Travel Thursday Snapshots: Tunisia after Djerba

(The Story of Djerba is in a previous blog.)
The ferry back to the mainland took only twenty minutes and wasn’t at all crowded, like most ferries on this sea. A call yesterday had nabbed me a car and driver, who grinned for some reason when told our destination would be Matmata. Commonly known as a Berber troglodyte settlement—which makes it sound worse than it was, considering how elegantly decorated some of the caves were—it had been a port founded by the Phoenicians, full of temples, the forum, baths, and a market, the kind of historical site where I could spend hours photographing and playing archaeologist.
Which I did, of course, but that wasn’t the actual reason for being here. Lunch wasn’t usually a highlight in my itineraries, except when it took place in a famous movie locale, in this case the interior of the Skywalker home in the first Star Wars movie. {The propaganda said it was the home of Luke Skywalker’s parents, which I promptly called them on; the English-speaking tour guide rolled his eyes and said new brochures were on the way, from a different printing company, that said “Luke’s aunt and uncle” in large print. Don’t know if that was truth.}
Despite its formal name of Sidi Driss Hotel, it was known locally as the Star Wars hotel, for obvious reasons, considering all the visitors it received. Since I can never get used to spicy food, I brought along my own provisions, but pretended to eat up as the owner regaled me with stories about the filming of the first movie, particularly how everything had been returned to normal after shooting, because no one figured it would be such a gigantic smash, but lucking out in that the crews came back and restored it to shoot Attack of the Clones.
As soon as lunch was over I smiled to myself, ready to immerse my photographic soul into shooting every inch of this place. The exteriors of this set were pretty far away, and best left for last, but the Mos Eisley exteriors, especially the cantina, from the first movie were a lot closer, and somewhere in between was the castle from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And though it took a lot of slogging and I never had a chance to verify it was the right spot, the top of the dune where Luke watches the binary sunset was a bucket list moment.


Travel Thursday Snapshots: Amman

Exactly one year ago today I landed in the capital of Jordan for about the fourth or fifth time in my life, can’t remember. (I say exactly, but time zones and stuff.)
With only half a day remaining after settling in, I thought about hanging out at the entrance to the Royal Palaces on the off chance of running into the amazing Queen Rania, a lady I hold in as much esteem as Valerie Kondos-Field (Gymnastics coach at UCLA) and Katherine Heigl. But before I left the hotel I saw on her Twitter that she was in Norway, so that’s that. I suppose I can’t blame her for wanting to get away from a possibly crazed fan. Maybe the king will want to talk Star Trek. . .?
Did you know that Amman was the original Philadelphia? Now you can impress with your knowledge of trivia at the next party. There’s still a lot more brotherly love in this city than the current one, as I saw plenty of times once I finally ventured outside and made my way past a ton of embassies, arriving downtown just in time for dinner, which with my stomach was not an easy thing to find. After that I took a taxi up to the Citadel, as there was no way these knees were going to make it up that hill, especially so early in the trip when I should seriously be conserving my limited energy. I spent some minutes getting every conceivable angle of the Temple of Hercules, as well as the Hand of Hercules (a little creepy), before settling in to shoot the sunset.
Feeling the first pull of jetlag, I dropped off the hill and found a taxi to take me back to my hotel, figuring I’d have time right before I left the country to peruse the amphitheater and all the museums, which other than maps are pretty much my crack.
Perhaps it was the excitement I always get at the beginning of a trip, or else my internal clock set itself perfectly when I went to sleep around 10PM local time, but the next morning my brain was perfectly tuned to the time zone and I was smiling as I had a quick breakfast of oranges, grapes, and even pineapple (!) before heading off south, ultimate destination Petra, followed by Wadi Rum and Aqaba.

Travel Thursday Snapshot: We Cannot Romania, We Gotta Go, part 2

The next morning, driving into Deva gave me my first look at Romania, and it was basically like a lot of places I’d seen in Latin America. Plenty of trees on those hills, but one had to wonder how long that would last, if industry and commerce and most of all capitalism blew into this town.
Then I was told Transylvania means “Land Beyond the Forest,” so maybe there was a chance. . .
First things first: find a real place to stay. The best hotel in town—which wasn’t saying much, the elevator was tiny and kept sticking—charged us four dollars—yep, four dollars!—for three nights. Even 25 years ago. . . you just gotta lie back and let that sink in. Yep, it’s true, not lying.
Second order of business: find a local in need of cash who will do my laundry.
Finally in the afternoon—nap time after the train and lumpy overcrowded couch—I got my first glimpse of downtown, and I actually did manage to dig up a couple of old photos taken once the rain stopped. Yes, that’s me posing like someone pretending to be cool in front of a giant sign that said Romania, as well as the guy on the right over the Transilvania sign.

