Sunday, April 28, 2019

GSH 2019 – All about Athens, Greece

The Greek leg was a new experience for the competition.  On the flight to Greece, everyone in the group thought this would be the start of a Europe leg where we were released in Athens and told to make our way – on our own – through 3-4 countries.  We all speculated about which countries we’d be visiting and secretly hoped for the ones we had never been too.  My fingers and toes were crossed for anything on the Dalmation Coast with a check-in location of maybe Dubrovnich.  But no. We got out of customs and Bill was standing ready with our scavenger books.  He released us right there – at the airport – with our luggage in hand - for 30 hours in Athens.

Nafplios:  We went straight off to an out-of-town bonus… to visit a tiny coastal town in the Peloponnese. In the middle of the harbor is a castle (which looks just like the sandcastles we all made as kids), sitting on a tiny island.  All along the harbor are outdoor cafes and a walking promenade.  The entire town was out for a Friday night drink and stroll.  We got to eat dinner there at sunset: a serene and calm start to this hectic leg.

Acropolis: The Queen of Athens’ Crown… the Acropolis is magnificent.  Another bucket list, wonder of the world.  It’s lit up all night so from any rooftop bar, you can enjoy the view.

Temple of Hephasestus

Central Market:  Most impressive at the market: the intestines display.  Because if you are out on a morning shopping spree - in search of just the right selection of intestines – you certainly want to fully appreciate the offerings.  It made me gag.

Pompoms and high kicks:  Every hour the guards at the Presidential Palace change ... in a dance ceremony of high kicks with the pompoms on their shoes flying about.  A sight not to be missed. My photos cannot do the spectacle justice.

Museums:  I am not a big museum person, so we often skip the museum scavenges.  But Athens has some outstanding museums filled to the brim with ancient artifacts.  My favorites: the crying goddess.  

And the two horses - clearly best friends - just gossiping away ("Did you hear what Betty did then??" or maybe "That new Caesar guy is all kinds of bad-boy sexy").

Olympic venues: We had to find – and re-enact the events – from three Olympic venues:  one from before the 20th century, one from the 20th century and one from the 21st century.  

Kotzia Square(2004 Olympics):  Where the cycling events started and stopped in the 2004 Olympics. There wasn’t a bicycle in sight so I improvised by straddling -  and peddling - some metal bars instead. 

Zeppion Hall (1906 Olympics): Site of the opening ceremony… so the crumbled map in Rainey’s hand is creatively representing the Olympic torch.

Panathenaic Stadium (1896 Olympics):  Track and field events…  I dug deep and did my best Usain Bolt imitation. 

Dancing Queen:  Do you have any idea what – in the heat of the battle – you will do for points? I sunk to a new low… belly dancing in public.  Totally embarrassing.  Patrons were cracking up.


Calling all Vegetarians:  I eat meat. I like meat.  I have no calling to be a vegetarian.  But, seeing the reality of dead animals is something else altogether.  Full goats (fresh or slow-cooked) are on display everywhere, in a totally YUCK way. And why does the head have to always be prominently displayed ?  Freaks me out. 

Greek Orthodox Easter weekend:  So while all western Christians believe Jesus died and was resurrected a week ago… the Greeks have a slightly different time line.  We arrived on the Greek Good Friday which is a night where every church is filled to over capacity and, mid-sermon, the priest and the altar boys pick up large flowered platforms and march with them into the streets… with all of the congregants coming behind holding lit candles. What an interesting night to be there... and we got points for attending a service (so we were in rapt attendance). 

We ended Athens - exhausted.  Just today we walked almost 19 miles ...!!!!  With it being Easter weekend, taxis were scarce and expensive, so we hoofed it instead.  We started at 3:50AM and ended at 8:00PM.  That's a lot of mileage. 

Now we are on to Marrakesh, Morocco.  I have never been there so have no idea what to expect.  I LOVE NEW ADVENTURES. 

Saturday, April 27, 2019

GSH 2019 – The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Hang on to your seat… this is going to be fast and furious.  We've had a whirlwind scramble through the amazing country of Jordan.  We had only 3 days … and a lot to see and do. So Rainey and I took off at a pace as soon as Bill opened the leg. We went upstairs to our beautiful and luxurious hotel room in Amman, packed a back-pack with 2 days of clothes and headed straight out in search of adventure. We did not return until minutes before check-in.  And we did not sleep more than 4-5 hours each night. A tough leg, but one with lots of rewards.

The mood of the country:  In each leg, Bill makes us accost people from that country and ask them pertinent questions.  In Jordan, that meant that we had to chat about the royal family as well as the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis.  We met Izzie at a restaurant by the Dead Sea. He studied in Austin, Texas  for almost 2 years so his English was great. 

