I have a vague memory of visiting Phoenix AZ many moons ago. That it’s a vague memory says a lot about my impression of the place. I think we were supporting some Irish dancers who had travelled to the city for a feis. I know we met up with the brother of a girl I’d gone to school with at home and he’d taken us to a cowboy place where we sat on saddle-shaped stools and slithered down a pole to get into the restaurant. And we ate rattlesnake. That’s it. That’s all I remember about Phoenix AZ.

This time, we were visiting good friends in Scottsdale and they had our number.

Musical Instruments Museum Phoenix AZ

First up was the MIM – the Musical Instruments Museum. This was more for himself that for me, as I don’t have a musical note in my body. Billed as the ‘World’s Only Global Musical Instrument Museum’, it counts some 6800 instruments collected from around 200 countries and territories in its permanent exhibition. It has about 13,600 musical instruments and associated objects all told but changes out the exhibits on a fairly regular basis. Admission includes a set of headphones. As you approach an exhibit, you get to hear what’s playing on the screen. I was particularly taken with the Vanuatu Women’s Water Music.

The Recycled Orchestra from Paraguay also caught my attention.

[The] violin, like many in the orchestra, is made out of cans, wooden spoons and bent forks. One of the ensemble’s cellos uses an oil drum for its body. String pegs are created from detritus like old cooking utensils and even the heel of a worn-out women’s shoe. Drum heads are made from old X-ray film, held in place with copious amounts of packing tape. Fifteen-year-old Tobias Armoa plays a saxophone made out of a drainpipe, melted copper, coins, spoon handles, cans and bottle caps.

We only had two hours, but you could spend two hours alone in the Africa section. The two-day pass option that I questioned when we arrived now made sense. There’s an Experience room where you can play some of the instruments and a Performers room where they focus on greats like Johnny Cash and John Lennon. The place is huge and the exhibit exceptionally well done.

Musical Instrument Musem Phoenix AZ

Pyeongyeong (lithophone) from South Korea made from jade and wood

Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix AZ

Korng Thom (gong-chime) from Cambodia

Musical Instrument Museum Phoenix AZ

Blues artist Walter ‘Furry’ Lewis inspired the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones

I was a little concerned when, in the America section, I took a hearing text and could only register sound at 8000 MHz. But that’s apparently normal, given my age. It’s a remarkable place. Don’t shortchange yourself: set aside at least a morning or an afternoon. There’s a café on site so you can take a break from the wandering and then get back to it. If you’re a real enthusiast, get the two-day pass.

MIM. 4725 E Mayo Blvd, Phoenix, AZ 85050. Open every day from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission $20.

Violins of Hope

Violins of Hope is a Jewish initiative that is visiting Phoenix this February and March. The brainchild of Amnon Weinstein, a luthier from Israel, it’s a memorable testimony to a story rarely told.

Amnon Weinstein has spent the last two decades locating and restoring violins that were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. […] One of the most respected violin makers in the world, Amnon became determined to reclaim his lost heritage. He started locating violins that were played by Jews in the camps and ghettos, painstakingly piecing them back together so they could be brought to life again on the concert stage. Although most of the musicians who originally played the instruments were silenced by the Holocaust, their voices and spirits live on through the violins that Amnon has lovingly restored. He calls these instruments the Violins of Hope.

Amnon’s son, Avshalom (Avshi) is a luthier in Istanbul, was at the Grand Canyon University with four of the violins to talk to us about the project. He said that when he was in school in Israel, only one boy in his class had grandparents – and he was from Yemen. I’d never thought about that before – a whole generation of children who grew up without grandparents.

Trained musicians were in high demand in the camps, forced to play as work parties left each morning and returned each day. And, of course, for the entertainment of their captors. They were looked after slightly better than most. The entire women’s orchestra in Birkenau walked (or was carried) out when the camp was liberated. He told us about how many of the ‘forced’ musicians never wanted to see or play their instruments again. To be turned against music for the memories it evoked… so sad.

In the 1980s Weinstein had made his first encounter with a violin from the Holocaust. A young man brought him one that had belonged to his grandfather for repair. When Weinstein opened it up, he found black powder inside, soon realizing that it was ashes from the crematoria of Auschwitz, where the grandfather had last played the instrument.

Avshi had four violins with him, at least one of which had been played in Auschwitz. We heard it played that night by Moshe Bukshpan, Executive Director of Red Rocks Music Festival. It was his first time playing the instrument and he reflected, too, on how many of his family had perished in the Holocaust. It was an emotional performance.

Violins of Hope Phoenix AZ

We learned about the Klezmer musicians who were untrained, unable to read sheet music and therefore of no use to the Nazis. As a form it music, it was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust but enjoyed a revival 1970s. Avshi had one beautiful instrument from the Czech Republic (Schönbach, now Luby) that had a lovely inlaid six-pointed star.

The Oscar-nominated movie, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig, is one that had passed me by but is now high on my list of ones to watch.

Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters, and endeavor to build a village, in order to protect themselves and about one thousand Jewish non-combatants.

Avshi’s maternal grandfather was one of the brothers, Tuvia Bielski. What an inspiration.

If you’re in Phoenix over the next month or so, check out Violins of Hope. And if you’re anywhere else in the world, keep an eye out for it.

Sunday mass at St Theresa Phoenix AZ

When I said I’d like to get mass on Sunday, our lovely host RR suggested going to hear her son play the drums at St Theresa. Drums? In a church? At mass? This I had to see. The guitar, sax (played by a Polish woman who as Army Reserve plays in the Army band), and drum ensemble accompany the pianist and an 8-voiced choir. The musicians are paid (yes, paid) by the parish and most of them play in other parishes, too. The priest, Fr Joachim Adeyemi (Fr Joe), ranked up there with Fr Hilary Tagliaferro, whom I heard preach in Malta a few weeks back. From the diocese of Ilorin, Nigeria, Fr Joe was introduced to the parish in 2015 as ‘an outgoing, articulate, personable and energetic priest’, all of which I can testify to. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a priest enjoy saying mass as much. Perhaps they all do, but so few show it. His enjoyment was contagious. And the music did him justice.

If you’re in search of an entertaining mass some Sunday, with great coffee and doughnuts afterwards, check out St Theresa at 5045 E Thomas Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85018. And if you’re involved in parish work anywhere, and want to get your numbers up, considering hiring professional musicians. They’re worth the investment.

St Theresa RC church Phoenix AZ

Thanks so much to our hosts RR and AP. It was a wonderful weekend. So great to reconnect. I’ll think of Phoenix more fondly in future.

 

Route 66 to Williams AZ

Driving along the iconic Route 66 is an experience I’ll never tire of. The longest remaining stretch of the road that once stretched 2488 miles from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA sits between Kingman and Seligman in Arizona. Dotted with long-deserted gas stations and dance halls, towns like Valentine, AZ are ghostly reminders of a once-prosperous time.

Route 66 to Williams AZ

Route 66 to Williams AZ

Route 66 to Williams AZ

Route 66 to Williams AZ

Route 66 to Williams AZ

The last town bypassed by the freeway is Williams AZ, a quaint little place home to the Grand Canyon Railway.

Attracting sheep and cattle ranchers, the settlement was founded in 1876, taking the name of the famous mountain man, Bill Williams. In 1881 the first post office was established and on September 1, 1882 the railroad finally arrived. In no time at all, Williams became the shipping center for the nearby ranching and lumber industries. In the beginning, Williams, like so many other towns of the Old West, gained a reputation as a rough and rowdy settlement filled with saloons, brothels, gambling houses and opium dens. Restricted by a town ordinance to Railroad Avenue’s “Saloon Row,” it didn’t stop the numerous cowboys, railroad men and lumberjacks from frequenting these many businesses. Even back in those days, early tourism began when people traveled to the Grand Canyon via buckboards and stagecoaches.

Today, they’re doing a rockin’ business with tourists coming from all over the world to start their railroad journey to the Grand Cayon. The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is just one of the many in Williams AZ that offers everything from boarding houses to motels to upscale hotels.

Williams AZ

Storefront in Williams AZ
Storefront in Williams AZ

Storefront in Williams AZ

Storefront in Williams AZ

The town is making a determined effort to cater to Chinese tourists who don’t want to buy stuff made in China. One store has a whole room decidated to things made in America – high-priced, high-quality takehomes. It’s not rocket science – why aren’t more places doing this? There’s no shortage of craftsmen and women in the states who can turn out crosses made from old wine barrells or windchimes made from parachute string and aluminum pipes or even design and print birthday cards.

But it’s not only the buildings that are interesting, it’s the people. Williams AZ has its fair share of characters that are remnants of time past. And the cemetery is an education.

Cowboy graffitti in Williams AZ

Long Horn Saloon, Williams AZ

Williams AZ Gateway to the Grand Canyon

Don’t miss this part of the world. Make the detour. Slow down. Get off the freeway. And take Route 66 to Williams AZ.

General George S Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

I’m not one for guns. I’ve no great interest in tanks. But I will admit to a certain fascination with war. Travelling east on the I-10 from Palm Desert on our way to Williams AZ, we stopped off at Chiriaco Summit for breakfast and noticed that the truck stop is also home to the General Patton Memorial Museum. The gas station, the restaurant, and the museum are a family business and have been owned and operated by the Chiriaco family since 1933 (the museum opened in 1988).

