Day 920 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: St. Petersburg, Russia. August 9, 2020.

This past week, we watched the Netflix miniseries, The Last Czars, basically a documentary but with actors used to recreate some scenes. It had us talking about our two days visiting Russia, and when we saw the scene where conspirators attempt to kill Rasputin (poisoned, shot, and finally thrown in the Neva River), we remembered that we had been in the very room where this took place. So our next blog entry here just had to be St. Petersburg!

We visited Russia on September 5-6, 2012, and a tour was required to enter the country (no walking around on one’s own!). We had to enter passport control one by one, so Jan reached deep into her memory from high school language class, smiled at the agent, and in Russian said, “Hello! How are you today?” In return, there was no smile or acknowledgement of a woman trying to connect with the agent in her own language. She stamped the passport, slid it back with a glum expression, and said nothing. Oh, well, at least we tried!

The first photos are of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a former Russian Orthodox Church, now a state museum. It was built on the site of a terrorist attack in 1881 that blew off Czar Alexander II’s legs and led to his death, and its construction took 24 years to complete (1883-1907). It is often mixed up with St. Basil’s in Moscow, with its mosaics, onion domes, and gilded interior. The first five photos are of its interior, followed by a photo of a part of the exterior. You must remember that back in 2012, we were not photographing for a website, just for our own use. We had no idea, even six months ago, that we would ever post old photos in retrospectives, but it has been thrust on us by the pandemic. So the photos aren’t as complete as we would like them to be.

Following the church are two photos from Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was taken out. The first of these photos is a dark cellar room with a mannequin of Rasputin, in the very place he was poisoned. The second is an upstairs green ballroom, showing the palace a bit more and how the family lived. The next two photos were taken at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, and in the first photo you can see some of the tombs it houses. We saw the tombs of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II and his family, only interred in the last 20 years after their bodies were found buried in a forest near their final detention home 80 years prior. The second of the photos shows members of the church choir, who sang some Russian chant for us. We remember how beautiful it was because in Russian chant, the notes are all very close to each other…it is almost like the voices are sliding along together down a hill, adjacent, and very silky somehow.

The photo following the singers is a very funny memory. We had been told by the tour guide that we would have “pierogi” for lunch. Polish pierogi, almost like cheese-and-potato-filled ravioli, is Jan’s favorite food on the planet. We arrived at the restaurant, only to see what you can see in the photo, which looked like loaves of bread. We asked the guide where the pierogi was, and she pointed to the bread. Apparently, this is Russian pierogi – bread stuffed with sauerkraut and cheese. You have never seen a more disappointed girl in your life! We tried some, along with a bowl of borscht. It was all fine, just not quite what we had in mind.

Next up are five photos of the Catherine Palace, a rococo palace given to Catherine the Great by her husband, Peter the Great. A bit south of St. Petersburg, the palace is in the village of Pushkin, and was used as a summer palace by the czars. As you can see, a wedding was taking place when we were there. As you can also see, it is quite “over the top” with its furnishings and trappings! After that come six photos of another lavish palace, Peterhof, built by Peter the Great as the Russian answer to Versailles! No wonder the common people suffered and starved, and never had very much…all this money put into palaces for the czars. This has an intricate series of fountains, as you can see. In the last photo of this set, we wonder how they though it was a good idea to have seats that are impossible to reach without an umbrella! It was quite funny.

The next five photos were taken at one of the world’s most famous art museums, the Hermitage. The full view of it was taken from across the Neva River, on a rainy and windy day. The photo after that is of one of the museum’s most famous paintings, Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt, just gorgeous. It was dizzying to walk through the museum and gawk at so many famous pieces of art, following a guide, and thus not able to choose our own path. But we remember the museum as being exceedingly crowded, so we felt lucky to have walked right in, as we were part of a group, rather than waiting in a very long line to get in.

The last three photos are a little whimsical. The city is so proud of its subway stops, of all things, that they are regularly an important part of any city tour. They were designed to reflect architectural styles, having lots of sculptures, and to be more than just drab grey waiting places for your ride. Check them out! It was really interesting.