Other adventures included getting a haircut and shave—with a straight razor—getting stopped by a hot blonde in front of a wedding store, and being given a chance to choose the music played at the dance club that night. My selections, awesome as they were, proved to not be popular with the locals, so I had to find another way of entertaining myself those nights.
One way was chatting with one of the few people who knew English, who happened to be a friend of the hot blonde from earlier. The most memorable exchange, apart from finding out how many words in Romanian are the same in Spanish, was when he said he loved the blonde, but platonically.
“But Plato was wrong about everything!”
“This is true.”
“Maybe you love her Socratically.”
The last part that was fun was walking back to the hotel at two in the morning, with my superior night vision. People claimed they didn’t actually believe in vampires. . . but they didn’t walk alone at night either.

Travel Thursday Snapshot: We Cannot Romania, We Gotta Go, part 1

Having a few days before I had to be in Munich but getting a little weary of Prague, I hopped on a train to Budapest, where I always knew where to go for fun, only to sit next to a guy who I took for American—totally no accent—only to have him be Norwegian. He was going to visit his girlfriend in Deva, the capital of Transylvania, as well as invest in a nightclub, and since at that point I’d never been to Romania, I figured why not and joined him on the train that would go across Hungary.
One of my main reasons for going, besides hopefully meeting some Olympic gymnasts in their training town, was the two books I had in my backpack. I’d taken many books on the trip and bought even more—sent a whole box back home I’d bought in Germany and Netherlands—which I kept in my big backpack, but I would always have a couple in my go bag, and in this case they were Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With a Vampire. If that wasn’t a sign to go to Transylvania. . .
And they were needed, as eastern Hungary has some of the most boring landscape Nature ever created: a solid hundred miles of nothing but wheat fields. Kansas has nothing on this. The only exciting thing was at the border, where I was extorted $31 for a visa. It only got better—so to speak—when darkness fell, but the train was so slow we didn’t get into town until after two in the morning, and that’s only because I asked someone where we were. Bugsy—yep, that was his name, said so on the passport—was fast asleep and had about two seconds to gather his gear. By the time we got to the door the train was in motion and, big backpack strapped on, I jumped off and tried to land on two feet, which was a stupid thing to do for someone who was a big fan of inertia. Luckily the backpack stopped me before too long, but Bugsy took much harder and numerous shots from the cement.
So then I had to grumpily sit on my backpack while he called his local contacts, only to find no one could pick us up. Luckily there was one guy—a barber or baker or something—who made extra money by meeting the trains to see if anyone needed a taxi, so only an hour later–after two stops to pour water in the radiator–I was sitting at a table in a small dining room in a small house, snacking on potatoes and who knows what else while politely fending off glasses of the local moonshine. Soon after that I was catching some shuteye on a couch next to a stranger, wondering why I wasn’t in Budapest with a beautiful girl I’d met on a previous trip. . .
Finally excitement happened the next day. . . which you can read about next week.


Travel Thursday Snapshots: Djerba, Tunisia

No one told me to put on sunblock before going to bed at night. . .
Sighing heavily, knees creaking as my feet hit the floor, I walked over to the large window behind the bed, the stars of last night replaced by the heavy sunlight that had awakened me. Below the almost-tropical blue sky was a beach, though it had plenty of big rocks, enough to make real surf noise that had probably helped in lulling me to sleep last night, not an easy thing to do when you suffer from both insomnia and apnea. . . plus in this particular instance jetlag.
The scene made it easy to picture Odysseus’ men lazing on the sand while subsisting on lotus flowers, probably that blue water lily I’d seen on my first walk. Often called the “Polynesia of the Mediterranean,” Djerba was an island of palm trees and sandy beaches, along with the inevitable luxury hotels. What made it different than the rest of the Med, as well as the Carib, the Pacific, and basically everywhere else, was that it belonged to a Muslim country, albeit one not all that strict. Off the coast of Tunisia, Djerba not only had pirate castles, ancient synagogues, buildings that were featured in the original Star Wars (those were the droids you were looking for!) and open-air markets full of potters and silversmiths, it also had a casino. . . not that I would be wasting my time gambling, though I did hear there was a game room, with air hockey, Galaxian, skeeball, etc. You know, in case I got bored with all the sun. . .
Which I did, but not before walking what felt like the entire island’s circumference; at least my knees were creaking for an honest reason now. Realizing I was still early for dinner, I took the scenic route back to the hotel; unlike most tourists, I savored the moments amongst the locals, both their festivities and everyday work. How else would I have met so many friendly people, watched some dancers rehearsing for some festival, come across a wedding procession with the bride riding a camel? All soundtracked to melodious flutes and pulse-pounding tambourines.
And then end the day sharing the absolute splendor of a Mediterranean sunset with fishermen still casting their nets at this late hour, though I figured the clock didn’t matter, since fish don’t sleep.
Refreshed and relaxed without having stopped the walking, I wandered back towards the hotel, my mental GPS unerring as usual as I walked through shady gardens of fig, apple, and pomegranate; I’d grown up with a granada tree in the front yard, so I recognized that last fruit easily without wanting to reach up and grab one. Skipping the olive groves, though taking in the gnarled trunks that proved just how old civilization was on this island, I found myself high enough to look out, in the last dregs of post-sunset glow, to what I’d heard called The Island of the Pink Flamingo, as always wondering if it would be worth the trip. . .