The answers: Jordanians had a very strong crush on King Hussein (the prior king) ... they truly loved him.  As to the his son, Abdullah (the new King), they like and respect him without the same level of adoration.  As for the Syrian war, Jordan, a country of only 9 million people, limited GDP and no natural resources (that’s right, a Middle Eastern country that is not awash with oil or dripping with money) has taken in 1.5 million Syrian refugees.  Think about that.  Adding almost 10% of your country's population in 3 years. In comparison, the United States (a country of 327 million people) accepted in 2018... wait for it... 34.  That is with no zeros. We took in 34 Syrians refugees.  Meanwhile Jordan built a giant cities of tent and mobile homes to house the refugees.  Izzie showed me photos of one of them, Zaatari camp, on his phone.  Just the logistics of feeding and housing that many people - who arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs - is mind-boggling.

It’s been a real burden on the country but Jordanians consider it their duty ... as global citizens. Plus the refugees are apparently great workers with a  strong work ethic and high skill / training abilities.  Jordan is definitely whooping America at the Good Karma game.

Wadi Rum:  I had never been to Wadi Rum and, because it is far and remote, we’d considered skipping it.  So glad we didn’t.  It’s special.  We arrived just before sunset so the whole valley with its craggy cliffs and sandy plain was awash with a soft glow.  We headed into the desert, sitting in the bed of a 4-wheel truck and rode camels like we were Lawrence of Arabia.  We decided at the last minute to spend the night and sleep in a Bedoin tent camp.  NOT the lap of luxury, but so interesting.

The tent accommodations were rudimentary - at best. I dreamed of getting some obscure camel tick disease.  And the ultra colorful cloth walls were an interesting design choice.

Petra:  If Petra is not already on your bucket list, get out your pen - RIGHT NOW- and add it.  Because Petra is a MUST SEE.  Ornate temples and buildings carved out of the cliffs in a gorge.  Who even thought of this?  

Rainey and I wanted to be there at dawn, right when the gates open, so we could have some time to wander about without the crushing crowds.  That meant we had to leave Wadi Rum at 3:45AM (YIKES… that’s a very early wake-up alarm).  But it was the right decision because we went in before the tourist buses and the throngs of people arrived.  We decided to walk all the way through Petra and then climb the craggy hill to the Monastery… not an easy feat.  It is an hour and a half uphill hike in the heat.  And I will admit that there may have been a small heat and dehydration induced whiney hissy fit about 45 minutes into the hike … when I realized that we still had an equal distance to climb.  There may have been some pouting and some clear assertions of “I’m done;” “I’ve had enough;” and “I can’t do this.” But then you round the last corner… and there it is... in all it's glory.  Spectacular and worth every sweltering step.

Petra donkeys: I watched while the lead donkey dug around in the garbage, fished out a half-finished cup of coffee, and then drank it.  Totally cute....and ... what a clever ass (Ha Ha). 

Mimicking Moses:  We had to retrace Moses’steps up Mount Nebo and then stand at the exact spot where Moses supposedly rested.  I have a strong sense that no one actually knows the spot and that it is all tourism gimmickry, but the modern cross marking the place was interesting.

Mabada Map:  We had to find the ancient mosaic map in Madaba.  Sounds easy, right? But when we got to the quaint church - where the map is – the priest was in the middle of a LENGTHY and complicated mass, with lots of incense and sitting and standing and kneeling.  The map is made of mosaic tiles and is on the floor of the church.  For services, they cover the map with a thick carpet so prevent any damage from people walking on the map.  So we got stuck for over an hour, while waiting for the church service to end so the carpet could be rolled up and we could snap a quick photograph. 

Jerash: Less than an hour North of Amman are some fascinating ancient ruins.  If any place in America had something half as cool as this, that city would be a tourism magnet.  In Jordan, the ruins of Jerash as just in the middle of the city with buses passing by and blowing diesel residue all over the ruins. Hard to compete when Petra is the main attraction.

Hubbly Bubbly:  A trip to the Middle East would not be complete without a trip to a Hubbly Bubbly bar.  Flavored tobacco and a water pipe… and I’m coughing up a lung.

Blue mosque:  Also known as the Amman Mosque or King Abdullah Mosque (who is the current King).  I love the blue mosaic tiles on the doomed roof.

Hand of Hercules: Last and final hour in Jordan… and we came very close to a disaster.  Part of the rules of this competition is that you must complete several MANDATORY scavenges in each country.  If you don’t finish the mandatories, you lose ALL points for that leg.  Yikes !!!  Strategizing about how and when to complete the mandatories is totally stressful because there is so much on the line.  But, coming in to the last hour of the Jordan leg, we were feeling pretty good. We had only ONE final mandatory to complete and then off to check-in.  And it was supposed to be easy.  We had to get to the Amman Citadel and find the Hand of Hercules. We take a taxi.  We get out.  We walk to the gate.  Wait… its locked. The Citadel closed 12 minutes before.  But, but, but … we must get this mandatory or we lose everything.  I started freaking out.  Rainey and I began hunting for ways out of this mess. And we figured out that a little money, in the hands of the right security guard at the Citadel, can get a back gate unlocked and – suddenly – you are there, standing in front of a scattering of body parts from a broken up Hercules statue… and there’s his hand.  If I could have reached it, I’d have laid a big smoochy kiss on each finger.  Crisis averted.

