Sunday, April 29, 2012

Oman and Cyprus... then on to Italy

We are now in Cyprus, having just finished up a few days in Oman. We leave EARLY tomorrow morning (3 AM wake up call) for Italy to start the Europe leg - the last international rally of this year's trip (I'm so sad already).  

The Europe leg typically involves us getting dropped in one country  and we have to find our own way across 2-3 other countries (doing scavenges along the way) until we meet back the group after 4 or 5 days. It is nerve-wracking because you have to figure out all of the travel logistics AND do the scavenges. We will not know even in what direction we are supposed to travel until Bill opens the leg tomorrow afternoon.  This is a fun – but hard – leg as you have to travel with ALL of your luggage to every place / scavenge and it can be hell. But there’s nothing shabby about starting in Rome as I LOVE Italy.

Info on rankings of the teams:  As predicted, we we lost the Sri Lanka leg - badly.  Then we eeked out  a win in Oman which put us back into first place coming into Cyprus. But there are two other super-competitive teams (the sisters from Sydney Australia and a couple for New Zealand) that are very close on our heels and we did not have a great leg in Cyprus.  I’m projecting that we'll  be  in 2nd or 3rd place starting off the Europe leg. The Europe leg  a Par 5 rank – which means that there are a LOT OF POINTS at stake over the next few days. It's going to crazy to the end. 

Anyway, here's my stories  from the last two countries. When Bill said that we were going to Oman I was less than excited. Boy was I wrong. It’s still too early to really call it… but ... so far… Oman is my second favorite country this year. Mainly because of the people. They are so nice. They go out of their way to help you.  We asked a woman for directions as she was walking to her mosque for prayers with her sister.  She sent the sister inside, got into her car and drove 11 minutes with us following her to show us the exact turn-off we ended (as her English was not great enough to verbally explain the route).  I' not sure I'm even that nice to strangers. 
And the country is far more beautiful that you can imagine.  Oman is a wealthy country (oil) – east of Saudi and South of Iran.  It’s on the ocean and it has only 1.5 million citizens with another 1.5 million of migrant workers (mainly from South East Asia). In fact, 2/3rds of our plane from Sri Lanka were migrant workers – gardeners, maids, construction workers, waiters. All manual labor jobs is done by migrant workers who come in on 6 month to 1 year work visas. The Sultan of Oman has done an excellent job using the oil money to build an impressive infrastructure of great roads and a very high standard of living. He is truly beloved by his people.

OMAN:  Just a few of our favorite scavenges for Oman: 

 (a) Get henna. I decided on a leg henna decoration. Emily got some beautiful designs on her hands but I have a big Daubert hearing right as I get back to the US and I thought the federal judge might be a little put off with intricate designs all over my hands and forearms. Might be a little “out there” for him; 

 (b)  Smoke from a Hubbly-Bubbly pipe in this trendy Shisha or Hooka bar.  It made me cough - a lot.  

 (c) We saw dawn break while at  a fort in the harbor of Muscat - a nice town built right onto a harbor. 

(d) Had to take in a  fish auction at the fish market in Barka – a town about 30 minutes from Muscat. The man to the left is the auctioneer. When he hits the broomstick on the tile, the auction is over and that lot of fish has been sold to the highest bidder. 

(e) There are A LOT of forts in Oman. And they all look basically the same … like a sandcastle that you’d build on the beach – all boxy and with multiple turrets.  We had to visit a half-dozen of them - all over the country.  They do have beautiful views and feet-thick walls. 

(e) We had to take a swim in the hot springs of  an oasis town. It's not just in fairy tales and bible stories. There really are towns in the middle of dry, arid land where hot water bubbles up from the ground. In some places, the hot water forms jacuzzi-like pools  where you can swim and lounge around .  Weird, huh?  

(f) We had to hike in a dried-out river bed called Wadi Ghul. The river bed is rocky and uneven and the cliffs rise hundreds of feet above you.


(g) We saw the Grand Canyon of the Middle East – a place called Jabel Shams. It is really beautiful and an amazing gorge. You can hike in and around it for weeks... wish we'd had time!!!