Chiriaco Summit

Alabama-man Joe Chiriaco visited CA in 1927 to see his state team play Stanford in the Rose Bowl. He fell in love with California and stayed. I can only imagine that telegram to his mother. When his job as a water surveyor with the LA Bureau of Water and Power sent him to the desert – to Shaver Summit – he fell in love, again. He quit his job and bought the site which is now known as Chiriaco Summit. With his ear to the ground, Chiriaco paid attention to whispers about a new road to be laid between Indio and Phoenix. He started building. The gas station and general store opened 15 August 1933. A year later, Chiriaco fell in love for the third time and married Ruth Bergseid, a Norwegian nurse from Minnesota who had also come East to work at the hospital in Indio. Business boomed. Roads meant cars and trucks and cars and trucks meant drivers who need refuelling along with their vehicles.

In early 1992, under the command of General George S. Patton, the Desert Training Center (DTC) was established at Camp Young, right by Joe’s place. And when the troops descended, his was the only place they could go off base. Years later, Margit Chiriaco Rusche would work with the Bureau of Land Management to establish the General Patton Memorial Museum, which first opened its doors in 1988.

General Patton Memorial Museum

The wealth of information on display brings to life the career of the General and the sheer scale of the desert training that he initiated in preparation for a heads-on with Rommel in the African Desert.  In the 26-minute video shown, one of the former soldiers told of how they graduated from big tents to pup tents to hard ground. Life wasn’t easy but to a man, when they got to where they were going, they were glad of their training.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The Matzner tank pavilion is home to lots of stuff including a 2.5 ton Japanese Cadillac and an M60 turret. One of the tanks is set up so that you can climb up and sit inside. All I could think of were sitting ducks – way too small an enclosure for my liking. Out in the tank yard, other tanks on show include the almost mass-produced Sherman tank, the most popular model of  WWII. It was pouring rain. The red soil had turned to mud. But I hadn’t come this far not to have a look around. Mind you, not on a good day could I tell one tank from the other but they were quite the sight to behold.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The documentary video shown in the General Patton Memorial Museum had mentioned two altars at Camp Iron Mountain, one Protestant, the other Catholic. Men of the cloth of each persuasion would say mass, outdoors, for the troops. The altars still stand but given the unseasonable rain, we thought it best not to try – even though part of me really wanted to see the reality this replica is based on. Next time, I’ll come in April.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

The area covered by the DTC is massive.

The War Department utilized over 18,000 square miles of desolate land in southeastern California and western Arizona where it trained over a half million soldiers on desert warfare tactics and survival in extreme conditions. For two years, 13 infantry divisions and 7 armored divisions marched and drove over the vast desert landscape. This massive training ground consisted of 13 divisional camps and numerous railroad sidings, ammunition dumps, hospitals, airfields and quartermaster depots. By May 1943, the German Afrika Korps had been defeated and desert training was no longer a necessity. However, training lasted for another year until it was officially closed in April, 1944.

Perhaps most fascinating for me was that I hadn’t realised that General Patton died in a car crash or that there were whispers of suspicion around his death. Military historian Robert Shipman, in his 2008 book Target Patton, claims that Old Blood and Guts (Patton) was assassinated on the order of General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. Mad. Second in the line of fascinations is that all this is so recent. People alive still remember training here. And locals, like Madison Payne, are still driving the same truck they were back then.

General Patton Memorial Museum Chiriaco Summit CA

I missed out on the Remembrance Walls at the General Patton Memorial Museum (an excuse to go back). But we were already two hours behind schedule and the rain was showing no sign of easing. Museums like these make road trips in the USA one of the best ways to travel. The freedom to explore is something not to be taken for granted. But never once, had you asked me what I’d be doing on Valentine’s Day, would I have said – ogling tanks in the Colorado Desert.  The museum is open seven days a week 9 am to 4.30 pm (except for Christmas and Thanksgiving). Admission is $10 ($8 for seniors). Count on losing a couple of hours here (especially if it’s not raining). Well worth stopping or detouring for.

It’s been five years since I was last in the Colorado Desert. [Confession: I had been referring to it as the California Desert (as it’s in CA) but actually the Coachella Valley sits in the northern end of the Colorado Desert, near the lower reaches of the Colorado River.] Back in the day, the valley was a sea and when the first settlers appeared, they found seashells. As the story goes, Conchilla (Spanish for little shell) became Coachella, perhaps because of someone’s bad handwriting. The state highway 111 runs right through, a retail corridor linking Indio, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City. We drove it a number of times travelling between friends in Palm Desert and friends in Palm Springs and everything seems to run together. It’s hard to tell when one city stops and the next one begins.

Palm Desert, with its high-end shops on El Paseo, seems a little more upmarket than its sister, Palm Springs. Both though, cater for the more mature resident or tourist. I felt younger than usual. I was amused to see that shoppers on El Paseo can flag down a courtesy golf cart to get from A to B. Downtown Palm Springs offers more in the line of tourist-focused art galleries, general souvenir-type stores, and eateries. It’s far more alive and opens much later.

