Scott’s Blog Archive


On Learning Spanish

Now I am not a cunning linguist by any stretch, rather I have a single mother tongue that I tend to use extremely well and […]

Now I am not a cunning linguist by any stretch, rather I have a single mother tongue that I tend to use extremely well and often. When it comes to wrapping it around other dialects though, I am in all sorts of trouble. I did study French for 2 years at school when I was 13 or so and have since forgotten everything except how to ‘find the train station’ for some obscure reason that I can only attribute to disciplinary action. I briefly flirted with mandarin, but promptly found myself in Japan. And in my 8 years there I have picked up some Nihongo, but never really stuck with the lessons or seriously applied myself. In truth, I simply gravitated toward the Japanese comfort zone where I could handle myself well in a taxi or a bar, follow the gist of most conversations, intuit the rest and respond with the requisite affirmations or support somewhat effectively. Of course, Japanese is not exactly easy to pick up anyway, particularly the written forms which have a brute memorization component to it that is the stuff of nightmares. Still it does stand as one of my great shames and regrets in life, my lack of continued application and progress – particularly as I seem to be marrying into it 😉

Spanish & bagels for breakfast

And so to Spanish! Arriving in Latin America was the first time we have really confronted a language barrier in our travels I suppose. Generalizing of course, but in most countries, with the notable exceptions of France and Iran (and the Middle East where you need to know how to count in Arabic), you can get by in basic English with a little help from the requisite “hellos”, “please” and “thankyou’s” in the local lingo. Often we try and pick up more as we go along, but most of the time you are in another country before you know it, starting the process all over again. Here of course, it is Spanish all the way and for the next 6 months or so there was no avoiding it. A survival imperative beckoned – learn some quickly and get on top of it from the outset.

Thankfully though, Spanish is not Japanese and more a second cousin of English. This when combined with the fact that many Spanish words through films and books had found their way onto my radar already created a lot of encouragement for the linguistically challenged such as myself. Megumi by the way, who has studied a little Spanish previously living in the US, is a little further ahead, though still having difficulty trying to untangle it from her Italian. I had planned ahead for this challenge a little bit. Before leaving Japan, I had taken the time to download quite a few different language courses in MP3 format, something you could just throw on the IPOD and get amongst. I had ignored all the other lessons I had squirreled away up to this point – Laotian, Hindi, Arabic and Farsi, but the 2 different in depth courses on Spanish were particularly good. Over numerous bus trips as we worked our way down through Mexico to Central America, I found myself sitting in the corner, headphones on, mumbling crazily over and over to myself, like many of the street freaks we left behind in LA, San Francisco and the States in an attempt to get ahead.

The school at Maximo Nivel

Of course this combined with our initial travel through Mexico and Guatemala really helped just to get the basics going and the ears attuned. For real lessons we had decided we needed some serious study and that Guatemala was our best bet. Cheap lessons, pleasant environments and Spanish schools of esteemed repute, it had the right kind of ring and being at the start of the trip, offered an ideal timeline for onward travel. Our original plan had called for a month of study, possibly as part of a home-stay with a local family. But as our schedule had fallen behind and the potential to have to cram South America into a shorter period became more of a reality, something had to be sacrificed and we decided 2 weeks would have to do. Rather than simplify things and do 2 weeks back to back at a single destination, we decided to break this into 2, one week sessions split between Guatemala’s most famous Spanish teaching townships, Antigua and Quetzaltenango, more commonly referred to as Xela.

Antigua is a beautiful, colonial town, surrounded by volcanos on all sides, but a tourist mecca of sorts and very international. The cobblestone streets are full of pleasant cafés, international restaurants, churches and craft shops – all a welcome reprieve from the tortilla and bean diet simply unavoidable of late. Arriving on a Sunday, we found a comfortable place to stay and shopped around for a school. They are everywhere here and rather than investigate them all, we very quickly decided settled on a larger school, Maximo Nivel with a good reputation, customized textbook and opportunities for further study in Costa Rica or Peru. We booked in for a combined lesson starting the following afternoon.

Evelyn - our Antiguan teach

Set around a pretty garden, we had 4 hours of lessons a day in a small room and quickly fell into a routine. We spent the morning working on memorizing vocabularies in one of the towns’ pleasant breakfast cafés, then the afternoon ensconced in lessons with our local teacher. In the evenings, there was a bit of homework and some more word memorization as follow-up. A full schedule, but the theory goes, it we were actually investing in study we may as well make the absolute most of it. It also helped learning with Megumi – Japanese do have the art of study, work ethic and application thing down. Suffice to say, she, happily aligned with my guilty conscience, proved to be a very positive influence.

Within a few days I was starting to build up a basic vocabulary and getting my head around the grammatical essentials. It is a big step in Spanish to be able to move beyond the basics of Hola (hello), Gracias (thankyou) and Soy de Australia (I’m from Australia) to start understanding the overall structure and mechanics of a conversation. In Spanish the two big initial hurdles for me were: 1) Comprehending the gender rules for everything and how that affects a word (ie a restaurant is male ‘el restaurante’, whereas a city is female ‘la ciudad’) and 2) that verbs are conjugated based on the personal context – I, you, we or they plus tenses. For example “to go (ir) somewhere” becomes Voy (I go); Vas (you go); Va (he/she goes); Vamos (we go); Van (they go). Believe me, it’s a big revelation understanding that you don’t just have to memorize 5 different words here and that they are all related. By the end of the week, this had all been mapped out and while my head hurt it was starting to make sense. I at least had a basic vocabulary in place to start prying things apart and getting under the bonnet.

Casa Renaissance in Xela

Finishing our lessons in Antigua, we promptly made the transition to Xela on the Saturday and went about the same process – finding a comfortable hostel and a school. Xela offered quite a different approach, while schools here were everywhere, Xela is focused on more serious study, necessitating a much longer term, integrated and immersive study approach. Lessons here tended to be one on one only and packaged typically to include both food and accommodation, as part of an immersive home-stay with a local family. The town and environment itself is also much less touristy and feels more like an authentic Central American experience (complete with gunshots going off late at night). After talking to a few schools and hostals etc, we found a couple of standout school options – Celas Maya and another school, ‘Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol’, a non profit run by the community with a program that was quite political, activist orientated and interesting. We decided on Celas Maya and nixed the idea of a homestay in favour of a cheap, homey hostel, Casa Renaissance, with kitchen (Essential for vegetarian cooking) plus the luxury of wi-fi. We were ready to start school Monday morning.

Lessons at Celas Maya were immediately of a lot higher intensity. No English is spoken at any point and there was nowhere to hide from the personal attention. One on one private lessons for 5 hours a day (plus an hour or so of breaks) gets you focused pretty quickly. I was very grateful we had done the 1 week study in Antigua beforehand – jumping straight in here would have been almost too much from scratch without some English interpretation. I found myself slotting into the same ritual though – working on memorizing the rapidly expanding vocabulary in the evenings and early mornings, lessons from morning til early afternoon and then joining one of the schools activities in the afternoon. Each day the school did a different excursion or activity for students to join (in Spanish of course) – we visited the oldest church in Central America (lame), went to natural sauna (curious) and learnt some traditional cooking (Nothing to show off).

Volcano views of downtown Xela

Lessons were structured in a way to provide a clear daily progression, but the majority of the time was spent practically applying everything with in depth conversation. Now in my world, 25 hours of conversation with anyone usually entails a lasting friendship or some kind of intimacy. My Guatemalan teacher, with 15 years of experience at prompting conversation somehow got me sounding off in Spanish on subjects like Buddhism and the destructive cultural impacts of Christianity. Mostly however, she had this curious, almost spooky preoccupation with Japanese and never missed an opportunity to direct my new conversational talents toward explanations of the quirkiness that is the Japanese people and culture and the habits of my betrothed. She never asked me once about Australia though?

By the time a week was up though I was starting to drown and getting sick of talking about Japan. I guess I had crossed a threshold, able to communicate a large range of subjects in my own curious way, but at the same time I felt I was rapidly falling behind. Too many new words and rules were leading to lots of silly, repetitive grammatical errors creeping into the basics of my conversation. It became frustrating, as simple things got lost in the over extension. Perhaps this is just a natural phase of learning and part of the hard work that is the next stage of making this all come naturally. Personally,, I was relieved to finish.

Mayan graffiti outside school

In hindsight, another week or two of this would probably have been ideal in terms of getting me over the line with Spanish. I could see a finish line and a point where I could become quite comfortable quickly. As it was with a bit of thought, I can construct questions and answers to most of the basic things I need to do and follow the gist of most conversations. I had come a long way in a couple of weeks. Over the next few weeks as we hit the road again and started to put this to the test, I surprised myself with how much I did perceive, I was still a bit slow to process things and sometimes come over as a little retarded as I lag a few seconds behind a conversation trying to think it all through, but nothing too far out of reach. I still keep at the mp3 tapes, which have now started to make a lot more sense and really help with their practical memory reinforcement and application.

Megumi is still significantly ahead of me of course, but we were now able to immerse ourselves in a Spanish conversation and largely survive. Even to the point of spending several days with Spanish only speaking local guides which, while not perfect, was pretty encouraging. There was still a long way to go and perhaps another week of intensive lessons at some point might be still on the cards but in all it has been a very positive experience and easy to measure progress. Motivation enough for me to think of seriously again of applying myself to learning Japanese properly when I get home perhaps – I wonder how long I will last this time?


A Taste of the Caribbean

Our little foray into the Caribbean suffered a few false starts. Arriving at the Belizean border around 3pm, we were politely informed with a friendly […]

Our little foray into the Caribbean suffered a few false starts. Arriving at the Belizean border around 3pm, we were politely informed with a friendly Caribbean smile and shrug that they could no longer accept payment for Megumi’s visa as the next day was a holiday and they had closed the books for the day. It was only 3pm! Definitely a lot more relaxed work vibe around here – like a lot of travelling you either just relax and go with it or go crazy I guess. Somewhat chastened, we returned to Chetumal, the border city in Mexico just as it started to pour with rain, found ourselves a cheap hotel and started out again via the local embassy, Mexico side, the next morning. Since it was a holiday they wouldn’t be accepting payments at the border that day either.

Once in Belize we tried to catch a boat out to the Cayes, our ultimate destination. But with the threat of pouring rain the boats had been cancelled and we were sent back to the local bus station. The local buses in Belize (and Central America) are somewhat affectionately known as ‘Chicken buses’, old second hand US school buses – you know the yellow & black jobbies you see in Disney movies. Not too uncomfortable, but cheap, slow, crowded and steady. As we bumped our way along the road to Belize City the differences from Mexico was compelling. Outside the window, flat mangroves and farms rolled by to a slower, more third worldly vibe, people of mixed race predominate here – Creoles, descendents of African slaves and English pirates; Chinese; Mestizo (mixed Spanish & cental American) and stopping in the towns, we glanced a few Mennonites, distant pilgrims of German ancestry standing back-rod straight awaiting a ride, clad in blue overalls and white cowboy hats (even the kids), straight out of a movie. These Christian conservatives own large tracks of land in Belize and through their communities have a pseudo monopoly on agriculture apparently.

