Images by Phil... and June
by June's Views on March 23rd, 2017

In August of 2013 I traveled with my friend Carolyn to trek mountain gorillas in Africa.  I hope my choice of words will do justice to this fantastic experience.  We began our trip in Uganda.  We were driven to Kibale National Park by our wonderful driver/guide Emmy, with Churchhill Safaris, where we hiked through heavy brush, trees and ground cover to see chimpanzees in the wild - the physically hardest activity I’d ever attempted. 
After about an hour spent climbing up the difficult mountain we did locate some chimps - mostly high above us in the trees but two came down and we were able to observe them and take pictures.  The chimps didn’t seem pleased to have us around, and I was happy to leave the forest to them. Take note of his one-finger-salute: the result of a broken finger not healing properly - but the pose seemed to express his true feelings about us.   I was beyond exhausted.  

I began to have serious doubts if I could actually make the gorilla trek, as everyone said that would be harder than trekking the chimps.  
After a few more days of great sightseeing - especially in the Queen Elizabeth National Park - we arrived at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.  The first morning of our trek Carolyn and I woke up at 5 AM, excited to know we could see gorillas in the wild today. 
Before we began our trek we were given an orientation - what to expect, how to act around the gorillas, etc. 

We each had our own porter, who carried our water, camera, snacks and any other necessity we felt we had to have. 

My porter’s name was Jeremiah.  In addition to carrying my stuff, he pulled me out of deep ditches and steadied me as we walked through the mud.  I could not have made the trek without him!   
This morning trekkers have gone before us to locate the group, so we can go more directly to them.  We walked in the jungle for about 45 minutes when we saw our first two gorillas, up in the trees.  They’re still eating their breakfast.  As we watched, they slowly began to climb down. We took many pictures and had a wonderful time.  We watched a family group of 17:  Young ones, the females, and the head of the family - the silverback.  This was a fabulous experience!  Muddy and exhausted, we returned to camp. 
The second day was less stressful to me.   The day didn't seem as difficult.  I think having a better idea of what to expect helped.  Our picture opportunities are not as good – the natural light was not as available.  Still, we had the chance to see a family acting as gorillas do.

This is my favorite picture of the entire gorilla-trekking experience:  Dad, mom, and their twins, just enjoying each other.

This night I used and really appreciated the pain patches I brought! 
We flew to Rwanda for our third and last gorilla experience.  Up early again, we are driven to a car park where we met our porters and fellow trekkers, all of us with about the same physical ability.   We began our walk through fields of potatoes and rice.  People are working in the fields…one woman had her young baby lying on the ground on a blanket under an umbrella.  We walk uphill for 30 minutes or so and we arrived at the edge of the forest.  Then we must wait 10 or 15 minutes because there was an elephant nearby in the forest and we needed to give him room.  When we got the "all clear" we  crossed a volcanic rock fence and entered the forest.  It’s mostly up hill through dense vegetation but at least there is a path.  Still, I would not have made it without my porter, Tito.  He pulled me up the mountain!  After another 30 minutes we left the porters and our walking sticks.  We proceeded through dense brush to our first sighting – a huge silverback.  Then we located the entire group of adult females, adolescents, babies; one mother was nursing – a great photo opportunity, but there was a lot of bamboo in the way and the sky was overcast:  When the gorilla moves, the bamboo is in the way, and the gorilla is blurred.  Bummer.  We were so close to them!  Some came within 3 or 4 feet!  Again, our time was up too soon.  I used more pain patches tonight but the discomfort was oh-so-worth it! 


Back at camp I again purchase my walking stick.  I have two of them proudly displayed in our living room, reminding me that I really did trek gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda!  And of course, I have wonderful pictures and my journal.  

This was an amazing experience!

by June's Views on January 23rd, 2017

     Phil and I were trying to decide where to travel in 2015 and we finally narrowed our choices down to three possibilities: Easter Island (Chile), Machu Picchu (Peru), or the Galapagos Islands (Equator).   In a moment of genius (or insanity) we decided – as all are on the west side of South America - to tackle the three, during one logistically giant (for us) trip!  We knew we would not be able to visit as much of each country on this trip as we would, were we seeing one country at a time, but we felt seeing all three iconic places on one journey would truly be memorable.  Spoiler alert: we had a wonderful trip! 
     The farthest from home, we visited Easter Island first.  Located 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile…considered the most isolated inhabited island in the world, actually closer to the Pitcairn Islands than the South American continent. This tiny island, so-called “Easter” because it was discovered by Dutch explorers on Easter Sunday in 1722, is only 14 by 7 miles.  The island’s original traditional name is Rapa Nui.  
     We had read that the Rapa Nui people (protesting against the Chilean government) sometimes block the entrance to the national parks and other sites.  What if we traveled all that way only to not be able to see the wonderful statutes?  In our case that concern turned out to be unfounded.  Everyone we met was most anxious we should enjoy our island time and experience it to the fullest.
     Three days after leaving Austin (we stayed overnight in Miami) we landed at 10 PM and were met by our B&B host, Ramon, who greeted us with traditional leis.  Two very tired tourists fell into bed.  I woke up, completely disoriented, and to my dismay, realized I hadn’t asked Ramon the local time.  I had no idea if I’d slept one hour or 5, or if we should be getting ready for breakfast…it doesn’t seem so much of a problem NOW, but in my jet-lagged mind, in the total darkness of a foreign country, I was very uneasy.  I walked out of our room into the compound to see if anyone else was out and about.  My first encounter was with a large, friendly, curious German shepherd.  A bit further I came upon an elderly, pleasant lady.  Attempts to ask the time were futile…her English was limited to “Hello, Ramon’s mom”.  I went back to our room.  Time drug by but finally I saw lights on in another building, which turned out to be the B&B kitchen and dining room.  Ramon was there and the time issue was solved. 
Note to self:  ALWAYS ask the local time upon arrival! 
After a delicious breakfast prepared by “Ramon’s mom” and meeting the other guests, our Rapa Nui guide Patricio arrived. 
     We visited the most important and evocative moai (stone statutes).  The Rano Rarakii Quarry, where the statutes were carved before being transported to the ahu’s (memorial or alter) was absolutely jaw-dropping! 
     Phil and I stared with amazement at the many statues, some completed, some still partially embedded in the volcanic stone.  One big fellow, still attached to his bed of rock, is estimated to weigh 210 tons!  Walking among them was a dream-like experience.  Today there are between 850 and 1,000 statutes at various spots on the island.  While all are large, some are 40 feet high and weigh as much as 75 to 80 TONS! 
    