We found the buildings and treasures of the city to be breathtaking and unusual, very different from the rest of Europe. We did notice that people walked hurriedly, with their heads down, and in general did not look happy or animated…nobody was smiling. Our guide told us that, growing up, they were taught about the “horrors” of democracy, and in fact the word “democracy” was as scary to them as the word “communism” was to us!

Day 906 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Valletta, Malta. July 26, 2020.

Malta (known as the Republic of Malta) is the world’s tenth smallest country. It was made part of the British Empire in 1814 and became independent in 1964. One of its official languages is English and another is Maltese (who knew?).

Valletta, the capital city of Malta, has a population of about 7,000 people, and the city consists of just 0.61 square km, making it the smallest of the European capitals. The island is just about smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, about 100 miles from Sicily and 200 miles from Tripoli in Libya.

Valletta’s 16th century buildings were constructed by the Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Knights of Malta. Its gorgeous Royal Opera House was destroyed in World War II, and the interior is now used as a car park. There were plans to rebuild the opera house, as well as plans to renovate the entrance to the city. All of the plans were subsequently scuttled due to various controversies.

We visited the island in November 2015. You can see in the street scenes that Valletta is very mountainous, and climbing some of the streets takes the wind out of you! We had to climb a hill to get from the port to the city center. It was a gorgeous Mediterranean day, with dark blue ocean and light blue skies. As you can also see, (1) the easiest way for the local police to get around is on motorcycle, (2) Jamie Oliver has a restaurant in Valletta, and (3) there are some beautiful and wild sculptures in the city!

There is quite an “old world” feel to Malta. As we were sitting in a coffee shop we struck up a conversation with an older lady with a strong British accent. She talked very affectionately about seeing Queen Elizabeth (a princess at the time) and Prince Philip, a military officer at the time, walking through the streets as a young couple in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Recently the government of Malta has had some scandals, which resulted in the car bombing murder of a reporter in 2017 who was cataloging the corruption among the political elite. The event, rather than quashing further news about the corruption, ended up causing a worldwide outcry. Under pressure from street protests in 2019, the Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, resigned, effective January 2020.

During the time we were there, none of that was visible to us and the island seemed a quiet testament to old world elegance and calm.

Day 900 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Stockholm, Sweden. July 20, 2020.

So, before you read any further: we ask that you scroll through the photos first, enjoying the detail and beauty of this ship called the Vasa.

Okay, are you done? Did you do it? Are you in awe of the artwork, carvings, and great detail of the Vasa??? Good. Now, consider this: the Vasa was underwater. For a long time. A very long time. To be exact: 333 years!!!

The Vasa was built to be the finest military ship of the time, and was to be Sweden’s flagship in its war with Poland-Lithuania. It was certainly the most expensive, and most-embellished ship of its time. However, she sunk on her maiden voyage, just 390 feet from shore, and took 53 lives when she went down. Too top-heavy! It took two years to build the Vasa, from 1626-1628. King Gustavus Adolphus pushed for an accelerated schedule, and upon hearing that Denmark was building a ship with two gun decks, ordered this feature, as well. The trouble is that the keel was already laid, and adding another gun deck disrupted the center of gravity, making the Vasa unseaworthy. In addition, all of the elaborate carved figures added weight to the upper level of the ship. It needed more ballast, but adding ballast to the hold would have put the lower gun deck under water. A “lurch test” was performed to test the ship’s stability, consisting of 30 men running from side to side. The ship started to sway violently: it had failed the test, but was launched two weeks later regardless. So, from inception to launching, it had undergone many innovations with nobody bothering with the engineering specifications as the ship evolved over time.

The Vasa laid in a busy shipping channel just off the coast and slowly sunk farther and farther into the mud over the years. Its valuable bronze cannons were salvaged 30 years after it sunk, and then the wreck was forgotten. It was relocated in the 1950s and finally brought to the surface again in 1961.

The ship was a treasure trove for archaeologists, as never before had a four-story structure been recovered largely intact. Items found in the wreck included clothing, food, weapons, coins, cutlery, drink, and 6 of the 10 sails. Since the water of the Baltic Sea was very cold and polluted, with a high degree of salinity, the shipworms that normally devour wooden ships were absent. The highly toxic and hostile environment of the Baltic meant that microorganisms that break down wood had a hard time surviving. Since it was in a shipping channel, a good portion of the upper ship was destroyed by other ships dropping anchor onto it. But what was salvaged was unimaginably well preserved, as your own eyes can see!