There are only 2 types of beer in Belize

The day we had chosen to arrive was a national holiday – Garifuna Day, a celebration of the freedom of the free South American / African settlers who stood up against their conquerors. The day is spent drumming and singing for a full 24 hours, quite the party. As if on queue, midway into our bus ride a bunch of drunk, Caribbean blacks jumped on the bus loaded with drums, dreadlocks and the party vibe. Talking loudly, banging drums and singing traditional songs with a pleasant Caribbean lilt, they were quite a handful until the pleasant rocking vibe of the bus lulled them all into a sleeping stupor. Arriving in Belize City, an hour or 2 late, the place was swimming, a squall in full force, no chance of catching a boat out to the Cayes, we found a friendly hostel and settled into the dry.

The next morning, we took the 1 hour boatride out to Caye Caulker. Caye Caulker (and its upscale neighbour Caye Ambergis / San Pedro) run along a 200 km barrier reef that is famous for its fish, coral, diving and snorkelling. The “Blue Hole”, a collapsed coral reef the forms a perfect circle is its most famous feature and renown worldwide as a diving destination. We had chosen to base ourselves at Caye Caulker, the cheaper island with more of a backpacker and Caribbean Rasta vibe. The Caye itself was barely 3 streets wide (called front, middle and back respectively) a 300m thin strip of sand, edged by Mangroves in sight of surf breaking on the reefs offshore. With a population of less than a 1,000 people, everyone knows everyone here and it’s incredibly friendly. The difference from Mexico couldn’t have been more compelling or the return to the English language more welcome. As you walk around the island, you are greeted everywhere with pleasant Caribbean accented, often dread-locked calls to ‘slow down mon’ and ‘take your boots off man! Barefoot, full of hammocks, sand and fresh seafood it’s a pretty tough place to base yourself. We found a cheap room and settled in.

Nurse Sharks and Sting Rays

To check out the marine life, we signed up for a full day of snorkeling on the reef across 3 of the main sites – Ho Chan National Park, Shark and Ray feeding and Coral gardens on the reef itself. This is probably the best snorkelling I have ever experienced its as simple as that. Immediately we pulled up to the boat at Ho Chan, a huge 2m+ Grouper parked under us with a school of other large silver fish, these were friendly enough that you could tickle them on the chin. Within a short snorkel we encountered large turtles; huge spotted rays and their smaller regular cousins; nurse sharks; huge green manta eels and a myriad of other large and colourful fish. Later the boat pulled up and the crew threw some feed over the side as a plethora of nurse and other smaller sharks plus sting rays scrambled for a taste, over the side and into the water amongst them we went, we could literally touch and play with the rays and sharks as they milled around. In the coral gardens, I came face to face with a spotted ray that must have been 3-4m wide with the body of a dolphin. Megumi from the boat, soaking up the sun, told me it had completely leapt out of the water earlier. Got to buy myself an underwater camera when I return to civilization!

Mesmerising stuff and easily some of the best value money we have spent on the water. We were pumped for more and keen to do some diving. But it was not to be – a bit of dodgy weather out to sea mean’t no dives were heading out for the next couple of days, so we simply relaxed into the Island lifestyle instead. A bit of beach bumming, snorkelling of the docks and simply soaking up the local flavours. The seafood was fantastic – cheap lobsters, conche and other tasty morsels all cooked Creole style at impromptu restaurants all along the shore. We had come hear for the diving, but the snorkelling and the lifestyle was so agreeable here that we didn’t feel like we were missed out at all.

Replete, we headed back to Belize City to catch a connecting bus that would take us across to Tikal in Guatemala. It was just the smallest taste of the Caribbean, 5 days or so but it left nothing but good impressions and inspirations to savour it more in full. One day I’ll be back to sample Jamaica, Barbados and the other islands – perhaps to accompany some cricket!


Mexican Roll-call

It’s been a long time since I have really updated anything. My excuse is that since we left the Middle-East we have entered almost familiar […]

It’s been a long time since I have really updated anything. My excuse is that since we left the Middle-East we have entered almost familiar territory in Europe, Canada and the US embarking on a different style of travel. It has been a sort of re-engagement of sorts, catching up with long distant friends and family then driving ourselves down through the states. The days have been full of parties, conversations, open road and national parks and we have found that we suddenly didn’t have the same downtime anymore to write and postulate.

I’m certainly not much of a blogger though – no future career path for me here, but then this trip was never about the website, I left Japan to get away from that stuff. We are chasing the experience itself first and foremost and stopping to write about it, like taking pictures sometimes, means you miss stuff. I guess the site has really just become a travelogue of sorts, more independent of time than a diary. I do have lots of updates half written, almost complete to fill the backlog of the past few months. They are coming soon I feel, time and opportunity has uncorked itself yet again. But in the interim I thought it easier to just provide a simple update – a ‘this is where we are and what we’re planning’ sort of thing, which is really what a blog post is supposed to be ironically. Makes a change anyway 😉

Now that we are free of North America, time has started to flow more slowly. We are free of plane tickets, schedules and agenda’s now – our haunts of the past 6 months. There are no more close distant friends further South, we are entering the unfamiliar. The people and cultures are getting more fascinating, we haven’t seen a Wall-Mart in days and things are getting cheaper by the hour. It’s looming as a perfect independent travel storm – insecure, foreign, cheap, liberating and invigorating all at the same time. You can almost feel a travel pulse quicken. So far (and we really only just entered the zone), Central America looms a lot more like travelling in India and SE Asia, exotic combinations of wild nature; ancient, foreign but still strong cultures and perfect weather – our favourite proven recipe.

The bar at 'Hostel Rincon'

At the moment, we are in Xihuatenejo, Southern Mexico on the Pacific Coast, a small, beach town where Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman met up at the end of the movie “Shawshank Redemption”. I don’t think they really shot it here, but its still nice. We found a great, cheap hostel, (Hostel Rincon del Viajero) run by a Mexican female artist, Mali. The rooms are covered in a unique blend of Mayan and graffiti fantasy art and over look a verdant, tranquil tropical garden. The village, just a few hundred metres away over a small bridge where all the fisherman dock and prepare their catch of the day, is busy preparing for tourist season a few months ahead – lots of maintenance projects afoot. The place is quiet, but beers are cheaper than water, the food is great and while we are still dodging activity, sombrero & tequila salesmen, Mexican late night rhythms are starting to help me sleep at night.

For the first time in our travels really we are also confronting a language barrier. With the exceptions of France and Iran, the rest of the world has been largely English friendly, provided you take the time to get your local hello’s, thank you’s and basic niceties down. Latin America is all Spanish though and we are slowly picking up speed on the language adoption. Over several epic bus trips down the coast, I have been sitting in the corner, headphones on, language tapes running and mumbling crazily over and over to myself, like many of the street freaks we left behind in LA, San Francisco and the States. Megumi who has studied a little Spanish previously is a little further ahead, though still trying to untangle it from her Italian. Necessity finds a way though.

Anticipating 'Day of the dead'

From here we head further South to Puerto Escondita, home of the Mexican Pipeline of surfing fame, then inland to the mountain highlands of Oaxaca to experience the ‘day of the dead celebrations en route to a Zapotec village to see a shaman about some mushrooms. After that we hit the Mayan trail, San Cristabel, Palenque and North to the Yukatan peninsula and the Carribean sea where we will cruise into Belize to do some diving at the legendary “Blue Hole”. Then, working our way down Guatemala and more Mayan trails to the volcano & hot spring city of Quezaltenango. We plan on experiencing local homestays and some volunteering while we study Spanish for the better part of a month there if all goes well. After that its El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – part of our ambitious plan to see if we can get all the way from Canada to Argentina without the use of a plane! South America may be too much of course, but that’s probably thinking too far ahead. For the moment, apart from sand fly and mosquito bites we are happy, healthy and excited by the paths ahead. More than 15 months in and it almost feels like we are starting again!


National Parks of Western USA

Our goal was to get down to Mexico from Canada and we figured the best way to do this was to hire a car and chart our own course into the US diaspora via the great National parks of the mid-west. Some 4,000 miles (about 6.000km) later......

With apologies in advance to my US friends, I never really thought I’d end up travelling much in the States for pleasure. Scarred perhaps by its aggressive foreign policies, endless consumerism, mass market chains and just an overt sense of familiarity I suppose, care of the most documented culture that’s ever existed on the planet. It’s easy to forget that the land itself is some of the most stunning you will encounter anywhere.

Too small for the road?

Our goal was to get down to Mexico from Canada and we figured the best way to do this was to hire a car and chart our own course into the US diaspora via the great National parks of the mid-west. Some 4,000 miles (about 6.000km) later after an incredible variety of scenic drives; from the valleys and streams of Montana to the cactus filled deserts of Nevada and Arizona, we pulled into San Francisco. At this point I should probably also point out, that due to an international license expiry on my part, Megumi did all the driving here – goddess that she is – chauffeured through some of nature’s finest spoils.  Along the way we had found a new appreciation for the magnificent geological magician called time, that sculpted this fine land. As well as a new comprehension for the strange look that the hire car guy had given us when we resisted his upgrade pitch for our little sedan to a monster truck. Turns out that’s’ all most people drive out here when they not driving RV’s the size of semi-trailers, towing their jeep or boat along behind. It really does give you an appreciation for the various fuel crises, international conflicts and global economic dependencies forged around the USA. But I could flow forth in a lot of detail about the big side of America and sell short nature in the process. Back to the parks, below is my quick take on ‘em.

1) YellowStone

The magnificent Bison

The first National Park to be created in the US and probably the best of the lot, Yellowstone is an amazing collection of bio-systems. As you drive in from the North, the great plains reveal swarms of Bison roaming the grasses, while jackals and wolves hungrily watch from the cliffs above; Giant elk and grizzly bears (yes we saw one) roam the forests floors; trout swarm in the shallow valley-bed streams and waterfalls work their way through the steep, yellow stoned coloured canyons. Dotted throughout is an endless array of geysers, hot volcanic water spouts, venting earths’ fury in angry bursts of clocklike precision. Splendid, multicoloured thermal streams mesmerize through veiled steam clouds, while sulfuric pours steep the landside in minute sculptured terraces and mud pots bubble away in fantastic patterns. It is a fantastic wonderland and a perfect introduction to the wonders of the great American frontier. The bison casually grazing among the thick yellow grasses and flat streams adjacent to our campsite, was so perfect it lulled us into a false sense of security about the idylls of camping. The inadequacies of our cheap-arse Wallmart tent and backpacking wardrobes were later glaringly exposed when faced with the sub zero temperatures.

2) Grand Teton

Fall colours in the Grand Tetons

This one was just a drive through really on our way south to find warmer climes (or at least buy another blanket). The Grand Teton abuts the southern entrance of Yellowstone and really just serves as an extended exit. (The Yellowstone ticket also covers entrance fee) It does however feature several magnificent, snow covered peaks that provide a perfect picturesque backdrop to explorations of its surrounding lakes and valley floor. A great place for biking, kayaking and horse riding I suppose given the number of folk out there doing exactly that – it also happened to be a great place to spot a moose (wading knee high through another one of those flat rivers) which ticked a box nicely and left not too many American wild animals left on our list to see (just the cats!).