     Other than the quarry, the most famous group of moai are at the Ahu Tongariki, where 15 mighty statutes greeted us in stony silence.  The largest statute is 30 feet high and weighs 87 tons!
 
     Some of the statutes sport a red “top knot” or hat.  The hats were carved at a different quarry than the statutes.  There are only 100 top-knots on the island today:  Six or 7 feet in diameter, weighing as much as 11 tons!  Some are on or near various moai and some are still in the quarry where they were carved.  Because of their cylindrical shape a number of them rolled out into the sea during tsunamis.
 
     On our second and third days on the island we rented a car and struck out on our own.  The island is easy to navigate, but car insurance is not available.   Our main concern was not other drivers or road conditions, but the many wild horses, left years ago by Spanish missionaries.  The beautiful horses have complete run of the island and do not hesitate to run across the road, ignoring the oncoming traffic.   We stayed vigilant, and drove the car for two days without incident. 
 
    In addition to visiting many of the moai sites and walking around the volcano at the Orango National Park; with a number of other tourists we enjoyed an exquisite sunset at Ahu Tahai; and returned to Ahu Tongariki for a hauntingly mysterious sunrise.  Surreal is the best descriptive word. 
     We ate at excellent restaurants and there’s any number of hostels, B&Bs, and hotels on the island.  Easter Island isn’t easy to get to, but if Stone Henge and the Egyptian pyramids interest you, Easter Island should be on your list.  The island’s history – both fact and legend – make fascinating reading.   What was the motivation of the Rapa Nui to build these giants?  Why build them so large, and HOW did they transport them?  Only the ancient Rapa Nui know for certain.   I had no idea we have the Japanese government to thank for some of the moai standing upright on their ahu today. 
     We flew back to Santiago Chile and on to Cusco Peru, at an elevation of 10,800 ft. We’d been concerned about the altitude at Machu Picchu, and we’d begun our anti-altitude sickness regimen a couple of days ago.  A prearranged driver picked us up and drove us to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, with a little better altitude of 9,150 ft. 
    
The following morning we boarded a really nice dome car train to Aguas Calientes, then boarded the bus to our destination at an altitude of 8,040 ft.  We checked into our hotel, located right at the entrance to the site and took off for the ruins of Machu Picchu. 



Oh My Goodness:  What a specular sight! 
    
Spreading before us, built on a ridge with steep drop-offs on either side, between two mountains, were the mystical ruins of an ancient Inca city, built in the 1500’s.  We climbed a bit higher so we could see the grand design of this former royal retreat. 
    

     We marveled at the elegant agricultural terraces…the striking mountains…what an amazing setting! 
     After drinking in the overall view we followed the trail down, enjoying several unconcerned llamas along the way.  We walked up a magnificent granite stairway to observe different views.   We visited the various “temples” and saw two ceremonial stones.  One day is probably enough time at the ruins but the two half-days worked well for us.  We only visited the ruins – we did not climb either of the mountain peaks.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner at our hotel while we reflected on the incredible day we’d had.  Our thanks to Hiram Bingham, who, in 1911, located the ruins and began years of reclaiming the site from jungle overgrowth and neglect. 
 
     The following afternoon, after a few more hours at the ruins and lunch at the hotel, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo where we spent the night.  We were enjoying a day of leisure when the hotel staff told us there was going to be a valley-wide strike the following day (when we had arranged to leave)…no cars were to be allowed in or out of the valley!  After several calls to our transport company, it was agreed they’d pick us up at 4 AM the following morning (the strike was scheduled to begin at 6 AM).  So, much earlier than we’d planned, we were on our way back to Cusco, where we arrived 12 hours early for our flight to Ecuador.   The airport was something of a zoo, with many tourists arriving only to find out about the strike, and others like us, trying to leave.  We were among the lucky ones:  We DID get to see Machu Picchu: those just arriving with tight schedules did not.  We spent the day in the airline lounge, eating free food and reading.  
 
     We traveled overnight to the famous Galapagos Islands.  By the time we arrived and checked into our B&B on Santa Cruz Island we’d been awake about 34 hours and we felt it!
 
  In addition to Santa Cruz, we visited San Cristabol and Isabella Islands.  We enjoyed all three, with our favorite being San Cristabol: Santa Cruz was almost too touristy and Isabella was almost too primitive for us.  To get from one island to another we rode in high-speed ferries.  We quickly learned to grab a seat toward the middle of the little boats – sitting too far forward or to the rear meant a thorough butt-and-back bashing from the boat slapping the rough waves.  But we survived the four 2-hour trips. 
    
     We were impressed with the size of the giant tortoises and the huge numbers of almost-tame wild birds.  We saw lovely flamingos feeding.  Ugly Iguanas and colorful crabs were countless.  We visited a tree house where the bedroom was available for rent.  (No, we didn't.) One of our favorite spots was Terijis Bay on San Cristabol, where we saw our first blue-footed boobie up close.  We explored a lava tube and marveled at the green canopy over the trees.

  The antics of the many sea lions made us laugh    The mothers nursed their young under trucks or between the wheels of motorcycles...they climbed up on benches to nap.  We're visiting THEIR world.  Their numbers did create quite an aroma and we quickly learned to stay up-wind of them. 
     Although San Cristabol was our favorite island, our favorite DAY was spent on the small uninhabited island of North Seymour.  We took a day tour from Santa Cruz, and after a rough landing we were immediately treated to male frigate birds, fully displaying and advertising for the ladies!  We were thrilled!  We saw many nesting frigates and beautiful blue footed boobies, baby birds, countless iguanas and other birds – too many to list.  Our cameras worked overtime.  The day was very hot – our guide said 110 degrees.  Some of the larger birds were panting and waving their wings to cool off.   Ahh, the Galapagos! 

     Our fantastic 30-day trip came to an end.  We were very glad to return home but also very happy we took this mega, combo adventure!     

 
    

by June's Views on November 22nd, 2014

​Phil and I talked about visiting Israel for years, and 2014 was to be “the year”.  Then in the summer there was trouble and it looked like we should postpone our trip for awhile.  But after communicating with trusted local sources in the country and hearing from tourists there, we decided if nothing new developed we would leave as planned on September 30th.  We had a wonderful time!  Everyone we met worked to make certain we not only felt safe but were safe.  After a very long airplane ride from Austin, our trip began with a short trip from the airport to Tel Aviv where we spent two nights getting over jet lag and enjoying the beach and Old Joppa.  
 