We visited Sweden on September 8, 2012, and the museum in which it is housed is on an island just off the coast of Sweden. It is the most-visited museum in Sweden. Some vestiges of paint on the carved figures were found, leading to the restoration and repainting of some of the figures, as shown in the photos.

Toward the end of the photos, you can see some of the 15 skeletons and closeups of the skulls that were recovered from the wreck. Just like in the TV show Bones, the last photo shows a recreation of what two of the people might have looked like.

Day 889 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Casablanca, Morocco. July 9, 2020.

Many people hear Casablanca and think of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman… “Play it, Sam,” not “Play it again, Sam,” as everyone thinks, by the way. But Casablanca is, of course, the largest city in Morocco, with a population of around 3.5 million people. We visited on December 8, 2015, on a cruise, so it was just for one day. Morocco is only the second, and last, country that we have been to on the African continent. We posted about Egypt a while back. Since we knew that Morocco would be a very different culture, we opted to take a tour of the city rather than attempt seeing it on our own, as we usually prefer.

So our first stop was Rick’s Cafe, which of course was Humphrey Bogart’s joint in the movie Casablanca. Give the people what they clamor for! Of course, it was Rick’s in name only, having nothing to do the movie. After that we went to Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco, which took seven years to build. Its uniqueness also comes from being located on the beach, in fact, the largest mosque in the world on a beach. You can see the mosque, starting with the second photo.

After the mosque are some street scenes. Notice the pretty leaf-motif lampposts that line the downtown area. And of course, you can’t visit Morocco without going through a few bazaars. Here, dates, nuts, and spices were the ubiquitous items, in addition to the usual seafood and pretty flowers.

Our last stop was unusual for a heavily Muslim country…Eglise Notre Dame de Lourdes, Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. Catholics make up less than 2 percent of the population (50,000 out of 31 million) in Morocco. We were there on the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), and the first thing we saw was an outside grotto with a statue whose banner declares, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” But the church’s most noteworthy feature was its windows in bold colors, made with chunks of glass. We have included just two of them at the end of the photos.

You can see our guide, with glasses, in one of the photos at the mosque. He was very friendly, and overall we felt quite safe in the city. Some women wore full hijabs, and some wore merely a head scarf. All, however, checked out the western women in our tour group, noticing our clothing. Our initial plan for this summer was to spend some more time in Morocco, including Tangier, Fez, Rabat, and Marrakesh, but the pandemic has made that impossible for now. Maybe next summer? Stay tuned!

Day 877 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Dunnet Head & John o’Groats, Scotland, UK. June 27, 2020.

The end of the world! Well….at least, the end of the UK. The most northerly end. Of mainland UK. Scotland. In July 2017 we took an epic driving tour of Ireland and the UK, 104 days, with 72 days in a rental car in the UK, covering England, Wales, and Scotland. On July 14, 2017, we were staying in the lovely city of Inverness, Scotland, and wanted to take a road trip to the north. We drove on very narrow, two-lane roads, passing through the “metropolises” of Wick, John o’Groats, and Dunnet. Dunnet Head (also known as Easter Head) was just a little farther north from Dunnet, and being the northernmost spot on the mainland, we decided we really should go for it, even though the clouds threatened rain off and on all day. We drove about 250 miles round trip. You can see in our photos most of what we saw. The views from Dunnet Head were just gorgeous, deep blue water crashing on the rocks, and just a few other tourists.

To get there, we also drove through John o’Groats, a destination for people trying to make the longest trek possible through the UK mainland in one direction (from Land’s End in Penzance). Its name is taken from Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who ran a ferry. People from here are called Groaters. You can see the village’s guest house in one photo, and this is one of the UK’s most famous landmarks, believe it or not! It was built near Jan de Groot’s original home in 1875, fell into disrepair, but was refurbished in 2013. Without the internet, we never ever would have guessed that this very humble guest house was famous in any way or shape!