3) Antelope IslandLake Utah

Mirrored reflections of the great salt lake

After working our way through some spectacular scenery care of the stunning, winding backcountry roads in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah we reached Salt Lake City and sidetracked a little, dodging mormons everywhere we went. We were keen to see something of the great Salt Lake since we were here and Antelope Island is joined by a 5 km or so thin land bridge from the mainland across the salt plains. There really was nothing much to see on the island despite the optimistic travel hype, horrible place to have to live even. But the drive out there with flat salt plains either side giving way to mirror-like water coverings reflecting the surrounding mountains and extending for as far as the eye could see, felt impressive. Not quite Bonneville where they set the land speed records, somewhere on the other side, but it did give you a taste of how that would all work. We didn’t stay long.

4) Arches National Park

The stunning contrasts of Arches

Basing ourselves in nearby Moab the adventure capital of Utah we found ourselves in a camp / RV park that would be the rival of most hotels – full RV connections here mean water, electricity, ASDL cable and 100 channels of cable TV, hardly roughing it. The campsite even had wifi. Arches National Park is a network of large deep, red, vein-like rock promontories eroded and carved over time into all sorts of formations, including as the name suggest some 2000 or so naturally occurring arches. It’s a simple drive around to see most of the key sites which sit just a few minutes walk from the main roads, but we decided to do a 5 hour, trek into the “Devils Garden” to get out among the early morning light and more authentic experience. Clamouring over endless red rocks pathways to find the various if predictably named archways and new photographic angles among the vivid red, blue and yellow landscapes, was lots fun. The contrast of the colours made this park one of the most enjoyable.

5) CanyonLands & Dead Horse Point

Endless canyons of the Colorado

Around Moab, there are 3 or more other national parks spread along the winding paths of the Colorado river canyons full of opportunities for treks, rafting and panoramic canyon views of the Colorado. All are quite stunning, but the views from Dead Horse Point was perhaps the highlight of all the different perspectives of the Colorado canyons that we got to savour, including the Grand Canyon itself. As ever though, the camera just wasn’t up to the task, there is simply too much to try in take in amongst this scenery. With more time, we would have loved to have explored these more from the riverbed.

6) Bryce National Park

The overwhelming intricacy of Bryce

One of my absolute favourites, the drive from Moab around to Bryce National Park is simply stunning, with each new corner revealing another natural wonder from multi-coloured canyon walls, ancient petroglyphs to finally the unique orange, pink and white wonderland marvels of the Bryce set of Amphitheatres. Sunrise and sunsets here, reveal a whole new set of subtle colour shades but the millions of hoodoos are simply too much to take in for any camera – try as we might. We spent the night here camping which gave us a good opportunity to explore the park at first light and sunrise.

7) Zion National Park

The walls of the Zion canyon

Set along a deep set gorge, Zion is a rock-climbers paradise. The drive in is especially spectacular, passing alongside huge sandstone cliff walls and then tunneling through into the actual valley itself. You can’t drive into the park, so you have to park and take a train which stops off at the various key points along the way, many launching points for numerous longer trails and treks. I found this to be a little too packaged to my taste – unfortunately creating accessibility sometimes ruins the exoticness of the experience. At the end of the canyon there is a small river that winds it way through steep canyon cliffs. You can wade along the riverbed for several kilometres into the canyon itself, which is a great experience. Barefoot, the river stones are hard on the feet though, so we only got 1 km or so in.

8) Monument Valley

Monuments to the Gods indeed

Probably my favourite of all the parks we visited. The stunning landscape of the Monoliths manifesting themselves from the desert floor is a familiar site from numerous classic Western films, but it is a very sacred place in person. You can feel the powerful energies at work here. Complementing the landscape, the parks full immersion and intrinsic attachment to the Navajo Native American people really resonates here. This is much more than a national park – it is a complex cultural canvas, a spiritual union between earth and man.

Monument Valley is located inside Navajo nation, so everything is owned and operated by the Navajo people here. It does make it expensive hotel wise (ie no competition), but as you drive around the 18 km of dodgy dirt roads (thank god for hire cars), winding your way at 5km an hour through each of the impressive monuments you have plenty of time to reflect on appreciate that each of these hold a particular ceremonial and ritual significance to the Navajo people and their mythology. Boasting names such as ‘Rain God Mesa, Thunderbird Mesa, Elephant Butte, Spearhead Mesa or Totem Pole – you feel yourself entering this ancient dreamscape and the energy of the place captivates the imagination. Of course the entire park is surrounded by Native American craft markets on all fronts and souvenir shopping is almost impossible to avoid. None of this stuff is made in China though, it’s all authentic, an absolute rarity during our US experience.

9) The Grand Canyon

Just 1 tiny corner of the Grand Canyon

Had to do this one of course and while it didn’t disappoint I think we were almost canyoned out by the time we got there. The Grand Canyon is so vast and hard to comprehend in a single view that it is almost impossible to photograph. We only visited the South side, the most popular side of the canyon and camped just the one night here. It was a really pleasant campground, as all of them were in the national parks – pleasantly spaced, each with its own grill for a campfire. We would have liked to trek down to the floor of the canyon and camp, but this would have required booking months in advance.

The canyon itself is a 25km or so stretch with numerous viewpoints spaced every few kilometres along the way, highlighting new views or perspectives. Our highlight though was not the canyon views as good as they were, but in actually spotting a wild Lynx roaming across the road.

10) Sequoia National Park

In awe of trees!

The last park we visited as it turns out. The giant tree’s here are very impressive, the Sherman tree is supposedly the biggest tree by mass in the world and anywhere I have ever seen giant tree’s there is a peace and special energy to the place. They were not nearly as big as I was expecting though, the giant redwoods of Yakushima in Japan are much more impressive in their setting and also energetically compelling I think. We didn’t get to see the Northern Califormia redwoods so its hard to compare. It was by now a freebie though. We had acquired 8 national park entrance tickets which qualifies you for free National Park membership.

As we were working our way through the park, the temperature plummeted and rain suddenly became hail covering the road in white powder. We stopped for a while, but since it was unrelenting decided to make a run for it before the roads closed – neither of us felt like being forced to camp in snow / hail. Unfortunately though, the weather meant that we had to forego Yosemite National Park, the other major park that we were really keen to see.


Lost in Las Vegas

Vegas is one of those places – seen a hundred movies, read the books, but was never really able to comprehend it properly until I […]

Vegas is one of those places – seen a hundred movies, read the books, but was never really able to comprehend it properly until I got there and saw it in all its glory and context. It looked much as I’d expected only more, but the energy was different altogether, something I probably hadn’t really thought through. Around the Vegan fringes lurks and hides all sorts of sadness and depression, just conveniently out of focus, while the epicenter is all bling and the spectacular. Its a weird, soul-less place at the heart of a fraudulent Western capitalism and greed ideal, trying seductively to assert a distracting hedonistic pleasure into the hungry gaping souls of its eager participants. As you can probably gather I wasn’t all that impressed!

We arrived quite late, driving in from the desert around deep afternoon and proceeded to lap the main strip – Sunset Boulevard; all the casino’ s arrayed before us. Seen at first glance like this Vegas overwhelms, the streets teem with people, cars and it buzzes. From the huge black Pyramid on, each casino in the procession castes its large beckoning shadow across the strip – the New York skyline with Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the castles of treasure island, Big Tops, Fashion shows and the more traditional exotically sculptured skyscrapers.

The slightly sinister Circus Circus

Attracted more by morbid curiosity, but keen not to spend a fortune here (and being quite ignorant of how the place works), we headed to the North end, thinking we would just find a cheap motor inn to stay and then head down the strip to explore. This part of town is seriously dodgy though; sex shops and ‘drive through chapels’ abound (I couldn’t tempt Megumi!). The first place we tried the owner couldn’t be found and they didn’t seem interested in tenants which was a bit strange. But after seeing 2 haggard old prostitutes emerge from one of the rooms, I gathered it was geared towards either the extremely short term or much longer term rentals. We tried another one – this had all the atmosphere of a gangster film, complete with lurking homies –  no way our car would be safe here for a night as cheap as it was. Chastened, but quickly educated on the fringe realities, we lapped back to the main drag and decided to try one of the casino’s instead.

The nearest and most accessible of these was the ‘Circus Circus’, good enough for me it summed up Vegas nicely I thought. The other logic being that the least tempting place to stay was also going to save us the most money, plus I always loved that scene from “Fear & Loathing” the movie – stuck late at night at the revolving Circus bar. The “Circus Circus” Casino offered rooms for about $40 a night, only about $5 more expensive than the dodgy Motor Inns, plus gave us a whole ticket book of freebies and incentives (gosh thanks). This would do though, tired from the journey we couldn’t really be bothered shopping for a better (or indeed any type of alternative deal).

and through the turnstiles we go!

The Circus Circus is aimed at families and its entrance was like a fun-park free for all – kids and groups scrambling everywhere. Complete with a circus and adventure theme park to complement all the slots and betting tables, it is designed to trap and preoccupy in as many ways as possible. As one of my friends put it, the place gives of the air of a Western Sydney RSL club, although I would take the RSL every-time I think. There is an overarching atmosphere of despondency here though, a morbid gloom and décor reminiscent of a heyday somewhere back in the 70’s. No amount of scrubbing can remove this many scars to the soul, let alone mask the lingering musk of stale beer and cigarettes. The clown staring down overseeing everything feels kind of sinister after a while.

Checked in, we wandering out the front door and started to work our way down the footpath toward the other casino’s. The footpaths were strewn with American’s of just about all walks of life. What immediately struck me though, was the complete lack of fashion or style here. Its almost as though Vegas intrinsically attracts bad taste. Young people walk around with yard long Margarita glasses and straws hanging from their neck straight out of spring break, lots of middle aged, belly-fat barely concealed beneath dodgy Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. (The whole Hawaiian thing really mystifies me actually).  In Europe or Japan when people go to a party or a resort they tend to try and look the part, why American’s go the other way when they are out spending all their money I don’t really know? Wandering into a few places we soon realized we didn’t have the energy to match the lights and pace of the place. We were drowning in the torrent of distractions; rather than push it too hard we decided to take stock, relax and settle in. Best to stay an extra night, relax to do ‘Vegas’ properly with the help of the following day. Hardly an unusual reaction to the place I would wager, it suggestively hints at this approach in its every design. ‘One more day’, you can almost hear the street itself whisper.

The New York Casino Skyline

In Vegas, every casino has a show or a feature event going on. Something special to attract and entertain the crowds – to bring the people in, to brand themselves versus their competitors. Accordingly there is a fixed schedule to all this, you don’t need to spend all your time in the casino itself around the tables or whatever. There is enough entertainment to be had for free just wandering from casino to casino, checking out each of the showcases which all works rather perfectly for 2 backpackers with little inclination to do otherwise. Dressed up and loaded in true Johnny Depp fashion, armed with a rough map and schedule we loosed ourselves upon the place. Catching a bus to the far end of the strip, we commenced working our way through them one by one. I won’t go into everything here, but we did have a lot of fun. Some of the following gives you a flavour of the bigger free highlights on show.

Belaggio fountain show - Paris Casino as backdrop

–          MGM Grand – as well as a studio, they have a multi-million dollar, lion habitat. Megumi got stuck here for a good hour, leaning against the glass playing with 2 lion cubs.

