Seven Days in Bali

I added Bali to my schedule primarily to see a young friend of mine I had met back in 2019. Back then Risky was a 16 year old island girl taking an English Emersion class in Yogyakarta. Her assignment that day was to find an English speaking tourist and be their volunteer tour guide to the Pramanan Hindu Temple Complex. We had a great day together and have maintained a friendship on line as I helped her practice her English with weekly Video Chats.

Three years later and Risky is about to begin her third year of University in Tourism. She has spent the last two months working on an internship with the Pusat Pendidikan Turtle Conservation and Education Center on Bali. My trip coincided with the conclusion of her internship so I had a ready-made tour guide and she had her first client.

Risky developed and excellent itinerary of some places I visited in 2019 plus some new sites. In addition to Risky being an excellent and enthusiastic tour guide she also has an interesting hobby shooting video on her smart phone and editing short quick moving high quality video vlogs. So Bali will feature my first ever video series embedded into my written narratives. I hope you enjoy this new feature and that Risky will continue to teach me how to edit my videos remotely.

Our first day began with a tour of the Turtle Conservation Center where she has worked for the last several months diving for seaweed to feed the turtles, cleaning their tanks and showing foreign tourists around the compound. The Center has two very important missions: first they work to help protect nesting sea turtles and their eggs and second rescuing sea going turtles trapped in fishing nets, plastics, fishing line or injured by boat propellers.

I enjoyed seeing the fruits of her labor and the progression from eggs nestled in sand nests to 3 day old tiny turtles, to 3 week old turtles to turtles ready for release into the sea. The compound has mostly green and loggerhead turtles.

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After touring the Turtle Compound and leaving a small donation we were off to Ubud to visit the Monkey Forest. I passed on this tourist site in 2019 but Risky promised I would enjoy the visit so away we went. And I’m glad we did – the forest was made up of beautiful virgin trees with massive vines and tons of klepto-monkeys.

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After a pleasant walk through the Monkey Forest we made a bee line for the Bebek Tepi Sawah. This wonderful restaurant is not to be missed. Every table in the outdoor pavilion overlooks the rice patties and make for a perfect setting to enjoy authentic great tasting traditional Balinese cuisine and ambience.

As you might expect of a Restaurant with the name “Duck” in its name features mostly duck dishes. Fortunately I love duck and enjoyed a nice crispy half duck with rice, salad, spring rolls and a nice local beer. The food was delicious to the taste buds but the view across the rice patties were just as delicious to the eyes.

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After lunch we traveled a little ways north to visit nearby rice terraces but they were small and a bit of a disappointment so we called it a day and headed back to the hotel and dinner.

Next day we were up bright and early for a full day of sites and driving. We began our journey with a visit to the ancient Hindu pilgrimage Pura Luhur Tanah Lot (Temple). I visited this temple in 2019 and received a blessing from the Hindi priests.

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This time high tide prevented any actual visit to the small island temple. But I did take some nice photos from the mainland and as usual there was a line of local women wanting photos with me lol.

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The temple complex is very interesting in that the entrance, most of the grounds and most of the structures and satellite temples are on the mainland but the important temple and small alter is actually on this little island that you can wade out to during low tide and pray and be blessed by the holy men.

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The three acre island temple is a short 20 meters from the mainland but only accessible during low tide. This is one of seven sea temples that the locals have for centuries believed protects Bali from negative sea spirits.

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One interesting oddity is that although the island is surrounded by seawater there is a fresh water spring in the small cave that provides a constant pool of cool sweet fresh water. In 2019 I tasted the water for myself before I was sprinkled with it, blessed, had rice stuck to my forehead, a flower placed behind my ear and 100 rupees lifted from my wallet . lol

We left the coast to drive north into the island’s highlands to visit the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces and eat lunch. The terraces have been a work in progress since the 9th century and stretch across 600 hectors of rolling green hills. And when I say green I mean a vibrant and contrasting green to the beautiful blue sky. As you look across the waist high rice stands dropping to the valley below then marching up the far hills they look like giant green staircases built for an ancient race of colossal men.

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Since we arrived in time for a late lunch we found a nice table at an open air café overlooking the terraces. My driver took advantage of the all you could eat buffet and enjoyed a massive plate of mystery meats and unrecognizable vegetables. In fact the only thing on his plate I was sure of was the rice. Risky and I ordered from the menu and I have to admit the view was better than the food. Lol

Later as I walked through the rice terraces I learned that there are two types of rice grown here – white and red rice. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as red rice. I also learned that this is one of the few places in the world that the farmers get three harvests each year from their terraces.

From the Rice Terraces we continued further north to the Ulun Dani Baratan Temple. The temple is situated on Lake Baratan in the highlands at about 1500 meters above sea level. The crisp cool air contributes to the lake’s calm mirror like surface which reflects the temple’s image in its clear surface.

The temple complex consist of four sacred buildings. Linga Pura stands three levels high, and it is devoted to the god Shiva. Pura Puncak Mangu stands 11 levels high and was built to honor the god Vishnu. Prua Teratai Bang is the main temple and devoted to Brahma. The fourth temple is Pura Dalem Purwa was built to worship to Sang Hyang WIdhi and is used to pray for fertility, prosperity and well-being.

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The temples were first built in 1556 but the site has had religious significance as early as 500 BC evidenced by a sarcophagus and stone slate near the temples dated to that period.

After visiting the temples our drivers took us to an incredible venue for lunch.  The cafe sat on the edge of a high hill overlooking lush green farm terraces with Kodak worthy photo opportunities in every direction.  While waiting for lunch Risky and I played movie makers and professional photographers (lol we came up short on both but hope you enjoy our efforts).  Oh and the food was fabulous here too!  and their specialty was – you guessed it crispy duck.  MMMM Good!

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My third day in Bali turned into a total bust. Our driver suggested we visit a nearby island that was supposed to be the most beautiful spot in the hemisphere. Spoiler alert it wasn’t. in fact it was a total scam! After paying thousands of rupees we waited an hour and half in the hot son for the boat to arrive. Then 200 of us were crammed into this packed unairconditioned boat version of a ghetto bus shoulder to shoulder like sardines in a tin. An hour later we make landfall on this island disguised as a trash dump called Nusa Penida. Everywhere I looked there was either garbage floating in the surf or knee deep in the sand.

 

As we waded ashore through floating plastic bottles and discarded food cartons we could see our seedy looking driver waving to us. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I was surprised when we walked past parking lot after parking lot and nice SUV after SUV to finally reach a shabby alley and find of all things a 1970s era Scooby Van. No Shit!!! The van looked like the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine. Except one of the passenger doors did not open, the orange and yellow plastic covered seats were stained with what I hoped were not body fluids and the floormats were rubber. Oh and to make things the perfect shit show the van was unairconditioned and had absolutely no suspension.

So off we went against my better judgement to what was supposed to be a 5 star restaurant overlooking the beautiful Diamond Beach. Two hours later after a harrowing bone jarring ride along a narrow winding pot hole filled beach and mountain road we pulled up to this large open air pavilion crammed full of rows of picnic tables packed with 200 sweaty people with another 50 waiting outside for seats to open for their turn at the buffet line of unrecognizable 3 day old left over magot covered dumpster finds.

And there was no beach in site. In fact the pavilion was perched on the side of a waist high weed covered hillside overlooking a drainage or maybe even open sewer ditch nowhere near anything resembling sand, surf, or the ocean. By this time I had spent 90 minutes in the hot sun waiting for the floating sardine can, an hour in the sardine tin, and 2 hours in the unairconditioned Mystery Machine and I was out of patience. It was now 2pm and our sardine can back to Bali was scheduled to depart in 3 hours.
So under threat of dismemberment our idiot driver finally agreed to just turn his piece of crap van around and take us back to where he picked us up without subjecting my system to food poisoning or driving another hour to this so called Diamond Beach.

Arriving back at the garbage strewn beach at 4pm every café was closed until 5pm. So no lunch for me and back into the sardine can with the rest of the sweltering foul smelling sardines. So my message to anyone who reads this blog – DO NOT GO TO NUSA PENIDA OR PAY A SINGLE RUPEE TO ANY OF THE TOUR OPORTORS TRYING TO SCAM YOU. THERE IS NO DIAMOND BEACH, THERE IS NO 5 STAR RESTARUANT AND THE ISLAND IS A GARBAGE DUMP!

After the miserable day I decided to take the next day off and work on catching up on my Philippine blogs and working with Risky on creating some videos for future blogs. The day off gave me time to cool off and allow my blood pressure to drop back to normal and mentally prepare myself to once again give Bali another chance.

 

 

We began our next day with a visit to Panglipuran Village – a beautiful traditional village protected from development and modernization. The entire village has remained in a state of suspended animation for centuries. All houses and the small lanes they surround are just as they were hundreds of years ago.

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The village and homes follow a Balinese concept of Tri Hita Karana – balancing the relationship between the Gods, man and the environment surrounding them. The entire village is 112 hectors and sits at about 2000 cool and comfortable feet above sea level.

According to Tri Hita Karana the land is divided into three areas based on purity and value. The Utama Mandala is the northern most part of the village and considered the most sacred. This is where the village Pura (temples) are located. Pura Puseh Desa to worship Brahma (the creator god) and Pura Bale Agung to worship God Wisnu (God of Preservation). The main part of the village flows south and is called the Madya mandala or area for humans. Here you will find the hundreds of homes. And finally on the southernmost part of the village is the impure zone known as Nista mandala. This area is reserved for the graveyard and Pura Dalem for the worship of Shiva the destroyer.

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Each home, like the entire village follow the Tri Hita Karena and is divided into three distinct zones. Each home will have a Utama Mandala containing a family temple to worship their god and ancestors. Then the home will have a Madya Mandala consisting of a kitchen, bedroom sitting area where the family lives. Finally every home has a Nista Mandala that is used for drying clothes and to house livestock.

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There are approximately 850 people living full time in the village. I found it interesting that during the day many of these people go off to work or their business in the modern world but at the end of the day they return to the village and a life that has been lost in time. They practice their own kind of time travel without even the benefit of a DeLorean or a flux capacitor.

Next we visited Bali’s Mother Temple. Besakih Temple is a huge and sprawling temple complex consisting of 86 temples and shrines constructed over the centuries beginning in 1007 AD and flowing down the southwest slopes of Mount Agung.

 

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The temple complex is built on six levels terraced up the slope with an entrance marked by the standard Canid Bentar (split gateway) followed by the Kari Agung or gateway to the second courtyard.

In 1963 a series of eruptions of Mount Agung killed nearly 2000 people but the lava flows missed the Pura Besakih by just meters. Of course the locals took this as a sign from the gods that they wanted to flex their muscles but not destroy the monument the faithful had erected in their honor.

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After finishing our tour of the Temple and descending the six levels back to the SUV we headed for our next objective for the. Day the Tirta Gangga (Water Palace). The Water Palace was built in 1946 by the late King of Karangasem. And when I say built by the king I mean he actually helped dig the pools and ponds and design the palace himself. This project was a personal hobby and labor of love for him so he worked side by side with the low class laborers in the mud and hot sun day after day.

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And his labors are truly beautiful and a nice diversion on a hot summer afternoon. The gardens consists of three parts each with its own ponds, fountains, statuary and gardens. The first level consists of a fountain and two large ponds overlooking the swimming pools on the mid-level part. The highest and largest complex is the King’s country house which is now a restaurant and small hotel.

Our final stop of the day was to visit was to what was referred to as the Virgin Beach. I’m not sure why they call this place Virgin Beach. It couldn’t be because it is remote and devoid of crowded beach goers because the beach was packed. And I am sure it has nothing to do with the virginal purity of the young ladies sunning themselves on the white sands. Mostly I’m betting it just sounded good to some marketing type at the local Chamber of Commerce.

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But it was a nice beach and everyone seemed to be enjoying the day swimming, snorkeling, sunning or just people watching. I wasn’t dressed for beach day and just stayed long enough to take some photos then back in the SUV for the 2 hour drive back to my hotel for dinner.

On my final day In Bali I began by searching for a place to get a PCR test. And just like in the Philippines the first half dozen places advertising fast PCR tests and results turned out not to actually provide the service. Eventually I ended up getting the test done at the hospital and then Risky suggested we visit the Gwk Statue.

Turned out that the Gwk Statue is just the 122 meter tall center piece of the Kencana Cultural Park. The statue was inspired by a Hindu story about how Garunda’s search for the elixir of life. The fable goes that Garunda agreed to be ridden by Vishnu in return for the right to use the elixir to free his enslaved mother.

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It took 28 years and 100 million dollars to build the statue. In addition to the statue of Gwk there are other statues including one of Vishnu plus a large collection of Ogoh-Ogoh. The Ogoh-Ogoh are statues representing demons built for the Ngrupuk parade.

The Ogoh-Ogoh are mythological beings, primarily demons constructed to purify the natural environment of spiritual pollutants created by human activity. These fantasy figures are designed and constructed by each town and paraded through the city streets carried by 8 strong towns men.

It was a hot day to be trapsing around this large unshaded park and the sun was brutal but I got some great photos and video to share with you. Hope you enjoy both the photos and Risky’s new addition to my blogs – the short video clips. Before returning to the hotel we stopped and enjoyed Balinese Barb B Que.

And boy did I enjoy!!! Pork Ribs, French fries, cole slaw and lemon ade. The meal was perfect for the afternoon. In fact I enjoyed most of my meals in Bali. I like the food in Bali and I especially enjoyed our daily afternoon run to Maximo’s for three scoops of gelato (chocolate, caramel, and cherry). I will miss my daily gelato fix and my good friend Risky but time to move on to Thailand and trade my visits to Hindu Puras for Buddhist Wats and Stuppas.

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My 2022 Philippine Adventure Part IV – Puerto Princesa & Legazpi

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The fourth and final leg of my four part adventure in the Philippines began by lucking into and finding a great taxi driver at the Puerto Princesa Airport. John was young, cheerful, and above all honest. So by the time he delivered to my hotel Honest John had become my new best friend and my driver and tour guide for my few days in town.

Honest John picked me up next morning bright and early for the 76k drive to the Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park. This 8.2k underground river empties directly into the sea and is the Palawan’ Provence’s most treasured tourist attraction. The river boasting both A UNESCO World Heritage Site designation as well as listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature is stunningly beautiful.