Following the photo of the guest house are just pastoral photos we took along the 250-mile drive….fields, flowers, vistas, open space, some sheep and cattle. In the forefront of one photo, you can see an ancient property wall, which we saw in many places in the UK. It is simply thin rocks standing upright. Sometimes it is built up, in several rows, but often it is just a single row, as it is here.

We stopped at a small cozy cafe as the rain came in, as you can see in the last photo. We were surprised to find that it was a former church…notice the high windows, chandeliers, and a pretty mural of a church filled with people…the former congregation, we would guess. We always say…we go to the weirdest places! Winding up at the northernmost point was just pure luck, though, and is a wonderful memory.

Day 869 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Oktoberfest, Munich, Germany. June 19, 2020.

Did you know that Oktoberfest takes place largely in the month of September??? It’s true! But “Septemberfest” sounds awkward, right? We attended Oktoberfest in Munich on September 30, 2014, and that year, Oktoberfest ran from September 20-October 5. But, we dally.

How was it? It was one of the most fun days we have ever had traveling! We didn’t know what to expect at all. We asked a young man at our hotel’s front desk where we should go, or what we should see. He said immediately, “Go to the Hacker-Pschorr Hall!” So off we went by train in late morning. It is held in a fairgrounds called Theresienwiese, which is accessible via two different trains. Unlike a state or county fair in the US, there is no admission fee! It is free to walk in. And actually, it is exactly like any fair, with rides, food and dessert stands, drink stands, and games of chance. BUT, the grounds are also dotted with 14 large beer halls and 20 smaller beer tents. Yes, that is 34 places to purchase – and consume – beer, in the size of a modest-sized fairgrounds.

We went to the Hacker Pschorr Hall, as it was said to attract more young people than the others. It was early in the day, about noon, but we sat down and ordered drinks and lunch. There were still seats to be had, at this hour. We went on a Tuesday rather than a weekend. We were soon talking to people around us, including a friendly young German man who had moved to New York City for work, but always returned to Munich for Oktoberfest. He was sort of protective of us, helping us with getting oriented, and he translated the menu for us. We stayed for several hours, and some college kids joined our table….Catherine, Cassie, Manuel, and Christoph. You can see them in four of the photos, halfway down. They were there to – DRINK. Period. So we talked with them, drank, took photos. And then we announced that we were going to see the rest of the fairgrounds, as we had just walked up to this hall and stayed there. They begged us to stay longer, but we really wanted to experience and see the rest of the festival. They told us to come back, and we said we would try.

We walked around and were surprised how family-oriented the event was outside of the beer hall. You can look at the last nine photos to see some of the fairgrounds. We did try a “Baumstriezel,” or chimney cake, as shown in one of the photos. It is pastry cut into long strips that are then wrapped around a thick spit, and baked over a fire or electric grill. It is dusted with sugar and other toppings, if you wish. You just peel it round and round in strips. It was very good with some espresso! There was a fun house, as you would see in the US, and lots of movie monster-oriented rides and attractions. Many brands of beer had horse-drawn carts rambling around to “remind” you that beer was available!

We went into some of the other beer halls, but most had “reserved” signs on their tables for people who had made reservations, and they weren’t very welcoming. Also, the age of the drinkers was much older than our original hall. Since we were told it would get very crowded, we returned to the Hacker-Pschorr Hall with great trepidation around 5:00 pm. As you can see, the picnic tables are set up as close as they can be to each other to allow for a narrow aisle for ingress and egress, but not much more. Each bench at either side of the table could not accommodate more than four people comfortably. We went back to our original table, and there were six people on each side, crammed together. Our four young friends were on the inside, next to a barrier, not on the aisle end. They were ecstatic to see us and told us to come sit with them. We told them there was no room, with six people almost on top of each other, and we couldn’t even squeeze past the people on the aisle end. “We are making room! Come!” Mike volunteered to go first. He squeezed and squished past people, and when he got to them, there was one inch between them and the other people. “Sit!” He said, how?? Just lower yourself! It was like the parting of the Red Sea. He started to sit, and bodies wriggled, some protested, and he was down and seated! Mike called for Jan to do the same! She did what he did, and it unfolded the same way….we were in! They were so cordial to two old foreign people! Everyone welcomed us, and people across from us waved and said hi…it was terrific. We bought a few rounds of beer for everyone, and we partied! They said…wait till the dancing starts!