–          Sirens of Treasure Island – probably the pick of the lot. Siren show girls dance and pantomime repelling an attack from a pirate ship floating on water, while a bunch of pirates on another pirate ship attempt to board. Ships sinking, explosions and fireballs going off and water sprays everywhere – its great entertainment.

–          Fountains at the Bellagio – these go off every 15 minutes in the huge lake outside the Bellagio casino, each movement is different and set to a different soundtack. Very easy on the eye.  The conservatory at the Bellagio is also pretty good there was a  Halloween special of sculpted plants, orchids and monstrous plants which was fun.

–          Volvano at the Mirage – erupts on the hour. A huge pyrotechnic show, earthquake grumbles, music and finally lava flowing across the ponds and the mini mountain.

The Sirens of Treasure Island show

In total it took us more than 14 hours to wander through everything. No one really cares about you for the most part. You can happily turn up in the middle of a high end casino floor and wander around tables checking things out or sit outside and take in the many other sidewalk acts and people watch along the way. Most of the casino are pretty casual affairs, light, noisy and soulless. Occasionally though, we found ourselves in a high stakes area where the energies were noticeably a lot more  intense – big money, egos and serious demeanors. We quickly moved on, mostly for the cigar smoke. Everywhere there are special shows and ticket scalpers for concerts from show girl strippers to fights, magic acts, Cirque du Soleil even Cher. Surprisingly the biggest act in town seems to be an Australian boy band.

I guess a big part of the experience here  is to impress the girlfriend, companion, friends or kids etc by procuring those hard to get tickets to the hottest show in town. There are a million services queuing at every whim or beck n call to help assist you in the pursuit of the perfect night out or at least separate you from your cash. Limousines, special offers, even lines of Mexicans on street corners handing out flyers and wearing t-shirts emblazoned with ‘girls 2 your door in under 10 minutes’. Most disorientating perhaps is the role for kids in all this – M&M’s world, the circuses and fun parks, its really positioned as a family affair, 24 x7.

Making our own fun!

Breathing in all this, I felt alien, separated almost racially from the people around me. Who are they? Seemingly millions are here, but in 2 days we had barely the merest hint of a kindred spirit – our fun largely generated purely from immersing ourselves in the absurd, oddity of it all. But we  felt like we were operating on a different tangent (Well, we were!), in a bubble completely out of our relational zone. I realized I don’t understand this pursuit or even its motivation anymore, the greed, desire to get rich or simply the skin deep hedonistic lust for an outrageous time, an extreme self-indulgence for a weekend. Perhaps I did once, but all this travel and those seedy Tokyo nights have broken me of it somewhere, perhaps too I have just gotten old somewhere along the way. Using money and trinkets to feed a soulful hunger is no longer an option for me, a shame to think it ever was I guess, but regardless it is a satisfying realization.

And did I gamble – not really. I love a game of poker and thrive on any competitive challenge usually, but surprised myself by having no real inclination for the casino form. I did throw a few dollars into the odd slot machine, largely out of boredom (ie waiting for Megumi to finish playing with lions). It is nice to face off to that whole luck, chance, get rich desire thing and know that it really doesn’t float your boat. Perhaps it would be interesting to do Vegas the other way around, cashed up, dressed up and VIP – intrinsically I doubt the experience would be any different though. As we drove out of town, petrol stations with casino’s offered a last chance to gamble tax-free all the way to the Californian border – I have no inclination to stop or even look back!


Moroccan Reunions

With only a little over a week in Morocco and my parents along for the ride, we had decided to simplify the Moroccan adventure to […]

Parental reunion in Casablanca

With only a little over a week in Morocco and my parents along for the ride, we had decided to simplify the Moroccan adventure to 3 different locations and perspectives; a triangle of experiences so to speak. Casablanca of the movie and beaches fame, mostly because it was easy access; Marrakech for markets, desert and mountains and a small seaside artist town Essaouira, on the Atlantic. It meant not a lot of time wasted in transit which gave us more opportunity to settle in and soak up the respective flavours on offer.

After our false start with Ramadan the day before, we arrived to meet mom and dad at their hotel early afternoon, too firstly catch up but also brief them in on the planned adventure. It was wonderful to see them in person after almost 2 years, surreal as the location of this encounter was in the context of an Australian parental reunion. Rarely does time or distance change much with them, a major blessing when I am always overseas and never in regular proximity. I was still impressed that they had agreed to meet in Morocco during Ramadan and there was some relief that the setting, foreign circumstances or time had not changed the ease and comfortable nature of our relationship. If anything I was the one that was different here – thinner, healthier, less hair and more relaxed or at least that’s the feedback loop.

Later as we walked around the old medina and soaked up the markets and new environment, I had the joy of seeing things through mum and dad’s eyes. Sometimes as a traveller you do get jaded and take things for granted. The day to day of negotiating and buying food at the markets suddenly becomes an enlivened experience through the contrasting perspective of someone doing it for the first time. Country after country, back to back like this sometimes the process becomes the same and you take it for granted.

Buying food at the local street stalls

Watching someone who has never had to negotiate for anything in their life, become aware of the entire process for the first time is fascinating. The simplest items that seem cheap at first glance, escalate downwards in price as you walk away, sometimes ending up at 10% of the original asking price. Initially the prospect of entering this foray to buy something is daunting. I had to press Megumi for months at the start of our trip in South East Asia to engage in the game. She simply wasn’t used to it at all and hated the protracted engagement of it, she wanted out of a transaction as quickly as possible and was happy to pay more to do it. But the negotiation is a process in itself, it puts a face on the deal – both parties get to know each other a little better over the course of a transaction and it feels more real, you have to give more of yourself to own something. We have become so de-sensitized in the west to these things through consumerism. You can spend days buying something and never really talk or look at someone seriously at home. In SE Asia, India, Africa and the Middle East the art of bargaining brings the whole process alive more and there is a greater personal attachment to the purchase. None of which of course is obvious at first and my parents’ initial horror at the difficulty of establishing a real price was priceless to watch.

kids in the alleys of Marrakech

After a day of casual orientation and catching up in Casablanca, we caught a train to Marrakech, an easy 5 hour journey through a countryside that changed gradually from coastal agriculture to more arid inland and ultimately mountain desert. Again mom and dad refreshed our experience with their fascination with the countryside and the agricultural processes on display. This is what they do and love I realize, as the kilometres rolled ceaselessly by they let forth an uninterrupted commentary and speculation on the types of agriculture and plant-life on display. New things were revealed to me, that normally we would look at but not really see – hay bales stacked in barn like shapes with mud coverings on the roof to protect from the elements; strange irrigation systems, exotic crops and endemic plants. Suddenly I felt like a student again – they were going to give as good as they good on this trip, I realized with satisfaction.

Marrakech is famously a crazy place and from the station, we took advantage of an open coffee shop catering to hungry tourists (you eat where you see an opportunity as a foreigner in Ramadan), before plunging in and haggling a taxi to the old medina. A walled fort that represents the old Marrakech, the medina is a large extended marketplace and surrounding honeycomb labyrinth of streets and homes seemingly unchanged in centuries. Outside the walls, the newer Marrakech sprawls a vibrant bright apricot montage of stone buildings, the same uniform colour in all directions. All the colours seem to contrast themselves beautifully against the green of the palm trees, the white walls of the old fort and the orange browns of the town and Medina itself and the distant brown of the Atlas Mountains. Our taxi came to a stop at the end of a tiny, cobble stoned street lost deep in the Medina and all organization also came to an end. Ahead of us was the labyrinth of little laneways, somewhere in the vicinity of a traditional Moroccan home, called a Riad (Dar Tayib) where we had made a booking to stay a few nights. As we pulled our bags from the taxi, a skinny old man with a pull cart (think two wheels on a metal frame) started loading our bags, before we could properly agree a price (a big no-no) and suddenly we were on foot and chasing him through the tiny winding streets, dodging a cacophony of people, dogs, motorbikes and everything else – trying to keep him in sight as he shot left and right into little hidden cobblestone back alleys dodging kids at play to our destination.

The courtyard of our Riad

Arriving surprisingly safely at our Riad, we were greeted by the owner, a lovely Moroccan lady, (married to a Frenchmen) and ushered into a little haven of peace and serenity. The Riad was a 3 storey house and quite typical in design. Built around a central courtyard full of tall palms, plants and a water fountain; on the ground floor were cushioned lounge spaces, a dinning room and a kitchen, the second and 3rd floor contained beautiful bedrooms with stone ensuite bathrooms and the rooftop provided another covered lounge and a sundeck overlooking a closely packed, endless 3 story high jumble in all directions, Mosque turrets littering the skyline, the only thing to really break up the horizon. You can easily imagine jumping across these buildings in an action movie chase scene reminiscent of the ‘Bourne Supremacy?’

Overlooking the grand market in Marrakech

Later, under the careful guidance of a young maid at the hotel, on her way home to her family for the first meal of Ramadan, we were shown how to navigate to the main marketplace and square. A 15 minute journey through a winding network of seemingly all right turns down ever increasing corridors of activity; stalls and markets becoming more tourist orientated the closer we came, until ultimately feeding into the grand square itself. The great square of Marrakech is one of those amazing places, endlessly photographed and in films. Surrounded by Mosques on 2 sides and 2 story restaurants, the square is the gateway to the broader covered markets and supports an ever changing assortment of wildlife. Snake charmers with Cobra’s and other snakes sit around in baskets waiting for tourists to pay them a few bucks to do their tricks. Elsewhere men with monkeys on chains wait to do the same, in non-Ramadan times the place buzzes with jugglers as well, but the combination of heat and no food or liquid must be tough on athletes. At night, 50 or so food stalls set-up with tables and chairs and compete to serve all sorts of Moroccan delicacies – including snails.

Plates anyone?

We ducked the heat and sat on the second storey to take this all in, before plunging into the markets themselves. Marrakech used to be a border town and hub for the tribes of Africa and the Sahara to bring their wares. These days it is more considerably geared towards tourist staples and the operators are vicious salesmen – there are centuries of genetic, Darwinian selection mechanisms at work here on how to make a buck. The market features endless stores selling classic variations of carpets, ornately designed plates, tangines, leather and metalwork, clothing and the more exotic (ie strange herbal cures, owls and chameleons or lion skins). Intertwined with mosques, museums and other attractions, the market takes days to explore fully and even more patience to dodge the touts and friendly scams let alone negotiate a sale effectively. We had 3 days here, enough to get to know our way around reasonably well and get familiar with more realistic prices and some of the standard scams. We are able to hand hold mum through the buying process for an authentic tangine, some baskets and some other novelties to try and get her at least a better deal – no one wins here really though and as good as the markets are, the bargaining process totally wore her out I think.

An overheated driver and his Mercedes

A couple of days in we hired an English speaking driver (and his old blue Mercedes) for the day to take us up into the Atlas mountains and see some of the ancient Kasbahs (forts) and towns of the high plains and Saharan wilderness. Leaving early dad comfortably ensconced in the front seat and rattling off, a whole host of repressed questions about the agriculture and farming practices of the region, we passed through huge tracts of cactus bearing fruits covering the sides of the road and starting rising up into the bare mountains. At this point the Mercedes starting to struggle and the driver pulled over to show us a hole in the radiator. Apparently he needed our fare plus another in order to be able to afford the repair. Somehow he spent the next 10 hours climbing through the mountains, stopping regularly to fight the steam, cool down the engine and replace water without ever breaking his fast and taking a drink. The spiritual strength that the Muslim practice and its key rituals such as Ramadan develop is something to envy.