(h) We also drove down to Sur.. a sleepy little seaside village with a great sunset and had drinks and delicious Shwarma (basically a meal … chicken, salad, French fries, sauce… all diced up and loaded into a pita bread).  

1     (1) Very unfairly, the men get to wear light gown-like clothes in WHITE.. with decorated tea-cozies as hats. The women are relegated to heavy BLACK gowns with full head scarves.  In a country with such hot weather, the women definitely got the short end of that straw.  


 (2) We stopped at a roadside restaurant for some food.  I entered the main door. I was immediately ushered out and shown the side door that leads into a back room (called the “family room”) where women are allowed to eat.  Women are not permitted in the main restaurant.  And while the rest room for the men is inside the main building, the toilet for women is outside, around back and in a shed.  Sort of brought home - in a real way - how women are really viewed in a Muslim country. 

3  (3)  And just in case you were not sure exactly how you were supposed to dress here...   the ladies’ rest room sign visually depicts  the proper attire for women. 

  (4)      Fruit at the market – especially when cut open to show their great color – attract a HUGE AMOUNT OF FLIES..  It is stunningly gross and makes you never want to eat watermelon again- EVER.  And yes, every one of those black dots is a fly!!!

   (5) At the market in Nizwa, you can buy a live goat at auction OR - even more enticing - a fully skinned goat ready for cooking. 

CYPRUS:  Then we headed to Cyprus... another new place for me.  We only ended up with one full day here and we really needed more. Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean – east of Turkey and Northwest of Israel.  It is an independent country (since 1960) but – in 1974 – Turkey invaded the island and now occupies the top 1/3rd.  Turkey has 40,000 troops here to guard that part of the island (called the Occupied Territory) and Turkey’s presence  is very controversial. There is tons of history here and lots of great stuff to do  but we did not have time to even attempt many of them.
We started off on the Cyprus / Greek side of the city of Nicosia and then crossed over the border into the Turkish occupied territory – through the no man’s land of the un-official border. There are Burning Man-like protests in the "Green Line" or that area between the two countries. 

 On the Turkish side we  ate Turkish delight - a gelatin type candy with very fine powdered sugar on top.

We then caught a bus to the North to visit  a Turkish harbor city called Kyrenia.  

Ant that's when we  decided to be bad and play hookey.  Although it was not a scavenge (and thus we got NO POINTS for doing it), we rented a boat for a few hours and sailed down the coast and swam in the Mediterranean. The water is so clear that you can see the bottom of the ocean from 35 feet up. It was awesome to be off the "run everywhere, hurry to finish scavenges" rat wheel for a few hours. We felt so naughty and decadent doing it. 

 That afternoon Bill really put us to  work. We had two - back-to-back -  LONG, DIFFICULT, EXHAUSTING hikes up full mountains to see castles built in the time of the crusades. The views were stunning and actually worth the treks up (although I do admit that I cussed and cussed all the way to the top).  And yes, we had to hike to the very top of each mountain to get the points. I’m going to be sore for days.  

This is the Queen’s window where she sat and probably did some type of needlework as she looked out over her country. Real neat feeling to sit right there -  exactly where you know she sat hundreds of years ago - and literally be in her space. 

I’ll try and get on the internet during some part of the Europe leg and -at least - let you all know where we are – and where we are heading.  I may not be able to fully  blog because this leg  typically involves long hard days and very little sleep (a lot like the rest of this adventure). So stay tuned…and keep leaving comments… they really help boost morale.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bustling Bangkok to Remote Sri Lankna

When we left Myanmar, we had an 8  hour lay-over in Bangkok. Bill (the event producer) had us store our luggage and rush out of the airport to experience a little bit of Thailand in just a few hours. This was a type of  timed trial where you did not  get any points but every team  had to complete 6 scavenges. It made it a much less hectic day.  Some favorite scavenges: We had to go to a market (I bought a sack of guava and mangos), visit Wat Pho (a wonderful reclining Buddha), get a Thai massage and take a ride on the river.  The pace was almost leisurely and – for the first time since we started this trip 11 days ago – we got to relax and have a long lunch (with real food) at a nice restaurant next to the river. It was heaven. We still got sweaty as hell because it is hot as hell here - and had to take a wet-wipe rub-down at the airport before boarding the plane for… Colombo, Sri Lanka.