Amazing how beauty can flourish even in the most barren of places.

Next up… Athens, Greece.  We only have 30 hours here and a book of scavenges to get accomplished. Rainey and I are still in first place, but it’s a tight competition.  We have no room for error.   We must plot and strategize perfectly and then spend some time in the Hurt Locker going hard to stay head of team Lazy Monday, who are nipping at our heels. To  be honest, I am exhausted from the Jordan leg where we got very little sleep.  Got to find my second wind.

We’re off and running.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

GSH 2019 – All Around Abu Dhabi

We had essentially 12 hours to scramble around Abu Dhabi and see as much as we could.  Sadly, the new Louvre museum was closed on the ONLY day we were in town, so we did not get to see that attraction. But we still got a ton done in a short period of time.

Falcon Hospital:  What??? A hospital just for falcons?  Yup.  Falcon raising and competing is such a big deal in the Middle East that there is a dedicated hospital just for them.  

Remember, these birds cost more than a car. People pay as much as half a million dollars for a well-bred falcon.  So they are treated like kings.  The falcons travel to competitions overseas sitting in their very own first-class airplane seat next to their handler. They even get their own airplane food menu with chooses of different “fresh kill” meat options.  

And, several times a year, every falcon comes to the hospital for check-ups and blood work and vaccinations.  Plus, the hospital has an ICU and surgery suites and X-ray machines to treat any accident or mishap. 

Compared to the Yangon General Hospital that we saw last week (which is clearly a misnomer as “Yangon General Hospice” would be a far better title since I don’t think anyone escapes alive from that fermenting black hole of germs), the Falcon Hospital is 800+ years more technologically advanced. Shiny clean, the latest and greatest machinery and medicine … if I ever get sick in Abu Dhabi, I’d head there first. 

The falcons are kept “hooded” while at the hospital so they remain calm. Seemed like a good idea since these birds are bred specifically to attack creatures and rip out their eyeballs. 

The hospital keeps drawers of feathers because, if a falcon artificially loses even a single feather, its aerodynamics can be off.  To be truly competitive, the falcon must be in perfect flying shape. So, the doctors at the hospital glue on a replacement feather … of the same kind and shape ... using craft glue.

This naught bird likes to peck at his foot bandages, which earned him a beak muzzle.

Grand Mosque:  Bright, pristine white marble against the blue, blue sky, the Grand Mosque is incredible.  

The decoration is done in the style of the Taj Mahal: semi-precious gems inlaid into the marble to create intricate patterns and flowers.

A gold egg, but no golden goose in sight: Ever wondered where you could go to take a photo of yourself next to a giant Golden Egg?  Well, I’ve solved that mystery…. It’s the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi.  The Palace is a massive structure with WAAAYYY more gold and adornment than necessary. 

Heavy Metal Poisoning: Gross display of wealth, anyone?  Go to the coffee lounge at the Emirates Palace and drink a $65 cappuccino that is topped with pure gold dust. Decadence, at its best.

Chat with locals: The scavenge was to talk with some locals and ask them a series of questions.  But there are no “locals” to be found.  After accosting probably 11 people - all of whom were immigrants and NOT born or raised in Abu Dhabi - I was about to give up.  Then, when we were in the cultural center doing a different scavenge, we saw that there were art classes at the center and that day’s lecture was just getting out. I pounced.  Sure enough, we found some millennials - who were actually locals – coming out.  The girls chatted and chatted with me: about dating and arranged marriages (these girls swore that they now get to choose their husband but, if they chose poorly, their father can veto the marriage. So some progress although not great advancement); how old where they when they started wearing the abaya or full black gown (when they had their first period); whether they like or dislike the influence of westerners on their country (they love American movies so the immigration of western entertainment got two thumbs up). The girls were beautiful and gentle and sweet ... good ambassadors for their country.

Dubai: There was a bonus to take the bus over to Dubai and see / do some stuff over there.  We chose to go because I have a close friend who lives in Dubai. I’ve known Sonia since I was 12: we went to boarding school in England together.  Sonia invited us to her home for dinner and we got to catch up a little (although in a very rushed way, as Rainey and I had to get back to Abu Dhabi for check-in).  Also  got to visit with her mom and sister and meet her boyfriend.  So interesting to see and hear about what real life is like as an ex-pat in Abu Dhabi.

Persian Gulf: Last scavenge of the day… and right before check-in … for a few last minute points… a quick dip in the Persian Gulf for Rainey.

We have just arrived in our next destination: Amman, Jordan.  I suspect that going to Petra will be one of the must-do scavenges.  Can’t wait.


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