​From Tel Aviv we traveled with a hired driver up the coast with a stop at Caesarea on our way to Haifa.


​​Haifa
is a beautiful city.  We stayed at a hotel just off of the Louis Promenade with a wonderful view of the Baha’i Gardens and the port below.  




The gardens are very remarkable and lovely.  
​We visited other Haifa sights, such as Elijah’s Cave, the Stella Maris Lighthouse and rode the “shortest cable car ride in the world”.  We visited Mount Carmel where we thought about the prophet Elijah going to battle (and winning) with the prophets of Baal, had coffee and baklava at the Druze village of Deliat-el-Carmel….. and saw the art exhibit at the University of Haifa. 

We took a half-day trip to old Akko where we ate great food and visited the outstanding subterranean Crusader Fort.  After our visit we needed to get a taxi but all were full!  After many futile efforts we asked a young policeman to direct us to the bus station – we’ll just walk there and take a bus – but he said it was far and we should get in his car and he’d take us there.  That was so sweet of him!  

We experienced what it’s like to be in Israel during Yom Kippur…we got a lot of rest, ate fruit from our hotel and snacks we’d brought with us, and took long walks that day.     
 
​With another driver, we leave Haifa and stop at Nazareth on our way east to Tiberius.  The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth was our first experience with the swarm of people at a Christian site.  The church is lovely, surprisingly modern in design.  I especially enjoyed the exquisite mosaics from different countries depicting Madonna and Child.  The small grotto where the angel is said to have visited Mary and told her she would give birth to Jesus has been covered by this huge church.  I would have gotten so much more from the site if the church hadn’t been there, but this was just the beginning of traditional holy sites covered with churches.  After a quick walk to “Mary’s Well” we returned to our driver and on we went to Tiberius.  
 
​Nazareth to Tiberius is a lovely drive.  We reached the blue and sparkling Sea of Galilee (now known as Lake Kinneret).  There is so much to do in this area we stayed 8 days,  We hired a local driver, Rami David:  His price was reasonable and he was very anxious to provide us with a good experience. 
​With Rami we visited sites around the lake: Tabgha with its beautiful 4th century mosaics, the view from the Mount of Beatitudes, the remains of the ancient temple at Capernaum, and the Ginossar Kibbutz museum where we saw a 2,000 year-old boat.  

Rami drove us into the Golan Heights where we visited the Gamla National Park and learning about the history there; we also saw pre-historic burial places made of natural rock, called dolmans



We visited the beautiful Banias Waterfall and the stunning Nimrod Crusader Fortress.  
​To get a closer look at kibbutz life we took a half-day trip to Ein Gev, located lakeside across from Tiberius.  It’s a very welcoming place and seemed serene and laid-back.  There’s a nice restaurant, and a cute little tourist “train” that took us around the property:  We saw cows, sheep, acres of banana trees, fish ponds, and fields of hay.  
Our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee turned out to be more of a moving experience to me than I’d expected:  On the small boat I imagined Jesus on that body of water, fishing with his disciples…walking on water and calling to Peter to come to him…calming the storm…I felt very close to Him just then.  
​Our hotel was a favorite for tour groups.  Every morning at breakfast we saw groups of 10 to 30 folks eagerly getting ready for their day.  Every table had their country’s flag on it – a nice welcoming way of identifying where their group was to sit.  Near the end of our stay Phil jokingly asked the dining room manager “Where’s OUR flag? After all, we’re a group – of two!”  The manager left and reappeared with a smile and a U.S. flag and placed it on our table.  We all had a good laugh.  The next morning the flag was waiting for us when we arrived for breakfast.  
​Rami drove us to the Bet Shean National Park, where we walked through the ruins of a huge Roman/Byzantine era city.  We saw the best preserved Roman Theater in Israel and walked down the impressive colonnaded main street.   There was enough to hold our interest longer, but the day was hot and getting hotter and we were on our way to Jordan.  
​As we left Israel at the Jordan River Crossing, the passport agent questioned me at length about my trip to West Africa 5-months ago.  I wondered if she was going to have me quarantined!  But finally she decided I posed no health threat and we moved on.  Our entry into Jordan should have been almost seamless, but due to lack of ability to communicate properly and bad direction, it took us two hours to enter Jordan.
Our wonderful driver, Omran Brkawi, patiently waited for us while we dealt with the bureaucracy.  Once under his care we visited the fabulous Roman ruins at Jerash.  Ideally we wouldn’t have visited two sets of Roman ruins on the same day, but this is the schedule that worked.  The temperature was great and the temples, streets, ruins really are marvelous. 



There were almost no other tourists present, and we were able to poke around the huge complex in leisure and comfort.  
​Dinner that evening was on the terrace of the Artimas Restaurant, where we could look back at the huge Hadrian's Arch we had just visited.  Travel is wonderful!
The following day in Madaba we visited the St. George Church to get a look at the magnificent 6th century mosaic map on the floor, apparently the oldest original map of the Holy Land in existence.  We entered the church just minutes ahead of a tour group and were able to take our pictures without having to jockey for a good view.   



We continue south and stoped at a small museum to add our names to the Guinness Book of Record’s “largest mosaic in the world”.