In front of Ait Bennadou

We weren’t to unnerved at the pace though, stopping regularly and going slowly gave us more time to soak up the dramatic mountain scenery and hundreds of stunning, mud villages set amongst oases along the riverbed floor as they slowly succumbed to the encroaching Saharan desert. We made a couple of key stops to check out the famous Kasbah’s, huge mud like forts where the Sultans used to live that oversaw the region. Decrepit and ruined on the outside, one we saw had stunning mosaic tile work inside the harem (naturally). A guide from the village, a Saharan Bedouin took us around for free which as it turned out meant we in turn needed to check out his carpet shop. They had some nice pieces, but after Iran I was pretty full up on the old carpets and the folks didn’t seem to keen on the potential for bargaining involved. We continued on down the valley, following the small winding stream and green oasis at the bottom as the mountains became more arid and opened into desert, the whole time. Finally we arrived at Ait Bennadou – the famous mud fortress that has appeared in dozens of films from “Gladiator” to “Jewell of the Nile”. Here we had the chance to explore the entire village, tourist trap as it is, it was a stunning location.

The Fort walls of Essaouira

When we eventually made it back to Marrakech, (our driver finally got a drink as the sun set) we had another day for some last minute shopping and exploration of the inner medina, before making the bus trip over to the coastal city of Essaouria a 3 or 4 hour journey. After the chaos of Marrakech, Essaouira was a very pleasant change of pace. Jimmy Hendrix used to escape here and the place has a very laid back, relaxed feel. Positioned by the sea, a fort built by the French out over a windy point; the walls of all the homes, fort and city are shaded white, but all the doors, windows and boats are painted a vivid bright blue. It provided a striking contrast and counterbalance to the apricot, dusty confrontation of Marrakech. We had booked a place at Riad Amana, a beautifully restored Riad with lovely bright, colourful rooms across several floors around a cental courtyard.

Juraba clad local selling hats in Essaouira

The town and characters here were intriguing which is always handy when there is little else to do other than wander around and sample the cuisine, sights and markets. The men here wear long hooded woollen jackets called Jurabas to keep out the wind, while women swaddle themselves in bright colours. The alleys are full of paintings, wood work sculptures and other bright local crafts. While primarily a fishing town, it is very popular with tourists taking in the sights from the fort walls and its cannons; braving the windy beach or just soaking up the seaside atmosphere and tranquility.

For our last stop, we caught a bus back to Casablanca. Compared to our other destinations this place did not really live up to its billing for mine, there was nothing remarkable here – its amazing what a movie will do to create a false expectation. We did get up to the beach / resort strip just to see how the other side partied though. Not quite the beautiful beaches we had imagined, more wall to wall gated resorts with private pools, restaurants and deckchairs. I get the impression that this is more where wealthy Moroccans come on holiday.

That aside, Morocco was a fantastic experience, it was exotic, unique and leaves a distinct echo in the memory. There are not many places we have been like that. Honestly, in many ways it could have been anywhere really – just being able to reconnect with family would supersede any backdrop for us. But the experience of being able to share our travel experience with mom and dad and in so doing, open up a destination to them that they would likely never have been able to manage on their own was also immensely satisfying.


Touchdown in Ramadan, Morocco

First impressions of a place are always memorable, sometimes though when you are travelling you also have that moment, I’m sure you know what it […]

First impressions of a place are always memorable, sometimes though when you are travelling you also have that moment, I’m sure you know what it feels like – nothing seems right all of a sudden, everything is foreign, threatening and heavy with intent and your instincts tell you that you are not universally aligned with this yet, that you have made a mistake, that you really should not be here. Arriving in Morocco during Ramadan was one of those for me.

Our plane got in from Paris late afternoon and my first Moroccan experience was getting into an argument with the taxi driver. Trying to bring down his rates to what I thought was an acceptable level, 12 months of travelling at least automatically trains you this way. After some heated discussion I was taken over to a faded official looking sign and shown the standard tariffs and made to realize I was undershooting the mark considerably, it was a 30km drive into town. I was gearing myself up a little too much for the infamous Moroccan rip-off I guess, but it set the scene appropriately enough. By the time we reached downtown Casablanca it was 6pm, the taxi driver had been driving way to fast, desperate to get us to our destination so that he could get home to his family to break his fast when the sunset. Can’t say I blame him really, if I hadn’t had anything to eat, drink or smoke all day I would be equally as daring I suspect. As he dropped us off though, he started in with that now familiar drama of pretending not to have any change, (even though I had seen him pull out the right note and hurriedly return it quickly to his pocket). What followed was a feeble show at an attempt to get change from a corner store and then the ‘I need to eat – its Ramadan’, just give it too me because you are a foreigner and must be rich, guilt routine. After our drama at the get-go this was a game I didn’t care to lose, me being a man of principles and all. So I started wandering to a couple of corner stores requesting change until eventually I just bought some water to get it all done. The driver by this time was yelling at me and playing furious. I finally got him his cash and he departed with a tire spin and a whole torrent of abuse in Arabic. Not an auspicious start really.

After that, we roamed a few blocks in downtown Casablanca looking for a hotel. Everything was closed, no shops were open anywhere, dust and rubbish flowed in the streets, young dodgy looking locals and rapid dogs cast nervy, threatening sidelong glances our way and all the hotel owners seemed disinterested to put it mildly. We eventually checked into a relatively clean looking cheapie and since things were now dark outside figured it was safe to go find something to eat. The earlier picture hadn’t changed though and if anything seemed worse, a few coffee shops were open with a scattering of men inside ominously smoking and drinking tea; more young, dangerous looking guys were about and it took us 30 or 40 minutes to find somewhere resembling a restaurant to eat at, there was not another foreigner in sight. As we sat down to order, I had that sinking feeling that I had made a big mistake. Morocco is a dodgy place at the best of times and travelling in Ramadan was obviously not going to work. Nothing of the vibrant, exciting colours and highs of the Morocco experience was going to be accessible. The place was going to be a grumpy, dangerous mortuary of entertainment. The last place in the world you would want to meet your parents for a week of shared travel.

Mom and dad had happened to be in Europe for a few months and since we were both in the same continent and hadn’t seen each other for a few years now, (long before we stated travelling), we had worked out a way to spend a week travelling together. I had sent them some options of places to go, but been pleasantly surprised and excited when they choose Morocco, by far the edgiest of the bunch. Mum, had been a little reticent later on once she had worked out Ramadan was on, but I had confidently reassured her that it would be great – it was the one side of the Muslim world we had yet to really experience in our travels. Now however that all seemed to be a remote pipe dream and extremely ambitious thinking. We were the seasoned travelers in charge of navigation, entertainment, planning, security and the rest. I couldn’t wait to see them, but was anxious to ensure they had a great time and experience and everything went smoothly.

Dinner was naturally a pretty sombre affair as I contemplated all this, an average meal not really helping to boost expectations either. As we walked outside though, (by this time about 9pm or so) the place was dramatically transformed. Suddenly the streets were heaving with people, unsavoury characters magically turned into extended families; cars and motorbikes woven into an intoxicating union of total congestion, while lights of all colours lit up the city in every direction. Stores were open everywhere and every sidewalk cluttered with spot market sellers, even the street cleaners were in operation cleaning up the days mess. The large centre square and fort walls of the old medina, previously abandoned now was a throng of markets and customers, touting all manner of touristy wares, vegetables and mobile phones. But it was the sound itself that left the biggest impression. Noticeably absent before, the place hummed with an energy and positivity that was both infectious and celebratory.

As we wandered the streets catching the mood, all the previous anxiety and tension eased away. The party seemed to continue all night and by morning I couldn’t wait for mom and dad to get here – it was different sure and was going to have it moments, but still going to be a lot of fun! We were just going to have to align ourselves a little differently with this strange new schedule and outlook, but that is what real experiences require anyway!


On Buying Persian Carpets

When we first started our trip, I had a little mental list (and budget set aside) for a few things I intended to pick up […]

When we first started our trip, I had a little mental list (and budget set aside) for a few things I intended to pick up along the way. It was only a small list, I am not really given to souvenir shopping and this trip was quite importantly a chance to de-couple a bit from the material world. But I did like the idea of investing in a few quality pieces, unique embodiments of cultural experiences if you will, where the shopping would be as much part of the travel experience. To date I have only crossed a single item off this list, a small Tibetan Mandala (Thanka) from Nepal, I had also planned to buy a drum in Africa, but nothing really grabbed me there unfortunately and of course I felt compelled to pick up a carpet in Iran. Given Persian carpets are universally considered to be the best in the world, I did not want to pass up the opportunity when making all that effort to actually travel though Iran, it just seemed the logical thing to do.

A stack of carpets, prayer matt on top

Now, I know nothing about carpets really and had done no real research. Up against sellers with thousands of years of history, expertise and skill behind them, this was not a particularly thrilling prospect. Fortunately though, I had a partner in crime. Victor, a great mate from Tokyo had dropped by to join us for the Iranian leg of our adventure and was able to bring a sprinkling of knowledge, some basic background and most importantly some fresh enthusiasm to the quest. Keen as we were though, we still had no reference points in terms of prices, style preferences or quality, so when we spied an expensive looking Iranian carpet trader in a mall in Dubai, we ducked in for a bit of a sighter and practice run.

Carpet shops all tend to operate on a fairly basic formula. You walk into a shop with something interesting in the window or on the walls and starting looking around rather intelligently. The seller will then get excited, offer you a seat and most likely some tea and then start digging into his many piles of carpets. As he opens specific pieces up, he will hold them out and displaying them on the floor, stacked one on top of another into a large pile. Initially he goes through a wide sample of his inventory and as you make a show of appraising each piece, he tries to get a feel for what you are after so he can narrow down the style of carpets you might be in most interested in. When you have both worn out the options, he then goes back through the large pile on the floor one by one discarding any you don’t like. The final pieces are then isolated for your consideration and initial prices are given and more detail provided on the respective carpets background, key features. If something does take your fancy, then the negotiation process begins.

Checking things out (with Victor & Yuko)

What you are interested in is the tricky bit. Carpets tend to come in 3 sizes big, medium and prayer mats (small) and there are thousands of different designs. A few decades ago there were as many as 7 million people making carpets in Iran and carpet shops are just about everywhere, dominating large sections of every bazaar. These days we heard that the number of people has declined to under 1.5 million, but its’ still a lot of people and given that some of the better carpets can take many months to a year to create, its a huge income provider.

Carpets are produced throughout Iran as well as the neighbouring regions of Azabaijan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Turkmenstan. Each area tends to specialize in a different style and carpet shops tend to accumulate their own network of providers or producers within a certain style range (or for those that do target foreigners accumulate a range of carpets that suite the Western taste). Esfahan is probably the most famous region, specializing in pure silk carpet designs of the highest quality with spectacular, complex floral arrangements similar to the designs of the Iranian mosques. But there are many other variants regionally which work to their own traditional patterns. And then there are the nomadic tribes, which produce carpets in their own distinct style based on the things they see around them. Often they can produce totally unique pieces inspired by every day life, with little pre-planning, they are usually slightly flawed but entirely original.

