Thursday, July 6, 2017

Nordkapp with Explore: 10-25 June 2017

If it hadn't been for an Email from a fellow traveler notifying me of Explore's new series of recce trips, I would have missed this experience.  St Petersburg to Murmansk, with several off beat stops along the way, then over to Kirkenes to Alta via Nordkapp and the Knivskjellodden trek to the end of the earth,  finishing at Tromso.  Sixteen of us, all mature travelers.  Excepting me, all from the Commonwea[th:  English, Scots, Kiwis and Canadian.  More men than women.  One other in his eighties - managing with a cane. 

And we weren't the only visitors - there were buses with Asians and Europeans, particularly  in Norway where we were overwhelmed with a  plethora of caravans, trailers and campers.  The scenery was often extraordinary:  clear, crisp air.  Some glaciers and snow patches contrasting with the forests and permafrost.

 In Russia, the sky was overcast;  less  so in  Norway.  We traveled by minibus and train and big bus.   I found my Arctic jacket courtesy of Quark from last year's North Pole trip, an asset - good for rain and cold.  Bright yellow, I couldn't get lost. 

I like St Petersburg.  Been there four times, from the 1990s to 2015.  The old Imperial architecture
always awes me.  I could have skipped the Hermitage tour, particularly  as it did not take us to the new annex.  But then, I had been there before.  And it is a Must Do for the St Petersburg visitor.  Toured the City - always a joy.

Then came the crash!  Mine!  While the group visited Peterhof Park, Kronstadt Miliiary Fort and Ft Alexander 1, I conked out on the back seat of the bus.  It was a wet day but I cared less:  only got out of the bus when the driver escorted me to the toilet.  Sorry I missed the visits for I hadn't been there before, but just wasn't in the cards. ( I was told there was a substitution for one of the Forts.)   I was able to tote my bag onto the sleeper, where I barely made up a bed before crashing again.  Ah, the joys of the Night Train to Petrozavodsk!

Just hacked and coughed for the rest of the tour - mobile but not at my best.  Several others joined me, including the Scotswomen and my Canadian roommate. 

We were  at Kizhi and Solovetsky Islands. Both UNESCO sites:   one an open air  museum of traditional wooden buildings and the other, a  Monastery complex used as a political prison in Soviet times.  A guide at the  open air museum,  was  vehemently anti Gorbachev and pro Putan.  We were in areas rich in history, controlled by Finns and Swedes in the past.   Boat rides from the mainland to the Islands.  Then back to Kem for the Night Train to Murmansk!

I had been in Murmansk for the first time last year - a quick tour through town from airport to dock.  It had impressed me as a combination of St Petersburg  styling and crumbling Soviet design.  After several days there, my impression didn't change.  Unkept would describe it.  We went
to several museums - one of Political  History was most interesting.- the original nuclear icebreaker, Lenin  and  the small British Naval Cemetery -  better maintained  than most of Murmansk - but  well hidden by commercial ventures. Was impressed with local grocery stores - well stocked and organized. 

Then to Kirkenes - where I had been Christmastimer during the 1990s.  Though the Russians were loath to met me go:  the border officer, a perfectly groomed woman, went through my passport, age by page, had me take of cap and glasses to check identification, and then called over two colleagues to check me out.  Her concern was whether I had been in Moscow.  Our Russian guide was bewildered as, apparently, were the Russian border official's associates.  I finally passed through.  Suspect the US passport threw her off. 

Along the way, stopped at a rebuilt Russian monastery, most northern one in Russia.  Much history apparently hoping to manage as a tourist stop. Then Norway: Clean and neat,  Reminded me of a big IKEA store.
Except the Ekkeroy bird cliffs which sea gulls, buzzards and others had decorated in their distinctive fashion. And noisy?   Adjacent was a small museum/store run by a Dutch expat.  Most interesting woman. 

Than the Piece de resistance:  The eighteen kilometres walk to the northernmost end of mainland Europe,  Northkapp. just up the road, was the tourist spot but not the real thing.  I had dreaded but anticipated this walk.  As it turned out, didn't need to for i was not in shape to make a stab at it - though  was a dry though cold day. I stayed inside the hotel.  As did three others.  We didn't get to Nordkapp as there was a per person charge and our guide decided that was just too much.   The ones that did the walk deserved all  kudos for their effort. 