We stopped for breathtaking views of Jordan along the King’s Highway.
​By nightfall we were at our goal:  Petra!
After a hearty breakfast at our hotel we walked the short distance to the park entrance.  In the cool morning air we continued and were awestruck at the high natural cliffs and man-made temples and carvings in the Siq.  Our excitement heightened as we got closer to the sight we were waiting for: the emergence of the building carved into the mountain called the Treasury!  We were not disappointed in the least.  The building is magnificent.  We sat and soaked it in for awhile.  By this time other tourists had arrived and we all shared in the experience together, taking each other’s photographs to prove to friends back home (and maybe ourselves) we’ve actually been there!     
There’s so much more to see than that one iconic structure.  We spent 7 hours in the park, looking at the various beautiful temples and tombs and other ancient archelogical beauty.  It is an amazing place. 
      If I had the trip to plan over again, I’d schedule a second day in Petra,  to go higher and deeper into the park the second day.  But we were very satisfied with our visit.
The following day we head for Aqaba, with a visit to Wadi Rum.  The natural beauty there is astounding and is certainly worth a half-day if you enjoy magnificent cliffs and out-croppings, deep valleys, great views, and trudging where T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) roamed.  We had tea at two Bedouin camps and met some friendly fellows who had just arrived from Saudi Arabia.  
​We spend a rather unremarkable night in Aqaba, mainly because we didn’t want to cross back into Israel late in the day – but rather in the morning and – we hoped – no stress.  The crossing couldn’t have been smoother, even though they decided to dismantle one of our suitcases, piece by piece.  I was carrying fresh fruit and thought “There goes the apples” but they didn’t comment or take anything – just left it to us to cram everything back into place.  
We spent two glorious nights in Eilat.  We’d been traveling for about 21 days now and were really in need of a serious rest.  We did have a low-key and interesting visit to the underwater observatory, and can highly recommend it.  Other than that I enjoyed visiting the hotel pool and setting on our terrace, looking at the lights of the city.  

We traveled by bus 4 ½ hours to Jerusalem.  We had comfortable reserved seats and the price was extremely reasonable.  The Negev, the large desert that makes up the southern part of Israel,  is beautiful and stark.  
​We thought Jerusalem would be the big enchilada of our trip – and we were not disappointed.  Our hotel was within easy walking to the Jaffa Gate.  We took three walking tours of the city to better orient ourselves and to hear the guide’s perspective on the sites. 

Beginning in Tel Aviv we saw many sights during our month-long trip where one event or another was supposed to have happened.  In many cases we realize the chances of that are slim to none.  There are some authentic places, and we were especially thrilled at Elisha’s Well, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Olives, Ein Gedi and Mount Nebo.   We know that the prophets and Jesus DID walk this land, that Jesus was born, taught, died, and was resurrected here, and in the end it was enough for us to just be in the region where these things took place.  

We went to the Mount of Olives and drank in the view; walked the Via Delarosa culminating with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, visited the ruins of the City of David.  So much has been written about these places that I will not dwell on them here.  
I will mention a 2,000-plus year old cave tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, not far from the traditional sites.  This cave doesn’t get anything like the attention as the “traditional” place Christ’s body was placed after being removed from the cross…but to us this could be a very authentic spot and certainly gave us a more authentic experience than looking at the remains of what used to be a burial tomb.    
We visited the Shrine of the Book and saw some of the panels from the Dead Sea Scrolls (left) in the Israel Museum.

We went to the sobering and appalling, yet peaceful Holocaust Museum and Memorial; but we couldn’t stay long at the Children’s Memorial…it was just too sad.   

Other than the obvious must-see places, some other highlights in Jerusalem for us were: Having dinner with a Rabbi and his family, taking part in an archeological dig for a day, attending a chamber group concert, the Light Show at the Tower of David, and climbing down and wading through the water in Hezekiah’s Aqueduct.  


We spent time on the Temple Mount, gawking at one of the most famous and beautiful buildings in the world.     

​We spent a three days outside Jerusalem in Palestine and the West Bank visiting Bethlehem and Jericho, Qumran the Dead Sea, Masada and Ein Gedi.  We really enjoyed the peace and loveliness at Ein Gedi, and imagined David as he hid there from King Saul.   Which of the many caves did he sleep in?   Did he watch the Ibex and Rock Hyrax as we did…did he swim in the pools beneath the lovely waterfalls?   
​Our trip to Israel was more enlightening, exciting, and fulfilling than we'd hoped, with no disappointments other than wishing we’d spent one more day in both Jordan and Jerusalem.   Looking back on our pictures and reading my journal we are amazed at the fantastic trip we had.  We are thankful for our safety, the excellent weather, and the wonderful people we met who made the trip extraordinary!                                                                                                           
See Our Video of this Trip


by June's Views on December 21st, 2013

Esteban” and “Sam” are not their real names – they have been changed.

December 7, 2013 - Saturday:  While on a short trip to Erbil, Iraq, a travel companion (Esteban) and I have negotiated with our driver, Sam, to take the two of us to see some scenery and a couple of waterfalls outside the city.  Sam picks us up at our hotel after lunch.  We travel north of Erbil.  We pass the Khanzad Castle, a beautiful structure even though recent renovations make it seem a bit “too new”.  

 



We stop several times at scenic spots to take pictures and for Sam to have a smoke.  


We saw beautiful scenery – very high cliffs, mountains, vegetation,

If we’d stayed in the city we’d never have gotten this impression of Iraq
After a couple of hours we get to the Gali Ali Bag Waterfall…the falls are small and the water was very dirty that day, but the area is pretty.  We take lots of pictures and then go into the small café at the falls for tea.  Sam, a  Muslim, washes and proceeds to pray at the front of the café.  
We travel on to the Bekhal Waterfall which is more unique, and the water was clean.  There are a number of pipes coming out of the falls, transporting water.  There are many steps, kind of treacherous actually, but I’m glad I saw the falls.  There are houses built on the side of the mountain where the waterfall comes out, a very unusual sight
One “June’s Rules of travel” is BE BACK AT HOTEL BEFORE DARK, but we had enjoyed the afternoon and here we were, with high cliffs surrounding us and darkness settling in.  On the way home we had a bad car wreck.  I was sitting in the back of the small car with large headrests so I did not really see exactly what happened.  I was turned slightly to the right, arranging something in my backpack at the moment of impact.  I experienced about 5 or 6 seconds of terror.  I remember the car swerved hard to the right and I and I knew we were in trouble.  For a split second I remembered the breathtaking Grand-Canyon-like thousand foot cliffs we’d seen earlier and I feared we were going over one of them. 
But I quickly heard the terrible sound of metal scraping against concrete and felt the car slam into a large concrete barrier.  Even with my seatbelt on I was thrown forward, and hit my left cheek bone on the back of the front seat.  Then immediately I pitched to the back in my seat, hitting my right hand.   When the car came to an abrupt stop I asked Sam and Esteban if they were OK.  Both responded yes.  The car, with us in it, was sitting at an awkward angle. My next thought was that we might catch on fire so I wanted out of that car.  I couldn’t get out on the lower side.  The door was blocked by the concrete and the wreck had sealed the door shut.  I tried to get out on the left side but the angle of the car was so steep I could not open that door either. 
Suddenly there were several men around us – someone pulled the door open and I crawled out.  I went to the other side to help Esteban, who was clearly in shock.  I think I was too, but I did take some pictures of the totally destroyed car.  Sam said nothing, just kept looking at his car.  None of the men who came to help us spoke more than a few words of English.  It all seemed surreal.  Here I am in Iraq, in the dead of night, injured.  I’m not sure about Sam’s condition, but he’s the only one who speaks English, Farsi, and Arabic. These men are all talking to us but I can’t make any sense of what they are saying and I am pretty shaken up.  My cheek hurts and my right little finger hurts, but thankfully there’s no blood.  No one was bleeding.  There’s no place to sit; we’re on the side of a busy highway.  Finally Sam says we need to go with these men – we shouldn’t stay here, it’s not safe.  The men will take us to their camp.  THEIR CAMP?  Good grief!  