The cave’s jaw dropping limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites form wild and fanciful images that with just a little imagination look like actual sculptures of animals, people and other objects from the surface world. But even before you enter the elaborate cave system your eyes feast upon beautifully clear blue green waters, pristine beaches and dramatic limestone cliffs dropping from the blue skies to the blue waters in one continuous ribbon of glittering limestone.

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Honest John drove me to the pier where the Underground River tours are booked and depart. He helped me purchase my ticket and got me a seat on a boat to ferry me 30 minutes to the beach and entrance to the cave system. The boat ride to the beach was spectacular eye candy offering views of crystal blue waters, cobalt blue skies for as far as the eye could see, pristine white sandy beaches, and dramatic limestone sea cliffs plunging into the sea topped by eye popping green vegetation. A scene totally devoid of pastels or dull colors. Everywhere your eye roamed the colors were bold and vivid.

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And just as you think “can it get any better than this” the boat rounded a cliff jutting out into the sea to enter a beautiful cove tucked away between the massive cliffs with broad sandy beaches shaded by massive coconut trees and another much larger and expansive type of trees that grow both horizontally as well vertically
with big broad green shady leaves.

Once ashore we left the large sea going boat to collect a hard hat audio recorder headset and life vest and then make our way down a sandy forest trail to a picturesque boat landing to take photos and wait for a small skiff seating 10 guests and a boatman to take us 4.3 kilometers into the underground river.

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The trip into the river is surreal. It begins with a short paddle across a natural inlet and bay area and as you near the cliffs and the entrance to the subterranean part of the river the audio guide explains the ground rules. No talking, no noise, no touching, no lights except the boatman’s headlamp, and for god’s sake no looking up with your mouth open – lots of bats hanging from the ceiling dropping gifts from above. Lol

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As we entered the cave and left the bright sunlight of the surface we gradually moved from twilight to total darkness and with each stroke of the paddle the cave became darker and more quite. Quite except for a weird clicking and high pitched squealing sound which we learned from our audio guide were bats zipping by using these sounds to bounce off of the walls and other objects as a sort of radar/sonar to keep them from flying into a limestone wall or my face.

The boatman would shine his headlamp on interesting formations as we glided along as the audio guide quietly explained what we were seeing into our earphones. Off in the inky black distance you could see pinpricks of light from the headlamps of other boatmen ferrying their boatload of stunned tourists. The entire scene was so foreign – no sound, almost no light, a place where time seemed to stand still provided fuel to supercharge the imagination. For a moment I felt like I might be a lost soul on Charon’s ferry in Hades on my final journey across the River Styx crossing from the world of the living to the world of the dead. But then I felt the plop of a bat dropping on my shoulder and knew I was still among the living. Souls don’t get crapped on – that is a privilege reserved for the living.

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And as we gradually emerged from the inky black monochrome world to twilight then to bright sunlight I felt as if I had just drifted into a canvas of a Paul Gauguin tropical island paradise painting.

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After a few strokes of the paddle we were back across the quite pool between the cave entrance and small dock where we unloaded, walked back through the woods, dropped off our helmets and head sets and reboarded our boat to transport back to the landing where my taxi and Honest John waited.

I was ready for lunch so we hit a Filipino all you could eat buffet. One look at the options and all I could eat was watermelon. The rest of the crap looked like someone else had already eaten and regurgitated it. So once again I ate melons and water for lunch. How I wished I could eat a Baby Ruth again. Lol

Returning to Puerto Princesa I found a KFC in the mall and enjoyed a two piece original with mash potatoes and cole slaw – real food for real people! It is interesting Filipinos and I guess all Asians crave rice like we crave potatoes or fresh baked bread. They eat rice and dried fish for breakfast, rice and pigs ears or feet for lunch and rice and pig fat, or baby duck fetuses still in the boiled egg or Kari Kari for dinner. Asians have no interest in bread or potatoes and I have never seen ribs or pork chops on a menu here.

Next day Honest John drove me to what he said was a nearby and very nice beach. It turned out not to be so near and not so nice. I took as 2 hours to reach the beach and the first place we went had a beach but no amenities. No lounges, tents, or towels for rent and no cold drinks or hot food to eat. I had John ask where the umbrellas and lounges were. Answer – they blew away in the typhoon.

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The second beach we visited at least had umbrellas and chase lounges for rent so I bought a warm soda and laid down on the lounge. I’m not sure if I was attacked by some kind of tiny insect at that beach or from the sleeping bag on Mount Apo but by next morning I was itching with bites all over – and I mean ALL Over! Honest John stopped at a pharmacy on the way to the airport and bought me something for the bites but I couldn’t get relief until much later in the day after flying to Manila transferring planes and then on to Legazpi.

In keeping with this cosmic joke played on big fat ass American men the clerk working the Cebu Pacific ticket counter grinned and told me he was giving me a special seat because of the size. When I boarded the plane I found that the first two seats faced backwards and were half the size of regular seats. Had I been able to lift the arm rest and use both seats I might have been comfortable but I had to not only squeeze my ass into a seat only wide enough for an anorexic, heron addicted New York fashion model but had to turn slightly sideways and curl my shoulders in so as not to hang over half way into the poor guy’s seat next to me. Maybe the longest two hours of my long life.

The Legazpi airport is small and they roll portable stairs to deplane on the tarmac and walk across the tarmac to the baggage claim in the departure terminal. Normally it is a pain doing this because it is hot and windy but today it was perfect because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and a perfect kodak moment with Mount Mayon.

After collecting my bags I found a taxi driver that looked honest and I was off to my hotel. On the way we discussed and made an agreement on a rate for him being my driver for the next 48 hours. We started the next morning by driving to a place that offers ATV tours from town to the 2006 lava wall on Mount Moran. I used to ride motorcycle when I was young but never an ATV. Turns out there is nothing to driving one and away we went.

 

Our route took us through some pretty rough terrain through flooded streams, up over rock piles and into thick soupy muddy bogs but it was a blast and sure as hell beat walking. We stopped and parked our ATVs at an outdoor center and hiked the rest of the way to the 2006 lava wall. And that is as far as is legal to go on Mount Mayon which is still an active volcano that erupts every few years and sends then local running for their lives. Hiking is now prohibited because a group of hikers got caught in an eruption a few years back and all died – a group of par boiled Italian trekkers makes for really lousy tourism advertising so the lava wall is as close to the summit as you can get.

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There was a zip line back down to the outdoor center that I was hoping to try but it started raining and I was told the don’t operate in the rain. I guess maybe the break on the cable doesn’t work so well wet so I had to walk back down. Bummer – I’ve never experienced a zip line. After another hour of racing around on the ATV’s scaring the hell out of a bunch of cows we made it back to the rental shop and loaded up for the next location.

That location turned out to be a very nice waterfall that we hiked down to and then crossed the stream and continued downstream to a little café for a cup of tea and some conversation with the locals.

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It seems after a lifetime in politics I can’t seem to get away from it. The national election here is May 9 and everyone wants to talk about their favorite candidate. Most people seem to be favoring BongBong Marcos (son of the former dictator Ferdinand and Amelda Marcos) a few the current female vice president and my porter on Mount Apo is all in for boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.

After our tea we made tracks back to the car and drove to the very interesting Hoyop-hoyopan (blow of the wind in the local dialect) Cave. The 280 square meter cave with 3 separate tiers was formed sometime around 4000BC and has been used as a refuge of last resort during typhoons and volcanic eruptions through the ages.

                                                                         During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in WW II Filipino gorillas and over 1000 locals hid in the cave for 3 years before the Japanese occupiers located the cave. The cave hideout included both a hospital and orphanage. During Ferdinand Marcos’ rule and martial law the locals built a concrete dance floor in the room they call the cathedral so they could drink, dance, sing karaoke and party all night despite the curfew.

Stalactites and Stalagmites form interesting formations resembling a chicken drumstick, statue of the Blessed Virgin, a hanging snake, a hand formation, sexy lady with long hair, hanging man, and statue of Moses.

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One strange moment occurred when a group of local women asked my driver if I would have a photo made with them. This happens a lot to me in both Asia and Africa and I usually try to accommodate and stand for photos even though it makes no sense to me. As we began taking photos even a couple of guys not even with the women jumped into the pictures. Lol. But the amusing thing was once I entered the cave for the tour the lady in the red pants in the photo asked my driver to tell me that she would like to be my wife for the night if I was so inclined. Obviously I was not so inclined but I was amused!

Next day we spent half the day trying to get a PCR test for my flight to Bali. Despite advertising claiming dozens of places offered PCR test nowhere in the city actually offered them. I had to get on line and make an appointment in Manila at the airport the next day to get a rapid test and pay extra to get my results in three hours.

After the PCR disaster of a morning I spent the afternoon visiting local landmarks. First stop was the Simbahan Ng Daraga (Our Lady of the Gate Parish Church in English) built in 1773 in the Baroque style. It’s walls are constructed from huge volcanic rock which is found everywhere in the area then coated with lime to protect from deteriorating. The arch over the entrance has an inscription in Latin which once interpreted reads “Well founded is the house of the Lord on firm rock”. The octagonal belfry has carved images of the twelve apostles.

This church was built on a hill overlooking the active Mount Mayon Volcano after the Spanish settlers in the nearby settlement became concerned about the danger of increasing volcanic activity. And when the church of Cagsawa and community was destroyed in 1814 this church replaced Cagsawa.

Next we visited the ruins of the Church of Cagsawa originally built in 1587 but burnt to the ground by Dutch pirates in 1636. It was rebuilt by Franciscan friars in 1724 but destroyed for good along with the entire town of Cagsawa in the 1814 eruption of the Mayon volcano. After the eruption covered the entire area in hundreds of million cubic meters of molten lava killing thousands only the belfry and parts of the convent survived. More of the structure was damaged collapsed during the earthquake that hit the region in the 1950s.

And the last things I did while here in Legazpi was eat the Filipino delicacy Lechon (whole cooked pig). It lived up to its billing and was delicious even though the crispy hide was a little hard to chew lol. Second thing was I got to try out a Jitney.

The jitney is a unique form of public transportation only found in the Philippines and again is a testament to the locals ingenuity. After World War II the locals took old U.S. Army and Marine Jeeps welded on a longer body, moved the back axle and had a vehicle that could carry 20 people comfortably on two long bench seats running the length of the Jitney. People hop on and off pulling a string connected to a bell to get the driver’s attention. Pesos are passed from one rider to the next forward to the driver. The vehicles are covered in bright colors and chrome and built with the sides open for maximum airflow since they are not air conditioned.

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And having completed my bucket list of drinking the night away in a karaoke bar, eating lechon, riding in a Jitney, seeing the Hanging Coffins of Sagada for myself, visiting the famous and beautiful rice terraces, hiking to Mt Pinatubo’s crater lake, touring the WWII sites, shooting the rapids and crashing through a raging waterfall on a bamboo raft, canyoneering down a raging river, attempting and failing to climb Mt Apo, visiting the famed (not so brown) chocolate hills of Bohol, floating 2 kilometers into the subterranean river of Puerto Princesa and visiting the waterlogged beaches of Boracay it is now time to move on to Bali and visit my little friend Risky who I met when she was just 16 and was my volunteer tour guide for a day at the Hindu Temple complex of Prambanan back in 2019.

But I can’t leave the Philippines without once again noting the way everything here is built for small people – airplane seats, tricycles, tables/chairs, tents, sleeping bags, boats even the toilets are all miniature or kid size. I felt like Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians.

 

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My Philippines Adventure Continues with Dipolog, Butuan, Davao City and Mount Apo – Part III

I left Cebu City in the rain and thought, “Okay, I am through with this liquid sunshine,” but as a landed in Dipolog City it was apparent the rain was not through with me. Descending the stairs and walking across the tarmac in a misty drizzle I wondered when exactly the monsoon season began and ended in this tropical paradise.

After quickly collecting my bags from baggage claim I exited to find a taxi only to find there were no traditional taxi service in Dipolog City. Your choice is either ride on the back of a motor scooter or what they call a tricycle. A tricycle is a homemade contraption that welds a covered sidecar onto either a bicycle or motor cycle. The frame is made with aluminum tubing and floor and top covered with sheet metal the sides are open and there is a six inch deep seat bench to sit on.

Unfortunately these contraptions are designed for tiny Asian bodies not big fat assed old American men. The average Asian in between 5 and 5 feet 6 inches tall with a slender build and weighs less than 150 pounds. I am 6 foot 3 inches with a wide body and weigh 228 pounds. Additionally most Filipinos can carry their belongings in a single plastic bag. I was dragging a roller bag, a back pack and my computer bag.

So doing my best impression of a circus contortionist, I crammed my by big fat ass, bags and another passenger into this Asian version of a Shriner’s parade clown car with one additional passenger riding on the back of the motorcycle.

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Arriving at my booked hotel I found the room had been double booked and I was out of luck on Easter Weekend. The only room available was in a dive hotel that looked like it rented by the hour where I had to pay for my towels. This should have tipped me off that Dipolog was not going to be as I had planned. First my flight that was supposed to land at 8am landed at 1pm. Then I lost another 2 hours with the hotel snafu wasting an entire day just getting settled. So the tour of the of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosery and Climbing the 3000 stair steps up Linabo Peak would have to wait a day.

The only bright spot on this gray rainy day was when I stopped to buy a few coke zeros I found of all things Baby Ruth Candy Bars. My favorite as a boy. Mmmm. Rich Carmel and peanuts coated in a layer of milk chocolate. I have found that the best course of action when I find something I like to eat to buy more than I need. And in the Philippines where I am not a big fan of their food I need all the replacement calories I can get. So I bought them all and ate sweet tasting Baby Ruth morning, noon and night. lol

 

So after checking into the No Tell Hotel, renting towels, and stowing my bags I walked over to McDonalds for some good old American fast food. In talking to a Tricycle driver I learned that this was Black Saturday and my dreams of a packed Karaoke Bar were dashed. All the bars were closed for Easter Weekend. But Filipinos are nothing if not resourceful. He drove me around until his sharp ears heard the music through closed doors and talked the proprietor into letting me enter a closed small grocery/karaoke bar.Inside there were a couple of very attractive young ladies one singing her heart out the other dancing enthusiastically.

I ordered a Red Horse beer and sat down to enjoy my very first Karaoke Bar. Three hours and 6 beers later my tricycle driver and I left the bare bones bar and made our way back to my less than reputable hotel to a laboring and ineffective air conditioner and a mattress that looked and felt like a relief map of West Virginia for a less that comfortable sleep – but not before I ate another Baby Ruth.