Shopping in Palm Springs vanity plates

Shopping in Palm Springs - Palm Canyon Drive

Sony Bono statue Palm Springs

1930s water bowl for dogs in Palm Springs

Has it changed in the five years since I was last here? Well, it still has its fair share of vanity plates that make the slow driving fun. The statue of Marilyn has gone but the one of Sonny Bono is still there.  And just about the only cigarettes I saw this time were in this 1930s doggie dish. Annoying that it’s being used as an ashtry.

Shopping for a slice of social history

On the advice of her hairstylist, a man who knows his stuff, the lovely DLW took us to the Sunny Dunes Antique Mall on 507 E Sunny Dunes Rd. It’s heaven on earth for serious shoppers and browsers alike. About 30 vendors have sections in which they sell their wares. Each takes it in turn once a month to run the cash desk. It’s all high tech. You can pick your bits from anywhere and everywhere and bring them to the check out by the front door. There, the codes will tell the prices and discounts. We made out like bandits. But were I living locally or if I had a bigger luggage allowance or if I could have driven home, I’d have done a lot of damage.

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

Shopping in Palm Springs Sunny Dunes Antiques Mall

It was a trip down memory lane. The Kenwood mixer, the old tin buckets, the leather jackets, the comics, the jewellery. All of it recognisable. All of it once treasured. I spotted a mink stole for $135, perhaps evidence of how out of fashion fur is in the USA. I’ll admit to being tempted, more for the images it evoked that the stole itself. We passed a good hour there, if not more. And I could have stayed longer, but I was upsetting myself thinking about what I couldn’t take home.

These sorts of places are repositories of social history. They’re like windows to a bygone era. They say so much about the movement of peoples (just check where the glass and crockery come from), about pop culture (posters, books, records), about style (clothes, photos, pictures). If you’re in Palm Springs, treat yourself. They’re open 10 am to 5 pm every day except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Holiday hours may vary.

Sunny Dunes Antique Mall Palm Springs CA

Watching live crab at Redondo Pier CA

Way back when I moved to California, I remember feeling cheated. In my head, I was moving to Los Angeles, but my address said Torrance. I wasn’t living in LA. I was living in a city some 12 miles south of it. Granted, that city was in LA county, but that didn’t appear on my address.

Revisiting Torrance CA

I spent a month there in 1990 and came back again for another six months later that year. It felt like I was there for years, but doing the math a few lifetimes later, seven months was all I had. I worked at an Irish pub on the corner of Western and Del Amo, Friday nights from 10 pm till closing and then occasionally covering other shifts for other bartenders as needed. It was quite the education. I remember running after my first customer to give him back the change he’d left on the counter. The whole tipping thing had eluded me. I’d soon catch on, though. I made a mess of pouring my first few pints of Black and Tans (half Guinness half lager), and some random guy at the bar benefitted from my mistakes. I met lots of people – Irish and American and Australian – and some 25+ years later, I’m still in touch with a few of them.

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

The old Looneys bar in Torrance CA

We stopped by to see the old place. It changed hands after the sudden demise of the legendary Tubbs (a man who made 6’2″ look like 7’3″) back in 1998 and morphed into Paddy O’s, which fell in the wake of rising rents. I’d last been there, I think, in 1991 and yet it seemed like yesterday.

I’m spending this weekend back in Torrance with the inimitable JNP and his lovely wife SRP. Driving over to Torrance from the airport, I searched in vain for something I recognised, someplace that looked familiar. I drew a blank. I remembered, though, about the carpool lane where cars with two or more people get to drive a little faster. That helped. But I was blown away by the number of driver-only cars on the road and their lack of willingness to let you into their lane. I was distracted by the vanity plates and had to turn off the radio in case I missed my off-ramp. I’d forgotten how much attention it takes to drive the LA freeways and for the first time recognised why automatics might be better than stick-shifts.

I had a list of things I wanted to do – have an In ‘n’ Out burger, have a carne asada burrito (and we did at La Capilla – don’t miss it), and do the milk dud/malteser comparison check, just to make sure I remembered that maltesers are better. I also wanted to check out Walmart, Target, and RiteAid. And if I could fit in a few cemeteries, so much the better.

Redondo Pier

Riding the waves at Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

Redondo pier near Torrance CA

LA is having unseasonably cold weather and when I’m tired, the cold seems to take up residence in my bones. While I was well wrapped up, others walking the pier at Redondo Beach were in their shorts and t-shirts. It was a glorious day, perfect for some of Kincaid’s legendary clam chowder. The sea lions were bellyaching about the cold, too, much to the delight of the visiting toddlers. The fishermen were holding their own, despite the dire warnings posted about not eating the local catch. And the sea was a brilliant blue, not something I’d ever connected in my LA memory.

Fishing from Redondo Pier

Bait shop at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish cleaning station Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fishing from Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

Fish warning at Redondo Pier near Torrance CA

It’s a lovely part of LA county… beautiful on a sunny day. Revisiting Torrance CA, I’ve readjusted my LA memory bank to include the sea. And next time might just be tempted to rent a rod and try my luck.