Decision time - Victor is about to buy!

Judging a carpet is a complicated process – carpets tend to be classified (and priced) based firstly on whether they are made from Pure Silk, Pure Wool, Silk / Wool, Wool & Cotton or numerous other subtle variants (ie. camel wool or lambs wool), the gist being that the more silk used, the higher the price. Then there is the quality of the knots; carpets can be single or double knotted and are generally measured on the number of knots to an inch. The more knots the higher the quality which can be easily seen by turning a carpet over, the higher the quality of a carpet the more clear the design on the back of the carpet will appear to be. Age plays a part as well, older carpets tend to be a lot softer and are valued more highly. Starting to get the idea?

My new Zorastrian carpet

As we sat in our Iranian shop in Dubai feigning genuine purchase intent, I started to comprehend this rich and complex world as the carpets mounted on the floor in front of us. The incredible detail and quality of the Esfahan carpets was captivating, but the pre-dominate bright turquoise and white colour schemes just seemed to clash with everything I could conceive and I really wasn’t looking to spend thousands. The nomadic carpets however were much more interesting, deep / rich tones of red, the elegant designs of Turkmen & Belucci seemed to resonate well, more especially with Victor and the price tags around a thousand dollars or so seemed somewhat in reach. We had some benchmarks, some style ideas (and some budgets), promising we would think about we managed to escape the store. We were ready for Iran.

Megumi struggling to tell the difference anymore

After checking out a carpet shop very briefly in Shiraz, we made our way to Yazd in the dry desert centre of Iran. As we were exploring the ancient mud alleys of the city, we stumbled across a small carpet shop with several large backrooms stacked full of what looked to be very interesting designs. Some quick investigations with the manager revealed that the shop specialized in Zorastrian carpets made largely by and for the Zorastrian community and that the carpets had largely all been pre-owned. A pretty interesting angle really, especially as we both had some fascination with the Zorastrian religion and rituals, so Victor and I settled into see what he had. Zorastrian carpets are quite unique in that they feature designs of fire temples, lotuses and many other practical features of daily life that make for especially good ‘carpet sales’ storytelling, it didn’t take either of us long to find something we liked and after going through the motions, had reduced our piles to a few specific final selections and were ready to negotiate. In the end I walked away with a small, 20 year old Zorastrian designed carpet for around $265, he had started at around $300 or so I think, but really had refused to negotiate – it was all price fixed by the community or so he said. I still thought it great value relative to what we had seen in Dubai though and our later forays revealed this to be the casse. Victor nabbed a very nice, medium sized Turkmen as well for about $450.

A carpet warehouse in Tehran Bazaar

Our first big carpet trial and we had bitten the bullet already, which really took the pressure off. We were both happy and with our carpets wrapped up in newspaper and compressed into a small package, we continued onto Esfahan, famed for its bazaar and carpets alike. While Victor already had a big piece, I was still a little looking for one, so the focus was one me to find something I liked. We tried perhaps 4 or 5 tourist friendly stores specializing in nomadic carpets and after sitting down to various welcomes and tea, had hundreds of carpets thrown at us. Steering clear of the expensive Esfahani carpets, the initial ‘wow’ of it all was starting to wear off and while we came close a couple of times nothing was really grabbing me. Megumi meanwhile had started to go carpet blind and could no longer differentiate between them. So we decided to wait and see what the bazaars in Tehran held.

The Tehran bazaar turned out to be a massive labyrinth, largely domestic focused and very difficult to navigate. Carpet touts hang out at the entrances though waiting for tourists like us to rock up and guide them to key market sights and ultimately see their shops. We were found by a couple of such guys in our forays and led through the rabbit warren into huge carpet warehouses, replete with little backrooms on the upper stories for intimate display. All were incredibly friendly, spoke english and tended to specialize again in the nomadic pieces we were more inclined towards. A couple of times we found ones we liked, the price & range definitely better here than Esfahan, but we had a few days to explore, so we kept the pieces on hold and gave ourselves the chance to keep looking. Eventually as it always happens, we were wandering down a small alley, with carpet stores and squares spiralling off to all sides when a young guy speaking good English asked us if we wanted to see his shop. I am in Lonely Planet he said and shouted his name which I actually recognized from the bible. It was a good omen, so we followed him to his little room, braving the lack of air conditioning to check out his range. Jackpot! Hosseiny as it turns out travels a lot across both Iran and neighbouring lands buying interesting carpets from all around, but rather than focus on one style, he had an amazingly diverse range of quality pieces on offer, exactly what we had been looking for.

My final purchase - the Sharvin wonder

After pouring through the wide array of options, we found several pieces we both liked and went through the difficult task of paring it down to a final selection. After some constructive prompting from the support team, I dived in with a magnificent and totally unique masterpiece from a nomadic master near Sharvin in North Eastern Iran, while Victor picked up an excellent quality prayer mat. As luck would have it Hosseiny was also looking to just clear out his inventory so was willing to cut us very good deals just to move his merchandise. (at least that was his rather genuine story) My carpet cost about $600 in the end, he claimed he would normally expect to get at least double that which made me feel good.

Hosseiny showing off his wares

Task and mission over, satisfied buyers both – Victor generously smuggled the pieces back to Japan for me, so I will have to wait another year or so to see them again. It will be a much anticipated reunion. Leaving Iran though, I was also filled of dreams of all the other pieces I would have loved to have bought and likely would have done had I even the remotest possibility of more floor space somewhere down the track. The colours, designs and weaves are all entrancing, but it is the intricate background stories and unique lifestyles wrought in thread that each piece immortalizes, that really draw you in. And in all, I found the experience thoroughly rewarding. The Iranian sales process was not the bullying, intimidation that I had imagined at all, but a largely pleasant, considered interaction and so it always should be I think – culture is being traded here.


Navigating the Middle East

After Africa, the Middle East was intoxicating, from the wilds of nature to the heights of ancient civilizations, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark or indeed welcome. It was ridiculously hot though, as an Australian I should know better than planning to wander around a place in 40 to 50 degree heat. In truth, I had started with a cunning workaround for the Middle East - spring.............................

I have tried (rather ambitiously) to outline the overall experience of the Middle East in a single post here. I have done so, in part laziness perhaps, but more to try and create a sense of continuity or flow to the whole adventure, which is certainly how it felt for us. Where possible of course I will break out the key highlights into separate posts with more detail, so do bear with me!

Our journey through the Middle East

After Africa, the Middle East was intoxicating, from the wilds of nature to the heights of ancient civilizations, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark or indeed welcome. It was ridiculously hot though, as an Australian I should know better than planning to wander around a place in 40 to 50 degree heat. In truth, I had started with a cunning workaround for the Middle East – spring, but an extra week here & there, another month or so in India and suddenly we were more than 2 months behind schedule and waddyano arriving slap, bang in the middle of summer. ‘Off season’, as its called here, basically because everyone else knows its’ ridiculously hot and stay away, did certainly make things a bit cheaper though and for the most part less crowded, so there were some perks to go with the sweat, sand & lethargy.

Everything's just a little different

We were gearing ourselves for our arrival in Egypt, every traveller we met ‘coming the other way’ so to speak, warned us of the touts, ceaseless harassment, scams and hassles. Almost typically though now, we failed to encounter any of it – perhaps the African and Indian legs of our adventures had upped our immune system and tout tolerance to some ultra, advanced level so that everything appeared weirdly normal, or more simply that we were so grateful to be back in the zone of ‘civilization’ we barely noticed; either way it was an altogether pleasant letdown. Cairo turned out to be fascinating in its way – aging European in its downtown construction along the banks of the Nile, peppered with gardens, parks and nice hotels. By day, it was baking hot, dusty, noisy, chaotic traffic and seemingly empty of pedestrians, but truly came alive after sunset. As dusk sets in, the downtown streets pulse with a festival like atmosphere; Egyptians roam the sidewalks in their thousands perusing the endless window displays of plastic manikins advertising chadors, head scarfs, kids clothing, jeans and lingerie. While either side of the Nile, families, courting couples and groups of teens meander arm in arm soaking up the evening breeze and posing for photo’s. Everywhere side alleys teem with street eateries, tables, chairs, tea, backgammon and waterpipes.

You are never far from a sheeshah!

Everything is open til at least 1am here, with young kids happily playing in the streets alongside the adults right up until the shops close. We spent several days simply walking around, soaking this up, so liberating after the confines of Africa. In the cities of Africa, darkness quickly takes on the feel of a demilitarized zone, even by day most streets are off limits and teeming with the threat of violence. Here we felt immediately safe, barely hassled except by the odd friendly greeting, the darkest alleys held no real threat. For me this is an essential component of travel, the ability to explore on foot, meet people and understand a place at street level, take that away and your experience of a place becomes fleeting, sterile, packaged even. Equally, there was an immense satisfaction in these new Muslim environments from the ability to just randomly slump into a sidewalk chair after a day of wandering about and order up ‘2 hookers with some coke’ and not even warrant a second glance from the young, eager staff. Somehow it just doesn’t seem to get old!

And the camels are everywhere!

Underlying all of this of course was a new Islamic presence – everywhere women are covered head to toe, rarely do you see a woman’s hair in Egypt (except for the tourists at least). At minimum there is a scarf covering the head, with a white or black hair net underneath, certainly no arms or legs on display and at maximum a full black chador with only two slits for eyes and gloves. It certainly set the benchmark for the Middle Eastern experience; we found few other places as conservative as this. Mosques dot the skylines in all directions, with the grandest in old Cairo around the great souq / market. Although I have somehow evolved the ability to sleep in heavily over the years (now suddenly useful), Megumi awakes with the first call to prayer at 5am. And the subsequent day is peppered with the resounding repeats through the ever omnipresent loudspeakers for the morning, lunch and evening renditions. Accordingly people stop, close their shops and disappear in their respective directions for their prayer efforts. Green carpets suddenly fill the alleys and barefooted men, ablutionblocks mysteriously appear, previously unnoticed or dismissed as fountains as barefooted men go about their cleansing. At first this is disorientating – nothing seems open when you need it. But after a few days, you adapt to the rhythm and adjust to the routine that Muslim life necessitates.

Chadors' Cairo style, a million shades of black

Then amongst all this of course came the World Cup, the Egyptians (and the Middle East) is especially nuts about football, as just about everywhere is of course (outside India, the States & Australia anyway). Suddenly the entire days schedule seemed to fill up. After lunchtime prayers comes the first game at 2.30pm, followed by evening prayers and a second game at 5.00pm, before the final game of the day post evening prayers around 9.30pm. As a result all functional accomplishment seemed to rightly disappear with the heat, most particularly in the evening, as the streets filled with chairs and sheeshahs, all universally pointed in the direction of a TV. We were quite happy just to be carried along with it.

