Images by Phil... and June
by June's Views on July 19th, 2013

When I think of Mongolia, images of Genghis Khan, the Gobi desert, and nomadic herdsmen pop into my head.  We landed in the capitol city of Ulaanbaatar, where about half of the country’s three million people live.  For a couple of days we enjoyed getting to know the city culture:  a blend of the old Mongolia and the new.  We attended a cultural show that should not be missed.  The theater, performers, costumes, music, were all fantastic.  I especially enjoyed the music from the horse-head violins and the lung and throat singing.  The only performances I didn’t enjoy were what they call “long songs” and “short songs” – which only sounded like high pitched screeching to my untrained ears.  We visited a couple of interesting museums, and saw petrified dinosaur eggs and a nearly perfect dinosaur skeleton.
While we were taking in the sights on the city square a local TV reporter approached our guide, Mala, and asked her if they could interview Carolyn and me.  We gladly consented and had fun answering their questions while Mala translated for us, such as why we choose to spend time in Mongolia, where were we going outside the city, and what was our impression so far.  We didn’t think much more of it, but that night at dinner Mala asked the manager of our restaurant if she could turn the TV to the channel the interview was to be shown.  At 7:00 PM the local news came on and later in the program there we were!  It was fun to see myself on Mongolia TV, with subtitles, no less! Ulaanbaatar has some really great restaurants and hotels.  We enjoyed the food all over the country.
We drove an hour or so into the countryside and stopped to take pictures of some yaks.  Our guide knocked on the door of the nearby ger (the traditional nomadic round mobile home) and asked if the lady of the house would talk to us.  She agreed and invited us into her tent home, and proceeded to serve us a milk and salt and tea hot drink that was really good!  Along with the tea she offered other solid milk products – a kind of yogurt cake, along with wheat rolls and butter.

 We asked her questions about her life and played a bit with her two sons: four and six years old.  Her husband and some other relatives had taken their herd of goats to higher ground for grazing, and they’d be gone for several weeks.  She leads a very solitary life.  We appreciated her hospitality very much. 
We left the city and flew to the central part of the southern Gobi Desert.  Our driver picked us up in his Lexus and drove us to our lodging at the Three Camel Lodge.  We slept in a ger with a luxury no nomad has:  an attached bathroom.  Our heat for the night was provided by a wood burning stove in the middle of the room.  

This night our guide Mala taught me to play a traditional Mongolian game with the ankle bones of sheep or goats.  The next day I had time on my hands and engaged the 8 year old daughter of our cook in the game.  We couldn’t speak the same language verbally but we enjoyed each other’s company playing with sheep bones!   
Ger construction is interesting: usually made of homemade felt and a wooden frame.  The one room has straight sides and the roof is tapered up to a hole in the center to allow smoke to escape.  Gers can be dismantled in a couple of hours and the family moves when their herds need to follow the grass and water. The grandparents of our guide, Mala, still live in a ger and are nomads, and they raise many sheep, goats, and horses.  The gers we visited contained beds, a chest of drawers or two, table and stools.  Pictures of relatives are usually displayed.  One family we visited had a TV satellite dish and a solar panel outside their ger, several vehicles and a cell phone.  There is poverty and hardship, but some of these families can be quite wealthy, and all are as nomadic as their ancestors were a thousand years ago. 
The mountains in the central southern Gobi are beautiful!  I was surprised to see that this part of the Gobi isn’t brown, but green!  It’s pretty well covered by a low growing plant that the animals love and thrive on.  There were miles and miles of nothing but this green plant and some animals.  Not a bush or cactus in sight.  I had hoped to see one or two Bactrian camels, but I saw hundreds!  By June the adults have been sheared and looked a bit sad but still were a treat to my eyes.  I got to pet a baby camel who tried to spit at me, and to ride a grown-up one.  I learned that the camel’s humps are comprised of fat, no cartridge or bone, and if they don’t get enough nourishment their humps will flop!  Riding a Bactrian camel is easier than a Dromedary because the saddle fits between the humps and there's something to hold onto!  I also got to ride a yak. 

Our driver, Baata, took us to the beautiful Vulture Valley, where we rented horses and rode for about a half-mile – then walked another half-mile – through beautiful canyons, streams, cliffs…just fantastic scenery.  We walked in a canyon to a patch of ice that never melts – in the Gobi Desert! 

The next day Baata drove us to the Flaming Cliffs, where in 1925 the first dinosaur eggs were discovered by a expedition headed by American Roy Chapman Andrews.  The Flaming Cliffs are beautiful, and I had fun walking out on some pretty scary areas.  I took many pictures of the cliffs and pinnacles.  This day we did see some “trees” – although in Texas we’d call them bushes and in Kentucky, where I was raised, we’d cut them down!
I had a great experience in Mongolia and recommend the country to anyone who wants to get a bit off the beaten path.  Our tour company (Bestway Tours and Safaris) and drivers and guide were just great, as were our accommodations and food.  If I had the trip to do over again I’d add an additional day so we could visit the sand dunes in a different part of the Gobi.  The people we met were extremely friendly, helpful and welcoming.  People in the tourist industry speak English and as we had a guide and driver we encountered no language problems.  There are virtually no road signs in the Gobi we visited…I’m not sure how someone on their own would navigate there.  Speaking of roads, the roads outside the city were pretty terrible.  The temperatures in the winter are brutal, but in June the weather was perfect. 

by June's Views on September 29th, 2012

Cuba has been an enigma to me…I was young and not very concerned with world affairs even so close to home when Castro’s revolution took place in 1959.  I was interested in the Bay of Pigs incident however, and during the missile crisis my young family and I were living in the Florida Keys.  We were acutely aware of the seriousness of the situation when our law-enforcement neighbor assisted with the escort of the military (including US Army Hawk missiles deployed along the beaches) into Key West.  Cuba:  Just 90 miles from the U.S. but still forbidden fruit we could not taste.

