731 Days Later: My 2 Year Travelversary

It was 2 years ago today, March 13, 2007, that I closed on my house, handed over the keys and began what I mark as the start of my adventure. While I didn’t technically leave the mainland United States till about a month afterward and still had many details to take care of, this date marks the point of no return and is the one I choose to commemorate.

Last night I was walking back to my hostel and I realized something. I was walking down a side street in a foreign land, exotic music playing (there was some sort of celebration going on), smells of grilled meat in the air, old men on the sidewalk smoking their shishas and drinking tea, and women walking about in their hijabs. This was exactly the sort of scene that people dream of being in when traveling. I really didn’t notice. It was just another day for me.

When I began my trip, I was like everyone else who dreamed of traveling. I read books and websites, I made lists, and I awaited for the day to arrived. I spent about six months with my house on the market before it sold. Eventually, everything came together. I found a buyer, found storage, rented a truck for all my crap, got rid of somethings and sold other things. The night before I closed on my house I didn’t sleep because I grossly underestimated the number of boxes I’d need for some things. I had to move the excess stuff to a nearby motel so I could be out in time. I was very tired.

Having previously moved all my stuff to a storage unit near my parents house in Wisconsin (I lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota) I drove to Wisconsin to stay with them for a few weeks while I took care of final business: getting shots, buying bags and clothes, and taking care of insurance. I really didn’t do any packing or actual preparation until I was out of my house. I did everything in about 2 weeks.

I get many questions from people about how to this or that when traveling. The answer to all questions is to just jump in and swim. When you are in a new place where you do not speak the language, you will be forced to figure things out. You really can’t plan for it. At first you might be apprehensive, but eventually you realize that you can get by and many of your worst fears will not pan out. The things you see on the news are not the reality on the street and no matter where you go, it is just full of people going about their lives just like anywhere else.

I am also often asked what I’ve learned while traveling. I’ve given this some thought. Here is what I’ve come up with:

  • I can remember almost everything from the last two years. I can usually pinpoint to within a day or two where I was or when something happened. There are entire events I can’t even peg to the correct year from before I left. Everything sort of blurs together when you do the same thing every day of your life. I’ve have moments where I’ll stare out in space just because I end up with a flood of memories which were spurred by something I just experienced. What I’ve written about on this site is only a fraction of what I’ve done and seen.
  • I’m pretty sure I can do anything. Not that I suffered from a lack of confidence or anything before I left, but when you spend two full years with nothing by your own wits and no one else to fall back on, I can’t say I’m too worried about the future.
  • I don’t worry about little things. I see many people on vacation who flip out over very simple things. Incorrect change, miss communication, etc. I don’t get worked up over things I have no control over. (the only exception is the delay in getting my new website up because my web designers decide to just cease communication with me for weeks at a time). I had to spend a week in Samoa once because I missed my flight to Tonga. Oh well.
  • What you see on TV is a lie. The news media likes to sell sensationalism. Boring doesn’t sell. Most of the world is boring. It is people going about the business of living. The result is that people are terrified of places they only know about from the bad news on TV. Murders and disasters in their backyard as dismissed, but the same things elsewhere are exaggerated. Even in war zones, if you do the math, the odds of anything happening to you would be well less than 1%.

So what does the future hold for me?

I am often asked how long I’ll be traveling for. The answer I’m giving is: forever. I have every intention of making this into a career. That doesn’t mean I’ll be on the road non-stop for the rest of my life, but do plan on keeping this site and what I’m doing going indefinitely. I’ve begun talking to several book publishers and have a fairly solid plan for what I’m going to be writing. I also will be opening up my photography for sales in the near future. I also hope to be doing speaking engagements once I get back to the US.

I will not be gone for two years stretches at a time anymore. I’m planning on taking 3-5 month trips to different countries and regions like China, India, Russia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Those trips would be huge trips for most people, but having done this trip, I think I could do 3 months standing on my head. Doing shorter trips will allow me to focus more on taking photos and video and processing it all when I’m doing. Currently, I have to process everything on the road.

I’m also interested in timing my trips to coincide with certain events. I have been traveling without real thought to when I’ll be in a place. I’d like to go be in Rio for Carnival, I’d like to be in Spain for the running of the bulls.