One of the Giza Pyramids in the desert dust

After the essential pharaonic explorations in Cairo and up the Nile to Aswan & Luxor, we journeyed by bus from Cairo down to the Sinai region and ultimately Dahab. A journey that crossed the Suez canal (an anti-climax) and along the arid shores of the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba; then upon entering Sinai proceeded to be bogged down with innumerable security stops and checks. I seem to remember at least a dozen occasions that a young, smartly dressed Egyptian guy packing a piece, got on the bus and worked through each passengers’ passport or ID. On other occasions a road hump and street block worked the bus into a controlled traffic channel so that papers & vehicles could be expected. Terrorist bombings targeting tourists in this region (the most recent a couple of years back) have ensured such a close lock down, but it was still quite unexpected. Two young Egyptian guys in the seat in front of me actually got pulled off the bus – their national ID cards casting enough doubt around for some further questioning. It was also the first time in our travels that I have seen real military presence & weapons build up. In parts of Asia, India and Africa you almost get used to men standing around with machine guns on every corner. But several times on the side of the road we passed tank & armoured car divisions, the largest some 30 odd tanks neatly lined up ready for deployment. Somewhat guiltily, it excites and tickles the adrenaline all this stuff – too many war comics, computer games and action movies as a kid I guess.

Desert adventures in Wadi Rum

Dahab is a curious place, once a tiny Bedouin camp in the desert it has evolved from hippy haunt to tourist mecca attracting all range of folk and budget travellers. Restaurants, hostels, pensions and trinkets peddlers line a thin strip of shallow coral, where the ocean drops off into a deep trench. It’s a pleasant enough place to relax, though if you don’t fancy camel rides in the desert, apart from climbing Mt Sinai and visiting Katherine’s Monastery (ie the site of Moses’ burning bush) or diving there was little else to do. (which is probably the point actually). We had heard that the Red Sea is some of the best diving around, but while it was enjoyable it didnt match the splendour, colour and diversity of Australia or Thailand, though perhaps I have been a bit spoilt here. In all I found Dahab, a little too touristy, it felt like it was trying too hard to be a ‘Thailand clone’, albeit short on trees and good food. Mind you, we have left the whole ‘holiday mode’ a long way behind us now, so perhaps we were just struggling to relate to the myriad of Russians, Brits and Europeans on their 2 week sabbaticals.

Bedouin musicians in Petra

From Egypt, we crossed the Red Sea by fast ferry to Aqaba in Jordan – the Ferry was fast in operation only and we ultimately boarded some 5 hours late. Although while waiting in the large departure shed, we did manage to befriend an Irish, Polish and Chinese crew, bonding during the tedium of our shared adversity and who generously gave us a ride to Petra later on. Crossing the border by boat was not that interesting; visas and stamps were all collected on board the funky, cruise ship that also featured a fascinating assortment of Duty Free shopping obviously not targeted at the traveller market that made up the ships current consignment. (ie pots, pans, stereos, televisions, irons, washing machines).

Monastery roof overlooking Petra

Petra was amazing and worth another post in itself. Like the pyramids it was one of our key pilgrimage goals for the Middle East and everything we expected really. The entry to the secret valley through the 3 km winding carved rock channel to first view the great treasury building is exceptionally memorable. We ended up spending 3 days there exploring the ruins til late in the evening, meeting Bedouin lads and other fellow travellers. Without a doubt the highlight was an hour’s climb up the mountain past the main sights to the Monastery for a sunset. Here a friendly collective of Bedouin ran café’s overlooking spectacular viewpoints and sat around playing beautiful music on flutes and lyre and escorting us up secret paths to the Monastery roof. It was magical in every respect and quite ingratiating. We found the Jordanians – Bedouins and Palestinians to be genuinely warm, welcoming, liberal and relaxed, noticeably different from the Egyptians. We then followed that up with an overnight stay in Wadi Rum a 1 hour share taxi away, which is how Jordan seems to operate transport wise, soaking up the sublime landscape and some Bedouin hospitality with a tented camp in the desert. An experience shared with another Irishman we had befriended atop a rock at the Monastery and an Indian woman on leave, while her husband sat for a Doctor’s exam. As fascinating as DH Lawrence’s playground, the desert Bedouin and the landscape was, one day was enough in the heat and we headed onward to Amman, an entirely modern city, where we spent a night, doing little more than watch football with some locals before heading onto Syria and Damascus.

Random bazaar shop in old Damascus

Damascus was one of the real highlights of our trip so far. After securing our Visa’s (Syrian was one of our most interesting experiences yet), we arrived mid afternoon and checked into the Al Rabie hotel, a beautifully restored old Damascan house with a large shared, open courtyard and pleasant rooms, then set about exploring the old town. Damascus lays claim to being the oldest continuously habited city (though it seems every country has one claim to this mantle in the Middle East) and the place teems with a labyrinth of landmarks, historical sights, pilgrims, shops and culture. Old Damascus is a curious mix of Sunni & Shia Muslim pilgrims, Christians and tourists; it shares space with ancient roman ruins, mosques with sacred Muslim sights (including the Prophet ‘John the Baptists’ head & Immam Reza’s tomb), along with Christian landmarks (ie the location of Paul’s conversion and escape); there are also palaces, forts and beautiful old houses here, all adorned with their quirky variations on the ‘copper hand’ doorknockers. But it is the markets and café’s that are most bewitch – The bazaar an intricate network of beautiful wooden doors, paved alleys all heaving with Damascus’ famed inlaid handicrafts, metalwork and fabrics, complimented nicely by the plethora of interesting café’s and restaurants scattered throughout and seemingly hiding around every corner or alleyway. It’s simply an amazing place to explore; the food fantastic & the Syrian people incredibly friendly and welcoming; a long way from the terrorist sponsoring underground of popular fiction. Damascus also coincided with the chance to reconnect with Lindz & Catie – fellow trekkers we had met in Nepal. They had come down via Iran / Iraq and Turkey, so we had plenty of catching up to do and information to trade for which we managed to raid a bar in the Christian quarter to happily facilitate!

View of the Palmyra ruins at Sunset

Dragging ourselves away from Damascus we headed out along the road to Baghdad for Palmyra, and its stunning ancient Roman ruins close to the Iraqi border. Amazingly we had the whole place to ourselves (actually not really so surprising in the 50 degree heat I guess) and little competition for food or hotels. I also ended up watching a world cup quarter final with 50 other local Syrian men at the only place showing the game in town. Heading back inland, we passed a jet fighter base; each plane spectacularly silhouetted under its own bomb proof hanger roof, the surrounding network of hills was peppered with a beehive of deep bunkers, missile defense systems and sophisticated radar gear, as a spectacle it was almost more exciting than the ruins.

Ruin riding in the Dead cities

Leaving the desert behind, we based ourselves at a small town called Hama, famous for its network of large wooden windmills (there are almost 30 of them) called Noria’s that line the river and once used to channel water for the town. Some of the windmills are up to 1,500 years and as these babies turn with the water, they make a deep, eerie double base-like melody. Alongside the river, the entire town seems to reverberate with its melancholic rhythms. “When they stop”, a local told me,“ no-one can sleep here, it’s as though its’ the towns heartbeat”. In Hama, we connected with an English couple and an American woman (one of the few with a Syrian Visa) to explore the captivating nearby castle fort of Crac De Chaveliers as a day tour (booked through the hostel) and on a subsequent day, the Dead Cities, a tiny sample of some of the 700 stone village skeletons that litter the region, all strangely abandoned some thousand years before. We then spent a day getting lost in the souqs of Aleppo, the largest bazaar in the world and while not quite on a par with those of Damascus, we did take the chance to stock up on some of Aleppo’s famed olive soap before dashing across the border to Turkey.

Some Cappadocian Faerie towers

After a brief, enforced schedule stop in the pretty border town of Antakya, we made our way to the stunning Cappadocia region in central Turkey. Arriving in Turkey was for us a ‘return to the first world’ after a 4 month Hiatus, the first time since South Africa probably that we were in a country that bare skin & uncovered heads abounded, shopping brands were familiar and many other creature comforts long forgotten, slowly could rear their heads to grateful recognition. Cappadocia and specifically Goreme, where we were based, was magical. The sculpted, hollow basalt towers, valleys and underground cities that define it, easily occupied several days of relaxed, but intrepid adventuring. Continuing onto Istanbul, we bypassed the rest of Turkey for the moment (it is more European these days anyway), rushing to connect with a flight to Dubai (via Kuwait) in order to meet up with Victor & Yuko (friends from Japan) ahead of exploring Iran.

Tallest tower in the world - Dubai

Dubai was fascinating in itself. After exploring the ancient Middle East, seeing the regions most ambitious variant was a great counterbalance and poignant moment of pause to add to our experiences. Almost a more conservative local Muslim society than any other we have been to, the scale, architecture, ambition and almost insanity (rapidly being proved by its bankcrupcy) of the Emirates is something to behold. Not that there is a lot to do here; we explored endless air conditioned malls, climbed the worlds tallest building and found our way to Atlantis, a Disney style water park located at the very palm fronded-end of the man made miracle that is the Palm shaped Island resort (1 of 3). Dubai is a place, desperately trying to be relevant. Enshrined in its innumerable, albeit largely empty office towers there is an audacious lure to the world’s elite companies trying to plug an economic hole. While the malls, hotels and amusements serve to placate, tempt and distract the wealthy local population and tourists alike. Wajid and his wife, friends of Victor played fantastic hosts to us during our stay here and while there is no escaping the resultant hole in the wallet that Dubai aims to provide, it did prove a fantastic base to reconnect with old friends and witness an ‘other side’ that we had necessarily been avoiding in our budget driven country selection criteria’s to date.

The ancient ruins of Persepolis

Jumping a plane to Shiraz (via Bahrain) with Victor and Yuko, we then set about exploring Iran. As a group of 4 people, we were almost our own tour group and while it took a little while to align pace and style, it came as a welcome change to our usual, isolated random adventuring, not least because I had a carpet buying buddy! Iran itself defies all those preconceived stereotypes and notions, unwittingly forced on us by a relentless western media fuelled (literally) with ulterior motives. In reality, it is a highly modern, liberal and socially vibrant place, its people easily the most welcoming and friendly we have experienced anywhere in our travels. Far from the black cosseted images of the TV, Iranian people (outside the Mosques at least) are largely dressed in a Western fashion and are quite happy to speak their minds. The strict head covering laws are cursorily adhered to with scarfs precariously balanced on the back of the head; freeing up space for a wide range of dramatic fringes, coupled with fashionable, clinging trench coats. It exists in stark comparison with the other more conservative worlds of its Middle Eastern compatriots. Iran has more of a socialist feel to it vs the Arab world; more of a middle class society, with the sort of shared facilities that would be the envy of most countries; free cold water everywhere, incredibly cheap transport infrastructure and clean, fantastically maintained public facilities. Immediately the place welcomes you and enchants, simultaneously birthing ‘an immediate questioning’ of the inherent Western programming and ideas that you see compromised in front of you. In this way Iran was similar to my first encounter with Moscow and more recently those of Syria and Myanmar. This surprise, questioning factor is what makes travel so remarkable I think and creates truly treasured experiences.

The mud alleyways of Yazd

From wandering the pleasant congenial bazaars, museums and mosques of Shiraz, we explored the ancient desert remnants of the original ‘paradise’, Cyrus the Greats’ former palace in Parsegard and the Persian empires’ subsequent crowning glory, the architectural marvel of Persepolis. After becoming ‘star attractions’ at the Shiraz bus stop (there really are few tourist here), we made our way to the sacred, desert city of Yazd. A truly unique mud brick city, parts of which that wouldn’t be out of place on a Star Wars set, Yazd is famed for its sacred Mosques, Zorastrian sky burial towers and an urban skyline of wind cooling towers. Staying at the Silk Road Hotel, a classic, traditional Iranian house with a large open courtyard and (uniquely in Iran) a somewhat varied (ie non-kebab) cuisine, we explored the numerous mud alleys, bought some (Zorastrian) carpets and soaked up the unique location and architecture.