Next morning I was off to the Cathedral. The Church was built in 1896. The walls were constructed of huge adobe blocks and the ceiling constructed of a beautifully crafted intricate wooden pattern. A massive chandelier hangs from the wooden ceiling and of particular note is a handsome wooden relief of the four evangelists.

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From the cathedral we drove up into the mountains above the city to the starting point for the 3003 concrete steps all the way up Linabo Peak. As you climb the stairway to heaven there are 16 stations of the cross showing scenes from the life of Jesus. The faithful stop at each station to light candles and offer prayers. It was a hot day and I had to try to cram 2 days of sightseeing into one long day so I gave up on the 3003 stair climb at 400 stairs and headed back to the tricycle to get to the next site.

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My original plan called for me to visit the Libutan Cave, Sungkilaw Falls, the Sicayab Cliffs and lunch at the Seabreeze Restaurant on this day. And I didn’t make it to any of these sites lol. My tricycle driver said several were too far away to reach with the tricycle and suggested a famous park that he thought I would enjoy.

The park turned out to be a very local and hokie Disney like theme park and pretty much a waste of the afternoon. The place didn’t even have a decent café. My hamburger was not beef but some kind of mystery meat and they used some strange off brand of ketchup that tasted more like candy than a condiment.

So back to the No Tell Hotel to eat a Baby Ruth and go to bed early for an early morning flight to Manila then on to Butuan. In Butuan I had one quick day of visiting the city sites of the Banza Church, Balanghai Shrine, St Joseph Cathedral, the Butuan National Museum and Robinson’s Place.

Robinson’s Place turned out to be a shopping mall, the Museum was closed because of the pandemic and the Shrine was closed on Mondays. Leaving me with only three short stops before hiring a policeman to drive me to Davao City.

Davao City salvaged this Mindanao leg of my Philippine Tour. The city is beautiful and interesting. And the good news was that my Radisson Hotel was across the street from a large mall offering me easy access to an ATM machine, lots of food choices, and a Columbia Outdoor store where I bought replacement sandals.

I began my city tour with a quick visit to the San Pedro Cathedral that for some reason was designed to resemble a huge ship. There was a service going on so I could only peer in from the doors but it looked pretty impressive. After that I drove to Chinatown and visited the Lon Wah Buddhist Temple where I was allowed to enter and take photos. Then we drove up above city to an area called Jack’s Ridge for lunch.

 

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Jack’s Ridge sits up way above the city and offer a fantastic 360 degree panoramic view of the entire city and coastline. Which was perhaps why the retreating Japanese Army used the ridge as their headquarters toward the end of World War II. The American Marines landed in Davao in May of 1945.

 

The landing forced the Japanese to retreat further into the Matina Hills where they had a commanding view of the Davao Gulf where the U.S. Ships were anchored. After a fierce fight the Japanese had their asses handed to them and the rest is history. But there are reminders of those hard times all over the ridge. Caves dug by the Japanese troops pock mark the ridge and people still find old bullets and other war related relics in the rocks nearly a century later. And there is even a legend of gold bullion and other treasure looted from other countries by the Japanese Army hidden in one of the caves.

Whether the gold bullion is legend, truth or smart marketing by the restaurants perched atop Jack’s Ridge, the view from the terraces is without a doubt a million dollar view and not to be missed if you visit the city.

After a fantastic lunch of grilled whole pompano, rice and Red Horse beer – and lots of photos I made my way down to the Crocodile Park. They claim there are over 2000 fresh and saltwater crocs in the park but I didn’t count them – but there are definitely a boat load! The park also is home to many other animals including tigers, lions emus, snakes and more. In truth a very nice city zoo with a focus on big ass reptiles.

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I tried for hours to find the Kadayawan Village but my taxi driver and my GPS just drove me around in circles neither having any idea where the damn village was located. Nor did anyone we stopped to ask for directions. The village is supposed to show how houses of eleven different indigenous and Moro groups on the island constructed their homes. Unfortunately, these tribes must be experts in camouflage because no one has ever seen this place.

Eventually I gave up and returned to my hotel to prepare for my morning pick up for a three day trek up Mount Apo. Five am the following morning I met my driver for the hour drive to a small village to register with the Tourist Police for the trek and camping permit, a quick breakfast of eggs and bacon, met my guide and a porter, and then began another teeth rattling ride up the hill to the trailhead.

Apo is the tallest mountain and volcano in the Philippines and climbing any of the routes will take you to through three very distinct types of terrain. The first part of the trail is through small villages and highland farmstead planted in cabbages, carrots and bell peppers. This part of the trail is a muddy slog up a rutted track used by horses, motorcycles and people on foot (there are no automobiles on the mountain). In fact there is no electricity in these villages and homesteads.

I grew up on a farm in the mountains of West Virginia so seeing these families tending their hillside tilled fields without modern tractors and tools brought back memories of working in potato, corn, bean and hay fields with a team of horses or an old fashion hoe from sun up to sun down back in the 50s and 60s as a young boy. It seems 6 decades later life is coming full circle.

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Above the agricultural belt begins a unique highland rain forest or jungle. In my many years of travel, hiking, trekking and climbing I have traversed every type of terrain imaginable from deserts, to Florida swamps and marshes, to endless rolling hills, to lava fields, glaciers on skis and snowshoes, a 60 degree ice couloir on the front points of my crampons and the points of my ice tools, sheer granite and limestone rock faces, snow fields, boulder hopping across miles of boulder fields, or even hacking a trail through Uganda’s famed Impenetrable Forest in search of Silver Back Gorillas but I have never faced anything so hard and physically draining as this dense wet vertical rain forest jungle.

The jungle was hot and felt like 100% humidity. My clothes were sopping wet from my sweat within minutes. The trail was pretty much straight up using tree roots and downed trees as hand and foot holds. There were downed trees to crawl over, under and between. The ground was a quagmire of mud sucking my boots to the ankle with each step.

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By the time we stopped for lunch I was past ready for a break. I am not ashamed or embarrassed to admit I was feeling every one of my 70 years with each step up and half step slide back in the mud and mire. Fortunately I had spotted some smoked fish in the village and bought a smoked milk fish and small ball of rice for lunch and it was delicious! Little did I know it would be the last meal I would eat for three days.

After lunch we again began our slow slog up to the jungle camp. As we made slow but steady progress our passing was cheered by a steady and incredibly loud chorus of thousands if not tens of thousands of disturbed Philippine cicadas. As we climbed another 1000 vertical feet the steady roar of the lower cicadas would bleed off and a new chorus at our current altitude would burst into a riotous roar of protest at our passing and so it went all the way to the jungle camp.

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Once we arrived at the camp site we quickly set up my tent, stowed my gear, changed out of my sopping wet clothing and into dry linen pants and a dry shirt and tried to stretch out in my tent. That is when I noticed three small problems. First Asian tents are made for vertically challenged Asians – meaning my tent was too short for me to sleep with my aching body stretched out. Instead I had to lay on my back with my legs bent at a 45 degree angle or on my sides in a semi fetal position.

The second issue was the sleeping pad I was provided. It was basically a piece of a cardboard box with coating. Third was the sleeping bag – basically just a rectangular sack with no insulating material on the inside or waterproofing or even water resistant material on the outside (would become an issue the second night). But the first night I made do and slept pretty well except for the hunger.

You might ask why were you hungry big guy? Well, dragging my aging overweight body (228 pounds) up through the vertical morass of mud, roots, fallen trees and ferns burns hundreds of calories and hour and all I had eaten going into dinner was one small smoked fish and a rice ball the size of a golf ball.

So I was looking forward to a hearty dinner. Boy was I disappointed. I was served Sour Pork Soup. The soup or gruel consisted of 5 half inch by half inch chunks of pork fat and hide a couple of chunks of potatoes and weeds and grass that I had seen my guide collecting from the edges of farm fields as we passed and stuffing them into his dirty shirt against his sweaty skin. So on dinner I passed. Day one ended with an extreme caloric deficit.

My alarm was set for 2am and I woke and put back on my wet socks, wet trekking pants and wet boots. I opted to wear my dry long sleeve technical hoody rather than wear my sopping wet tee shirt again. Made my way over to the cook tent and saw a plate with an egg and some kind of mystery meat. I thought it was going to be offered up as breakfast but instead the guide put his pack on and said lets go. So no breakfast off we went into the dark only led by our headlamps.

We slowly made our way up the vertical jungle through, under and over deadfalls, stretches of hundreds of meters of vertical climbing up sloppy heavy wet mud using tree roots as hand and footholds and small creek gullies. Finally near dawn we exited the jungle into a dry sandy creek bed and followed it up to the beginning of the boulder field and a major vegetation change.

From this point on the vegetation was much more sparse and stunted due to the altitude and harsh weather conditions on the baron rocks. We continued through the boulder field moving cautiously from one large rock or boulder to another being careful to test each foot placement before shifting all of your weight onto the rock to avoid the rock rocking or rolling and upsetting your balance. Around 7am we stopped for breakfast and the egg I saw at 2am was served to me along with some sausage links of some mystery meat and four pieces of fried spam. Unfortunately since the food had been carried in the back of someone’s pack for 5 hours it was cold and discolored. The fat from the Spam had congealed over the Spam and eggs giving the entire plate a sick and gross pallor.

Just looking at the disgusting site made me want to dry heave since I had nothing in my stomach. So I passed on breakfast and continued to climb again without replacing any calories burnt after climbing for five straight hours.

We climbed on until about noon with my energy level dropping with each labored step up. We stopped at a small and relatively flat area and I hungerly waited for lunch to served. I was both surprised and extremely disappointed when the same disgusting congealed fat coated plate of cold eggs and spam was dropped in front of me.

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I just looked at the plate of excrement then at the porter/cook and said very politely (maybe not so polite) “Do expect me to eat this plate of Sh_t, the same Sh_t I wouldn’t eat 5 hours ago? This garbage is not fit for human consumption. In fact I’m not even sure it is safe for a dog or pig to eat. Get it out of my GD sight” By this time I had not eaten any serious calories in over 30 hours and I had burned 5 to 10 thousand calories and my body was running on empty.
I knew that I was not going to make the summit and stopped 300 meters and 2 kilometers (1000 vertical feet and 1.2 miles) from the top unable to continue. It was a tough decision because all my life I have believed and taught my children to never give up, never quit. It may be a silly thought but I have always believed that every time you quit on life it makes quitting easier the next time. And in time you quit every time you are faced with even small obstacles

I have climbed and trekked mountains over twice the size of Apo from Alaska to Chile to the Alps but this was the first time one had kicked my ass and I quit without having a serious injury making the decision for me. As I sat there looking out over the Gulf of Davao and the miles and miles of family farms far below I had mixed feelings. The view was absolutely stunning and worth the pain to get this far but I had and still have questions about my future adventure travel activities.

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Has age and Father Time finally stepped in to tell me I’m too old for this kind of fun. Is my body finally telling me at nearly 70 years old to act my age – that 70 should be my age not my IQ. I have felt the steady decline in recent years. I know I climb and walk slower and my balance is not what it was but I’ve always been able to make my mind and will overcome my pain and weariness to carry on to the top – but not this day. Is this the end of my adventure travel? Will I be able to handle 16 days of trekking at twice the this altitude covering many more kilometers a day in Nepal in late May? Will I be able to complete the Kashmir trek in the western Himalayas or will I crash and burn like today? Is this mountain and this moment going to define the rest of my life – an old man living on the memories of past adventures while sitting in a rocking chair drooling down my shirt.

I would like to make excuses like the extreme heat and humidity or the vertical jungle muddy morass, or lack of food to replace the calories I was burning did me in. But deep down I can feel it might just be Father Time tapping me on the shoulder.

Having made the decision to be a quitter I began the walk of shame back down to our camp site. We made it back muddy, wet and beat around 3pm and I immediately stripped off all the wet clothes and put on my dry linen pants and my Patagonia insulated jacket because it was the only thing still dry.

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Dry and exhausted I laid down and stretched my 6’ 3” body as far as I could in the less than 6 foot tent. I was finally off my feet and relaxing feeling a little better when the ground shook and the forest erupted in a strobe of flashes and the sky came crashing down. Rain like I have only felt in hurricanes began pelting the tent. Briefly I thought, glad we beat this storm and I’m out of the weather.

Then I felt the first drop hit my nose. At first I thought it was my imagination but then more drops. And within minutes rain was just pouring right through the tent’s fabric in half of the tent. So I could see rain coming pouring through from my waist to my head. To make matters worse the tent was put up in a place that was not quite flat so my head was uphill and feet downhill.

I grabbed my pack, sleeping bag and crammed everything in the downhill half of the tent and used my rain jacket to make a large catch basin for the water pouring through. So dead tired, hungry and pissed I spent 3 hours with my 6 – 3 frame curled in a fetal position 3 feet by 5 feet. Stuck with my leg muscles contracted and unable to move the muscle cramps began in my quads, my hamstring, calves even my lats were screaming for relief – but I couldn’t move or the gallons of water collected in my raincoat and dam would come pouring down on the dry half of the tent.

After three hours the downpour lessened enough that the cook brought me dinner. It was pasta and mushrooms in a red sauce that actually tasted pretty good. Unfortunately impossible to eat laying on my side with my knees tucked under my chin, one arm holding back the dammed up water in my rain jacket basin and the other trying to hold on to the metal plate and eat the pasta life a dog directly from the plate with my head and mouth sideways of the plate.

As you might guess the pasta didn’t end up in me but slid off the metal plate into my sleeping bag and my face and neck. And at this point I’m thinking could this farce get any worse? Well it did!

After a moment of confusion as I yelled at him about his cheap ass worthless tent leaking like a sieve he finally jumped into action. He used garbage bags to cover the outside of the tent which seemed to stop the cascade entering from above.

But in his eagerness to solve my problem while at the same time terrified of this angry old white guy threatening to throw him off the next cliff we came to he reached into the tent grabbed my rain coat water basin and just swished it out of the tent one quick motion before I could react and stop him. The raincoat flew one way and a gallon or more of water the other way and then gravity sent it all flooding into the dry half of the tent soaking everything that was not already wet.

So I slept in wet clothes, a water logged sleeping bag and a kitty pool tent, tired, muscles cramping , hungry and cold. I laid there all night thinking about what I would like to eat – maybe a Baby Ruth bar again?. Thinking about all the dry clothes back at the hotel I might be wearing. And thinking about what the sentence would be if I ripped the heads off of both the guide and cook/porter. Which then got me to thinking how best to go Medieval on their asses.