I will also travel with someone else and do more video and podcasting. I’ve put this on hold until I can do it properly. I don’t see any point in doing something half-assed on a schedule I can’t keep. Expect a few podcasts to dribble out in Europe if I can find someone to help with the camera work. I have no idea who I’ll travel with. On Twitter I made a joke about doing something like the “Worlds Best Job” contest but make it the “Worlds Worst Job” because you’d have to travel with me :) Surprisingly, my joke got a lot of serious responses.

I’m also going to explore North America. The more of the world I see the more I realize that there are a lot of amazing things to see next door. I plan on taking a road trip out west sometime this summer and visit Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, both of which I’ve never been to. I’d also like to spend more than a day in Yellowstone, which is all I’ve been able to see of the park.

The final thing I want to do is to meet with more people while I’m on the road. As more and more people discover me and what I’m doing, the greater the number of people I can meet while traveling. I could have met up with many people in Japan or the Philippines if I had only known about them when I was there. A second trip to those countries would be a totally different experience now.

As for the next few months, I’m undecided as to what I’m going to do. My initial plan was to get back to the US sometime around March/April after going through Europe. Clearly that isn’t going to happen. I still want to spend 3-4months in the US before setting out again later in 2009. It will be a matter of how much of Europe I want to go through before I do that. I’m considering going to London directly from Rome and leave most of Europe for a future trip.

So that is my rambling annual State of the Trip report. I thank everyone for following along and for all the emails and messages I get everyday. I do appreciate it.

How Many Countries Are There?

I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night.  This is my only photo.
I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night. This is my only photo.

If you have traveled heavily, you have probably tried to convey the extent of your travels by condensing it down to a single number. It might be the number of countries you’ve visited or the number of states or provinces in your country you have been to.

Answering the question “how many countries have you been to?” is not as straight forwards as it may appear. While many places are obvious, the definition can sometimes be slippery and broader than you might think.

The United Nations

A good place to start any list of countries is with the UN. The United Nations is a body of 192 sovereign independent nation states. This covers everything you probably first think of as a country. Canada, Bolivia, Germany, Botswana, Malaysia, etc. Most of the big spots on the map can be filled in with countries which are members of the United Nations. The only country which is generally recognized as an independent nation but is not in the UN would be Vatican City, which has observer status at the UN. That would put the list at 193.

I was in Kiribati for several hours. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled
This was all I saw of Kiribati. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled.

The UN doesn’t cover everything, however. If you watched the opening ceremony at the Olympics, you will have noticed that over 200 countries were represented. 200 is greater than 193, and the Vatican doesn’t have an Olympic team (but it would be kind of cool if it did). This leads us to…

International Olympic Committee

There are 205 members of the IOC. The difference between the UN and the IOC is that the IOC includes several non-independent countries which are usually considered a territory of a larger country. This includes such places as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Cook Island and the British Virgin Islands. The IOC also includes Taiwan (known in the IOC as Chinese Taipei) which is not a member of the UN.

If you merge the list of the UN and the IOC, you still have some issues. Hong Kong is part of the IOC, but Macau isn’t. American territories have independent status in the IOC, but French territories such as French Polynesia do not. Antarctica isn’t represented on either list, but it is an entire continent you can visit. We need a bigger list.

There is also another problem. The United States has 50 states, but there are obvious differences between Hawaii and Kansas. Not only are Alaska and Hawaii geographically separate from the rest of the US, but they have different histories and cultures than the rest of the country. If you have been to Hawaii, have you been to the United States? In a certain sense yes. Hawaii is one of the 50 states. In another sense, no, going to Hawaii isn’t the same as going to Kansas. In countries like Indonesia, you have thousands of islands which cover many different ethnic groups and languages. Is going to Vladivostok the same as going to St. Petersburg? Not really.

I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time
I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time

Travel isn’t just setting foot in political jurisdictions. Cultural and geographic distinctions are important as well, even if they are lumped in the same political entity. To solve this issue, enter….