Travel Thursday Snapshots: Spokane, Washington

One could hardly be blamed for thinking of rainy Seattle when Washington state was mentioned, but the view all around me was as different as it could get. All the liquid precipitation fell west of the mountains, which was why the coast averaged over ten feet of rain a year while on this other side of the Cascade Range both the ground and the people were much dryer. Here in early fall there was plenty of sun, tons of fresh fruit, and a vast rolling countryside with lots of space for everyone.
But don’t visit in winter. . .
Due to the miracles of modern refrigeration and irrigation, this part of the country was pretty famous for growing a lot of food, but for that same reason, plus all the snow in the winter, it didn’t get many visitors. Amber waves of grain might sound poetic, but to the eye, and camera, they were pretty boring. Most tourists, like most residents, preferred to cluster with the seafood around Puget Sound.
I’d visited this part of the country only once before, during my collegiate sports career, and thought it was high time—whatever that means—to check it out when I wasn’t worried about soccer or Grinch-like soccer coaches. Once here I simply wandered around, going wherever the spirit took me, figuring I might end up somewhere in Montana or Wyoming before I got bored.
Problem was, I was already a little bored, after hours of the same landscape. Still, it would be different once I got to Idaho, since mountains are so much more fun.
But now, as the highway crested the hill, my eyes were filled with the panorama of Spokane, sprawling a lot more than anyone would have thought before seeing it. I’d read there were close to 200,000 inhabitants, but from the view it didn’t look like they were jammed into a small place, and after all it was the major metropolis of a pretty big area, stretching from the Cascades to the Rockies, which for some reason was called the Inland Empire, like there wasn’t already one of those in Southern California, neither of them having monarchs. . .
I sighed at the way my mind worked sometimes and looked for a hotel.
Other than a local college volleyball game, where I spent more time looking at a blonde on the visiting team’s bench, the eastern part of Washington state hadn’t thrilled me on my first day. The next morning brought me to the tourism office, which pushed a “finest old homes” tour that bored me in a hurry, but Manito Park had a Japanese garden where I enjoyed myself for a while, as well as a more formal garden—it had “formal” in the name, after all—with the kind of scenery that had me maxing out a couple of smallish memory cards, so I really couldn’t complain.
For a moment I thought about dropping all the way down to Oregon, thinking of all the shots I’d get of the fall foliage, a sharp contrast to what I was seeing now. The entire Palouse region, between the wooded hills surrounding Spokane to the Blue Mountains—nothing like the Australian version—was full of barren knolls, low but steep. The tourism guy had told me this was the best wheat-growing land in the world, and if it wasn’t just pure homerism then I had to wonder how bored a grad student must have been to think up that study.
Somehow I ended up at the Grand Coolie Dam, which was, as one might expect, the centerpiece of the Grand Coolie Area. Not worried that I’d be missing the “spectacular” laser light shows shown only during the summer, I just stood there and looked up at what had at one time been the largest concrete structure in the world. . . then shook my head and got busy shooting the lakes, which, according to the tourist propaganda, reached north almost to the Canadian border. Before the dam, the Columbia Basin was so barren locals said you had to prime yourself to spit, and jackrabbits had to carry canteens. Definitely hard to believe, the way things looked now, but all the scenes of irrigation sprinklers bubbling happily along and over the wheat, grapes, corn, potatoes, and other stuff I couldn’t identify now made sense.
Realizing I was feeling tired, I remembered something I’d read in the tourism propaganda and dug through the stash. There it was, Soap Lake. I tried really hard—and was only moderately successful—to ignore the part about them having the world’s largest lava lamp, concentrating on the spa of it all. The name of the place, they claimed, came from a local native term for “Healing Waters,” even though in one of the photos I could see the buildup of what really did look like soap right at the water’s edge. The tribes used the lake for healing purposes, even brought their animals, so I figured it was good enough for me. If one of the twenty-three minerals—or more likely a combo of them—in the water and mud didn’t work for me, it wouldn’t be from lack of trying.
A quick meal at a place with wi-fi brought me more info; although I was looking for a good massage spa, I kept getting sidetracked by the science. At least I learned a new word: meromictic, which meant the lake had two layers of water that never mixed. The first layer was over eighty feet of mineral water, while the second was mud, with a stronger mineral composition and concentrations of unusual substances and microscopic life forms. That caused some pause, as I didn’t want any kind of life forms, especially unusual ones, all over me, but then I figured I didn’t need the mud pack as much as the massage. Seeing there were only eleven meromictic lakes in the whole country, I filed that away for the next quirky road trip.
Then I really got excited at the end of the list of minerals present—sodium, chloride, carbonate, sulfate, bicarbonate, etc.—when I read it matched the contents of the water in the Baden-Baden spa in Germany! Having been there and enjoyed it, in fact was one of my fave places in all of Europe, I let out a little chortle as I wondered if this might be just as good a stop as that had been. . . but since I didn’t think I’d be running into any European supermodels here, I doubted it. The waitress looked at me a little funny, but I merely grinned, thinking this would be the highlight of her boring day.
Once there I found references to the lava lamp unavoidable, though I couldn’t help tsking at how some locals didn’t want it, thinking this icon of the 60s would inspire other cultural artifacts of the time, namely drugs and sex. On my trip across the state yesterday I’d passed through Moses Lake and found the description exactly like a friend had told me, and now realized she’d been dead on as to the “moral” aspects as well, though morality was hardly the word I’d use for it. No wonder Martha the Stewardess left this area.
Finally I was having the massage I’d promised myself, followed by a dip in the healing water. I wasn’t about to go for the whole works; the thought of those microscopic critters was still on my mind. Eventually I settled for the therapeutic mineral water bath, foot bath, and biofeedback, though I didn’t expect to need that any time soon. I almost gave in to my curiosity about the detoxifying infrared sauna, but somehow managed to rise above.