But at some point I fell asleep and woke to a new day with no rain and the promise of food once I got out of this damn vertical jungle. We broke camp after declining a breakfast of red hot chilis and tuna fish with eggs, and down climbed slipping and sliding down the mud filled ruts and furloughs.

Eventually we broke out of the highland rain forest and continued my walk of shame. Filipinos are extremely friendly people and put a premium on respecting their elders. They never fail to greet you with a smile and a good morning or afternoon sir without fail. So every group would greet me and either ask my how old I was or congratulate me for summiting. I didn’t mind sharing my age but hated admitting I had failed. But such is life – sometimes you conquer the mountain and sometimes the mountain conquers you.

By the time we made it back to the trailhead my homicidal fantasies were forgotten and I began to remember all the things the guide and porter had done to make me as comfortable as possible with what they had. I’m sure two day old cooked spam is a fine meal for them and they probably thought the problem was me not their meals. And all my bitching about mud caked boots – hell they were making the trek in flip flops or bare footed. And even in the rain I could hear them singing and joking as if they were sitting in a karaoke bar in Davao.

The more I thought about my disappointment and childishness about the food the more I realized I had become the Ugly American Mark Twain wrote about. And I remembered a conversation I had with an ancient Buddhist Monk and headmaster of a beautiful 11th century Monastery on the Tibetan Plateau in China. He had invited me to tea and lunch in his quarters. While we ate he asked me through an interpreter what religion I followed. I told him I was a Christian but not a very good one.

His response was, “it does not matter Buddhist, Hindi, Muslim, Christian. Only one thing matters in the end – kindness. He touched my arm and said kindness to all men, pointed outside to a rooster – kindness to all animals, touched a bowl of boiled potatoes and carrots – kindness to plants. This is the essence of all religions and how we should live our lives.” Funny but as he talked I understood every word even before the translator spoke the words in English.

On this day I let my hunger, weariness and disappointment at my personal failure forget that lesson and treat these two men harshly and rudely. On parting I apologized for acting and braying like a jack ass and gave them both a large tip for their hard work – my failure was not their failure or their fault and I should not have been such a dick to them.

And as I walked through the fields of cabbages I decided – screw it I’m not done yet. Let’s see if the 180 kilometer 16 day high altitude Annapurna circuit trek can beat this old man! Time will tell, but now on to Puerto Princesa to paddle the first 2 kilometers of an 8 kilometer subterranean river then on to Mount Mayon an active and one of the most photographed volcanos in the world for its perfect shape. The adventure continues in the Philippines part IV…..

 

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My Most Wonderful Philippine Adventure Continues – Part 2…

The Philippines Adventure Continues – Part 2: Boracay – Cebu – Bohol

After a week of perfect weather exploring Luzon I hit a patch of rain as I flew into Boracay. Several low pressure systems had developed off shore building into a Typhoon and settling over the islands of the central Philippines. So I arrived in Kalibo to a steady but light rain. Unfortunately I had booked a flight into the wrong airport. I didn’t realize that there was no airport on the island of Boracay and there were two different airports listed as serving the island. The Caticlan airport is just a short tuk tuk or tricycle ride to the port then a 20 minute ferry ride to Boracay and another tuk tuk to the hotel. The alternative is to fly into Kalibo then take a 2 hour van ride, hour ferry to Boracay then 10 minute tuk tuk to the hotel. I chose the long way of course!

So after a long day of travel I arrived at my hotel around 10pm in the steady rain. Checked into my room quicky ate my first meal of the day choosing what I thought would be a safe choice -meat lover’s pizza. I should mention that Filipinos love the more exotic parts of animals like pigs ears, nose, tongue, tail, penis ,hide, fat, and intestines. I laid in bed one

whole night wondering what they did with the hams, shoulders, pork chops, ribs, and loin. For some reason these more civilized cuts of meat never appear on Filipino menus – so what do they do with the rest of the animal after they take his ears, lips, feet, tail and penis? No one would tell me! Maybe you will have better luck finding out.

Next morning and the morning after I woke to a steady drizzle of rain ruining my planned two day of lounging on Boracay’s famed white sandy beaches resting my old bones after a very active week of hiking, drinking Red Horse beers and watching the lovely bikini clad natives frolic in the surf. Instead I sat at a small seaside café crowded with other rained out beach bums drinking Red Horse and eating very good calamari. But I would have to say the best part of my time in Borocay was eating the nicest big red juicy melons I’ve ever tasted. LOL I couldn’t get enough of those melons. And unfortunately that was the highlight of my short visit to the Philippines most famous beach. But I will be back if not just for the melons!

 

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Leaving a water soaked Boracay behind I made for Cebu City where upon landing discovered another rainy day. I spent my first day in Cebu City visiting the traditional sites of Magellan’s Cross, the Basilica Minore del Sto. Nino de Cebu, and the 1565 Fort San Pedro. I tried to visit the Taoist Temple but it is closed to all but Chinese due to COVID. Can you imagine the nerve! First the damn Chinese manufacture and release this biological weapon on the world then they restrict their temples to just Chinese. Clearly an issue for the World Court.

 

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Finally the weather broke next day for my planned trip to Bohol to see the famed Chocolate Hills. I booked a one day tour that included the hour ferry ride across to Bohol and back, a private guide and driver for the day, a buffet lunch cruise on the Loboc River, a visit to see the tarsier- world’s smallest primate, the beautiful man made mahogany forest, the Chocolate Hills, and a historic Cathedral.

 

The river cruise was pleasant and the homesteads along the river bank were interesting. The food on the other hand was not so good. Again lots of strange and less than appealing cuts of meat, rice and more rice, and thankfully watermelon and bananas.

 

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After the River Cruise we drove up into the interior mountains and stopped a beautiful man made forest of mahogany. Back in 1972 the island elected a governor whose profession had been in agriculture and forestry. Recognizing that the clearcutting of highland forest was causing mudslides he developed a program of planting Red Mahogany trees and 44 years latter there is an entire forest of beautiful mature mahogany trees covering 2 kilometers.

Our next stop was to get my first glimpse of a Tarsier the world’s smallest primate. These little guys grow no bigger than the palm of your hand. And at birth no bigger than your thumb. The little guys are nocturnal, eats insects, has huge creepy eyes and have the world’s fastest sex. Apparently the copulation time for a tarsier couple is a mere 3 seconds. So ladies stop complaining about your minute man – you could be a lady tarsier!

And finally the big finish – the Chocolate Hills of Bohol. News Flash!!!! They are not chocolate year round. During my visit they were more pistachio green. Seems they are only chocolate hills during summer. The rest of the year vegetation grows quickly in this warm humid tropical climate covering the hills with leafy vegetation. But when summer arrives and the sun is at its hottest the limestone hills heat up and cook the vegetation turning the hills from a pistachio green to a Hershey Kiss brown. Interesting side note – these hills were once coral reefs in a shallow sea. Today they are at least 1,260 chocolate hills covering 20 square miles and one of the Philippines major tourist attractions and natural oddities.

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We had a little extra time before the ferry back to Cebu so we made a quick detour to visit an old colonial era Catholic Cathedral.  The structure was built from which limestone and coral blocks with beautiful artwork.

My last day for this portion of my Filipino adventure turned out to be my most fun, interesting and exhausting. Canyoneering through the Kawasan Canyon for 5 hours to reach first the Kawasan Falls then the mouth of the river as it empties into the sea. I was a little apprehensive about taking this project on since I can’t swim and am a bit intimidated by deep and fast water. But since you only live once and I don’t want to be laying on my death bed a few years from now thinking “I wonder what it would have been like doing something stupid like throwing my body into raging rapids or jumping off of a 20 foot boulder into a pool of ice cold water and hoping the life vest would lift my fat old ass back to the surface before I drowned.” I just went for it!

And now I can lay there and think “What the hell was I thinking, I was a fat old man, I couldn’t swim, my knees were shot, and I am terrified of water. What about that sounded fun?” Was this an early symptom of senility or just the same old bad case of stupid that I’ve been afflicted with all my life?

But I paid my money so no turning back so I strapped on my life vest and helmet and prepared myself mentally for the day. Unfortunately due to either a little confusion in translation or just outright misinformation to ensure the sale of a tour I was led to believe the canyoneering experience involved a 45 minute stroll through a canyon with a little wading to a peaceful serine waterfall then 45 minutes back down the same lazy river.

 

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But no, the experience began with a 20 minute ride on the back of a Filipino Evel Knievel wantabe’s motorcycle, then a 45 minute hike along the canyon wall and into the canyon to a raging river, then five hours of hiking, wading, bouldering, jumping off house sized rocks, and swimming. And as much as I am bitching about it now you could not have wiped the smile off my stupid face with a brillo pad for the 5 hours.

 

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Except for the few times I lost my balance on uneven underwater rocks and fell skinning my legs or moments of terror as I tried to muster the courage to jump from a bus sized boulder into water of unknown depth, or a few seconds of gasp producing pain as I plunged into the water with my 230 pounds being forced down my gravity and momentum and my life vest wanting to shoot in the opposite direction from its buoyant material. And the only the groin straps of the Vest and my testicles left to decide which force of nature won out. After the first jump I learned not to test my new soprano voice while still under water.

 

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Five hours later I finished the Canyon from Hell and emerged to slowly make my way along a much more peaceful stretch of river making its way to the sea. Tired, wet, triumphant and questioning my sanity once again I limped to the SUV, crawled in the back seat and directed my driver with “Home James or Paco, or Raul” or whatever his name was.

And that ended the second part of my Philippines Adventure without still accomplishing any of the three must do things I have set out to do here. I still need to spend a night drinking Red Horse Beer listening to people screech to a karaoke machine thinking they sound like Celine Deon or Kenny Rogers when they actually sound like cats mating. Ride in a packed Jitney. And eat lechon (a hole suckling pig). But hope springs eternal and I have another 14 days to sing, ride and eat a pig…

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Philippines Part I -Luzon

 

My last visit to the Philippines was limited to just 5 days and spent entirely in the Old Intermural or Old Walled Colonial City of Manila exploring the historical sites. This year I decided to begin my 2022 adventure exploring the country’s many beautiful natural blessings as well as visit the infamous World War II tragedies of Bataan and Corregidor.

I will divide my Philippines blog into 4 chapters because there is just so much to share about this beautiful country, the happy and generous people who live here and their very rich and vibrant culture. This installment will provide a brief overview of my general impressions of the country, a short history and explanation of the geography of the country and a generalized impression of the wonderful people who live here.

First you should know that the Philippines is made up of over 7600 separate islands and is the world’s second largest archipelago. Though there are many island there are only four major ones – Luzon,
Mindanao, Samar, and Negros.

Historically the country has been invaded and ruled by 4 separate colonial powers. The first, the Spanish invaded and ruled for nearly 400 years and did as most European Colonial powers – enslaved the people, raped the land of resources and justified their actions by claiming the inhabitants were savages and barbarians little above animals.

In truth the people the Spanish found here were a thriving and mature culture with their own written language, laws, culture and civil structure. And in the 400 years of Spanish control – they did little to improve the lives of the local inhabitants.

As a result of the Spanish American War (1898) the United States routed the Spanish and Cuba, Porta Rico and the Philippines all became part of the US spoils of war. The Philippines became a US Protectorate and the new colonial power set out immediately developing a nation-wide free public education system, built transportation networks and set the country on a path to self-governance. In a very short time elections were held and a national congress of Filipino citizens were elected and eventually a Filipino Presidency was established and Manuel L. Quezon was elected to serve as the first Filipino President in 1935. In fact the timetable had been set for the Philippines complete independence by 1942.

Then in December of 1941 eight hours after Pearl Harbor the Japanese invaded. The combined forces of the Americans and Filipino forces fought off the invading forces for four long months before being overwhelmed by the Japanese. But it was a costly and only temporary victory for the Rising Sun and the Americans led by General Douglas MacArthur came back in 1945 with a vengeance and wiped out the Japanese and put an end to their bloody and savage rule.

You have probably noticed that I have only mentioned 3 invaders not four. The fourth is hardly worth mentioning because the rule of the British was short and uneventful. The British briefly vanquished the Spanish and laid claim to the island for 20 short months (1763 -1764) and had very little lasting impact before the Spanish reclaimed the Philippines for their own.

As I mentioned before the Filipino people have a rich and vibrant culture based on family and very conservative catholic adherence. The people are incredibly happy, friendly and industrious. They love to eat (6 times a day), sing (karaoke is practically the national past time), dance, and party. They work hard with the tools they have available or make their own out of necessity and when the work is done they play just as hard.

I found the people here to be very happy, welcoming and kind to strangers. Filipinos once called our little brown cousins by a less than politically correct Teddy Roosevelt may be small in stature but have oversized hearts, smiles and attitude. All they need to prosper in the future is a government as honest, caring and good as the country’s people.

So let’s move on to my tour of Luzon. I spent my first 6 days on the island of Luzon visiting the Pagsanjan Waterfall, Corregidor, the Pinatubo Volcano’s Crater, the Hanging Coffins of Sagada and the ancient 2000 year old rice terraces of Batad and Banaue.

Day one began by a brief side trip to what my terrific guide, MJ promised would be an interesting visit to see the old historical and first train tracks in the Philippines still in use as a “Trolly Line”. What she failed to tell me “Trolly” is a Filipino trolly (and I use the term loosely).

Industrious locals have built small lightweight backed benches on wheels to ferry passengers up and down the old rail line propelled by men on foot. If you look closely at the photos and short video you will notice the passengers sit on the bench seating as a young man propels the contraption down the track with one foot resting on the back of the bench’s back wheel and the other running along the track like he’s traveling on a kids scooter.

This form of locomotion actually moves down the track very quickly and when it is time to stop the breaking system involves dropping the heel and using the friction from the operators rubber flip flop against the metal wheel and track to slow then stop the rolling bench. There is only one track so if another bench trolly is met going the opposite direction the passengers from one bench disembarks, the train operator picks up his bench and steps aside until the other passes then resets the bench on the rails and the passengers reboard and continue the journey.

This trains line only extends about 3 kilometers from one end to the other and then the bench is lifted turned around for the return trip. The locals will pay 10 or 20 pesos for a quick ride from one part of the community to the next. As I would learn with each new day – Filipinos are quite ingenious and find interesting ways to solve daily problems with what they have at hand.