There was no dance floor, only picnic tables as far as the eye can see, with the band in a raised bandstand in the middle of the enormous room. Puzzled, we asked, where does the dancing take place? We soon found out. In fact, you can see it in the first photo. Dancing consisted of standing on our seats, moving together, lifting beer mugs, and singing at the top of our lungs, yelling, and cheering. You couldn’t remain seated, of course, when your bench, intended for four people and now having seven or eight, all stood. We acted as one. It was a blast. Friendships and camaraderie prevailed. The funniest thing about the evening was their two favorite songs, sung loudly and lustily by the mostly German crowd: Take Me Home, Country Roads, and Sweet Home Alabama. They knew every syllable of every word, perfectly. I asked Manuel, who was very drunk, if he knew where Alabama was. He answered, “I don’t even know what Alabama is!” After we sang Country Roads, I asked, likewise, about West Virginia. He said, “well, what is West Virginia?” I told him that was my question to him, and his answer was, “I have no idea.”

Prices were high, but that was to be expected at a fair of worldwide notoriety. Do you see the menu? Beers were almost 11 euros (although they were huge!), apple strudel was about 8 euros, and Wiener schnitzel cost 20 euros. We could figure out those items on the menu, but needed help translating some of the others. The food was pretty good, surprisingly.

The first photos are the inside of the festival hall. Then come the photos of our four friends. Everyone wearing a dirndl was showing a lot of cleavage…that’s what they are designed to do! Most men were in regular clothing, but some wore lederhosen with a regular shirt. You can rent either of these costumes in shops around the fairgrounds, if you want to be traditional. We liked the two posters you can see….kissing, yes; smoking, no; eating and drinking, yes; smoking, no. We can only imagine what it was like in the days when there was smoking in the hall! At any rate, everyone was very fun, friendly, gracious, kind, and……drunk! What a great memory.

Day 865 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Embera Village, Panama. June 15, 2020.

Our first cruise together was in February of 2009, roundtrip from Colon, Panama, and visiting the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao). As we had always discussed, on any cruise we would extend our time before and after a cruise to see something more of the country we were in. So we planned three days in Panama City before the cruise departed. On one of the days, January 31, 2009, we visited an authentic tribal village in the heart of Panama’s rainforest, the Embera Tribe.

Our tour leader for the day, Anne Gordon de Barrigon, was the founder of our tour and had an interesting story to tell us. She owned a business training animals for movies and television, such as Northern Exposure, and went to Panama in 2004 to film a show. Some members of the Embera tribe were used in filming, and she got to experience this village up close. She ended up falling in love with one of the tribal members, Otniel Barrigon, married, and moved to Panama. She then started this tour company to take visitors on tours of an actual tribal village.

Anne picked us up at our hotel, and we drove along the Panama Canal for an hour or so until we reached Lake Alajuela, where we were met by the Embera and their handmade dugout canoe. It was another gorgeous hour’s ride through Panama’s rainforest until we reached their village, and the river journey was filled with birds and all sorts of howls and animal noises. You can see our arrival, and the canoes, in the second and third photos. The next photos show the tribe waiting on the hilltop with native instruments, and they sang a welcome song as we ascended along the path. As you can see after that, the village consists of several huts built off of the jungle floor for a modicum of security and privacy. There is also a photo of our lunch being made in the community pavilion, consisting of fresh fish, plantains, and fresh fruit, very simple but delicious.

We took a walk out into the rainforest with our guide and the tribe’s medicine man. Along the path, they showed us various flowers, berries, and plants used medicinally. The most interesting was bark peeled from a tree. He divided it into small pieces so that we could all chew it for a few seconds, waited for another 10 seconds, and asked how our mouths felt. Astonishingly, we were numb! He told us the tribe had long used it as a type of “novocaine” for dentistry, and anywhere on the body that it was needed for its numbing effect. We found that nature does take care of us!