Then Alta, an important Finnmark town and related with the Sami 
culture.  An excellent museum built about amazing rock carvings from 4200-500 BC.   And time at the Tirpitz Museun where that docent took time to show us about the area, including where the Tirpitz was finally destroyed.  Got out and did some walking out to old German fortifications.

The final stop was at Tromso, a very New England looking town. Usual town tour. Ran into a waiter, originally from Pennsylvania via Canada.   Spent time at  a nearby island shot with sand and seashells.  Lovely place.  
  A fitting ending.

So started the trek home, which involved more time sitting in airports than in the air.  I'm still recovering.

Tour: They tried to get it all in. Even so, there was a fair amount of free time to do your own thing.   Several long driving days sans lunch break.  Guide was an attractive Russian woman who took us to her Dasha - met husband, son and mother-in-law.  Most importantly, I had a great roommate.  And was great traveling with my friend of past experiences..

Accommodations: Good to Very Good.  I really liked the hotel in Murmansk which was a rather anonymous building, identified only by a bit of  metal scaffolding and a small sign at the door.  The cook, also waited  tables, was a delight:  rushing about with the oatmeal, crepes and eggs for us in the AM.

Cost:  Close to $7000, including $1500 airfare, $3000 tour,and $720 cat care. 




Friday, May 12, 2017

Traveling with Julia. Hawaii April 2017.

December 2016 was replete with television documentaries about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 1941.  If there was any war that impacted me, it was WW2.  I was staying in San Diego, a navy town if ever there was one, when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Shortly thereafter, Japanese-American schoolmates disappeared from the classroom  I was twelve and in the sixth grade. 

By 8th grade, I was back in South Dakota, busy as a Civil Air Patrol cadet learning Morse code for Pierre now had an Air Force field and Japanese subs off the Washington Coast sent incendaries out our way.

Fast forward to college days when I met and married a WW2 Navy vet, who had been at Pearl Harbor shortly after the Attack when his ship towed a dry dock from Honolulu to Sidney, Australia.  He then spent most of the war years at New Caledonia.

This then is the back story of my interest in Hawaii and, specifically, Pearl Harbor.

Mentioning this in ballet class - yes, I still do a twice weekly barrĂ© - a fellow student mentioned she had a time-share in Waikiki and would I like company?  Yes - but understanding I planned to go for the history:  a Pearl Harbor tour and a flight to visit Father Damien's leper colony.  Beyond that, I was flexible.  Later, I added a meeting with with an old comrade from Marin county Probation days who became active in Hawaiian politics.  Julia's plan was to swim as often as possible.  We were there a week.

Julia had an I-phone and knew how to use it!  In addition to my tours and meeting, we traveled about O'ahu via Fiat - the transmission left something to be desired for it stuttered between 2nd and 3rd gear - and local bus.  She was familiar with a plethora of street cafes with good inexpensive food and introduced me to shaved ice.  I found Kukaniloko Birthstones State Monument on of the loveliest places I've ever seen.  And we marched in Honoluu's Cliate Change Protest.  

Julia had been in Hawaii numerous times for her son had done his doctoral study there.  With her, I had my own personal guide.

Waiki is skyscraper hotels, shops and tourist with a daily manicured beach.  Much of Honolulu is big city and freeway surrounded by neighborhoods of housing, schools and shops.  Moving out on the island are beaches and small communities built around them.  Scene with much green foliage.  Tropical.

The Pearl Harbor tour included not only the Arizona Memorial but the battleship USS Missouri where Japan formally surrendered, a wander through the submarine USS Bowfin, the Aviation Museum, the Punchbowl Cemetary with drive bys of various State and City grounds.  Extensive.

I was impressed by how subdued the usually noisy tourists were on the ferry to and at the USS Arizona Memorial.  Particularly moved was the newly inscribed name of a recently deceased crewman who chose to be entombed with his shipmates of seventy five years ago.  Could have spent more time at the Aviation Museum - the docent here was outstanding and there was so much to see, including the Senior Bush's old Stearman - a model of  aircraft I've always want to fly in.