The Travelers Century Club

The Travelers Century Club has taken it upon themselves to create a definitive list of “countries” for the purpose of travel. They not only include all of the above places, but also split off Alaska and Hawaii, Siberia from the rest of Russia, all the Emirates in the United Arab Emirates, the major island groups of Indonesia, the nations of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales), Tasmania and the rest of Australia, etc. Their list has 319 “countries”, and I put countries in quotes because most of them do not meet most people’s definition of a country.

This is the list I use on my website. I think it is a reasonable list which is covers most of the “places” on Earth. I do have some disagreements, but ultimately any list is sort of arbitrary and my disagreements are small enough that I still feel comfortable using it. Every so often I get an email from someone telling me that Hawaii isn’t a country (duh) or reminding me that Tasmania is part of Australia. I know that, but that isn’t really capturing the spirit of the list.

Where do you go once you’ve been to every place on the TCC list? That was answered by Charles Veley and…

Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.
Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.

MostTraveledPeople.com

Charles Veley is the self proclaimed “Most traveled person on Earth”. Actually, I have no reason to quibble with that title. He put in a helluva lot of effort into completing the TCC list and then set out for more. His website, MostTraveledPeople.com goes every further than the TCC and lists every US state, Canadian province, and region of Russia, Australia, China, and Brazil. It also goes the added step of merging the ham radio DXCC list, which is where the list begins to lose me. They list 757 places, of which I’ve been to 341 (as of 2016). A large number of the places they list I have no desire to ever visit. It focuses too much on uninhabited islands, exclaves and enclaves. For example, it lists Johnson Atoll, which is a territory of the United States in the Pacific. There is nothing special about this place. No one ever lived there. It has no history, culture, or anything interesting about it from a natural standpoint. It is just a place which is only remarkable because of its odd political status. If it were given to Hawaii, nothing about the atoll itself would change, but it would probably be removed from the list. There are a bunch of these rocks in the middle of nowhere which get listed. I really see no reason why every speck of island in the world doesn’t deserve listing if these places do. It might be interesting for ham radio operators to talk to someone from there, but as a travel destination, it isn’t worth anything.

To me, a place is a place because it has some significance. It could be political (see the UN list), it could be cultural, historic, or natural. That is why in my sidebar I also list:

Visiting Historic Nara isnt the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan
Visiting Historic Nara isn't the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There are 1,031 World Heritage Sites and there are more every year. Going to see the pyramids is different than just having set foot in Egypt. Seeing the Grand Canyon is different than having an overnight stay in LA. Not all countries are equal in that respect. Some countries with long histories have more sites than others. The US and Canada do not have much in the way of cultural sites compared to Italy or China. Ultimately I like this better than a country list because it represents specific things and places with a reason for each one. Also, unlike countries, you usually don’t just pass through a World Heritage site like you might pass through a country on a train or in an airport. If you visit one you probably went there to see it. The problem is most people have no clue how many they have been to and have no idea how many there are. They are also much more difficult to visit. Going to the Solomon Islands is one type of difficult. Going to the east end of Rennell Island World Heritage site is a totally different type of hard.

I should also make note of one other list which is sort of fun….

The Hillman Wonders of the World

Howard Hillman is a writer who has compiled a list of the top 100 and top 1,000 wonders of the world. I’ve decided to put this on my sidebar as well because I think it is a fun list. It is in the same spirit as the World Heritage list but includes things like city skylines, cruises, and drives. I think seeing the skyline of Hong Kong from Kowloon was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, but it will never be on a UNESCO list. I have currently been to 27 of the top 100 and should increase that significantly in the next year.

So, once again I ask you the question: How many countries have you been to?

Final Thoughts on Dubai

Burj al Arab is the best known landmark in Dubai
Burj al Arab is the best known landmark in Dubai

To say that Dubai is unique would be an understatement. To capture what is going on in Dubai you have to realize that the amount of growth and construction which Dubai has seen in the last 10 years is probably without precedent in human history. While many cities have undergone construction booms, there are few times where a city so large has sprang up from nothing. Even in cases where planned city has been created by a emperor or pharaoh, they didn’t have the construction techniques available today. A city like Shanghai which has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade has been a major city for over a hundred years. Planned cities like Brasilia, Canberra or Washington took much longer to create much less. Modern Dubai was born fully formed from the desert.