PAGSANJAN FALLS

So after our quick 6 kilometer “train ride” we were back on track to visit Pagsanjan Falls. To reach the falls requires a 45 minute dugout canoe trip up the Bumbungan River and over 6 sets of rapids in a bangka propelled by two barefooted boatmen. The bangka is a canoe like light plywood boat but with a flat bottom and longer length. The unsteady boat was a little disconcerting at first but in time I got use to the feeling of regular near capsizing and released my death grip on the sides of the craft (have I mentioned I can’t swim).

The boatmen propel the boat with pie-plate shaped paddle’s through the calm waters but as they reach the rapids they jump out while still moving forward leaving one leg and foot in the boat and running again scooter style propelling the boat by running along the bottom of the river or when there are boulders or even small river rocks along the route using them to expertly kick off by placing their feet expertly in the exact best place for leverage at full speed and explosively extending their cocked leg shooting the boat forward. The motion is so fast and so precise the boat never looses momentum.

Amazingly the boatmen gracefully jump from one side of the boat to the other as boulders present themselves to best steer and propel the boat forward without ever making a misstep which would result in broken bones. In places the water is too shallow or the rapid’s incline too great and the boatmen would resort to dragging my fat ass and boat over the rocky bottom.

Eventually we recached the falls and transferred to a bamboo raft called a Balsa where we were pulled by an anchored rope across the falls pool and under and through the falls itself and into the grotto behind the falls known as the Devil’s Gate. I have been behind falls before but never in a raft directly through the teeth of the cascading water. A very exhilarating and soaking experience.

 

After a second drenching on the way out of the Devil’s Gate we reboarded our bangka for the trip back down river and shooting the 6 rapids traveling with the current and much faster. But again the boatmen are experts and navigated between car sized boulders not more than 3 feet apart traveling at speed through the zig zagging watercourse of the rapids.

After reaching our starting point we quickly changed into dry clothes and enjoyed a traditional a Filipino lunch of Pork Sinigarg (sour pork), Kare-Kare, , Pork Liempo and rice. Sour Pork consists of cubes of pork that have three layers (the hide, half inch of fat, and half inch of meat). I cut off the leathery hide and gelatinous fat and ate only the meat. This is cooked in a clear broth with some type of greens or weeds. The Kare-Kare is inspired by Indian cuisine but since they lack the spices of India they use a peanut base with eggplant, cow hide and I’m sure other ingredients best left unknown. This I didn’t care for nor did I care for the deep fried pig fat dish. But I was satisfied with the boiled pork and rice.

 

 

 

 

CORREGIDOR

My second day began at 3am with a long drive up to the famed Bataan Peninsula and down along the Manila Bay coastline to reach the tip of the Peninsula to catch our bamboo outrigger motor boat for the 20 minute ride across Manila Bay to the Island of Corregidor.

Local guide and military historian Marianito (Mar) Malacaman (09283827334) explained the history of the islands and specifically the Japanese invasion and American/Filipino Defense of the Luzon.

I, of course, knew a little about Hollywood’s version of the Battle of Manila Bay and Luzon from watching the old black and white movies like “They Were Expendable” and “Corregidor” as well as a later movie “The Great Raid” about the rescue of POWs in a daring raid deep behind Japanese lines. But Mar offered a lot more detail as well as actual truth behind Hollywood’s fictionalizing for entertainment effect.

The Japanese plan was to take the Philippines in 50 days but the stiff resistance tied the Japanese up for 4 months and forced them to bring troops planned for the invasion of Papua New Guinea, back to the Philippines to reinforce the stalled Luzon invasion force. The stiff opposition and sacrifice of the American and Filipino forces at Luzon doomed the Invasion of Papua New Guinea and Australia.

The battle for Corregidor was more than just an artillery battle on the island itself. The defenders had set up three lines of defense across the Bataan Peninsula using the mountains running down its spine to best hold their lines. The Filipino troops made the Japs pay dearly for every inch of territory gained in massive causalities. But as brave as the defenders were they were out gunned and out maned and eventually had to fall back from one line of defense to the next until finally out of ammo and overwhelmed were forced to surrender and endure the infamous Bataan Death March and three long years as prisoners of war.

But while taking the fight to the invading Japanese there were small victories and huge instances of incredible personal bravery. The world’s last successful carvery charge occurred on Bataan against the Japanese forces. And many instances of smaller Filipino units repelling much larger Jap infantry charges and tank assaults before being overrun.

Once the battle reached the island of Corregidor or as it was known before the war, Little America the battle became one of attrition. And after 4 months of continuous artillery and air bombardment and once supplies and ammo ran out General Wainwright was forced to surrender and spend the next 3 years as a prisoner of war along with his surviving men.

 

In 1945 General MacArthur returned and with the might of an awakened sleeping giant overpowered the Japanese and liberated both the Philippines and the surviving prisoners of war in quick order.

But it was too late for many prisoners of war and civilians. The Japanese were cruel and sadistic conquerors bayoneting prisoners of war with little to no provocation. And the civilian population endured even worse with mass executions of men and women, mass rapes and babies thrown into the air only to be caught on the points of bayonets as sport for the Japanese soldiers.

As I listened to all of this and thought about what I had just read about the Russian War Crimes in Ukraine I just wonder what it is about war that brings the most evil and demonic nature out in men. Is it simply the nature of men attracted to war or is it the brutality and senseless slaughter that turns decent men into brutal blood thirsty animals enjoying the suffering and pain of others. Hard to say but as old as the nature of war itself.

MOUNT PINATUBO CRATOR TREK

On the third morning I rose at 2am for the early morning drive to Mount Pinatubo. We began the trek at 6:30am and followed the river basin’s meandering path for 7 kilometers crossing the stream multiple times before beginning the climb up Mount Pinatubo. Eventually we reached the highpoint overlooking the crater lake covering the volcano’s caldera. Pinatubo is a still active volcano and you may remember its last major eruption in the early 1990s when the U.S. Air Force’s Clark Base had to be evacuated and eventually abandoned.

I’ve included photos of the route (notice several photos with large yellow stones and boulders – these were ejected kilometers from the caldera during the eruption) as well as the beautiful crater lake from the rim observation point where we enjoyed a nice picnic brunch of salty chicken teriyaki and rice before heading back down for the long 10 hour drive to Sagada.

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We reached Sagada after midnight and fortunately found my lodging for the night and after a cold shower got a good 6 hours sleep after being up and on the move for 24 hours straight.

SAGADA

Certainly one of the strangest burial customs I have come across is that of the Igorot People of the central Highlands of the Cordillera Mountains in northern Luzon. The Igorot have been burying their dead in coffins hung from the side of a mountain or stacked in the entrance of one of the many limestone caves dotting the cliff faces for at least 2000 years.

The coffins are hand carved by the deceased before they pass or relatives and then are tied or nailed to the cliff face. The practice is based on the belief that the burial in sunlight brings the dead closer to their ancestral spirits and their pagan gods.

The process begins long before death as each full blooded Igorot selects the cliff face they wished to be attached to. And I should mention, only full blooded Igorots that have adhered to the old religion may be buried in this manner. Once the person passes – a funnel and hose is used to fill the body with water (the Igorot do not believe in embalming). Then the body is placed in a chair and a small fire is ignited beneath the chair to heat the body and encourage evaporation. Once the body has steeped overnight then the corpse is ready to be transported to the cliff face.

All the men of the village line up in a long procession and walk with the body from the home of the deceased down the mountain into the valley, across the valley floor, and up to scaffolding that has been erected on the cliff face on the far side of the valley for the burial.

At the top of the mountain at a view point before descending and crossing the valley the procession halts while the village elder shouts across the valley to the spirits inhabiting previously placed coffins. He introduces the newest spirit to the elder spirits by shouting something like the following: “Elders – this is Dawuani she was a good woman and an expert tour guide in this life and she will make a fine guide for you through eternity.” Or “this is Brenda and she was a wonderful seamstress and she can make you beautiful clothes in the afterlife.”

After the introductions and the echoes recede the procession continues the precarious trek down the narrow, steep, winding path and across the valley to the foot of the chosen cliff. Once there several of the strongest men will climb the scaffolding and secure a chair to the side of the cliff. The body is then passed forward from the back of the procession. With each man holding the body in a bear hug and passing it forward to the next one after another until the body is at the face of the cliff. I’m told that each man squeezes the body tightly to encourage the spillage of body fluids on them. Supposedly the more body fluids leaking onto a man the better his fortunes so they each squeeze very hard.

Once the body reaches the cliff face the strongest of the villagers lifts the body up into the scaffolding and ties it securely to the chair where it will stay bound in a blanket with leaves and vines and smoked for several days to delay decomposition and to allow the family to say their good byes. Then in a few days the villagers will come back and fold the body(breaking bones) into fetal position and place it into the small hand hewn coffin and then secure the coffin to the cliff face with either ropes/cables or spikes.

As I mentioned before some coffins are placed in the entrances of caves. There are separate caves for men, women, bachelors and even women who died in child birth. Also I should note that only people who have died of natural causes may be buried in the old way. A person that has been murdered or committed suicide may not be buried in the valley.

One interesting side note, while I was taking a brief break at a small café at the coffee plantation at the head of the valley I had an interesting conversation with several of the older female guides. They showed me the fertility room in a traditional Sagada house and explained that large families are desired in their culture. Each woman proudly told me how many children they had. The most fertile proudly told me she had 11 children. Then proudly explained her husband is an excellent shooter and she is an excellent catcher. I have to admit I never considered the act of procreation as sporting event but the description does seem appropriate for their proven success at repopulating the tribe.

 

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BATAD AND BANAUE RICE TERRACES

High up in the mountains of northern Luzon lies ancient rice terraces built over 2000 years ago and in continuous use all throughout the melena. In the rest of the Philippines rice cultivation all occurs down in the flatlands where the farmers can harvest two crops a year using traditional planting methods employed throughout Asia. Only in parts of China, Indonesia and this remote mountain settlement in northern Luzon will you find rice cultivated in stepped terraces carved into the mountain with rock sides and employing an elaborate irrigation system that systematically moves water down the terraces flooding each subsequent terrace.

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Unfortunately one dimensional photos fail to capture the grand scale or richness of color that the eye sees. But if you wish to experience this beauty first hand you should be prepared to pay a physical price. The village for the terraces begins about half way down the mountain and spills out far below on the valley floor. This requires a long walk down the side of the mountain to any number of transit or guest houses and I will be generous and just describe them as primitive.

After nearly an hour down hill trek we arrived at my hovel of a guesthouse which was basically constructed of plywood walls, an ill fitted window, flimsy door with a small block of wood for a lock, no electric outlets to charge electronics, a naked bulb in the ceiling, no internet, no heat, no in suite bathroom, no screens to keep out the mosquitoes, no sink or shower facilities, only a communal totterers toilet and no edible food.

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Oh and also you have to share the hovel with a pig, chickens, geese, and half a dozen dogs. The only thing this place has going for it is the view and the fact that it would require another hour walk straight up if you rejected the s___ hole of an accommodations and went searching for more civilized sleeping quarters.

But I learned later that the only way building materials as well as supplies reached the village is in the hands or on the backs of the villagers themselves. Every bag of cement, every cinder block, every sheet of plywood, every 2 X 4, every toilet, tool and store bought food had to be carried by a local villager. So maybe that cast iron bath tub or full size refrigerator, or deluxe toilet didn’t actually make practical sense.

While there my guide MJ took me on a tour of a traditional village house and showed me how rice is dried, stored, separated from the husks and prepared for meals using a shallow ratan separating basket, a stone mortar and huge heavy wooden pestles, and lots of child labor (it is the job of the children to prepare the rice for meals while the parents are working in the fields).

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I would like to strongly recommend two guides should you decide to visit Luzon.

First Marjorie Joyne Zamudio was my general guide for the entire 6 days in Luzon and is a true professional. Always on time, attentive to details, knowledgeable about the history, culture, foods, geography, and current affairs of the island. Additionally MJ is a happy soul and an absolute pleasure to be around. She can be reached via Whats App 63 917 560 6687

Second my guide for the WW II sites Marianito (Mar) Malocaman is an excellent guide for the Island of Corregidor or all things relating to the history of the island. He was knowledgeable, engaging and extremely funny and likeable. He can be reached via Whats App at63 092 838 273 34.

Next stop Boracay, Cebu City and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol…

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If it’s April, It Must Be Rockieontheroad Time!!!!

Thursday March 31st begins this year’s installment of “On The Road Again” version 2022. I will begin in the Philippines hiking volcanoes, paddling down an underground river, rafting over waterfalls, hanging out on world famous Boracay’s white sandy beaches, visiting terraced rice paddies, and viewing the macabre site of occupied coffins hanging off the side of a mountain cliff.

Then back to Bali for more Hindi Temples, more terraced rice paddies, hiking up more volcanoes, exploring hidden waterfalls, and loafing on more tropical beaches.

From Bali I will travel to Bangkok and hangout for a few days before traveling north to the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all meet then float south back down the Mekong River.

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From Thailand I will fly to Katmandu for 14 days of trekking along the 140 mile Annapurna Circuit reaching altitudes of over 16,000 feet in elevation. The trek offers beautiful views of the 8,000 meter Annapurna mastiff as well as well as other lesser but also beautiful mountains and alpine lakes.

Then on to New Delhi for a few days rest before a 17 day trek/tour through Kashmir located in the northwest Himalaya area of India. On this trek we will visit and explore the Himalaya towns, villages and lakes of Srinagar, Dal Lake, Pahalgam, Pampore (The Saffron Valley), Gulmarg, Doodpathri, Naranag, Tronkholi, Gangabal, Narangag, Sonmarg, Kargil, Leh, Magnetic Hill, the Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake, Aru Valley, Betaab Valley, and Chandanwari. During the trek/tour we will visit several ancient monasteries, stupas, floating gardens, floating markets, Regional Bazars, and visit with Shepards in their mud huts.

From India I will fly to Khartoum, Sudan to explore and tour the pyramids of the lower Nile Kingdom and follow the Nile south through Sudan to South Sudan where I will visit with the five major tribes that make up most of the population of South Sudan and spend a day and night in each of the village with the tribes. After leaving Juba I will travel further south to Uganda following the Nile to its source in Northern Lake Victoria.

In Uganda I will visit and raft the Nile below the Murchinson Falls then travel west and south to Queen Elizabeth National Park in search of the famous tree climbing Lions and to make a chimpanzee trek to spend part of a day photographing chimpanzees up close and personal. From there I will venture further south and spend a day/night in with the Batwa tribe of forest pigmy in southern Uganda.