After our walk, we were invited into the community pavilion, where tribal-made masks, carvings, baskets, and textiles had been arranged. Each family stood behind the items they had crafted. We wanted to buy a few items, but it was heartbreaking to walk by a family and see their disappointment if we passed by without purchasing anything. You can see the three things we did purchase, held by the person who created it: a palm leaf mask, a colored toucan made of Tagua nut, and a gorgeous Cocobolo wood toucan. Then, we play fashion models and display three other masks! Finally, the day ended with the tribe performing some ritual dances and singing, which is also depicted in the first photo. In the last photo, the village’s chief is shown on the left. Yes, we thought he was very young, also. He is in his early 30s.

All in all, a fascinating day of living history. The children were very happy and joyous. As you can see, two of the native girls made friends with the blonde daughter of a couple on the tour, and they all quickly became inseparable, even though they did not share a common language. Smiles were plentiful that day. Nobody (other than the visitors!) carried a phone, tablet, or anything electronic (as the village had no electricity), yet they were happy. A day well spent!

Day 861 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Cairo, Egypt. June 11, 2020.

A few weeks ago, we published a retrospective of Istanbul, which we visited for one day while we were on a cruise. We also stopped in Athens, Ephesus, Mykonos, and, the most-anticipated destination for most of the passengers, Cairo. Seeing the oldest structures on earth was not to be missed. We were stopping at two ports in Egypt, both on the Mediterranean: Port Said and Alexandria. Both are equidistant from Cairo (about 120 miles), but it seemed logical to go to Cairo and Giza from Port Said rather than Alexandria, an ancient city and tourist destination in its own right. The ship’s day excursion to see the pyramids and Sphinx was $350 per person, which is rather steep, but they had a captive audience. We first contacted an American travel agent in Cairo who had received good reviews for local tours for cruise ship passengers. We would need round-trip transportation to Cairo and wanted to see the pyramids. It sounded reasonable to us, and, if she came in under $700, that would be our first choice over the ship’s tour. She quoted us a total of $2,500! And of course, if you are late back to the ship, it will not wait for you unless you are on an official ship’s excursion. The cruise company will also likely charge a fine to your credit card for their delay if they end up leaving you behind. The road between the two cities is slow and congested, and we very well could have been late if we were “on our own.” So we took the ship’s excursion, on cattle-call buses, and you can see part of the line of 80 buses in the second photo!

It was quite frightening for the first 20 miles or so of our journey, as every 100 yards or so, there would be a guard shack with heavy machine guns pointing out. We were told it was to protect us, but it sure felt awfully strange, and made everyone feel more insecure than anything. The third through seventh photos were taken from the bus, and illustrate our first glimpses of Cairo. In the third photo, you can see rebar sticking up from the top levels of two buildings. That occurred everywhere in the city. The reason? Egypt doesn’t tax properties that are not yet “completed.” So when children marry, the top floor is built above mom and dad’s apartment, and the new apartment, in turn, has rebar sprouting from the top of the new addition! Everyone knows the game, of course. We have also seen this in other cities in the world. Cairo was very poor, and as you can see, laundry was out airing, and everything was quite dilapidated.

Our first destination that Thanksgiving Day (November 26, 2009) was the oldest stone structure of its size in the world, the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid of Djoser. It was built in the 27th century BC for third dynasty pharaoh Djoser in Saqqara, about 20 miles south of Cairo. These photos are at the end, after those of the Sphinx. The Step Pyramid looks very crude and unsophisticated compared to the Great Pyramids of Giza, doesn’t it? It was our introduction to the desert, and we were offered camel rides by the dozens. Once we had said no, however, they did not want us taking photos of their camels. They put their palms out for tips if you tried to get a closeup! We don’t mind giving tips if we are taking an unusual photo, but there are no ATMs in the middle of nowhere, and we had no local currency. Also, we had been warned about their unscrupulousness in advance. The camel owners might offer you a reasonable cost for a camel ride out into the desert….say, $20 for two. Once you get out to the utter middle of nowhere, they then demand $50 or $100 to take you back.