 

 

Salt pans at Delimara Point

I come to Malta every year around February and thanks to the perseverance of some lovely friends whose mission it seems is to take me somewhere new each time, I’ve gotten to see a lot of the island. This is no mean feat as the island of Malta is just 27 km (17 mi) long and 14.5 km (9 mi) wide, with a total area of 246 square km (95 sq mi). I’ve been coming here regularly for the last 10 years or so and each time I think, this is it. I must have seen it all by now. But no. Once again, they surprised me. This time with Delimara Point.

Delimara Point Lighthouse

Delimara Point lighthouse

First up was the renovated the British-built nineteenth-century lighthouse at Delimara Point. In 2011, the Malta Maritime Authority entrusted the lighthouse to Din l-Art Ħelwa (the National Trust of Malta). [Din l-Art Ħelwa translates as this sweet land, and is the first line of the Malta National Anthem.] Today it has two self-catering apartments and can be rented out for holiday/vacation use directly from the National Trust. Unfortunately, those who had it when we called didn’t ask us in for a look around, but it’s on my list.

Delimara Point Salt Pans

Salt pans at Delimara Point

Salt pans at Delimara Point

Salt pans at Delimara Point

Delimara Point salt pans

Malta does a great line of natural salts. It’s the one thing I bring back with me each time I visit. The salt pans at Delimara Point are much smaller than the bigger ones in Salina Bay, which yield about 4000 tons of coarse salt in two harvests, but they are nonetheless spectacular. While other pans rely on the tides to flood the pans, here the saltwater is pumped up and left to evaporate, eventually leaving nothing but salt. I can only begin to imagine how beautiful it would all look in the summer sun. This documentary by Tim Lewis tells the story of salt farmers on Gozo. It takes about 10 minutes and is worth a coffee.

Fort Delimara at Delimara Point

Delimara Fort at Delimara Point

The third stop on our Delimara Point tour was the old British fort. Built by the British in the around 1876 it was one of a series of forts that protected Marsaxlokk harbour. From 1982 to 2005, though, it got a new life. Leased to a local pig farmer, it became a piggery. Apparently, there are four 38-ton guns there, the only surviving examples of their kind in the world, but they’re buried in slurry. This is one of a number of forts in Malta marked for restoration. One to come back and visit in a few years, methinks. If they get the guns out.

Delimara Gas tank in Marsaxlokk Bay

Delimara Point gas tanker

Malta is no stranger to controversy. Back in 2016, when the Armada LNG Mediterrana arrived, there was much hue and cry about the safety of anchoring a tanker with so much natural gas so close to shore. The tanker, some 300 m in length, has been leased to Elecgtrogas in Malta by its Malaysian owners. The 33-year-old ship cost multiple millions of euro to convert into a floating storage unit. It’s refilled regularly with gas that’s piped ashore to the gas-fired Delimara power plant.

Its modernity sits in sharp contrast to the nineteenth-century lighthouse and fort. Its high-tech function contrasts sharply with the low-tech salt pans. But it, too, is a feature of Delimara Point. If you’re in Malta, take the time to visit the locale. Bring a packed lunch and enjoy the views.

Interesting reading

An account of salt harvesting in Malta

Malta and its salt pans

If you’re planning a trip to Malta, check out the Malta archive and feel free to share with those who might be interested in visiting this gem in the Med.

Christmas travel tree

The 8th of December had come and gone so it was safe to put up my Christmas tree. Never up before the 8th and always down by the 6th – that has been instilled in me since I was of an age to care. It’s not that I’m superstitious, but with the world currently so off-kilter, I’d prefer to fly below the radar and not draw any needless bad luck to my door. Some years, I don’t bother with a tree. It depends on how long I’ll be in country for. This is the first year in a while that the ROI made it worthwhile which means that I could pull out my box of goodies and start decorating my Christmas travel tree.

Many moves ago, faced with a plethora of tacky souvenirs from places I’d just passed through, I resolved that the only thing I would bring back from my travels would be a Christmas tree ornament or a silver charm for my travel bracelet (before it got full). This decision predates my travel blog so many of the places I’ve not written about. I keep a log to remind me where I was when I bought things that are not quite as obvious as my bear from Kodiak, my Eifel Tower from Paris, or my sloth from Costa Rica. I have a select few items that were gifts from special people and a series of fabulous hard-carved wooden ornaments from my good mate DD. I get a new one each year.

Himself helped with it all and as we picked through my treasures he held one up.

‘Where’s this from?’ he asked.

I looked at the black and white voodoo head. ‘New Orleans’, I said.

‘When were you there?’

I had to think hard to get my dates straight – that was the road trip I took in 2001 with my good mate RosaB from Alaska when we flew into New Orleans and then drove through Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia,  Tennessee, and back to Louisiana. It was a pre-blog trip, so much of what we saw is lost in the ethers of my mind. I was just driving to drive and see; she was on a pilgrimage to Graceland. I revisited again some 15 years later and had many flashbacks. One lasting memory is the generous tip she gave the woman from the voodoo shop in New Orleans who had given us a tour of the city’s cemeteries. I was shocked.