I initially compared Dubai to Las Vegas. The similarities are obvious; a new city with lots of construction which emerged from nothing out of the desert. However, the analogy is superficial at best. If you have been to Vegas a few times, you can probably name all the major construction projects in the past decade. Many of the new casinos have replaced old ones, which were the original buildings on the space now occupied. It is almost impossible to count the buildings which have been constructed and are being constructed in Dubai. All of the Vegas strip could easily be contained in any of the numerous large scale city projects underway in Dubai.

Lots and lots and lots of cranes in Dubai
Lots and lots and lots of cranes in Dubai

Before I arrived in Dubai, I had heard that 25% of all the construction cranes in the world were in Dubai. From my window I could count about 25 in the Downtown Dubai area near the Burj Dubai. I figured it was an exaggeration. As I explored more of Dubai, I had a hard time believing just what I was seeing. There were probably 50 cranes in just the Palm Jurmeiah area. (The Palm is a giant artificial island off the shore of Dubai which can be seen from space. It is the smallest of three planned Palm projects). On the way to Oman I saw many other construction projects which had anywhere from 8-12 cranes. To give you an idea, I probably didn’t see more than 3 cranes in Jakarta and Manilla combined. Most of the other large cities I’ve been in didn’t have many cranes either. Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong may have had some new buildings in the works, but those usually only require a crane or two. The closest I’ve seen in terms of construction (and it isn’t even close) was Macau.

Dubai is a city of contradictions. One one hand, people and goods probably flow more freely in Dubai than anywhere else on Earth. The immigration process at the airport was the easiest I’ve encountered in the world. I didn’t even have to fill out an immigration/customs card. The many free zones in Dubai are perhaps the purest form of capitalism in the world. Almost nothing in the way of regulation with a small, efficient government which will bend over backwards to make sure what needs to get done will get done. There are no personal or corporate income taxes in free zones.

Prior to the discover of oil, Dubai was a trading center centered around the creek
Prior to the discover of oil, Dubai was a trading center centered around the creek

On the other hand, they censor the internet. In addition to things like pornography sites (which I can at least understand even if I disagree with it), they blocked Flickr and I’ve been told in the past they have blocked Twitter, YouTube, and other innocuous sites. A British woman was recently found guilty of adultery and was sentenced to three months in prison. One man was recently imprisoned for having an amount of marijuana on his shoe the size of a grain of sand. (Did you know that there are minute traces of cocaine is almost all US currency? If you take drug laws to that absurd level, almost anyone with a dollar bill is a guilty of possession of drugs. Silly I know, but can you prove you don’t have some tiny trace of drugs stuck to the bottom of your shoe?)

As an American, I am always a bit suspicious of monarchies. When you read a newspaper report that talks about the monarch in glowing terms, you can’t help but roll your eyes. A good example of that is what you see in Brunei. I saw several things like that, including the front page of the sports section of the newspaper which had story dedicated to a victory by the Emir in an endurance horse racing competition in Bahrain. Yet, Dubai didn’t happen by accident. Modern Dubai was a purposeful, planned creation of the Dubai ruling family going back almost 50 years. Oil was discovered in the mid-60’s in Dubai, and there wasn’t much of it. Unlike more countries who’s rules squander the revenue brought in by oil, Dubai invested the oil revenue to prepare for the day when there wouldn’t be any oil. It was bold, risky and brilliant. One of the best quotes I’ve read about Dubai came from Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who said

“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel”

Once you leave the city, it is nothing but sand
Once you leave the city, it is nothing but sand

I’ve read several books on Dubai since I arrived and based on everything I’ve read the current ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammad bid Rasheed al Maktoum is actually a pretty smart guy and knows what is in tune with what is going on in Dubai. The problem with monarchies is it only takes one generation to destroy a dynasty. Even if he and the crown prince and safely navigate Dubai for the next several decades, it only takes one grandson or great-grandson to screw everything up.