As soon as we got the scavenge books at 9 AM we decided to head out of town. Historically this has been the smartest play for all of the legs that you have to travel overland. We stuff 2-3 days of clothes in a backpack and head out of the city as quickly as possible and pick up the points for that city at the end of the leg (at the end of our travels).  So off we set for the South.  We were in Sri Lanka 2 years ago and went to the North and Center of the country so this time we headed South.  The train was slow, hot and VERY over-crowded (with people literally hanging off the edges). About 2 hours into our trip to Galle, we stopped at a small city (Kalutara) which was a scavenge city.  The train conductor told us that the next train to Galle was in 1 ½ hours (which would have been more than enough time to do what we needed in Kalutara). So off we got.. visited the market and a temple in Kalutara.  We arrived at lunch-time which involves a ceremony with a small musical band and a canopy as they bring today’s selection of curries to offer to the Buddha statue. It is quite an event which is repeated every day at noon. We also took blessed water and fed it into a funnel system that leads to a giant Boya tree in the middle of the temple. This apparently will bring good luck and health to all of our family, so you can all thank us now. And here’s a creepy painting in the temple.. the cycle of life from death to decomposing to birds eating your flesh to skeleton…etc. Not a pretty picture when you look at it like that. 

We then went on to Galle,  a beach city with an old walled city that was formerly a Dutch fort.  We had to find several things in the fort and do a taste test of 3 different kind of fruit juices.. here I am testing a fruit punch versus coconut milk versus a very tart limeade at a rooftop cafe.

That evening we took a very long – very bumpy (doesn’t this sound like a common theme for our South East Asia legs?) up to the Uda Walara national park. At 6 AM the next day, we went on a safari to see the wild elephant herds. And we saw dozens of them plus some very playful babies.

We then headed for Sinhajara Rainforest for a hike.  This seemed like an easy excursion until our taxi got lost in the hills of tea plantations and a 2 hour drive turned into a 5 hour drive.  When we finally got there it was so great to actually stretch our legs and hike into the rainforest. Lots of waterfalls and lush greenery.  Unfortunately it was a wet afternoon so we ended up in rain jackets most of the time. 

The next morning in Colombo  we spent almost all of our time before  check-in buying stuff for a boy’s home (for mentally disabled boys), going to the home and playing cricket with them and coloring.

I love the colors of the Devil Masks. If I did not have to haul it back halfway around the world I would have bought one. 

We are about to go and meet the group to open the Oman leg...and to find out how badly we got beaten by going to the South of Sri Lanka (URRGHH...!!!)  Seems a little unfair that one part of the country (where several of the teams had already gone) was worth so  much more points than another part.... but that's life!!! 

For Angel's mom... We are loving having Angel on this trip. He has been a true pleasure and is having a great time. He's eaten some of the weirdest food -and added spices and chili paste to everything.  He is going to have 1,000 stories to tell when he gets back. 

Moving on from Myanmar

Last Night I dreamed I went back to Mandalay again…Opening line of “Rebecca” by Daphne DuMaurier.

After a magical day in Baga, we decided to head to Mandalay. Problem: The only way to get there  - without blowing the bulk of one of our precious days here - was to travel at night…. 8 hours in a taxi (with no air conditioning) on some of the worst roads ever.  You really could not sleep as you were afraid you’d suffer severe whiplash if you were not bracing yourself for some of the worst potholes.  We arrived at 3 AM and got a very MODEST hotel (a/k/a a dive with small crawling bugs in the bed and not even hot water).  But we had no real choice.  It was the 5th hotel we stopped at. No other hotel even had a night manager on duty.  We grabbed a few hours of sleep, took showers and headed out early.  I had high expectations for Mandalay… mainly because the name is so great and exotic. I was disappointed. Mandalay is a noisy, hot, dirty city. 
 The nicest scavenger here was to visit the “largest book in the world” which is a temple where they have etched very page – of 729 pages – of the teachings of Buddha onto a separate stone tablet and enshrined each tablet in its own little white, decorated house.  To read the “pages” you have to move from shrine-structure to shrine-structure. 