So, after seeing the Step Pyramid, we drove back to Cairo, eager to see the Sphinx and Great Pyramids. Oh, but wait…our guide said, “Well, it looks like we have extra time!! We are going to stop at an Egyptian store where you can buy jewelry and items inscribed with hieroglyphics, etc. Afterwards, we will have lunch. You have one hour in this marvelous store!” Here it was. The dreaded forced shopping stop, where the tour guide and/or the cruise ship get kickbacks on whatever the passengers purchase. We were stuck. So, an hour at this store (being followed around by our assigned salesman), then an hour at a very nice lunch buffet (we were warned not to eat anything sold on the street), and two hours of our precious day trip were gone.

As we headed to the Great Pyramids, we were stunned by the entry road to the most important tourist site in Egypt. It had an open ditch filled with water down the middle, between the two directions of traffic. However, they never removed the dirt that was removed to form the ditch. There were piles and piles of dirt, now filled with rubbish. We saw a dead goat sticking out of it, at one point, and a bicycle, and then just all sorts of trash. It had become a city dump, and everyone heading to the Great Pyramids gets to see this, the most unsightly of views.

So now, we arrive after catching glimpses of the pyramids from the city, and they got larger as we got closer. We pulled into the parking lot, and the guide had the audacity to say, “We don’t have very much time! We are running late! Our stop here will only be for 20 minutes.” THIS is what everyone paid $350 for, not to go shopping in their store! And the best part of the Great Pyramids is that one of them has been cleared of everything inside, and you can walk down in and actually be in the farthest depths of it. There was a long line to get in. So we said to the others…this is what we paid for! Let’s take our time, get in line, and see the pyramid. They can’t leave without us! It was mutiny, but all the tour members were annoyed. So we waited in line, saw the pyramids, took pictures, and dawdled. We got scolded once we got back, but so what? We drove a short way to the parking lot for the Sphinx and got the same message – we are now very, very, late and you only have 15 minutes to get your photos of the Sphinx, so don’t be long, and don’t be late, yadda yadda. Once again, once off the bus, we all decided to do whatever we wanted and take as many photos as we wanted. It was the tour company who forced us into shopping first, so nobody cared. As you can see in the first photo, there are only two places where you can stand to see the Sphinx, and nobody can stand directly next to, or on it, as was permitted at one time. And, even with our group mutiny, we arrived back at the ship at exactly the time we were scheduled to.

The coda to this story is that that evening, there was a comedy show in the ship’s theater. The first thing the comedian asked was if everyone was doing okay, and people cheered. Then he asked, “So do you all want to return to Egypt anytime soon?” – and he got boos. Most passengers felt as we did…that it all felt unsafe, wasn’t very clean, and you would be fleeced if at all possible. This trip was before the “Arab Spring,” of course. Sadly, we have heard from more recent travelers to Egypt that the problems have only gotten worse. There is such a great history here, interesting edifices to see, and stunning desert landscapes, so it is a shame that our experience was mostly negative. But don’t get us wrong: we love travel, and we love every single day of seeing the world, even where it is more challenging. This wasn’t a “bad” day by any means, just seeing a different way of living and new culture.

Day 857 of Traveling the World, Retrospective: Nanuya Lailai, Yasawa Islands, Fiji. June 7, 2020.

It was sometime during the summer of 2006. We were having one of our frequent discussions about where we could travel next, either over the Labor Day holiday or Christmas. We talked about Canada, New York City, or Chicago if we were going in September, but would need a warmer location if in December. So out of the blue, Mike said, “How about Fiji???” Wow. How about Fiji, indeed! We made plans to go a few days before Christmas, returning a few days after New Year’s.

On December 4, 2006, the Fijian military staged a coup and took over the government. We debated the question of whether to travel there two weeks hence. Mike said it would likely be okay for tourists, and Mike had to cancel a trip to Fiji about seven years before that due to his traveling companion’s passport problems (going to Acapulco instead), so was reluctant to cancel yet another trip to Fiji. However, Jan really didn’t want to travel on roads lined with young soldiers holding rifles. One wrong move…

So we cancelled our hotel, and Fiji Air gave us a voucher for future travel. We waited until May 2008 to finally get to Fiji. It was fantastic. We spent 16 nights on Nanuya Lailai Island in the remote Yasawa chain, which scatters northward into the South Pacific off of Fiji’s main island. We arrived on the one ferry boat that leaves the mainland early in the morning and stops at many islands on its way. It lets off arriving passengers and supplies, and takes on departing passengers, mail, and trash. We arrived at our resort, on one of the outermost islands, five hours later. Was it worth five hours on a ferry? Oh, my, yes! But there is a seaplane that flies there, as you can see in the photos, and that is just a 30-minute ride. We would opt for that in the future, even though it costs about twice what the ferry does.