Honey, she said, the gal did good. We learned a lot.

That throwaway comment has shaped my guide-tipping culture to this day.

I have vague memories of detouring to follow a billboard proclaiming the virtues of Havana, Florida. It was the strangest place I’ve ever been. The few places open looked as if they’d been abandoned mid-meal. I remember a main street lined with barn-like antique shops staffed by one elderly man or woman, the handful of them the sum total of life in the town. As we wandered around, a little boy of about 6 or 7 darted in and out of doorways behind us, his muffled giggles the only sound we heard. We had intended stopping for lunch but we moved on. Northern Florida is still a place that I’d drive around rather than through. I googled it out of curiosity and was amazed to see it billed as one of the state’s friendliest towns. How the years can change a place.

‘Are you sure’, he asked, turning the ornament over. ‘The date says 1997.’

Okay. Okay. I’d left my log book in the city, so I’d been guessing. And I knew that trying to remember where I’d been in 1997 was going to keep me away all night.

As I placed each ornament on my Christmas travel tree, I stopped to think of where I’d been, who I’d been with, and when I’d been there. And with the factual stuff came a flurry of emotions. I thought how I’d be loathe to return to Azerbaijan but would get on a plane tomorrow to go back to Africa. I remembered how enamoured I was with Bulgaria and how disillusioned I was with what was happening in Cuba. I lost 10 minutes thinking of how my trip to Israel and Palestine had opened my eyes and as many more remembering multiple trips to India, a place I’ll someday live for a while.

We thought we’d get it done in half an hour. It took a lot longer. The desire to travel (and the wherewithal to do so) is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given. Since I started blogging, I’ve been to about 40 different countries, some multiple times. My work trips account for just 2. I’ve a long way to go before I get to see them all, and may well die before I do. But I’ll give it my best shot.

Next year, when I’m putting up my Christmas travel tree, I’d like to see something from Albania, Russia, and Tanzania. And if that’s to happen, I need to make sure my feng shui travel shelf is in order. Did I tell you I wasn’t superstitious?

 

A mate of mine, on a short-term contract in Zagreb, visited us in the village last weekend.  I’d checked the trains and the direct one from Zagreb to Budapest passes through the next village. It should have been easy. It wasn’t. There was weekend trackwork and in the bus-train interchanges, something happened. They either got on the wrong train or didn’t realise the direct train wasn’t direct any more. Whatever.

I got a phone call to say they were in Izlaz, Croatia, when they should have been in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. The only way over the border by train was to go the whole way back to Zagreb and start again. Madness. So, we got in the car and drove to pick them up. They said they’d get the train to Virovitica or Kloštar Podravski so we checked the border crossings and decided to cross at Gola.

The drive was new to us and new territory is always good. We passed through Berzence, which has to be the Christmas tree capital of Hungary. Fields of them stood waiting to be chopped down and delivered to the cities and towns of Hungary in time for the big day. I wondered briefly how that had started. Had one chap tried his luck and when it caught on, everyone else baled in? The village dates back to the 1300s and if we do go back to get a tree, we’ll no doubt check out the Baroque Festetics House, which has to be related to the palace in Keszthely. There’s also a Roman Catholic Baroque church dating back to the 1700s, an eighteenth-century inn, and the ruins of Berzence castle. But we were on a mission.

When we got the border, there was one car ahead of us. We waited a couple of minutes to be called forward and then surrendered our passport cards and car registration papers. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. I noticed the fence – the famous fence along the 348 km (216 mi)  border between Hungary and Croatia that has divided the two countries since 17 October 2015. I’d not seen it before. And I was surprised at my reaction.

I’ve touted Hungary as a great place to live because of the easy access to the rest of Europe. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of a United States of Europe where you can nip from Hungary to Slovenia as easily as you can move from California to Arizona. My mental map didn’t have walls or fences. Okay, so there were checkpoints crossing over into Serbia and Ukraine, but that was only to be expected as neither one is in the EU, but Croatia? The Schengen schilling was slow to drop. Of course. Croatia is in the EU but not in the Schengen zone. Hence the delay.

We sat some more and finally yer man came out. The name on the car registration matched the name on the passport card and the photo on the passport card was of me. And I had already said that I owned the car. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the Budapest address that was on the car registration. But that wasn’t enough. I had to prove that I lived there. I dug in my wallet for my address. He checked it carefully. I got a distinct feeling that he wanted to create another obstacle but couldn’t come up with one. WTF! Since when has Croatia had a problem with Ireland? Has there been a spate of middle-aged Irish women nicking 15-year-old Hungarian cars and smuggling them across the border? Eventually, he gave me back my stuff and walked off. The barrier lifted and I drove through. In the rearview mirror, I noticed the couple behind me. He asked for their ID, had a quick chat, and then waved them through. They were in a Honda.