The fllights from Honolulu to Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai were great - it was a Cessna Caravan - and you could see ocean and island.  I had forgotten how much I love flying in small aircraft.  The Peninsula where lepers were housed in early days was exquisite, even with decrepit buildings about.  As the disease has now responded to modern medical treatment, there is no need for the colony, though eight former patients continue to live there.  One tour person walked down and the rest rode mules from the cliffs above.  I had no regrets about choosing to fly in. 

Courtesy of her I-phone, Julia found a march supporting Science and Climate change.  So up and at 'em!  About a thousand participants gathered with police supervision.  As on the mainland, it seemed a gathering of Professionals and the Middle class, retired and younger folk and women.  Some I'm sure were part of the Veitnam era protests.  Enthuiastic but peaceful bunch.  My third demonstration of the year!

Our meet up and lunch with my fellow worker of past years was in Chinatown, where he had his office.  Enjoyed getting together - we're likely two of handful left of that time.  He felt his stay at Probation was a seminal point in his professional life - he had drifted into the job at his brother's suggestion.  From there he had gone on to earn his doctorate and then into politics, where he obviously thrived. 

Raining the last day of our stay, we drifted into the Army Museum at Fort Derussy.  Originally Battery Randolph, it was completed as part of the coastal defense in 1911.  Now Morphed into a showcase of artifacts from early Hawaiian warfare through Vietnam - it included a Cobra helicopter.  One exhibition was devoted to the Japanese-Americans who served in WW2,  another to General Eric Shinseki, local boy made good!  I'm always fascinated how building designed for one purpose are redesigned for another.  They have done a good job here:  reminded me of the Military Meusum in Muscat, Oman.

It was a good trip, mostly due to Julia with hr knowledge of the Island and skill in maximizing the I-phone capabilities.  Plus her investment in the Time-share.  

Accommodation::  The time share at the Hilton Hawaiian Village was larger than my apartment.  Full
kitchen. The  bathtub in the sleeping area at the door into the bathroom was a design anomaly.   

Meals:  We bought groceries on the way in, so had breakfast and supper - often left overs from the noon meal - in the rom.  Estimated cost:  $250pp.

Tours:  $500pp

Transportation:  Hawaiian Air over and Alaska Air on the return; both from San Jose.  $442.40pp.

Miscellaneous:  Cat care $310.

NB:  Gonna have to buy an I-phone!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Return to Lebanon: February 2017


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I had last been in Lebanon in Oct 2005 as part of a three country Middle East sight seeing tour with Explore.  Several months after a popular Prime Minister had been assassinated.  Floral tributes were still across the way from the St George's Hotel where the act had occurred.   And now the son has his father's job.  With sectarianism and corruption still problems with the added impact of Syrian refugees to the long time Palestinians. Still a fractured country., continuing to be impacted by Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria. 

This time I booked with Political Tours, which does a short term - in this instance, eight days -  study of the whys and wherefores of countries in crisis.  A  field study which includes interviews with various participants in the political scene.  I've gone with them  four times before   and came away with an appreciation of that particular country's problems.  (In my notes, I called it a graduate seminar on wheels.)

This tour group was all American excluding one Australian journalist:  three couples and a media person, all  from he East Coast.  The couples, all friends,  included a retired diplomat, several attorneys, a financier and a literary agent. With us was Nicholas Wood and Karen Davey, operators of  Political Tours. Nicholas is a Brit, a former Journalist while Karen  is a South African doctor.  

We started in Beirut, then South to Tyre, Chtaura and Baalbeck before returning to Beirut.   We visited  both Palestinian  and Syrian  refugee camps  and a former Hezbollah base, now a tourist center.  We drove along the Blue line. the border redrawn in 2000.  And there was wine tasting in the Bekaa Valley.  Plus crawling about Beauford Castle, a crusader castle which had been more recently affected  by the various conflicts. There was a glorious view of Lebanon, Israel and Syria at the meeting of the borders. 

We talked  with a local Hezbollah supported mayor, a volunteer Christian militiaman, an arts advocate and NGOs providing services at a Syrian camp -  one was a US citizen, a PhD,  spending two years there as a volunteer. Another camp backed up to the ancient road and hippodrome at Tyre - the now and then of Lebanon.    Met with another mayor, a former General, also acceptable to Hezbollah, a major influence in this country, which is ruled by designated Sunni, Shia, and Christian forces with bits and pieces of other sects thrown in.