We decided to get out of Mandalay as fast as possible to some of the neighboring villages. My two favorites were Amarapura …a village known for its silk items. We visited a silk weaving factory and saw the hand-pedaled looms that have to date back over a hundred years. At the “factory” (which is a loose term for “shed in the backyard”), the only decoration on the wall was a framed photo of The Lady with Hillary Clinton. 

It is from when Clinton visited Myanmar in December and recommended that the travel sanctions be lifted.  Everyone here believes that the new influx of tourism (that is expected from this change in policy) will dramatically improve their fortunes. There is great optimism here. 

We also had to cross this rickety bridge over the lake… a scary wooden structure with more loose and / or rotten boards than good.  I got some kid monks to agree to let me photograph them on the bridge.  I love the crimson color of the monks robes here (deeper and richer than the saffron of Thailand).

We also visited the village of Ava… reachable only by flat-bottom boat across a muddy river. Once you reach the banks of Ava, you travel to the old, walled city by horse and buggy (Thank goodness … because it was 130 degrees out and I was melting. The shade of the buggy was well appreciated). 

At the end of a VERY LONG day we decided to suck it up and travel overnight again… 11 hours this time… to get to Ingle Lake. Unbelievably, the roads were even worse.  But we arrived at 5:30 AM and got straight into a boat so we would see sunrise.  Forget being tired. It was stunning.  The fishermen were out.  They need two hands to throw their nets so they have learned to wrap their legs around the single oar, balance with one foot, paddle with the second foot and fish at the same time. It makes it look like they  are dancing on the lake. 

The villagers live in wood or thatched one-room houses on stilts in the middle of the water – sometimes alone, sometimes laid out like a village with canals and intersections. 

And best of all… we go to see the LongNeck women (a bucket list item for me).  They are weavers by trade  so we got to watch a group of them work. The golden coil weighs about 15-20  lbs.

(a)    Burmese picnic.. no sandwiches or hot dogs. Rather the families pack hot meals into metal tins, stack the tins one on top of the other with a holder and handle for easy carrying and bring them along for lunch.  They eat a true “hot” meal sitting on the floor of the temple they are visiting. 

(b)   Everywhere you go there are these clay pots filled with water that have a lid and a metal cup on top. They are filled each day by the government to avoid dehydration.  A great idea but clearly a pot full of diarrhea for us westerners (I am only pretending to drink from one here… that water would probably kill me on the spot) 

(c) The sun is so hot that everyone wears wide-brimmed hats. We now know where all of the Walmart Easter bonnets disappear to after they go on sale.. Burma!! The ones with Easter egg colors - and lots of fake flowers - are particularly popular. 

(d)   We had to try Betel Nut… a disgusting concoction of betel root, coconut, lime, white paste and tobacco rolled into a palm leaf. You pop the whole thing into your mouth and it is gross, gross, gross.  I had a residual  taste of yuck for hours. It also leaves a nasty slime of red-coloring on your teeth 

(e)    Everywhere you look here there is something very old and beautiful… with a monk in close vicinity to make your photo even better.

       We are now in Oman having gone through Bangkok and Sri Lanka.  Great stories from both places that I will try and upload tomorrow.   I was – at first – disappointed to be going back to Sri Lanka because we’d been there before. But we made a decision to not repeat any scavenges that we had done before.. And we ended up having a great few days in Ceylon (I love the old name for these countries). However, it was not the smartest move points-wise. The Sri Lanka leg was set up where the only way to win the leg was to go North (there were 350-400 more possible points that you could earn ONLY if you went North) and the North scavenges were closer together and less time-consuming. But we’d done the North the last time.  So we opted for South. Not yet sure how bad of a loss we took this leg – which is a little discouraging as we worked our butts off and and had some amazing adventures – but will find out in a few hours when Bill opens the Oman leg. 

I'l keep you updated. I love the comments... keep them coming.. they make me feel less lonely out here.


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