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Crossing the border into Rwanda then on to the border town of Gisenyi to transfer to a boat to cross over to the Tchegera Island Camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After spending a few days on Tchegara Island and canoeing the waters of Lake Kivu I will fly to Nairobi then Mombassa to spend four nights resting and relaxing on the beach at the Swahili Beach Resort. After I recharge my batteries in Kenya I will fly to Malawi and spend a week touring Lilongwe, the Chongoni Rock Art Paintings, Mpalale Dance Village, Zaburi Beach, hiking Mulanje Mountain, touring the Satemwa Tea Estates and visiting the sites in Blantyre.

From Malawi I will fly to Matupo, Mozambique and tour the south half of the country before spending the month of September exploring the sites and delicacies of South Africa from Cape Town to Johannesburg, to Durbin and the Kruger National Park.

In October I intend to return to Kenya to trek up Mount Kenya (17,000 feet). Then if I have any energy left I will cross the border into Tanzania to make a second attempt at climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet).

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I may have a couple of weeks left before returning to the United States – anyone have any suggestions of where I should go or things I should do to finish this years adventure? Open to suggestions.

Watch for future blogs of my travels and adventures….

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Egypt – Part One of my Covid Plan B Detour

It is May 11th and I should be in exotic Katmandu again preparing for a new trek from Luckla along the same route I took in 2019 through Namchae Bazar, over the Mongla Pass to Dole, then at some point veering off the route to Everest base camp and instead trekking to Cho Yu base camp at 5200 meters.

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Instead, I am arriving in hot, dirty, muggy Cairo because five days ago Nepal closed their borders due to a serious Covid outbreak.

So here I am back in Cairo wondering what there is to see and do that I haven’t already done.  After a little research and a lot of badgering by a tour operator I stumbled across as I was settling in I have decided to put my time here to good use visiting two places I have not seen – Aswan and the Sinai.  Additionally, I will revisit the National Museum in Cairo during the morning before the heat builds and try to enjoy the unairconditioned museum more than I did in the hot August afternoon in 2019 and visit the new Museum of Egyptian Civilization just opened which is displaying all of the mummies that were not looted by the Brits and French for their museums.

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My first full day in Egypt started as an absolute nightmare.  The small SUV’s air conditioner was worthless and my driver was an absolute idiot who drove around in circles for 4 friking hours with no idea where he was going.  We were supposed to be traveling 120 kilometers South West of Cairo into the Sahara Desert to the El Fayoum Oasis to see Qarun Lake, a beautiful waterfall, Wadi Al Rayyan, Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley), take a Jeep tour out into the dunes and visit a Bedouin village for a barbbque lunch.

I became suspicious that we were wandering aimlessly when I noticed I was taking the same photo of the same butcher stall hour after hour.  In fact, we passed the damn place so many times the sheep carcass hanging from the rack went from freshly butchered to mostly bare bones between our many passes.  I had weirdly taken my own version of a slow motion time lapse photo without even trying.  

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After a sustained loud blast of obscenities from me the driver broke down and began asking every other person how to get to the Oasis.  I don’t speak a word of Egyptian but just from the looks on peoples’ faces and the body language I could tell that I wasn’t alone in thinking this guy should have been riding on the short bus instead of driving an SUV through the desert!

Eventually we found the lake and it was a huge disappointment.  The 78 square mile salt water lake was once a 550+ square mile fresh water lake that provided the area with water for irrigation that made the region a fertile bread basket for ancient Egyptians.  We simply zipped by at 80 kilometers an hour without even wasting space in my I Phone with a photograph.  From the lake we drove on to Magic Lake and the highly touted “magnificent “waterfall.  

The lake was far from magic and the magnificent waterfall turned out to be a five foot cascade from a drainage ditch on its way to the less than magic lake.  The lake gets its misleading name from a claim that it changes colors with the light.  Spoiler alert – It Doesn’t.

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At this point I was rescued from the half-witted. SUV driver by a Bedouin that traded in his camel for a Toyota Sequoia with leather seats (in lieu of the jeep).  The plush Sequoia makes a very strange sand yacht but at least it was air conditioned and comfortable.  And this driver knew what he was doing and where the hell he was going.  First he drove me across the desert with the peddle to the metal to reach Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley).  

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Incredibly archeologist have found the vertebra of a pod of ten whales in the middle of the vast Sahara desert.  And I guess I am just geeky enough to think that was pretty cool.  They have reassembled the skeletons and left them as an open air museum where each was found,

From Whale Valley we sped across up and over huge 100+ foot dunes in this luxury SUV climbing near perpendicular walls of sand then shooting across the table top mesas only to fly off the other side sliding down loose sand to the valley floor only to speed up to catch the next sand wave.  The ride was the highlight of the day and my hat is off to the Bedouin Evil Knievel – this camel jockey was also an expert off road driver.

We finished the off road tour by going to the driver’s home for a fantastic lunch of grilled chicken, desert salad, rice, potatoes cooked in a tomato stock and flat bread washed down by cool sweet hibiscus juice served in a large tent.  Then it was back to the miserable little crappy AC SUV with Sling Blade as my driver for a two hour drive back to Cairo.  

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One interesting tidbit – we stopped at an agricultural water wheel (photo included).  This is exactly the same self-propelled waterwheel design invented and employed by the Romans over 2000 years ago to move water through a vast network of canals and channels to irrigate huge square miles of acres of lands for crops which were used to supply Rome and the Roman legions with all of the empire’s food stuff.

 

Day 2 in Cairo was devoted to first visiting the National Museum.  This visit at 9am was much more comfortable than my last visit in 2019.  Unfortunately many of the exhibits are in the process of being moved to the new museum scheduled to open in the 4th quarter of 2021.  Fortunately many of the best exhibits and pieces were still in place and I had an excellent guide (Emad Mamdouh) who did a wonderful job of explaining the many artifacts and weaving the history of ancient Egypt together in both an interesting and informative way without overwhelming me.

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Next up we visited the new Museum of  Egyptian Civilization in its brand new beautifully designed and air conditioned building.  The primary purpose of this museum is to house the many mummies in climate controlled environments. The mummies are a bit creepy and to be honest – you only really need to see one.  They all look alike – shriveled, brown, leathery and small.  But I soldiered on and passed through room after room of human jerky.

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This might be a good time to gross you out and tell you how the mummification process works.  First they remove all the vital organs from the body. Part of the brain is removed by using a hook through the nose and the remainder is removed via a small hole drilled thru the back of the scull.  Next they make a 13 inch slice down the left side of the torso and use this to extract, the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, etc….

The body is drained of all fluids then it is filled with salt and covered in salt and let set for weeks on end.  The organs are all placed in alabaster jars and placed in an alabaster carrier for safe keeping until the organs and body are reunited in the afterlife.  

The heart is set aside for judgement day.  Thoth , the god of judgement, will place the heart upon a scale and upon the other tray of the scale he will place an ostrich feather.  If the heart is lighter than the feather the man led a good life and would be rewarded in the afterlife.  If his heart was heavier than the feather that meant the heart was dark with past sins and deeds and the person was doomed to a miserable afterlife.

After leaving the Museum we grabbed a quick lunch of grilled lamb and rice in the Souks wandered around a bit then back to the hotel to prepare for my flight to Aswan.

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To my surprise Aswan may be my favorite city in all of Egypt.  It is no-where near as crowded or dirty as Cairo and the atmosphere seems much more laid back. There are plenty of temples, tombs, and monasteries to entertain plus the very interesting Nubian Village and the very elegant Old Cataract Hotel.  But if I am totally honest I loved the place so much because l absolutely loved my tour guide.  The lovely and enthusiastic Miss Do Aq (Whats App # +201221849297) was fantastic!  She was informative, attentive, entertaining and fun.  I highly recommend her!

While in Aswan we visited the High Dam, Unfinished Obelisk, Philae Temple, Abu Simbel Temples, Kom Ombo Temple, the EdfuTemples, the Nubian Village, Tombs of the Nobles, Nubian Museum,  the Archeological Site on Elephantine Island, the Aswan Botanical Garden, Monastery of St. Simeon, and the Old Cataract Hotel.  

And for good measure we enjoyed a Nile sunset dinner cruise on a Felucca (a traditional wooden sailing boat) and used the Felucca instead of a car to tour the Tombs of the Nobles, St. Simeon Monastery, the Botanical Gardens, Elephantine Island and the Cataract Hotel.

Interesting fact about the Temples in and around Aswan – none of them are where the Pharaohs left them.  If you guessed Aliens moved them you would be wrong.  The governments of the world joined forces and moved them when they were all submerged under Lake Nasser and the Nile after the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971.  The engineering involved in creating temporary dams around each temple then disassembling each temple block by block and each huge statue in giant chunks then reassembling them correctly without disturbing the many reliefs and statues is amazing.  And they did such an incredible job of using sandstone to hide the cut marks between stones that it is nearly impossible to tell it is a giant granite lego set.  In fact the only way you can tell the temples are not perfect is that the colors of the reliefs have all faded from decades under water before the rescue effort.

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And the temples were not the only thing displaced by the 1971 high dam.  The entire Nubian Village was submerged and had to be relocated on the west bank of the Nile across from Elephantine Island.  To be honest the Village has the most interesting buildings in the entire city and worth spending a half day and lunch there.

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And speaking of an interesting building and food – the Old Cataract Hotel is without a doubt the best place to stay in all of Egypt and if you can’t afford to stay there at least have lunch or High Tea there.  The elegant old historic British Colonial era 5-star hotel was originally the palace of King Fouad.

In 1899 Thomas Cook built the hotel around the old palace and the grand dame’s guest list includes; Tsar Nickolas II, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, Princess Diana, and Agatha Christie.  In fact, portions Christie’s novel Death on the Nile take place in the hotel.  I have included photos that don’t really do the old girl justice.  The place would be worth the price just for the ambiance but the food is fantastic and the service is top notch.  Take it from a chronic complainer this is worth a visit!

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So to sum up!  Spend three days in Aswan.  Stay at the Old Cataract Hotel.  Hire my friend DOAA as your tour guide.  And be sure to schedule a sunset dinner felucca cruise along the Nile.

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Next stop was a long drive down the Sinai to walk in the footsteps of Moses. I flew back to Cairo spent the night and rose bright and early for the long drive to Mount Sinai.  Imagine my surprise when the same idiot driver met me in the hotel lobby.  I immediately knew this was not going to be good.  This guy would  have screw up written all over him if he could write.  And sure enough, we had not traveled an hour before he ran over something on the four lane interstate and caused a flat tire.  So I killed an hour sitting by the interstate basting in the hot Sinai sun as the banjo player from Deliverance tried to figure out how a jack worked.  

 

Tire changed we were back on the road when I got my second surprise of the day. We weren’t driving over the Suez Canal – we were going under it in a tunnel. So I didn’t even get to see the famed Canal.  Once on the Sinai our first stop was to see Moses Springs.  This is where Moses and his followers fleeing Egypt were in desperate need of water.  According to the Old Testament Moses struck the ground with his staff and up popped a bubbling spring of fresh water.  In fact he must have struck the ground 11 times because there are 11 large wells – one for each tribe.

 

From Moses Springs it is still another four hours to the little town of St. Katherine’s and my supposed 4 star hotel.  The drive was interesting in that there were military checkpoints all along the route requiring inspection after inspection of my passport and quick searches of our car for explosives.  And the last hour and 30 minutes we drove in an escorted convoy to discourage any would be terrorists from separating my head from my shoulders.

 

We finally arrived at the “4 star hotel” which was about as plush as a Nepalize village  guesthouse.  The TV was from the 1950s, the bed was just a pad over plywood, the shower was a two by two foot corner of the small bathroom with just a naked bulb for light.  Fortunately I spent very little time in the room.  We arrived late in the afternoon just in time for dinner.  I was actually only in the room from 8pm until 12:45am when I left to trek up Mount Sinai to catch sunrise from the summit.

I began the trek around 1:30am and arrived at the summit at 5:30am just ahead of the sunrise.  The hike up was just under 6 miles from the car park/army checkpoint and included just over a 6,000 vertical feet elevation gain.   As you might guess a hike up the mountain to catch a sunrise by definition is mostly in the pitch black of night.  A nice feature of the trek is that enterprising Bedouins have built stone tea houses/stores spaced just to the correct distance and elevation gain to provide a nice place to rest and drink a cup of sweet Bedouin tea or purchase a bottle of water or soda and a snack.

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I was surprised by the number of people on the trail to the summit.  In spite of the Covid fears and difficult terrain there were probably a hundred other insomniacs groping through the dark in Moses’ footsteps to meet the sun.  All ages, shapes and sizes slowly making their way toward the top and when someone could go no further a johnnie on the spot Bedouin would be there with a camel to rent to carry them the rest of the way.

Several decades ago I spent a lot of time climbing mountains all across North and South America as well as Europe.  And I always looked forward to seeing the sunrise from the summits I climbed.  But I have to say watching the sun come up over this desolate baron land was very special.  Maybe because I am 20 years older and the effort is much harder giving me a better appreciation for the struggle to reach the summit or maybe it was because of the summit’s special place in Christian mythology but I smiled as the sun made its way into the sky.

But I couldn’t help wonder if I was going to receive a new set of instructions for mankind chiseled into stone tablets.  But alas, no divine moment for me.  I did get an orange Fanta and Snickers Bar from a Bedouin though.   The coolest thing at the summit was a small Orthodox Chapel for the Cristian faithful as well as a small Mosque for those of follow the tenets of Islam.

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All the photos of the route were actually taken on the way down the mountain.  And I can report that the hot desert landscape begins to cook as early as 7am.  The trek back down was easier on the body but the temperature made it just as brutal it its own way.

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On the way down we stopped at Saint Katherine’s Monastery to see what the Greek Orthodox Monks claim is the original burning bush that spoke to Moses and the well where Moses first met his wife Zipporah – daughter of Jethro.  Unfortunately most of the rest of the Monastery was closed due to Covid.  So I missed what I was told is a beautiful basilica as well as the bone room that houses all the skulls and bones of past monks.

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Saint Katherine’s is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited  monastery in the world founded as a small church in 330 AD by Saint Helena, Emperor  Constantine’s mother.  The monastery’s library has the second largest religious collection in the world with over 6,000 manuscripts and volumes.  And its Icon Collection is said to be the single most important in the world with works dating back to the 5th century.  Fortunately the library and Icon Collection was open so I spent a good hour looking at all the incredible old volumes written in both Greek and Syrian.