There has been a great deal of effort to turn Dubai into a tourist destination. For the most part they have focused on the ultra-high end market. You are lucky to find a hotel room for under $100/night, with most hotels going many times beyond that. All the malls I visited were focused on high end luxury brands. The fact is, there isn’t much to see or do in Dubai as a tourist other than shop. There are beaches, but honestly, if I wanted to go to the beach, I can think of a hundred places I’d rather go than Dubai. Witnessing all the construction is pretty neat, but that will disappear in a few years. While in Dubai, I didn’t meet many Arabs. I saw them at the mall and driving cars, but I can’t say I had an interaction with any Emaratis outside of the creek area and the Gold Souq. Every person you interact with in hotels, restaurants, stores and taxis are either Filipino or South Asian.

Dubai skyline at night
Dubai skyline at night

I was pretty excited about Dubai when I arrived and when I left I was more than ready to leave. I didn’t have a negative or bad experience, it was just sort of lukewarm. It is like a large American city in many respects. You have to drive to get anywhere, there are tons of malls and subdivision projects. There are planned meet and greets where you can talk to local Emarati, but the fact that you have to go to a concocted event to do that is rather telling. With the exception of signs in Arabic, you could easily think you were in a western country.

Should you visit Dubai? The only reason I can see visiting to Dubai right now is to witness the spectacle which is the construction boom. It is something unprecedented in history and will probably be over in 5-10 years. It is pretty cool. They have plans for a Disney World type attraction — DubaiLand — but I’d wait and see if they can really pull that off. If seeing a bunch of buildings and construction cranes doesn’t interest you, then Dubai probably isn’t for you. My recommendation: fly into Dubai, spend 2-3 days there and then go visit Oman.

Luxor and Celiacs Disease

I’ve arrived in Luxor. Today I was planning on visiting the Luxor and Karnak Temples. Instead I spent the entire day in my room sleeping. I felt horrible this morning. The cough I had gotten in Alexandria came back with a vengeance and to 20 hour days in a row wiped me out. Outside of eating a light lunch, I didn’t leave my room until 7pm. I’m still not 100% but I’m much better than I was in the morning. I’m still really tired and will probably sleep well tonight.

I also think with 95% certainty that I have Celiacs Disease which is probably one of the reasons I feel horrible right now. Despite the dramatic name, Celiacs is just an inability to process the gluten protein in wheat. I’ve been having serious stomach pains for years and I never knew what the cause was. Sometimes the pain would be so sharp in my stomach I couldn’t sleep. Eventually it would pass as the food worked its way though my body. I knew it was dietary but I always thought it was eggs or dairy or something. When I came across the symptoms of Celiacs Disease it fit perfectly.

I hadn’t had stomach pains for months while I was in Asia but they came back with a vengeance when I arrived in Dubai. I hadn’t been eating much wheat in Asia and now I was in a place that had lots of bread. I changed my diet to see if this was the case. I removed all wheat from my diet for several weeks and the symptoms disappeared. I felt great. When I did eat small amounts of bread I’d feel things going on in my digestive track. Last night for the first time in months I had a beer and ate some crumb cake and some chicken with breading. That was enough to set it off.

It really sort of sucks for traveling. It means no flat bread in the Middle East, no pasta in Italy, no bread in France and no fish and chips in the UK (the batter on the fish). It also eliminates most desserts, all sandwiches, beer, many fried foods and even gravy because it has flour in it. It is something I’ll have to do for the rest of my life or deal with the abdominal consequences, which you really don’t want me to go into here. Potatoes and rice are fine as are all vegetables and animal products.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there wasn’t some benefits to this diet. Removing most fried foods, hamburgers and desserts is probably a good thing. The only things I can really eat in most fast food restaurants now are salads and french fries.

Tomorrow I have to leave the boat and will be moving to a hostel and I hope will get to visit Luxor and Karnak. The day after I’ll go check out the valley of the kings.

Now that I am a disease sufferer, you should cast a pity vote for me in the 2009 Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards. I am nominated in the Best Travelogue and Best Image Blog category. It only takes a few seconds and there is no registration. Think of it as something like a “make-a-wish” program for a blogger.

Aswan

I seriously wish I had left Cairo sooner and come to Aswan. It is cleaner, not nearly as busy, you aren’t accosted as much, and it is much warmer. I have actually gotten some of my tan back and was able to wear shorts and sandals for the first time in two months.