From there we bounced to Esfahan, my favourite city in the Middle East by far. Magical mosques, enchanting markets, tea-houses, parks, bridges and simply the friendliest most welcoming people I have met anywhere. Perhaps our most defining experience of Iran was experienced here, during a sunset over the Khaju bridge, one of many ancient bridges that line the river and parks in Esfahan. As the light set, the arches under the bridge played host to a variety of beautiful candle light talents, as men (young and old) took turns to recite poetry, dance and singing traditional folk songs to the gathering crowds of locals; picnicking, socializing and enjoying the parks in their thousands, as they do quite religiously everywhere in Iran. It was a true cultural and artistic embrace, the like of which you would struggle to match anywhere first world I think – this must be what happens to societies left to their own devices; devoid of good TV or computer games!

Mesmerising Mosque ceilings in Esfahan

From Esfahan, we enjoyed a strange overnight adventure in Quom, the holiest city in Iran and HQ for many of the Ayatollahs, Mullah’ s and clerics of the Islamic regime. Arriving here was easily the most surreal experience of the journey, our alien nature was never more acutely obvious than in the faces of the thousands of black covered Shiite pilgrims as we hauled our backpacks across the square to a small Arabian hotel, full of Iraqi and Saudi pilgrims. This we contrasted with 2 days staying in remote Ghakor Khan, a tiny village hidden in the spectacular Alamut Valley mountains and a great place to break the heat. The Alamut valley is home to the famed ‘Castles of the Assassins’. The veritable ninjas of the Middle East, these ancient Persian magicians were famed for their use of opiates, strange witchcraft and animist rituals, as for hire assassins. There are about 50 ruined castles that dot, the bare, bleak mountain ranges cliff tops here and its easy to imagine that time into being. We climbed up to the one of the most famed castles above the town, for a sunset, while the castles are quite ruined now, destroyed by Genghis long ago, they still echo with wonder and provide for magnificent views over the surrounding valleys and hills.

With Victor & the serious biz of carpet buying

Our final Iranian stop was Tehran, here we again braved the huge Bazaar and picked up some exotic nomadic carpets and soaked up many of the sights on offer. Tehran was not nearly as chaotic, crowded, polluted or unpleasant as I had heard. The subway is more like Tokyo, there are great parks, fantastic monuments and museums showcasing the wealth of the Shahs and rich Persian (and most human) history. Amongst the very fashionable, sexy locals there is also a strong vibrant artistic scene, strangely echoed by the fantastic ‘side-of-a-building’ Islamic propaganda artworks that appear on every corner. Of course every big city has a dark side and Victor lost his camera to a motorcycle ‘snatch and grab’ job, that while devasting in its photo loss, was still captivating in that several riders immediately pulled up, told him to jump on as they tried to give chase to the bandits. I’m not sure where else that would occur.

Fantastic anti-US propaganda pieces abound

After saying sad farewell to Victor and Yuko however, we returned to Istanbul. Happily basking in the experience and soaking up our return to civilization, we were back in the once again foreign land of bare skin, tight fitting clothing and international cuisine. The Middle East has been a fantastic experience for its difference, often unexpected. Old cultures, history and values, so strong and vigorous, some of the safest, most friendly and welcoming people in the world; amazing quality handicrafts, bazaars and sublime architecture and for the most part, good food! As the first world kicks back in again with its’ me first agenda, I realize I will miss the honesty, respect and integrity afforded people in Muslim society. There is much more than a shared history that these people offer us and I feel infinitely better for being able to shake off (for good I hope) many of the stereotypes that have been unwittingly thrust my way. Europe is next and should prove quite the contrast!


Cappidocian Dreaming

You would think after 2 months of exploring ancient cities, ruins and cave dwellings, we would get a bit tired of all this. But every […]

You would think after 2 months of exploring ancient cities, ruins and cave dwellings, we would get a bit tired of all this. But every destination somehow entices, re-invigorates and sets wild the imagination in new ways. In all likelihood I also possess some strange, exotic historic positivity gene I suppose.

Our impromptu Antioch guide, Burtak

After our border shenanigans in Syria, we arrived in Antakya, Turkey mid morning only to find the connecting bus to Cappidocia was full and we were going to have to wait until 8.30pm that evening for another. Resigned to the delay, we set about a late breakfast at the Otogar – the amazing Turkish bus depots that seem to operate like airports here, with their myriad of services, restaurants and comforts. Figuring we had about 8 hours to kill, we inquired after a service bus into town and were instead offered a lift by a genial older gentleman named Burtak. Speaking little English, but with the aid of numerous hand gestures, some French and a few pages of a pretty limiting Japanese–Turkish glossary (mostly food references) in Megumi’s guide book, he proceeded to take us on a guided tour of his town. At first we weren’t too sure of his angle, being the somewhat wary travelers that we have had to become at times. A trip up to the hills overlooking the city in order to show us the great cave cathedral where Paul and Peter met in a series of meetings that laid the foundation for the modern Christian church, pretty much convinced us of his genuine enthusiasm and commitment to taking us on a tour though.

From a series of hand gestures and the odd successfully translated phrase we worked out that he was a teacher and worked to rehabilitate people suffered from head injuries or something like that – if not it was a beautiful lost in translation exercise. He then drove us about the picturesque town of Antakya (or Antioch as it was once known) for the better part of an hour; all of which gave off every feeling of having arrived at the Mediterranean and indeed the western world. Women wore tight clothing, hair and skin was displayed freely, sidewalks abounded with café’s and familiar brands with their requisite advertising popped up everywhere. It was all very welcome. We said goodbye to Burtak (a really fabulous gesture of hospitality) at a fascinating museum full of Byzantium Mosaics, then spent the afternoon patrolling the pleasant shops, restaurants and eateries either side of the river, people spotting and eventually settling into a pub to watch a world cup quarter final.

Breakfast over Goreme

The next morning we arrived in Goreme, Cappidocia after catching possibly the most impressive overnight busride of my life. The back of each bus seat actually had its own TV monitor similar to those in the latest airplanes to chose movies from, plus USB ports so that we could review photos or listen to MP3’s etc. It was still early in the morning, but any claims to tiredness were easily overcome by the mystique cast by the towering rock formations growing up all over town. We set about exploring the place and found a nice pension with rooms carved into the rock-face (ie a cave room), with beds directly carved out of the mountainside itself and featured nice views over the stunning surrounding valley. Rooms are relatively cheap here as there is plenty of competition in town and the locals are very friendly. I had already forged a blood bond with a neighbour over our shared Anzac / WW1 tradition while checking out a room. It boded well – unpacked, breakfasted & relaxed – we had finally arrived.

The Selene Monastery

Cappidocia is one of those places you would expect to only exist in children’s books. Strewn with valleys of strange ‘soft-serve’ shaped rock formations and towers of basalt, its curious geology has attracted people here since the Hittites in ancient times. The region features some 200 underground cities carved up to 7 stories below ground. While the basalt towers themselves have housed monasteries, churches, pigeons and people since the times of Christ – thousands of rock caves and homes are carved into the rock formations everywhere the eye can see. The towers themselves are known as fairy chimneys, because passing travelers on the old silk road, would see candle lights set in the holes of rocks towers from the many hermits and monks ensconced here. To the passers by though, it appeared as though fairy were at play amongst the eerie landscape. It’s a remarkably easy tale to believe actually, the place has that magical quality to it.

Cappidocian tourist trinkets

These days Goreme, one of the many small villages in the Cappidocia expanse is tourist grand central. Hundreds of pensions have been carved into the surrounding rocks and the village centre has been transformed into an epicenter for all the corresponding creature comforts, with a myriad of restaurants, bars and gift shops competing for attention. Just a short walk from this in seemingly every direction though, life remains much the same and villagers go about their daily life the same way as ever. Surrounding valleys are covered with grape vines on plots established long ago and brought under cultivation through the harvesting of pigeon shit via pigeon holes (houses) carved into many of the rock towers. Seriously, everywhere you look you can see the small holes at the top of the rock formations that served as pigeon fertilizer factories! Donkeys and horses still patrol the village roads and fields around and after dusk all the villagers tend to congregate outside their houses for tea and Nargilehs(water pipes) with the extended family in almost timeless fashion.

Rockface houses of the Ilhra valley

Naturally there is no shortage of tours or tour companies here, keen to package the sights. We signed up for a tour to visit some of the more far flung highlights and spent a whole day stopping at different viewpoints and experiencing the largest of the underground cities in Derinkuyu; a fascinating multilevel, 7 story, labyrinth below ground. Initially these were used by the Hittites simply for food storage and cooking in ancient times, but subsequently expanded by the early Christians in the Byzantine era to become full serving vertical villages defendable from persecuting invaders. Complete with churches and innumerable hidey holes, storage rooms, ventilation shafts and other spaces we can only begin to imagine uses for, each village is also amazingly connected to the next several kilometers away by a series of sealing tunnels far below ground as part of their defense network.

We also explored the Ilhra valley where numerous churches are carved into the valley walls and the stunning ‘Selene monastery’, a complex carved into a mountain with innumerable halls, rooms and other levels rising up the mountain rock-face. We then finished the day by soaking up the stunning sunset over Goreme and the cascading evening shades of the Pigeon, Rose and other surrounding valleys. We have done more sunsets in the last year than I can remember ever consciously doing. It just doesn’t seem to get tired, but our photography skills are really not improving at all with the practice.

Small village or pile of rubble?

Done with tours, the next day packed to the gills with liquid we braved the heat to spend the day trekking through the various surrounding valleys and landscapes on our own tod. Cappidocia is a rabbit warren of hidden valleys and features, each of the surrounding valleys surrounding Goreme features different colours and formations. Starting with the open air museum a couple of km out of town, the museum is really a valley of towers that served as a monastery – complete with a series of churches and catherdrals carved into the rock faces. From there, we happily stepped off the reservation got ourselves lost, traipsing through the various shades of the White, Rose, Pigeon, Red, Swords and Honeycomb valley formations. Along the way, we forged our own paths through seemingly forgotten vineyards and abandoned towers – once homes or monasteries long since loved. The combination of colours and bewildering rock formations was mesmerizing, a blank canvas for the creative imaginings of times past or dimensions distant. 8 hours or so later we emerged back on to a main road at another valley, a site full of rock formations that resemble mushrooms, where we caught the bus some 17km back to into town. A really enjoyable day!

The soft serve Rose Valley

Cappidocia is such a weird profusion of natural geological wonders, seemingly perfectly intertwined and adapted for mans requirements throughout history whether fleeing persecution or seeking spiritual seclusion. Yet despite its popularity, its an area still vibrantly and culturally alive, the Turkish people of the region going about the habits largely unencumbered by the tourist influx at work. It’s truly a magical, sacred pace. We could have tarried here much longer had we not a pressing engagement with the great Persian empire.