We did wander about the ruins of Baalbeck and  into the old Palmyra Hotel, that once housed deGaulle, Churchill and Cocteau.  Throughout, we had the commentary of Nicholas Blanford, longtime Lebanon-based Journalist and author.  He had an amazing memory, with details of   significant  events at his fingertips. 

In Beirut, there was time with Robert Fish, another long time observer of Middle Eastern politics, Journalist and author.  I had read some of his stuff before and after my earlier foray into Lebanon and was an admirer of his work. He had been present at many of the significant events affecting the region.   Michael Young and  Jim Muir were two other journalists who spent time with our group.  And really running the show was British-Lebanese  journalist and "fixer" Leena Saidi, without whom we would have been stalled in the midst of Beirut traffic without a cab to catch. 

And did I mention there is no public transport in the country?  So .imagine traffic atop traffic! Along with the ever  present Smart phones.  And the convoluted  electrical  wiring, not only   in the Palestinian  area but citywide.  Overall, Beirut was much as I remembered:  a combination of the old, the new and the destroyed.  Obviously, no planning in the rebuilding.  Catch as catch can. 

The Armenians are alive and well in Beirut - we walked about their neighborhood, trailed by a young boy and  were serenaded at lunchtime but a ninety-four year old. woman playing Chopsticks.  

Early on, we  met  three local activists in a local coffee shop, right after a meeting with a government official in  his beautifully appointed office. 

There were meetings with representatives of the local bank, Hezbelloh, the Christian  party., a former Prime Minister, a defense consultant for defendants in the eleven year old assassination   of the then Prime Minister, culminating in a luncheon gathering at the home of the Peace Party founder.in Byblos.  And that home was comparable to San Simeon, the estate of William Randolph Hearst, now part of the  California State Park system..

About Hezbollah, the so-called  terrorist organization influenced by Iran:  at one point, having saved Lebanon  from an Israeli incursion after the Lebanese Army fell apart, Hezbollah chose to enter the Lebanese political life.  They expanded  and modified a bit.  their hard edge. The representative we met with, said Hezbollah was not looking for conflict with Israel but if the Israelis initiated,  Hezbellah would respond.  He  was convinced the US had supported DAESH/ISIS.

I most enjoyed time spent at the American University of Beirut.  It had been high on my list of places to visit. Staff and students gave me a positive feeling about the future for Lebanon.   We had a great guide:  A enthusiastic twenty  one year old Palestinian scholarship student, who chose to  wear a head scarf when she came to  college and plans to continue the practice.  She hopes to study aboard but will then have employment difficulties: 

For Palestinians can not work in Lebanon proper.  We talked with a dentist, educated in Cairo, who can  only be employed in the "camp" (seriously  crowded tenement buildings for the Palestinians) and certainly unable to visit family in Gaza.   However, they are at least recognized/registered which is more than the Syrians, who are in tents and without any acceptance by the host country.  A few NGOs are active, providing some educational and health services. The hope is that the Syrians  will all disappear.  Back to Syria.   Soon.  The Lebanese do not want a repeat of the Palestinian situation where refugees have remained since 1948..

Conclusion:  Lebanon, a small country carved from Syria by the French post WW1, is dealing with an impossible number of refuges - has been since 1948 - who are barred from participation in Lebanese life with a government  mired in inaction with a sectarian based Agreement and endemic  corruption.  Estimated one million Syrians and 450,000 registered Palestinians in a country of 5,988,000 residents.  Hezbollah, which may have been the only honest bunch, is with growth. susceptible to the national disease.  However, despite British and American governmental  travel warnings, I did not feel unsafe at any time though stopped at various checkpoints by various security types.  .

Accommodations:  Plush!  Two of the hotel "rooms" were larger than my one bedroom place in Palo Alto. .  Four to Five star.  The  boutique hotel in Tyre was quite unique with  an impressive view of the harbor.  Breakfasts were extensive.

Food:  From local pick-up stands to elegant  restaurants, we had a choice of all types of Lebanese food.  Wines were often included with  the evening meals; they were reportedly quite good, wine making doing well in the Bekaa Valley.

Cost::  I paid $5130 for the tour which included  two extra nights at the Beirut hotel and  all meals but one. Airline fare San Francisco-Istanbul-Beirut via Turkish Air was  $881 economy  plus $92 Insurance.   Shuttle was $60.  Cat care was $460. 
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