I’ve been very busy since I arrived. After a 14-hour overnight train ride from Cairo, where I barely slept, within a few hours, I was on a bus going to see the Aswan High Dam and the Philae Temple. The dam wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be. It is a big dam and its significance being on the Nile makes it really important, but it wasn’t much to look at. Soviet construction seldom is.

Philae Temple was very impressive, however. It was moved piece by piece in 1977-80 by UNESCO after having been flooded by the original Aswan Low Dam in 1902. Unlike the pyramids, Philae had all the trapping of what you expect from Egypt. Hieroglyphs and carvings of Pharaohs. The temple didn’t just show signs of ancient Egyptians. All of the images of humans had by carved over by Coptic Christians in the 4th century. You can still see crosses in the stone and an altar inside the temple. When Napoleon invaded, he had academics go to Philae and carve a large inscription into the wall in French. There are also tons of 19th Century British graffiti carved in everything.

Yesterday I wasn’t planning on doing anything because I was still tired from the train ride and had to wake up extremely early the next day to go to Abu Simbel. I ended up with an offer for a free felucca trip on the Nile, so I grabbed my camera and went. There was no wind, so we took forever to cross the river. I took the opportunity to take the zip-off legs off my pants and get some sun. I got the explore the very crowded botanical garden for about 30 min before we switched boats and went to Elephantine Island. Unfortunately, it took so long to cross the river, by the time we got there it was closed. Oh well, you get what you pay for.

This morning I woke up at 2:45 am to go to Abu Simbel. It is 275km from Aswan and you have to leave with every other bus in the city in a big caravan. This is done to reduce the risk of kidnappings in the largely desolate stretch between Aswan and Abu Simbel. Arriving there in the morning was like being at the Disneyland when the gates opened. There were hundreds of people there. Like Philae, Abu Simbel was moved from its previous location because it would have been flooded by the waters of Lake Nassar.

Between everything, I saw I probably took close to 400 photos. It is going to take a while to get through everything.

Tomorrow I’m taking a cruise aboard a ship from Aswan to Luxor, with stops at several temples along the way. From everything everyone has told me, the temples at Luxor are really the best in Egypt. I will need to set aside some time after Luxor to go through my photos. I’ll have a lot and I don’t want to get too far behind. Because of the quality of the internet connection in Aswan, I did manage to upload all my photos from the Gulf, so I got that going for me.

Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun

World Heritage Site #55: Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun
Qal’at al-Bahrain – Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun: My 55th UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun:

Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun is an archaeological site comprising four main elements: an archaeological tell (an artificial hill formed over time by successive occupations) of over 16 hectares, immediately adjacent to the northern coast of Bahrain; a sea tower about 1600m North-West of the tell; a sea channel of just under 16 hectares through the reef near the sea tower, and palm-groves. The palm-groves and traditional agricultural gardens surround the site within the whole area of the land component of the buffer zone, being particularly noticeable on the Western and Northern sides, but also occurring on the Eastern and South-Eastern sides. The property is situated in the Northern Governorate, in Al Qalah village district on the northern coast about 5.5 km West of Manama, the present capital of Bahrain.