The men help us up the inclined, unpaved road where they did have a camp – sleeping structures I suppose, benches outside, and a nice bonfire was lit.  I became aware of the cold night air and the fire felt wonderful.  I appreciated the bench to sit on but there is no back support– I have to sit upright. 
I am worried about Esteban.  Sam is busy on his cell phone, calling someone about the car and about us.  The men don’t really know what to do, neither do I so we had that in common!  They are very polite and very kind.  Someone asks if I want tea….no thank you (I’m concerned I’ll need to use the toilet - no idea how long we’re going to be here), then someone asks if I’d like some food.  No thank you, again.  But when a bottle of water appears I received it gratefully.  One of the men brought out some salve and indicated he would put some on my cheek, and I agreed.  It felt good. One of the men told me he was from Turkey, another was from Iran, one from Iraq, and one from Syria.  We tried to communicate with not much luck.  Esteban wouldn’t sit down; he just kept pacing saying if he sat down he’d get too stiff.  I was concerned about his mental state.  
One of the men asked, “You scared?”  I replied honestly, “No, I’m not”.  Maybe I should have been but I really wasn’t.  He replied “Don’t feel scared.”  I felt completely surrounded by God’s hedge of protection.  I had begun to think of these men as my angels!  In broken English one of the men asked if he could have his picture taken with me and I agreed, and asked for their picture in return.  
Time awkwardly dragged on.  After about an hour another young man appeared who spoke excellent English.  We talked a bit and he interpreted a couple of statements for me to the men (I wanted to sincerely thank them for their kindness and assistance), and from them to me.  Shortly after that Sam appeared and said a tow truck was coming to take us to Erbil.  The men insisted we let them drive us back down the hill to the wrecked car.  There we said goodbye.  They had been so kind to us.  


Esteban, Sam, and I got into the tow truck and were driven to the edge of Erbil, where Sam’s two sons met us.  Father and sons exchanged kisses on their cheeks.  One went on with the car to, I assume, the junk shop, and the other drove us to our hotel. 
 On the way to the hotel Esteban says he thinks he should go to the hospital, just to be sure he doesn’t have any internal injuries.  Sam clearly doesn’t want to go to the hospital but he doesn’t say no – just said Esteban should think about all the paperwork involved and that Esteban hadn’t brought his passport with him this afternoon.  I really think Esteban should have gone to the hospital, but I did not encourage him to do that because I knew it would take hours and I so desperately needed rest and sleep.  In the end, he decided if they’d go to a pharmacy to get something like Ben Gay he’d wait until morning and then decide about the hospital.  With the Ben Gay, we went to the hotel and explained the events to the hotel manager, who was distressed about the wreck.  He questioned Sam, who was quite anxious to be on his way.  I suspect there’s more to the story than we know…but I do know Sam lost his 2 month old car today.  The hotel manager told me he would apply the Ben Gay to Esteban’s back and chest – I was so thankful for that.  I went to our room and told my travel companion Carolyn (who had opted out of the afternoon excursion) what had happened, then I went to the restaurant to get some soup – I was starved!  When I was back in our room the hotel manager came and gave me a plastic bag of ice for my cheek – so thoughtful of him!  He told me he would go back and check on Esteban at midnight, before he left for the night.  I appreciated that so much.                 


December 8 – Sunday:  I really expected to be extremely sore, but other than my cheek and little finger, I’m not.  I called Esteban and ask if I can see him–he says come on.  I went to his room and noticed at once he had not been to bed – he’d slept sitting up in his chair.  He told me the hotel manager had already been there that morning to help him with some more Ben Gay.  He’s in pain and still shaken and I hate like the dickens to leave this frail elderly man alone, but Carolyn and I must fly on to Dubai this morning.  Esteban’s flight isn’t until later in the afternoon.  He assures us he’ll be OK so we say goodbye.  The area around my left eye is getting darker by the hour!  How is it going to look for my granddaughter Britney’s wedding in 6 days?! I don’t want to upstage the bride!  Oh well… it is, what it is. 

by June's Views on October 10th, 2013


In September of 2013, using our 55th wedding anniversary as an excuse we visited several national parks in Utah.   We flew into Salt Lake City, picked up our rental car and drove to the small town of Moab.  
We stayed at The Mayor’s House B&B and couldn’t have hoped for a better selection. Thanks to our hosts Cary and David we had excellent cooks, advice on the best places to eat, history teachers, and, when it rained, they offered suggestions for alternative plans.  The property is lovely, and there’s a pool.  I sound like an advertisement for the B&B, but we really were very pleased.    
Moab is the proverbial one horse town and is in an excellent location to allow us to visit this part of Utah.  We wanted to stay in one spot so we wouldn’t be bothered with checking out and into different accommodations, and Moab filled that requirement nicely.  
 Overnight there was serious rain!  After a good night’s rest and wonderful breakfast by Cary, we go to the Arches National Park.  The early morning rain made some of the places we wanted to go impossible.   But to counter that, the clouds still in the now-blue sky added great dimensions’ to the pictures we took that morning.  We were flabbergasted at the beauty we saw!  

Rain started again, and we abandoned the park for a drive down Highway 128 (David’s suggestion).  We drove 60 miles with the river on one side and waterfalls and beautiful cliffs on the other.  We stopped for a hamburger at the Red Cliff’s restaurant.  Not a great lunch menu but we were hungry, and there was a great view.