I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. Was it relief at being allowed out, or relief at being allowed in? At this stage, my mate, trying to be helpful, had gotten another train a few miles closer to the border – but to another border crossing. We finally connected in Kopřivnice, home to the Tatra truck company. Back in the days of Communism, the company payroll was 16 000 strong, about 1000 of which were Vietnamese. Today it’s about 3700. Once owned by a consortium which included Ronald Adams, the American who made his fortune selling graduation rings [FT has an interesting article on the takeover], it’s now owned by a Czech armourer [the things I learn when I blog!].

Anyway, we decided to go back into Hungary through Letenye, hoping that this busy crossing would be deserted on a Saturday afternoon. And it was. The Croatians barely glanced at our papers, delighted no doubt to see us leave. And the Hungarians didn’t seem that annoyed about letting us back in. Maybe three in a car is the magic number.

The experience set me wondering about borders and visas and how they affect my travel, however subconsciously. I would love to go to Russia but as the visa would cost more than the flight, I’m dithering. I’m very fond of India but again, as the visa can add significantly to the cost, I prefer to go there on someone else’s dime and tag on some personal days afterwards. Qatar recently added some 80 countries to its visa-free program but that in and of itself wouldn’t entice me back. Turkey’s convoluted system did my head in and would make me think twice about visiting Istanbul again. And while I, as an EU citizen, have the freedom to travel within its borders, Brexit might change all that for my UK friends, and apparently cost them more – a €7 charge to visit EU countries.  I wonder if I’ll be able to cross the Irish border and go to Belfast without having to show my passport? Amazing, really, to think that I never really appreciated freedom of movement until I began to see it dwindle.

[Note: Fence pictured is the one dividing Serbia and Hungary – I figured I’d had enough attention in Croatia – and they look the same.]

Doha camel

After our epic four-week trip through Thailand, we stopped off in Doha on the way home. We’d been invited to a birthday bash and never one to say no to a good party, it was a no-brainer. I’d been to Dubai a couple of lifetimes ago for a World Bank meeting and hadn’t been back to the Gulf since. I’d a fair idea what to expect – or I thought I did – but I’d forgotten more than I’d remembered.

Doha by night

Doha by night, Dhow harbour

Museum of Islamic Art Doha

Museum of Islamic Art Doha

Doha by night is spectacular. The view of the city from the Museum of Islamic Art is amazing. I was reminded of a night in New Jersey, way back when, looking across at the Manhattan Skyline. Nothing has come close until now. When H&N said they were taking us to the museum, I cringed a little. I’m not one for clay pots and bronze bowls or ornate gold jewellery. I more partial to my sculptures, my mosaics, and my paintings. And I was coming down off a prolonged spate of sensory overload. I didn’t think I had it in me to deliver the requisite mews of appreciation with any great conviction. But I surprised myself. It’s definitely worth visiting. Regardless of its exhibits, the building itself is nothing short of gobsmackingly simple. It has a definitely shush feel to it, big enough to be a cathedral but plain enough to leave religion outside. The architect, I. M. Pei (said to be the greatest living member of the modernist generation of architects), had hung up his liner pens and tracing paper and long-since retired. And, at the ripe age of 91, why wouldn’t he? But he came out of retirement to design this building. His name rang a bell. It took me a while to put him together with the glass-and-steel pyramid that I’d seen a couple of years back at the Louvre in Paris, another of his creations. Rumour has it that he spent six months travelling through the Muslim world to get a feel for this project. With an eye to the future and the lack of restraint and good judgement shown by many a city planner, Pei decided he wanted his the museum to sit on an island. So one was built. In Doha Bay. Off an artificial peninsula. At one end of the 7 km Doha Corniche. It’s open till 7 pm every evening and admission is free. You can’t leave Doha without visiting.

Doha

Doha

I was struck by the newness of everything. The Sheraton was the first hotel chain to build in the city, but now, everyone is there. With 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants expats, the curious mix of cultures is evident in the architecture. And what you see by day (am thinking in particular of the Emir Palace) looks completely different lit up at night. The city’s electric bill must be huge. Be careful though, some areas are no-photo zones, so watch out for the signs. And the cameras. Nearly every streetlight has a camera attached to it. I don’t think I’ve ever been as conscious of being watched. And I doubt it’s something I could get used to. That said, there’s no crime to speak of in the city. It’s safer than safe to walk around. And why wouldn’t it be with your every move being recorded for posterity?

Having had the Muslim/alcohol experience in southern Thailand, I wasn’t expecting liquor shops on every corner, but I was completely flabbergasted when I found out that there is only one in the whole city! And to buy booze, you have to apply for a permit.  And your monthly alcohol spend will be capped at a percentage of your salary. Then you drive out to what was once the desert and is now a suburb in the desert and join the long line of customers waiting to be served. It was like Brown Thomas’s during the Christmas sales. Now, on the one hand, I can see how this would be good for me. I’d become a far more conscious imbiber of spirits. No more opening another bottle just because the weakness in me was strong. No more gulping it back as if it were going out of fashion. No more ‘one for the ditch after one for the road’. I’d be measuring my measures. In all likelihood, one of two things would happen. I’d lose the grá I have for vino or I’d become obsessed with where the next glass of plonk was coming from.