And after the Monastery visit it was back to the hotel to check out, eat breakfast then reconnect with my slow witted driver for the long 6 hour drive back to Cairo.

Next morning I was off to Tunisia to begin Phase 2 of Plan B to fill the time I am locked out of Nepal and India due to Covid outbreaks.

Again I would like to offer a sincere testimonial for one of my favorite guides ever DOAA.  She was my guide in Aswan but she is an expert on Egyptian history and culture with a degree in Archeology and Hieroglyphics and can serve as a guide in Aswan, Luxor, Giza, Cairo, Alexandria, or the Sinai.  She is smart, energetic, and enthusiastic and does not overwhelm you with dry facts and dates.  And by dealing with her directly you can cut out the tour operator and save considerable money.  Should you be interested in her services she can be reached on Whats App at +20 122 184 9297 or by email at doaaabdelfatah270@gmail.com.

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Islamabad – Chillas – Tatu Village – Fairy Meadow – Nanga Parbot – Skirdu – Shigar

After a long (20 hours) and fairly comfortable flight I arrived in Islamabad at 3:35 in the morning. I traveled Business Class on Turkish Airlines and I have to give them a big thumbs up! The flight attendants were active and courteous, the food was excellent and the accommodations were comfortable.

I was surprised to find Islamabad had opened a new and very nice International Air Terminal and the immigration setup since I was here in 2019. The shiny new terminal was very well organized to move foreign tourists through rapidly. Unfortunately, Pakistanis as a rule don’t seem to follow rules. Any rules – whether driving or lining up and waiting their turn. Since I was in first class, I exited the plane first so I and the other foreign travelers reached immigration first. We were all lined up patiently waiting our turn behind the designated blue line when 200 Pakistani young men returning from Istanbul arrived and simply broke thru all the rope lines and charged in mass to every immigration window. Every window regardless of whether for Pak citizens, foreign passengers or diplomats had 15 to 20 young Pak men pushing and shoving demanding their papers be checked first.

The immigration agents tried repeatedly to explain they had to go to the domestic line but the Pakistani men would have none of it. It finally required armed security to move the rowdy rambunctious anarchist to their own lanes. But once I got in front of the agent he cleared me in less than a minute, my bags were waiting on the belt in baggage claim when I got there and customs just waved me through the green lane without even asking what I was carrying in my bags or x-raying the contents. Incredibly once the guards cleared the flash mob I was completely through the process and meeting my driver in less than 10 minutes.

By 5am I was undressed and in a king-sized bed for some real sleep. I know better than to sleep after a long haul trip that makes the jet lag worse but I was whipped and had no plans for the first day anyway. I slept from 5 to 9am then had one of the Marriott Hotel’s fantastic buffet breakfasts. I was back in bed by 10am and slept until 5pm waking again only to eat. After dinner I posted some photos on face book and posted my first blog of 2021. Then I couldn’t sleep and was up all night and morning until Manzoor picked me up to drive north at 7am.

The drive to Chillas was supposed to take about nine hours over some pretty rough roads. I have had many people ask me if Pakistan is safe. Do I worry about being kidnapped by terrorists or criminals. This is my second trip to Pakistan and I have never had a problem or even felt like I was in a compromising situation. For the most part the people of Pakistan are very friendly, open and welcoming as long as you don’t wander into some place you shouldn’t be and treat their culture and religion with respect.

The real danger you face in Pakistan are the roads and the bat shit crazy drivers. On my first day’s drive north from Islamabad to Chillas we witnessed a young man loose his life trying to out run a bus doing 160 kilometers an hour before we even left the city. And then our driver ran us into a granite wall about 5 hours into the drive.

We began our trip north driving on the Karakoram Highway (and calling this goat track a highway is being extremely charitable). This road is the only ground route north to the East side of the country. The road alternates between being paved with car eating sized potholes for a quarter mile then a quarter mile of gravel/crushed rock deteriorating into first an off road jeep track then a glorified goat track. To make matters worse the road isn’t even a legitimate two lanes wide. In many places the road goes from a lane and half wide to one lane with a solid rock wall on one side and a sheer drop off with no guard rails on the other.

Add the terrible road conditions, the heavy car, bus and commercial truck traffic and the Pakistani Fight Club on wheels driving philosophy and you have created the perfect storm or death trap. In one week while we were in the north the road averaged two to three accidents per day with 6 to 7 deaths.

Pakistani drivers think nothing of passing on blind curves, into on-coming traffic or threading the needle passing a large truck on a blind curve of less than two full lanes with the right side tires barely avoiding dropping off the side of a 1000 foot drop. It occurred to me as we drove that this must be where every Pakistani taxi driver in America learned to drive. Passing Lanes – screw em, speed limits – suggestions. Traffic lights – for amateurs.

So forget about getting your head chopped off by terrorists, don’t worry about getting kidnapped by a blood thirsty gang – pray you survive a road trip with Pakistan’s Mad Max!

 

 

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Back to our little mishap – about 5 hours into our drive north the rocking and rolling side to side of the SUV dropping into potholes and climbing over berms combined with the fact I had not slept the night before and the playlist of Etta James, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke rocked me to sleep. One minute I was peacefully dozing and the next minute I was rudely wakened by the loud bam of metal hitting granite at 40 to 50km and being thrown up and forward then sling shotted back in an instant awake.

Groggy from both sleep and shock it took me a few minutes to realize the severity of the accident. I thought we maybe blew a tire or bottomed out in a crater sized pothole. Only after I got out and looked at the SUV did I see the true extent of the damage. In short the vehicle was totaled. The impact ripped the front left tire completely off the axle, ripped the axle from the drive shaft and the motor mounts from the frame. Not to mention there were huge chunks of plastic, fiberglass and metal stretching 20 feet in all directions. Looked like we might have hit one of those IED things.

Fortunately we were able to hitch a ride with a manager of the Construction Company building this road and his driver in an extended cab Toyota pick up the rest of the way to Chillas. And this driver was even scarier than the first guy. He passed other vehicles daring them to not get out of his way.

The ride in the pickup presented three problems for a fat, old, 6 foot 3 inch American. First there is very little leg room in the back seat of these trucks. seven hours of my arthritic old knees locked in one position I was sure I would be crippled for life. Second being of man of a certain age I have made a practice of never passing up a bathroom. Since beggers can’t be choosy and the manager was running late for a meeting in Chillas I had to hold it for 7 hours of bouncing in the back seat of the truck.

And finally I had not eaten since 6:30am and the accident happened around 2pm I was starving by the time we climbed into the back seat of the Toyota. Manzoor planning ahead had stopped in Besham to pick up some grilled chicken and fries to eat along the way since all the restaurants were closed for Ramadan and had the foresight to grab the bag before we abandoned our SUV.

But I felt it would be rude to eat in front of these two Good Samaritan Muslims in the middle of their fast (during Ramadan the faithful do not eat or drink from 3:30am until 6:30pm for the full month). So I sat there for hours starving smelling the inviting aroma of grilled chicken wafting up from the bag, needing to heed the call of nature and feeling my knees screaming at me with every jolt of a pothole for hour upon hour. Finally somewhere along the highway to hell the driver stopped in a village and he and his boss jumped out without a word and left us in the truck. Turns out they stopped to go to mosque to pray. Which allowed Manzoor and I to quickly wolf down some chicken and fries while they prayed our driver wouldn’t kill us before I could relieve myself in Chillas.

Finally the guys dropped us off at our guesthouse in Chillas and I made a beeline for the bathroom on groaning and cracking knees. After an hour stretched out on a bed, a quick dinner of more grilled chicken, French fries and nan, a good night sleep I was ready for the next day’s hike into Fairy Meadow.

But before the trek we faced another two hours on the highway to hell, then an hour and half off road jeep ride up the mountain to Tatu Village (the trail head for Fairy Meadows and the Nanga Parbot basecamp.

 

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There are about 200 people that live and tend their flocks of sheep and goats and small herds of cattle in Fairy Meadow. The animals and villagers spend the winter in Chillas then in May drive the animals on foot for days along the Highway to the Riakot Bridge where we began our jeep ride then up the mountain to Tatu Village. The entire clan of 200 spend May in their Tatu homes as their animals graze the surrounding mountain sides and valley then move up to Fairy Meadow in mass in early June. They live in the Fairy Meadow village from June to October tending their animals felling trees and turning massive tree trunks into usable one inch planks of lumber which they use to build guesthouses to rent rooms to tourists.

Interesting the Villagers who used to make their living from tending animals now make more income from tourism than agriculture.  Thousands of people flock to Fairy Meadow to Escape the summer heat of the cities.  Since I wast there in early May and people are still a little afraid of Covid  I only saw three other visitors – all on rented horses.  Toward the end of the long slog up the mountain I asked Monzoor about the people on horseback.  I think he enjoyed telling me most of the thousands of visitor to Fairy Meadow ride horses up the mountain rather than walk.  By this time my legs were cramping from the six mile climb up steep uneven terrain.  I sometimes wonder if I am stupid, crazy or just punishing myself for being a nasty human being – why the hell didn’t I rent a damn horse!

But I have to say when I reached Ferry Meadow and watched the sunset in the valley I knew every step along that trail was worth it. I hope as you look at the photos I post with this narrative you can appreciate the beauty and majesty of these rugged mountains and respect the people that have made their lives for generations in this beautiful but harsh land.

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After more grilled chicken, more French fries and more nan I limped down to my cabin and fell into bed. Unfortunately, I did not get a lot of sleep because my legs and feet were cramping all through the night from two days of sitting in one position in cars and jeeps and 20 hours of flying in one position followed by mile after mile of trudging uphill for hours.

Next morning we hiked on up to Bayal Camp a 61/2 mile round trip. Then the final morning we hiked back down the mountain to Tatu Village,mthen took the 4 wheel drive jeep down to the bridge followed by a two hour drive to the Village of Shigar.

I stayed overnight in the Shigar Fort built in the 17th century by the Raja of Amacha that has been converted into a small hotel.

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Sites worth visiting in or near the village included the Khilingrong Mosque, the Amburiq Mosque, Manthoka Waterfall and Blind Lake.

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The Khlingrong Mosque just a short walk from the Fort is a beautiful wood and stone two story structure built in the 17th century. The ground floor was used in the winters and the first floor in the summer. The wood is exquisitely carved with geometric and floral patterns. As you can see from my photos the mosque is still in use today.

The Amburiq Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in all of Baltistan built in the 14th century by the Kashmiri preacher Sayed Ali Hamdani with the assistance of Iranian craftsmen.

We stopped for an impromptu lunch of fresh caught fried trout and fries at the base of the 180 foot Manthoka Waterfall. The falls are located up near the head of the Kharmang valley in a peaceful meadow. And since my visit was in the middle of Ramadan I had the place to myself.

Zharba Tso or as it is better known Blind Lake, is a lake set in a spectacular location surrounded by snow covered peaks offering incredible photo options from every possible angle. The lake is fed by the Indus River and is the main water source for the Shigar Valley.

 

From the Shigar Valley we crossed over to the Khaplu Valley to spend two nights in the beautifully restored 19th century Khaplu Palace. Even had the valley not offered several very interesting sites, spending two nights in this incredible property would have been worth the trip. The rooms and grounds ooze of history and legend. Some of my favorite photographs of the surrounding mountains were taken from the palace’s rooftop lattice work gazebo.

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But the Palace was just the jumping off point to visit the beautiful 700 year old Chaqchan Mosque, the Hushey Valley and village, Upper Kachura Lake, Katpana Desert Lake and Sadpara Lake.

The Chaqchan Mosque is one of the oldest in all the Gilget- Baltistan region and is similar to most of the mosque of the area built as the entire population converted from Buddhism to Islam. The architecture blends the best of Persian, Mughal, and Tibetan styles and it is still in use today as the principle place of worship for Muslims in Khaplu. The interior photographs of the mosque were taken by my friend and guide Manzoor since non-believers are not permitted in the interior of the house of worship,

 

Our trip to Hushey Valley was particularly interesting to me as a former mountaineer. The village of Hushey is the last village before the Indian Frontier but more importantly this is the last stop before the 7 day trek to K2 basecamp. In fact four different 8,000 meter peaks are reached from this remote village (K2, Broad Peak, Mashabrum and Gashabrum). While there we ate a quick lunch of grilled chicken and French fries as we talked with a local high altitude porter about his experiences summiting all four elite technical peaks.

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A quick aside about anytime I refer to a quick meal of grilled chicken – it was not actually so quick! As a boy I can remember my father always complaining when a meal was taking too long to remark that they must have had to go out back and kill the chicken or pig – in Little Tibet that is exactly what happens. You order grilled chicken and someone kills, plucks, cleans, chops up and cooks the chicken while you wait.

One odd coincidence occurred as I walked around looking at framed photographs of climbing expeditions on the walls of the guesthouse while I was waiting for my fresh grilled chicken. I looked at one photo and did a double take. Photographed surrounded by an entire female climbing team from a 2010 climb was an old friend and world class climber Fabrizio Zangrilli. Fabrizio was apparently the expedition guide. I have not seen him in twenty years nor thought about him recently. It was quite a shock to see his photograph in such a remote location. Just goes to show what a small world we live in.

On the way back from Hushey we stopped at a fish farm for more fresh trout, fries and tea. It may seem like I was eating my way across the countryside but these meals were hours and hours apart as we slowly bounced are way across mountains and valleys on unpaved goat tracks. Eventually, we made our way back to the Palace in Khaplu and took a nice evening walk around the village to stretch our legs.

While on the walk we passed the village polo grounds and I should mention that every village no matter how small has a polo field. Even the remote high summer village of Fairy Meadow has their own field. These people are crazy about polo and claim they invented the sport. And I am guessing they probably did except they used a goat pelt or an enemy head for the ball in ancient times. On my 2019 trip I visited the highest polo grounds in the world at Shandur Pass playing at an elevation of 12,000 vertical feet.

We finished the walk down by the river with fresh watermelon and tea then back to the hotel for a hot shower, dinner and a good night sleep. This might be a good place to mention some of the food from the area. One of my favorite meals was Urdong Bhaley, a simple soup, consisting of a rich beef stock, crushed barley and succulent chunks of beef or mutton. Also quite good is a dish called Chicken Biryani. The chicken is cooked in a mild curry with a tomato base and chunks of fresh vegetables served over spiced rice and served with Nan (the local name for flatbread). I was not very fond of their desserts. Their idea of deserts all involve nuts, honey, fruit and rice. I tried their Walnut Tart and was not impressed. It is basically just a slightly sweet dough baked and filled with crushed caramelized walnuts that seemed to absorb all the moisture in my mouth and grow by the second. I also tried the apricot mousse served with apricot sauce and shaved almonds – again not very sweet.