Back in Moab we try Arches Park again where we found sun and breathtaking scenery.  The way the soft stone has been sculpted into those fabulous arches and rocks balanced on the top of precipices is nothing short of glorious.  
The next day the weather looks promising and we drove about 30 miles to the Island in the Sky – Canyon Lands National Park.   The drive to the park was in itself a wonderful experience, but the park was drop-dead-beautiful!  We were treated to fog-topped mountains and skies with white fluffy clouds.  The weather was perfect
The main attraction for us this morning was the Mesa Arch, about a half-mile hike from the parking lot.  We’d seen pictures taken from this arch and we were anxious to try our skills and luck.  The early morning sun was in front of us and perfect for photography.  It is a very special spot. Phil got beautiful pictures of the arch, the cliffs in front, and the valley below. 

When the temperature cooled a bit, around 4:00, we returned to Arches Park and visited Balanced Rock, Fifth Avenue, and the Courthouse.  Different views in the park will look their best at specific times of day.  Lists are available on the internet and at the park to explain the best time of day for which views.  Using the lists save valuable time and help efficiently organize our day.  

The next day we drove down Highway 191 to the Natural Bridges National Park.  We visited 3 bridges and we agreed only one was really noteworthy.  We did get some nice pictures at one of them.  If time is a factor, we’d advise skipping this park.  After leaving Bridges park we continued on to Monument Valley.  We drove about 5 miles of road was one switch-back hair-pin curves after another. 
Because of the rain, before leaving Moab that morning we checked to see if Monument Valley Park was open- it was.  However, when we arrived at the park we found that, yes, the park is open but private vehicles were not allowed in the park that day.  Bummer!  We chose not to go on one of the golf cart tours as we wanted the flexibility of privacy to photograph as we choose.  We were disappointed but still able to drink in the views of iconic monuments from the huge veranda at the visitor center.
The next day we drove Highway 279 for more beautiful scenery.  We stopped at the trail head to the Cordova Arch...moderately difficult hike of about 1 hour.  This is the arch that some very brave (or idiotic) folks have swung from a rope attached to the top of the arch, and at least one crashed into the cliff behind the arch, resulting in his tragic death.  I understand small planes have flown through this eye-popping arch.  After the long hike in the September temperatures we drove to Susie’s Branding Iron and treated ourselves to a great steak.  
After a rest we drove on to the Needles Overlook – but even though there were nice views, we still vote the Needles District as our least favorite area.  I think it’s a serious hiker’s destination and serious hikers... we are not!   The next morning we discover that Delicate Arch, which has been closed because of the heavy rains, WAS open while we were at the Needles Overlook!  Good Grief!  It is closed again today. 

Returning to the Arches Park, we visit The Windows, Turret, and Double Arches.

Because the rains have kept visitors away for a couple of days Arches Park is inundated with cars and people.   The Double Arch is so huge and so beautiful!  
 


We finally find a place to park tso we can visit Devil’s Garden.  We hike through the canyon to the delicate Landscape Arch.  We also visit Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch.  
After a fine lunch at the Moab Grill we drove back down Highway 128 to Fisher’s Towers, and on to the Dewy Suspension Bridge.  We returned to Moab on the beautiful La Sal Mountain Loop. 
Even though we didn’t get to visit Delicate Arch we had a wonderful time.  Sunday morning we packed up and left Moab. 

On our way back to Salt Lake City we stop at Dead Horse Point State Park to see magnificent panoramic vistas.

Well-saturated with memories of this beautiful state (Why did we wait so long to come here?), we turn in our rental car and board the plane for Austin.    Check Out the Slide Show

by June's Views on October 3rd, 2013

I was awakened at 6:30 am to a temperature of 40 degrees  in my tent at Jack’s  Camp in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.  One of the great staff people at Jack’s had brought steaming coffee to help me breach the distance from my warm bed to my safari clothes.   It’s COLD!  Just grin and bear it.  Shortly we leave camp for a visit with a small group of Meerkats.  I had fallen in love with these little mammals after watching thier antics on Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor.  Not related to felines at all, they belong to the mongoose family.  I was so excited to be able to possibly interact with them myself. 

Meerkat groups change locations from day to day, and staff had gone out earlier to locate the family so we could go directly to them.  When we pulled up, the staffer was laying on his side with the “family” standing next to him, on their two back legs and tail, warming themselves in the sun. 
I almost lost it then, just looking at the cute tiny creatures.  We got out of the land rover and approached slowly.  We knew after a night’s sleep in one of their many tunnels in the cold Kalahari, meerkats needed to warm up before they began foraging for the day.  We approached the little clan slowly and sat down.  They are about 12 inches tall and make a tasty meal for hawks and other hunters, so they are constantly on the lookout for predators wanting to swoop down and snatch them up.  They will use any means available to them to get as high off the ground as possible to better scan the sky above and the desert around them.



We sat down near them.  At first they were indifferent to us, but soon the small creatures began to show interest in our legs.   



 Bones, one of our guides, told me to lay on my side.  When I did, immediately several of the tiny animals began to approach and without much hesitation one decided I would make a good place to look for danger. 


We’d been told in advance that the meerkats might decide to “mark” us with their urine and to be safe we should wear a covering on our heads.  I took that suggestion seriously and wore my floppy hat.  


Laying very still, we checked each other out and after his exam, he proceeded to climb up to my  shoulder. 



I wasn’t ready to wipe meerkat pee off my face, even for the unique experience of having one of them on my head.  



I really LOVE  this pictures Bones took for me.    


After they had warmed up sufficiently, the little family left us and tore off to begin the day’s job of searching for grubs, scorpions, and various other bugs. 

We followed them for a bit, but for all of the attention they’d given us earlier, they now completely ignored us.  The fun I had that morning is a great memory!

by June's Views on August 11th, 2013

We arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland late in the afternoon.   I walked around the city to see a few sights.  Since the daylight hours are very long in July, the only concern I had about getting good pictures was the clouds that were coming in. 


I loved Laugavegur Street with its European personality.   Loved the small shops and people watching. 

On many of the residential streets the beautiful flowers and homes were very striking. 

To me, one of the most impressive buildings was the huge Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church. 

The building was completed in 1986 and its unusual design is impressive.  In front of the building there’s a huge statute - a gift from the United States - of the explorer Leif Eriksson.  
The Perlan (“Pearl” in English) is an 84-foot high iconic building with a revolving restaurant and great view at the top.  The Perlan was originally hot water storage tanks.  In 1991 the tanks were updated and the globe-like structure was added, resulting in this very interesting structure.  
The following day was entirely unscheduled, and I looked at several options.  I decided to be able to see as much as possible in the time I had, I’d go on a Golden Circle day trip. 