When we were kids, on long drives to see my grandparents, we’d count number plates, trying to check off each county in Ireland. I found myself doing something similar in Doha once I heard that the fewer digits on your plate, the more it’s worth. Another outward manifestation of wealth. I spotted one 3-digit plate on a big, posh, land-cruisery jeep, driven by two young princely looking lads; one four-digit plate; and a few five digits – but most were six-digit. And even then, pairs and triplets and sequences of numbers can attract big money. It’s not unheard of to see a  plate you fancy, then follow that person till they stop, and offer to buy their plate. In Doha, you can sell your plates and vehicle separately and some cars are bought for the plate alone. Mad.

Souq Waqif Doha

Photo: Heather Jacobs

We spent an evening at the Souq Waqif but didn’t do it justice. Jet lag has set in and we were seriously flagging. We ate – everything ordered for us, which took the pain out of making a decision (I just love their passion for food) – and we shopped. But having read up on it since, I want to go back, in the whole of my health, with energy and time to see it all. It’s the country’s oldest market and definitely one to be explored. The people watching alone is seriously rated. There’s so much going on, so much to see, you could sit with a coffee for hours and just watch the world go by. A tip worth noting though – go early in the week to avoid the crowds that descend from Thursday to Saturday.

We spent a morning in the desert, driving up and down sand dunes in a Land Cruiser. There were Land Cruisers everywhere, the cheapest of which will set you back a minimum of €50,000. The camels were on hand to give the tourists something to do as their drivers/guides let the air out of the tires to get ready for the dunes. And then it was into the desert to be bounced around and scared witless as your car rocked over a very steep slope and then went downhill, nose first. I wanted to drive. I so wanted to drive. In fact, driving in the desert (in someone else’s heavily insured rig) is now on my bucket list. I’d been on a desert safari in Dubai and remember the sand being quite uniform in colour. But in Doha, perhaps because of the unseasonably heavy rains/floods they’d just had, it was exquisite. So many different shades of greys and browns. It reminded me a lot of Michael Pettet’s digital art.

Doha

Doha Desert Safari

Doha Desert Safari

Doha Desert Safari

It was a little weird, looking across the water at Saudi Arabia, having just learned of the ongoing diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Where have I been? And then reading of Saudi’s plans to cut the country off – literally – by digging a 60km channel along the border. And then reading more about how close Qatar came to being invaded last year. Two hours, by all accounts, and the Saudi army could have been in Doha. That was close. It would seem that Qatar is bucking the trend.

From the onset of the crisis, the Saudi-led bloc cut diplomatic ties and hit Qatar with embargoes, including air land and maritime restrictions. They also deployed bot-fuelled hashtags and social media attacks. It was clear that the Saudis and their allies were not only targeting Qatar’s leadership, but also its institutions, citizens and residents. The Saudi-led bloc confronted Qatar with 13 demands, mostly focused on curtailing the Qatari approach to foreign policy, counter-terrorism and media freedom.

The image of the much-loved Emir is everywhere. And love him they do. The international jury is still out though. According to Human Rights Watch

Qatar’s penal code punishes “sodomy” with one to three years in prison. Muslims convicted of zina (sex outside of marriage) can be sentenced to flogging (if unmarried) or the death penalty (if married). Non-Muslims can be sentenced to imprisonment.

For the most part, those I met there seem to enjoy their lives. They like the money they make and the lifestyle it affords them. And there is something quite appealing about buffet dinners, long lunches, and fabulous shopping malls. The people and the diversity they represent is refreshing. Theirs is a very international set, with, I think, 12 nationalities at the house party we attended. You wouldn’t be long getting first-hand accounts from most of the world – the best form of social media. Everyone is so hospitable, so friendly, so generous. Customer service is incredible. But I couldn’t live there. My latent streak of paranoia would get fat of a diet of societal norms that wouldn’t sit well me with. You’d acclimatise, they said. You’d get used to it. But the question is, would I want to?

Interesting articles

10 things to do in Souq Waqif, according to CNN Travel.

More on I. M. Pei

Drinking (or not) in Doha

Human Rights Watch World Report Qatar 2018

More photos available on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook Page – check us out.

 

After four weeks of travelling in Thailand, I’m in a much better position to comment than I was when I wrote of my Thai expectations.  I was looking forward to the newness, the un-Europeanness, the un-Americanness. I was looking for something different. And yes, I found it. But in that newness, there was also a sameness. Anyway, I thought I might save you some angst and share with you my travel tips for Thailand. Read more