The resort lobby is open-air, as many hotels are in Hawaii, and outside of the beach, it is the only gathering area. The lobby includes a bar, restaurant, and some couches to relax on. Guests stayed in small huts called bure. There were a few bure on the beach, but the treetop bures were all off a path that wound up a small hill…the better for terrific ocean views! The first two photos were taken from our veranda, and it was so gorgeous and calming. There was very limited wifi, a beach, kayaks, snorkeling gear, and massages available. That was it. Jan’s mom had asked, “Were there all kinds of shops selling local items?” No shops. Nothing but a beach, the ocean, and other guests.

The Yasawas are generally fairly pricey because the resorts tend to be all-inclusive. In our original searches, we were finding costs of $1,000-2,000 per night. At a travel show, the resort we ended up at was touted as being more normal, as it charged per night at normal hotel rates and you bought your own food and drinks. The only restaurant available was the resort’s, so there was no competition. The restaurant was excellent. Breakfast was complimentary, but it consisted of coffee, muffins, toast, fruit, and cereal. It was plenty for a daily schedule of…nothing (much like quarantine!). The dinner menu changed daily, and it was supposed to be posted at 6:00 pm, as dinner was supposed to begin at 6:00 pm. But there is a distinctly slow, manana Fijian mindset such that sometimes it started at 6:15 or 6:30. They couldn’t figure out why everyone was waiting to eat as early as 6:00 pm, even though it was the advertised dinner hour.

As you scroll through the photos, you can see how utterly remote we were. The hammock was put to good use by us almost every day! We kayaked on two different days, with the trip out to the middle of the channel surprisingly easy and fun, while paddling back to shore was a struggle and took about four times longer than the original effort! We snorkeled most days, as there was a coral reef directly off the beach and another island just a little farther out, providing a relatively sheltered ocean environment, but allowing a constant gentle current to pass between the islands. Mike went scuba diving a couple of days, one of which was a pretty interesting shark dive. During that dive the guides were able to draw in, using trash cans full of chum, a lot of small black tip reef shark and a pretty impressive 10-foot-long lemon shark.

After the photos of the seaplane’s arrival and the passengers disembarking on the beach are two photos of Queen and Debbie (we remember their names quite clearly after 12 years!). A women’s group who came in for a weekend birthday party hired them from another island for birthday entertainment. We finished dinner and were heading back to our bure when they pulled us in, saying everyone had to join in the festivities. It turned out to be a lot of fun, as Debbie and Queen dragged us (literally) up on stage, gave us their headdresses and danced with us, and did so with everyone present…maybe 25 people or so. Debbie and Queen did say that they practiced their dances at home with the native music every day so that they could be in their best shape to entertain us…they were very sweet and gracious.

After the photos of the birthday party festivities are photos of our walk completely around the island, which took just a few hours, being so small. In addition to our little resort, there was a backpacker’s settlement on the other side, in the multicolored huts. That was it. The island was otherwise deserted. This is the island where the Brooke Shields’ movie, Blue Lagoon, was filmed. We had never seen it, and we were surprised and delighted when we watched it once we were back in the US, as we recognized various parts of the island where we had walked.

The next photos are of our Sunday morning church service. We had to take a boat across the channel to the bigger island of Matacawa Levu, where there was a village and church. Of all things, it was Mother’s Day, so the entire service was led by women, with a woman preaching. The church wasn’t any particular denomination that we could tell, just local Fijian. The little boy was really cute. He kept making faces at Jan, and she made faces right back as Mike took photos. We have about 10 of them, and he got more and more emboldened when he realized Jan wouldn’t be backing down anytime soon.

The last three photos are some of the gorgeous sunsets we experienced, as well as the resort staff waving goodbye to us as the ferry began its five-hour trip back to Fiji’s main island. We have great memories of the Yasawa Islands…tranquil, quiet, totally relaxing, and distraction-free. It was bliss.