Sadly, the prediction of gloomy weather including rain, proved to be accurate, but I decided it was better to see a wet and cloudy Iceland than NO Iceland.   I endured the rain with as much humor and positive attitude as possible, but I am sorry my pictures are not as good as they would have been.   That’s my disclaimer to the photos below.
I was picked up at our hotel, the Fourth Floor, and bused to the central Gray Line station, where a larger bus was waiting for other passengers. 

I was early and got to select the seat of my choice: had a large window with nothing to obstruct my view for taking pictures. 

As soon as everyone was loaded the day guide announced we’d need to change buses as this one was having a mechanical problem.   I was bummed out, thinking my seat on the new bus would be on the isle, or would have a curtain hanging down to interfere with viewing and pictures.   But without having to run over anyone, I was able to get the exact same seat on the new bus!   My lucky day!   Except for the clouds and rain.  




We drove through a high temperature geothermal area in the scenic landscape of Lake Pingvallavatn.  

We continued on to the Pingvellir (pronounced “THING-vet-lihr”) National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 25 miles east of Reykjavik.   This area is not only beautiful, but is the original location of the Icelandic parliament, founded in 930 AD. 

In addition to the historical interest of the area, geologically it is a treasure:  I saw consequences of the shifting of the American and European tectonic plates:  The landscape created as these plates continue to separate is magnificent.   My hike along the scenic landscape ended at a lovely small waterfall. 

 
Our next stop was the Gullfoss waterfall.   I could walk near the edge of this beauty and feel its power and the mist on my face.   Thousands of gallons of water tumbled over the face of the rocks and down the fractures.  
From the bus I also saw many Icelandic horses.  Their hair looks very thick and their manes are long. 

Our guide told us the Icelandic horse is not only able to withstand the harsh climate, but is also very inquisitive and friendly. Might just stroll up to any human to check us out.     Unfortunately I didn't get an opportunity to confirm that.  




Our next visit was to see (and smell) the natural phenomenon and hot springs area of Geysir and Strokkur. 



I also heard that  Geysir was the first geyser written about and brought to the attention of modern Europeans and our English word “geyser” traces back to this erupting hot springs known as Geysir.


The last stop on our full day was a visit to a geothermal plant where I leaned a bit about how the hot water is turned into electrical power, or used to heat or provide hot water to homes in Iceland. 




I learned that over 90% of homes in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy, and producing a quarter of commercial electricity as well.

Geothermal energy helped move Iceland from one of the poorest European countries to a modern, prosperous market. 
Closing out the day.
After returning to Reykjavik, Carolyn and I walked down Laugavegur Street and stumbled onto a cute restaurant that served delicious fresh salmon:  A great meal to end a great day in Iceland!

by June's Views on August 3rd, 2013


My travel buddy, Carolyn, and I flew into Greenland from Iceland.  From our small plane, in amazement we watched this unique landscape unfold.  A world of ice was below, accented with large and small openings revealing the bluest of blue water. 

We came in July, to 24 hours of day light; a very strange condition to me indeed. Our hotel, the Arctic, is perfectly placed on the water with views of icebergs: small, large, larger and huge!

We stayed in Ilulissat (I was told Ilulissat means “icebergs” in Greenlandic), with a population of 4,500 making it the third largest town in Greenland.   After getting settled at the hotel we took the hotel bus to town to see the sights.  No sidewalks, traffic lights or street signs.  Pedestrians, beware!  
A wild flower, white and cotton-like, was everywhere and looked like tiny blobs of snow on green stems.  There is a hospital with a fantastic view.  We saw an old sod house, moved from its original location and now located on museum property.  I thought about what life on Greenland must have been like before modernization took hold.  I think I’m too spoiled to survive such a life.


The sight of the small wooden Zion church, established in 1779, with the icebergs in the background made a really striking photo.
At a small restaurant we enjoyed one of the best meals of salmon I’ve ever tasted.  Of course we visited every gift shop we could identify.  Examples of Inuit culture and imports from Denmark were plentiful. 

Sled (they say “sledge”) dogs are a big part of Greenland’s culture.  Many tourists want to visit with and pet the dogs, which are all over town.  However, these dogs are working dogs, and not social at all.  We were advised to stay clear of them.  The Arctic Hotel had several pups for us to pet and take pictures of, and we took advantage of the privilege.  

At 10:00 that night we began a midnight cruise to see some huge icebergs up close.  Perfect decision!  I put on several layers of warm clothes and carried a windbreaker suit from my biker days just in case. 

The weather was perfect and the scenery was spectacular.  These icebergs had broken off of the Ilulissat Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and floated into the fjord.    If you have any interest in glaciers, this is a good one to read about.   The low sun illuminates the icebergs and reflects beautiful colors and shadows.  



Back at our hotel, I took a walk just because I thought it was such fun to be taking pictures after 1:00 AM with the sun still shining! 
The following day Carolyn and I visited with an Inuit couple,  Jonas and Mete, in their home.
      We heard about their very interesting lives in this beautiful yet harsh environment. 
        How do they endure Greenland winters?  They explained that they enjoy the winters and have no seasonal preference.    I really doubt they could tolerate our summers in Austin, Texas!   Their stories of dog sledding and whale hunting were exciting to hear.  
        Mete served us three homemade desserts – I felt obligated (ha) to try all three, and can attest she is a great cook.  I’m so grateful to them for inviting us into their comfortable home, and sharing some of their time with us.    


Our last day in Greenland we went on a larger boat to visit the Eqi, the so called “calving glacier”. 
The trip to the glacier took around 5 hours, and the ride was splendid. 


   
       We motored past beautiful ice works of art by the Master Sculptor.   To reach this glacier our capable boat captain navigated through a remarkable ice field. 

The Eqi calves many times an hour, but deposits much smaller chunks of ice into the water than the Illusiat Glacier; therefore we could get within a half-mile of the giant.  We watched for 45 minutes or so, with everyone trying to have their cameras poised at just the right split second to record the calving.

Our boat continued to the Glacier Lodge Eqi.  About half of our fellow-passengers got off to stay overnight (they have a fantastic view of the glacier), and we picked up about the same amount of folks returning to Illusliat from their camping experience.