Travel Thursday Snapshots: How I Became a St. Kilda Fan

Back in the mid-nineties I was on my first official trip to Australia (official=non-military-related). It was my first time in Melbourne, and I wanted to visit a friend in one of the suburbs despite the rain that wouldn’t let up my entire trip. (Is it any wonder I prefer Sydney?)
So I jump on the tram/trolley/train/whatever and end up sitting next to a lady in her 60s or so, with whom I amuse myself by pretending I’m a local and checking out how well I can do the accent.
When I got to my stop and said goodbye she looked surprised, at which point I realized I’d forgotten the accent. “Bloody Yank!” she laughed and waved as I dropped off, a nice memory as I searched for the right address to find Christina.
A few hours later I was back at the station, though in no hurry, as I had nothing planned for the rest of the day, just wandering downtown. This time I was sitting next to a big blonde guy who would not be out of place in a boxing ring in Russia or Germany, but his cheery “Good day, mate!” left no doubt he was in his natural habitat. We spent the whole ride talking, mostly on the differences between our countries, and then he asked me if I’d ever heard of Australian Rules Football.
Oddly enough I had, which surprised him. I’d actually only caught a glimpse of it on a sports news show, where a player was sitting on the grass with his right kneecap somewhere in the vicinity of his lower shin. The amazing part was that he didn’t seem to be in any pain, simply staring at this weird circumstance. . . until he drops his hand to try to smack the damned patella back into place. Still the strangest sports moment I’ve ever seen. . .
He agreed with a huge laugh, then said he was a player on a local team named St. Kilda—the Saints, as one might expect—and invited me to come watch them practice. Having found the game an interesting mix of soccer, American football, a touch of basketball, and possibly some others, I heartily agreed, and was happy I did when we walked into the stadium and the team manager asked if I wanted to dress up and play, despite not knowing what the hell I would be doing.
So of course I said yes!
It wasn’t easy. The hardest part was getting used to the ball, which was more or less shaped like an American football, but quite a bit bigger. Having been a wide receiver and kicker in high school, I eventually made some good catches, though I had no idea it was okay to whack your opponent in the back or climb all over him. The kicking was a bit more difficult, as I was used to booming it as hard as I could, not aiming at a teammate thirty meters away. The hand passing was hard too, never having seen anything like it. But I was really excited to score a goal, even in practice, because this sport has by far the best scoring salute by a referee.

Oddly enough, in this gif St. Kilda just scored!

Oddly enough, in this gif St. Kilda just scored!

My best moment was going on a long run through the midfield, barely remembering to dribble that silly-shaped giant ball, dodging a few tackles with a couple of spin moves, and then kicking on the run in the general direction of the goal. Turned out to be a forty yarder right over the last defender, and as I tried to slow down I pictured the umpire in my mind with his double-gun salute. . .
It was magical. . .