In 2012 I had the opportunity to spend a week on the island.  I was part of a cultural exchange program that had been arranged by Tauck Tours.  Sadly there is no stamp in my passport to show I was on Cuban soil:  I had to leave my Cuban visa when I departed the island.  We left from Miami and flew to Havana.  
I expected to see a few classic American cars, but thought probably they were mainly props for photographs.  Wrong!  From the minute we landed until we left we were inundated with vintage autos from the 50’s.  Many were in great shape in both performance and appearance, but there were those that were barely able to run and just looked sad.  There are virtually no American car parts available for purchase and we were told the car repair shops don’t hire mechanics, they hire magicians!   Our tour guide estimated for us that at least one-third of the cars in Cuba were considered American classics. 

I never tired of seeing and photographing them.   Should the embargo on Cuba ever be lifted, I’m betting these old cars would quickly sell to American collectors, leaving Cuba without that large part of her charm.  
I expected to have a very tightly regimented experience and not be able to mingle with the local population.  Our schedule was full and we only had one afternoon to really poke around on our own, but we did have some opportunities to communicate and interact with a number of folks. 

Most folks we encountered spoke good English, or enough.  They seemed genuinely pleased to have us as their guests.  I did not feel restricted in any way by authorities or our tour leaders. 

Cubans do want the embargo lifted “yesterday” but they really like us, the American people, and of course, our tourist dollars.   We did see signs – with slogans - of intense dislike for the U.S. government by the Cuban government, but we felt none of that from the people we encountered.   The closest thing we had to any disagreement was as we listened to a talk on Cuban-American relations, which was heavily weighted toward the Cuban government view – but we were on their soil, so they got to tell it their way.   

As expected, we visited and photographed many monuments to the Revolution, and relics from the Cuban victory at the Bay of Pigs.   We heard relations between the two countries compared to Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo and Juliet being the American and Cuban people, with their parents being the two governments.
Friends and I visited a grocery store near our hotel and found it to be sparsely stocked.  Many shelves contained rows and rows of the same item, and a good number of shelves were empty.   The meat department had especially low inventory.   We were there to buy bottled water, and the manager helped us navigate the long lines and even helped us get a taxi as our water purchase was too heavy to carry back to the hotel on foot.
Our guide told us of his experience growing up under the dictator Batista, then as a young married man in Castro’s government, and now as a father, living in Cuba.  He told about terribly difficult times for Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and gave guarded insight to living in a socialist-run country.   The income of Cuban’s - lay people and professionals alike - is unbelievably low.   The black market is the only way most of them can survive.  Some are lucky enough to have relatives in other countries who send them supplemental income.    

We visited several museums and notable community art projects.  One especially meaningful and moving experience for me was visiting the Angels of the Future Preparatory School Community Project, where we watched young children from dysfunctional families perform.  

We spent an evening at the Tropicana Music Hall and thrilled to the non-stop, amazing, costumes and really well choreographed performances.   
We toured a clinic, and learned later that although health care is free, medicines are not.! 

We also visited the late Ernest Hemingway room in the Ambos Mundos Hotel and his favorite bar. 

We visited the Christopher Columbus  Cemetery with headstones and monuments that truly make an outdoor museum. 

We were treated to lots of fine Cuban music.  
I was prepared for a bland diet with not much variety, but we ate excellent meals; several in privately owned homes turned into restaurants called paladars.  From my understanding, paladars are an example of a co-mingling of communism and capitalism. 

Early twentieth-century American influence on Cuban architecture is very evident and there are many beautiful old buildings. 

We were bused to a tobacco farm up in the mountains and had an interesting visit with the owner. 

 We also toured a tobacco factory and saw the tobacco being prepared for those famous Cuban cigars. 

Anyone who wanted to could smoke one while we were there, but unfortunately we were not allowed to bring a souvenir back home!  

We visited the beautiful Ancon Valley and took pictures of the striking karst mountains.  

On our way to our farewell dinner we were surprised with rides in American 50’s convertibles.  

We were given headscarves to protect our hair, and listened to Elvis serenading us from an added CD player.
I am left with mixed emotions about Cuba.   My heart goes out to the people in such need  on the island.   The impact of people living in a socialist society was summed up for us in this direct quote by someone I encountered during the trip:   “The government pretends to pay the people and the people pretend to work.”  

There is also the issue of a serious lack of human rights.  The answer to many questions we asked was prefaced with “It’s complicated.”   I must leave it to the governments, but I do wish for the sake of the Cuban people the differences between our two countries would soon be resolved.