boat on the towpath, which was a great way to decompress from the stress of the international user conference that I had just finished managing the week before.

Cruising the Leeds and Liverpool Canal through the Cheshire countryside
Cruising the Leeds and Liverpool Canal through the Cheshire countryside
Moored for the night
Moored for the night
The canal passing under an old railway bridge
The canal passing under an old railway viaduct

Our narrowboat named “Saratoga” had all of the facilities and furnishings for living on board, but sometimes we would moor near a pub and have lunch or dinner, and there were plenty of pubs along the canal. There are also more than 90 locks along the route to enable boats to descend the 487 feet of elevation between Leeds and Liverpool. In the past, when there was still commercial traffic on the canal, lock keepers were stationed at each set of locks to operate them. But these days each boater must operate the locks manually, which can be a bit challenging for the uninitiated.

Descending a lock near Shipley
Descending a lock near Shipley
Entering a lock at East Marton
Entering a lock at East Marton

 

We all took turns running the boat and my first experience of steering the 65 foot long boat along the narrow, winding waterway felt a bit like what it must feel like to steer a supertanker, just on a much smaller scale! One day we traversed 25 locks and negotiated the historic Harecastle Tunnel https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harecastle_Tunnel , which at almost 9,000 feet in length is the longest canal tunnel in Britain. As we slowly made our way through the dark, murky tunnel I imagined what it must be like in the sewers of Paris. In the early days of the tunnel there was no towpath so the boatmen had to push their boats through by lying on their backs on top of the boat and using their feet to against the ceiling to walk, a technique known as “legging”. Meanwhile, the horses were lead over the mountain to the other side on a horse path.

Approaching the Harecastle Tunnel
Approaching the Harecastle Tunnel
Passing through the town of Burnley Wharf
Passing through the town of Burnley Wharf

On several days during the trip we bought provisions at local markets in the small villages along the route and prepared meals in the galley on board the boat, dinner usually being followed by a dram of Scotch whiskey and a board game. When we reached Skipton where we moored for the night, we made our way to the historic “Black Horse Pub” that dates back to 1492, which lead to a lively discussion over dinner about the discovery of America by Columbus. While we were in Skipton we paid a visit to the castle which has a most unique feature, a royal “loo” (toilet in British English) perched 60 feet above the canal. (luckily it’s not in use these days!) Often, as we slowly glided along the still waters, we saw beautiful white swans engaged in their courtship ritual, a true sign of spring.

Passing one of many viaducts along the way
Passing one of many viaducts along the way
Nearing the end of our trip on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal
Nearing the end of our trip on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal

All too soon our journey on the canal came to an end and sadly we turned in our narrowboat. Then Nick suggested that we have lunch at a famous place in Harrogate called “Betty’s Café”. My dish of smoked Haddock and prawns au-gratin was outstanding, but Jiggy’s order of the “Hot Fat Rascals” was the most interesting. It was a large cinnamon sweet roll covered in black currants, and it was delicious. Betty’s is also well known for purchasing the entire coffee bean harvest from St Helena, a small island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. It’s most often served with Betty’s famous walnut and ginger fruit cake.

Returning to London we were lucky to get last minute tickets to Les Miserable, however, as our train arrived at the Leicester Square tube station we heard the announcement “The London fire brigade is responding to an emergency at the Leicester Square station. The departure of this train will be indefinitely delayed. Passengers are advised to seek alternative transportation.” Lucky for us that we were already where we needed to be, and the evening of dinner, theatre, and drinks later in the pub was a lovely ending to a visit with friends in England. The next morning I boarded Pan Am flight 125 bound for Los Angeles, and once again I enjoyed the First Class experience. (next year Nick has promised to arrange a trip to the Yorkshire moors and an excursion on the North Yorkshire Steam Railway through the fabled countryside of James Herriot, so stay tuned.)

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