The next morning the first location on our agenda was the remote Sadpara Lake. Thisbeautiful lake was located high up a picturesque valley with a stunning snow covered mountain as a backdrop. One interesting historical sidenote about the lake is that there is a small rock island (see the photo) in the lake. Years ago one of the Pakistani Presidents was visiting the area when weather closed in and he was stranded there for several weeks. He had the military build him a home on the island for his less than a month stay and then tear it down when the weather cleared and he could return south to his palace. It is nice to be the boss!!!!

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I am including photos of Sadpara Lake as well as the other three lakes we visited as well as many photos of the faces of Little Tibet. Speaking of the faces of Little Tibet – the people that live in this remote mountain area near the Chinese and Kashmir/India borders look nothing like most Pakistanis from the south. These folks look like Tibetans and Uyghurs and no doubt trace their linage to both ethnic groups.

If I had to sum up my two visits to Northern Pakistan in a few short sentences – I would just say the natural beauty of this harsh land is breathtakingly stunning, the simple salt of the earth people that scrape out a living in this harsh land are open, friendly and kind. They are shepherds that spend day after day sitting on rocks watching over their flocks, women that spend hour up on hour washing the family’s clothes in nearby streams pounding and rubbing clothes against rock then draping the wet clothing over nearby bushes and low hanging tree branches to dry, children here still play with a hoop an stick as children in America did 150 years ago. Life is simple in these mountains and the people have not been corrupted by modernity. They are friendly and gracious offering tea and fruit and a friendly smile to road weary foreigners invading their solitude.

And I can promise you the best possible guide in terms of both the quality of the experience and the cost is my friend Manzoor Hussain. He can be reached on Whats App +92 345 4354348.

My next blog was supposed to be from Nepal but Covid has closed Nepal as well as India my next planned stop. So I am scrambling to organize a plan B to fill up my time until I travel to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

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On The Road Again – A Seven Month Journey Thru South Asia and Across Africa

I had planned to take this trip beginning in April of 2020 but the China Virus had other plans. So instead of enjoying my first year of official retirement trapsing across the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma, then trekking my way through the northern tribal areas of north eastern Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Kashmir and finally finishing my journey crossing Africa – instead I spent a wasted year quarantining, eating too much, exercising too little and watching way to much TV.

And here we are in the last days of April 2021 still prisoners of the nasty little covid virus. Despite the warnings of the CDC, Dr Fauci, a senile President, and the well-meaning wishes of my family I have decided to say screw the virus I’m going on a walk about! So fully vaccinated, well stocked with N95 masks, and hand sanitizer I am finally on my way. I am currently on a flight to Los Angeles and tomorrow will leave LA for Istanbul then on to Islamabad arriving at 3:35am on the 30th.

I can already tell that traveling during a covid resurgence is going to present a whole new batch of challenges as well as amusing moments. First the amusing – have you ever tried to sneeze or spit with a fricking mask on? And I can only imagine how silly I look as I shake my head at the lady sitting across from me in first class wearing a mask, face shield and full head to toe hazmat suit including hood and booties. Quite a fashion statement in white with blue taped seams.

Hazmet Sally

The first challenge I have encountered is the mandatory PCR test required to enter almost every country. The rules are a little ambiguous. Some countries require the test to be administered and results available before boarding the plane flying into their country.

 

This gets old really fast!

Others allow the test to be administered before the flight but accept the results any time before you reach immigration. Some countries want the test administered within a 48 hour window before immigration, others 72 hours and still others 100 hours. And nearly all require an additional test upon arrival in the new country. So that is basically 3 test per country with tests running between $75 and $275 each.

Since this is my first foreign trip since covid I am struggling with the new rules. While the tech. had his swab so far up my nose that he was swabbing my brain he informed me the results would be available in three days. I told him that wouldn’t work because I needed the results when I board my Turkish Air flight tomorrow evening. He said it couldn’t be helped so I came up with a backup plan of also getting the rapid test with results back in 24 hours and a letter saying I have had the PCR test and the results would be on my phone by the time I landed in Islamabad.

Still worried about the logistics and getting grounded in LA without the PCR results – I googled “fast PCR test and results near the LA International Airport”. And guess what? I can get tested right in the darn airport for the low low price of only $199 if I want the results in an hour or $125 if I can wait for 4 hours for the results. So I will have received three tests in less than 24 hours and wasted $325 before even boarding the first plane of my 7 month journey.

God knows how I am going to get these test done in a timely manner in remote and far flung places like Skardu, Katmandu, Aswan, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Denizil, Entebbe, Kabala, Livingstone and Kigali. The logistics are going to be a nightmare. And unfortunately the fact that I am fully vaccinated doesn’t seem to carry any weight with any government in the world.

Fairy Meadow

Fairy Meadow

But despite the headaches of dealing with covid regulations I am looking forward to some fantastic adventures. In Pakistan I will travel to Chillas, Tatto Village then trek to Fairy Meadow and on to Nanga Parbat Base Camp (9th highest mountain in the world) and back.  Then on to visit Upper and Lower Kachura Lakes, Katpana Desert Lake, Kharphoco Fort and the Khaplu & Manhoka Waterfalls.  Near the falls I will visit the Khaplu Fort and the thousand year old Chaqchan Mosque.

 

Chaqchan Mosque

Nanga Parbat at sunset

I will end my tour of the northern Tribal area of Pakistan with visits to the Shiger Valley, the Cold Desert, Blind Lake, Skardu and the Besham Valley then back to Islamabad to catch a flight to Katmandu for 27 days of trekking in  Nepal.

 

 

Goyka Lake

My time in Nepal will be divided by a 10 day trek to Choyu basecamp (5200 meters) – trekking through the high mountain villages of Luckla, Phakding, Namchae Bazaar, Dole, Mongla Pass, Machhermo, Gokyo Lake.  Along the way I can expect fantastic views once again of  Mount  Everest,  Syangbucha,  and Cho  You  (6th  highest  mountain  in the  world).

Then after a few rest days in Katmandu, I will fly to Pokhara for a little site seeing before trekking to jhinu, sinus, deurali, Annapurna (10th tallest in the world) Basecamp, Dovn and Chhomrung before returning to Pokhara.

Annapurna

 

Temple of Philae

Three giraffe on Kilimanjaro mount background in National park of Kenya, Africa

After a few days of rest and celebrating in Katmandu I will fly on to Cairo for a couple of days before flying down to Aswan to visit the ancient Temples of Philae, Ombo, Khnum, and Amada, the Pyramid of Elephanine, the Aswan Camel Market, Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan Spice Market, the Nubian Museum and the Monastery of St. Simeon and Tombs of the Nobles.

From Aswan I will fly to Tunis for a few days of touring ancient Carthage and beach time before I fly to Kilimangaro airport to prepare for my trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. All of this in two short months after that I will get really serous and really busy lol…. But that is enough of the plans for now. Who knows how many will be thwarted by Covid – my 21 day trek through Kashmir has already been postponed until fall by the dramatic rise in covid cases in India in recent weeks, I will just have to stay flexible and geographically nimble then roll with the tides of covid infestations around the world.

Stay tuned for more…

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Visiting the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordon (Part 1) August 14 – 15, 2019

Since I’ve been self-quarantining for weeks due to Covid-19 I thought I might try to complete some of my blogs from my 2019 Mideast and Asian tour that I failed to write while traveling.  This is the first of two blogs on Jordon – one of my favorite Middle Eastern Countries…   

 

 

Jordon is a relatively new country that was only formed in 1921 when Winston Churchill serving as British Secretary of State for Colonies found a box of crayons and in a drunken stupor redrew the lines of the entire Middle East totally ignoring ethnic lines and historic alignments.  And 98 years later the entire area is still living with the consequences of British hubris.

 

Once the new boundaries were established Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad set up his sons as kings of Iraq and Jordon.  So, the son, Abkullah led his caravan of horses, camels and goats into the poor and tiny village of Amman and declared himself king and Amman the capital of a big ass desert and a population of Bedouin nomad herders. Great Briton supported Abdullah’s claim as king and the rest is history.

Fruit and Vegetable Shopping in the Amman Souk

Sheep Head – Not just for breakfast any more.

On my first afternoon and evening in Amman I wandered through the Souk el-Khondra vegetable market which just happened to be a few blocks from my hotel.  Like souks all over Asia and the Middle East this one was overflowing with fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, freshly butchered meats of all kinds, live birds, both new and used clothes, piles of used shoes to dig through to find mates, old electronics and junk of every type being sold as precious antiques lol.

 

 

Downtown Amman Mosque

Along my route through the souks I came across the Grand Husseini Mosque and the Roman Nymphaeum (ruins of a Roman two story fountain).  The Grand Husseini Mosque built in 1934 is the main mosque for the downtown area and sports a beautiful façade.  Unfortunately, the mosque is not open to non-Muslims so I could only admire the architecture and people watch from outside in the busy square.  Photos of the souks and the Mosque are attached.

 

Downtown Amman Mosque

The Nymphaeum was built by the Roman’s in 191 A D and is a large two story public fountain with mosaics, stone statuaries, swimming pool and multiple fountains dedicated to nymphs.  Excavation began only a couple of decades ago so all that is visible right now are some columns an archway and a few alcoves.  The rest of the Nymphaeum is still buried under all the rubble of nearly 2000 years.

 

The Roman Emperor Pompey conquered Jordon, Syria and Palestine in 63 BCE and controlled the area for four centuries.  The formerly Greek cities of Philadelphia (Amman), Gerasa (Jerash), Gadara (Umm Qais), Pella and Arvila (Irbid) formed the Decapolis League bonded by culture and economic ties.  Philadelphia (Amman) was a large Greek and Roman city but over the next 2000 years became lost in time and by the early 20th century all that remained of its glory days were Roman ruins and a small Bedouin village.

Roman Amphitheater from my hotel rooftop cafe

 

 

My hotel had a very nice rooftop restaurant offering a fantastic view of the Roman theater below in one direction and the Amman Citadel high above in the opposite direction.  The food was only mediocre but the views and beer were fantastic! (photos from the roof attached)

 

 

Roman Theater in the daylight

Next morning, I began my tour visiting first the very well preserved 6.000 seat second century Roman amphitheater that I had photographed the night before from the rooftop of my hotel.  The north facing amphitheater commissioned by Emperor Antoninus Pius was built so the spectators could watch plays without the sun in their faces. Amazingly, the acoustics are so good in the structure that from a point in the center of the stage you can hear a conversation all the way in the cheap seats.  As you can see from the photos I made a few new friends while roaming around the theater.

 

After my tour of the theater I visited the small Folk-life museum next door focusing on the lives of local Bedouin tribes through the centuries.  The exhibits included examples of traditional clothing of both men and women, jewelry, woven baskets, cooking utensils and weapons.  After the visit, I grabbed a quick lunch and rented a car and driver to take me up to the Amman Citadel.

The Amman Citadel was originally built during the Bronze Age in 1800 BCE and further fortified and repurposed during the Iron Age and by the Romans, Byzantine and Umayyads.  The most interesting things left to see are the ruins of the Roman’s Temple of Hercules, the Umayyad Palace, a Byzantine Church, and the Jordon Archaeological Museum.

All that is left of the Temple of Hercules – a few columns and one big hand.

 

 

All that is left of the Temple of Hercules is a couple of huge pillars and a giant hand the is believed to belong to a statue of Hercules.  The buildings that comprised the Umayyad Palace is the best-preserved structures in the Citadel.  Built in the 7th and 8th century the compound once covered many acres and consisted of a number-of- structures but most were destroyed by an earthquake.  Fortunately, the grand domed audience hall of the Palace is still standing and in good condition.

 

 

All that remains of the 6th century Byzantine Church is the footprint of the Basilical style plan consisting of a central nave side aisles and a semi-circular apse.  Within the footprint are a series of columns with Corinthian capitals scavenged from the Roman Temple of Hercules, and the remains of the first couple of feet of the outer walls.

 

After touring the Citadel, I drove north to within a few miles of the Syrian border to visit the Jerash Archaeological Site.  Jerash, an old Roman City, is Jordon’s second most visited destination ranking only behind Petra.  The Greek city was conquered by Pompeus in in 63 BC and became one of the League of Ten Cities of the Roman Empire and remains today as one of the best preserved Roman archaeological sites in the world.

It is incredible to believe that this massive complex of giant columns, paved roads, theaters, baths, temples, hippodrome, gates and cardo all remained hidden under 2000 years by sand and neglect.

The South Gate and City Wall of ancient Jarash

The best preserved and most interesting of the ancient ruins begins with Hadrian’s Arch, the entrance to the old city built to honor Emperor Hadrian’s visit in 129 AC.  The 15,000 seat Arena that hosted gladiator fights and other sporting events.  The very interesting and perfectly preserved Oval Square surrounded by Ionian Columns with two alters and a fountain in the center. The Thistle or Cardo Maximum, a paved and column lined road that ran the length of the city.  The Nymphaeum, a fountain dedicated to the nymphs with its marble and half-dome and lion’s head water spout.  The Temples of Zeuz, Artemis, and Dyionisus (repurposed as a Byzantine Church in the 4th century) all lined along the Cardo.  The Hippodrome, Forum, and Baths all nicely preserved.

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But the most impressive of the monuments are the North and South Theaters.  The South Theater, is a two-story structure with a beautiful stage, hidden passages, seating for hundreds and excellent acoustics was built in 90 AC.  The North Theater was designed as a square surrounded by columns.  Originally there were stairs leading to the entrance and the theater was used for public meetings, important events, and theatric shows.  Unfortunately, many of the stones for the stairway and the theater were scavenged and used for nearby buildings through the ages.

 

Ajlun Castle built to protect the southern Levant from the Crusaders

My final stop in northern Jordan was a visit to the 12th century Ajloun Castle.  The Castle was built by the nephew of sultan and military genius Saladin atop Mount ‘Auf and provided defenders incredible views of the Jordon Valley and the surrounding desert.  Much of the castle has been destroyed by subsequent rebuilds, earthquakes and time but many of the chambers, carvings and towers can still be toured.

 

Photos of all the places I visited in Amman and Northern Jordon are attached.  I will provide a second Jordon blog focusing on Petra and the rest of Jordon south of Amman shortly.

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