The trip back to IIlusliat was not nearly as exciting and fun as the 5 hours going to the glacier.  Clouds overcame the sun and there was a bit of rain.  It was five long hours, punctuated with a few nice photos and several cups of steaming coffee. 

I had read about the mosquito situation in Greenland and went well prepared:  a net for my face and neck and high-powered spray and lotion.  Although there certainly are a lot of them and they were a nuisance (they are no problem out on the water), I didn't receive a single bite.  I never felt compelled to put the net on, but I did use the cream on my face and neck.  Our guides said the mozzies are pretty much done in by the middle of June. 

After purchasing the prerequisite souvenir (a pretty green box decorated with butterflies, from Denmark), it was time to go.   Everyone we met was so nice to us and the scenery left me speechless.   I loved Greenland and heartily recommend a visit to all.  

                                                               See the rest of my Greenland photos

by June's Views on July 29th, 2013

When I had the opportunity to visit North Korea I was delighted.  I was young during the Korean “conflict” and the images I had of the country were completely provided by the media and some of my elementary school teachers.  I was excited to see the country for myself.  The tour company we traveled with took care of the necessary visa: there’s no stamp in my passport to indicate I've been to Korea – officials took half of the visa as I entered the country and took the other half when I left.  In Beijing, the night before we left for Pyongyang, 22 of us met for a pre-trip meeting.  We were going together but would be two separate groups of 11, each group with its own western guide, Korean guide, and a guide in training.  I suspected the “guide in training” was on the government payroll to keep tabs on us but that’s just my suspicion.  We were told to be extra cautious about taking pictures – no pictures of individual Koreans (although a few group shots should be OK), pictures taken of statutes and memorials to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (and any other leader) were to be taken from the front, not behind, and to include the entire body of the leader –no cropped shots.  We were told we were expected to show respect to the leaders at a couple of monuments by bowing, and if we could not show respect in this way we should not go on the trip.  We would not be allowed to wander out on our own, anywhere, any time.  We would stay with the group or our tour guides would pay the consequences.  Just what those consequences would be we were not told, but they were not joking.  The Koreans do not want their country referred to as “North” Korea – simply, “Korea”, or “DPRK” (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).  


Pyongyang has many monolithic monuments, mostly to honor Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, war heroes, and victorious battles against the Japanese and Americans, and the Communist idea. 

Note the size of these statues (compare with adult people at the bottom of the photo).
Pyongyang is a lovely city, quickly rebuilt with Soviet help after the war.   There are wide streets (but very few cars), and impressive buildings.  It’s a very green city:  the streets, sidewalks, and flowerbeds are kept immaculate by an army of civilians picking up any trash or on their hands and knees plucking errant weeds.  Many of these gardeners were dressed in professional office attire, including high-heeled shoes…I witnessed one lady going after weeds with what looked like tweezers.   The Koreans are very proud of their city.  I understand the Communist Party stars are given the privilege to live in this city of 3 million.  


Built in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers' Party:  The hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush.  



The Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery has beautiful individual bronze busts of the soldiers who gave their lives in Korea’s battle with Japan. 



 
We visited the Pyongyang School children’s Palace, where 5,000 gifted children are taught various arts.  We saw them in their classrooms having lessons, and then were taken to a large auditorium where we were treated to an extraordinary performance by the youngsters.  I could hardly stay in my seat – I wanted to give repeated standing ovations.  Such accomplishment can only be the product of many hours of practice and they are so young.   I can only hope the children are living a balanced life. 
We traveled by bus to Kaesong and  arrived after dark.  We spent the night at the Minsok Folk Hotel, where we and our bus were locked inside a gated compound.  My friend Carolyn and I had a small 2-bedroom suite and I slept, Korean style, on a pad on the floor.  My room had a reed curtain for a door, and there were lovely reed carpets on the floors. 
The wood Li dynasty-era furniture was beautifully decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl. 
       We had a western-style bathroom but no hot water, and around midnight the electricity went off.  Luckily there was time to charge my camera battery.  
During our 5 day adventure we ate entirely too well!  The only sparse meal we had was our breakfast at Kaesong.  No one went hungry but the meal consisted of one egg and a lot of good bread.  I gladly paid $1.00 for an additional cup of coffee.   After breakfast we were allowed, through the now opened gate, to view the Koreans going about their daily lives on the street outside. 


We walked together to the Kaesong Namdae Gate, from the early 1300’s, and on to a beautiful old Confucian University (now a museum with some great relics). 
We boarded our bus for a short 20 minute drive to Panmunjom and the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  We passed several check points and picked up a couple of military personnel.   We got off the bus and listened to a DRPK soldier explain the Korean War and the resulting DMZ to us.  We went into the building where peace talks were held, and into another building where the peace agreement was signed by both sides. 
        Finally, we went to the DMZ.   I expected to see barbed wire and machine guns, but instead there were modern buildings with telescopes aimed across the DMZ. 

A concrete “curb” marks the line between the north and the south, and there are blue UN buildings built across the line – so anyone in the buildings can go a few feet from one side to the other.  I was disappointed that due to the recent dust-up between the north and south we would not be allowed to enter the UN buildings. 
     DPRK soldiers were agreeable to having their picture taken with us, and we snapped away.  They were just shy young men.   I gave one of them some chocolate candy bars…he immediately gave them to someone I assumed was his superior:  I gave him more which he kept.   He smiled and offered his hand to shake mine.    



We stopped on the highway to take pictures of the Arch of Reunification. 



On our way back to Pyongyang we stopped at the twin-domed tombs of King Kongmin and his wife.  The setting is spectacular. 
Back in the city we toured the Pyongyang Feature Film Studios... the Hollywood of DPRK.   At the Juche Tower we rode the elevator to the top and enjoyed striking views of the city.  

Our last activity was to attend the Funfair, a popular night spot in Pyongyang.  There were a number of adult rides imported from Italy, but no rides for children. 

We were encouraged by our hosts to return home and tell people what we saw – "how nice everything is and how well everyone is doing in the DPRK."   However, I know we saw only what the government of Korea wanted us to see and no more.   As much as our movements were restricted, one has to ask the question “What's being hidden?”    

The experience was fascinating, and I'm certainly glad I went.   I can certainly recommend the trip to anyone wanting to go off the beaten path. 

More of my pictures from North Korea can be viewed on this website, the "Our Travels" link.
  

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.