Qal’at al-Bahrain is an exceptional example of more or less unbroken continuity of occupation over a period of almost 4500 years, from about 2300 BC to the present, on the island of Bahrain. The archaeological tell, the largest known in Bahrain, is unique within the entire region of Eastern Arabia and the Persian Gulf as the most complete example currently known of a deep and intact stratigraphic sequence covering the majority of time periods in Bahrain and the Persian Gulf. It provides an outstanding example of the might of Dilmun, and its successors during the Tylos and Islamic periods, as expressed by their control of trade through the Persian Gulf. These qualities are manifested in the monumental and defensive architecture of the site, the wonderfully preserved urban fabric and the outstandingly significant finds made by archaeologists excavating the tell. The sea tower, probably an ancient lighthouse, is unique in the region as an example of ancient maritime architecture and the adjacent sea channel demonstrates the tremendous importance of this city in maritime trade routes throughout antiquity. Qal’at al-Bahrain, considered as the capital of the ancient Dilmun Empire and the original harbour of this long since disappeared civilisation, was the centre of commercial activities linking the traditional agriculture of the land (represented by the traditional palm-groves and gardens which date back to antiquity and still exist around the site) with maritime trade between such diverse areas as the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia in the early period (from the 3rd millennium BC to the 1st millennium BC) and China and the Mediterranean in the later period (from the 3rd to the 16th century AD). Acting as the hub for economic exchange, Qal’at al-Bahrain had a very active commercial and political presence throughout the entire region. The meeting of different cultures which resulted is expressed in the testimony of the successive monumental and defensive architecture of the site including an excavated coastal fortress dating from around the 3rd century AD and the large fortress on the tell itself dating from the 16th century which gives the site its name as Qal’at al-Bahrain, together with the wonderfully preserved urban fabric and the outstandingly significant and diverse finds demonstrating a mélange of languages, cultures and beliefs. For example, a madbasa (an architectural element used to produce date syrup) within the tell is one of the oldest in the world and reflects a link to the surrounding date palm-groves, demonstrating the continuity of traditional agricultural practices from the 1st millennium BC. The site, situated in a very strategic location, was an extremely significant part of the regional Gulf political network, playing a very active political role through many different time periods, which left traces throughout the different strata of the tell. Qal’at al-Bahrain is a unique example of a surviving ancient landscape with cultural and natural elements.

Qal’at al-Bahrain

Bahrain isn’t a very big country. You could probably drive from end-to-end the long way in an hour. Despite its size, it has been a historically significant port. The image above is of the old ruins of the Qal’at al-Bahrain: Ancient Harbour and Capital of Dilmun. Just on the other side of these ruins, not in camera, are the ruins of an old Portuguese fort which was on the site. There is also a museum on the site which is the best cultural center I’ve seen in the Gulf.

Overview

Qal’at al-BahrainQal’at al-Bahrain is a ruin of a Portuguese fort in Bahrain. It is also known as Bahrain Fort or Portugal Fort. This is also an archaeological site, hence it was named as a culturally important site as part of the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bahrain in 2005. Since 1954, there have been plenty of archaeological excavations at the site through artificial mounds that measure up to 12 meters in height. Each mound contains up to 7 stratified layers that unearthed various antiquities beneath them as part of the excavation works.

These mounds were believed to have been created by the former settlers on the site. These settlements were dated back to 2300 BC until the 18th century. The various settlers in the area included Greeks, Persians, and Portuguese. The site also served as part of the capital of the Dilmun Civilization during this prehistoric era.

History of Qal’at al-Bahrain

The Portuguese Fort or Qal’at al-Bahrain was built in the 16th century. There are three strongholds that make up this fort along with two towers in the middle (or what is left of it). The fort is surrounded by walls that link these strongholds together. Meanwhile, the fort is also surrounded by a trench.

Qal’at al-Bahrain

The fort is located along the northern coast in the city of Manana within an open gulf. This fort was created during the time of Portuguese invasion of Bahrain in the 16th century. The main base of the Portuguese at that time was located in Hormuz. However, they built this fort after taking control of the islands of Bahrain to dominate trade activity within the Persian Gulf.

The fort served as reminder how the Portuguese occupied Bahrain under the command of D. Antao de Noronha. It was in 1602 when the Portuguese were driven out of Bahrain by the forces of Shah Abbas.

Excavations and Archaeological Interest

Qal’at al-Bahrain is made of artificial mounds that have built up over years and years of human occupation on the site. For this reason, it has been the site of archaeological interest, especially after it was named as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bahrain. It is believed that only about 25% of the entire site has been successfully excavated and different types of structures could still be unearthed. In fact, archaeologists have been able to recover a wide range of structures and materials from the site which vary in terms of use including military, residential, public and religious applications.

One of the most distinctive objects that had been unearthed in one of the walls of the fort is Barbar pottery. These pottery items date back to the same time as the Barbar temples. However, there are also other pottery objects that had been dated to originate way before the temples. There are also copper and ivory items that were excavated that point to a potential ancient trade link. Other items that had been found so far include fishing tools, copper pieces, mirror, sarcophagi and more.


View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bahrain.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 6:45 pm

Visiting the Big Island of Hawaii

Avid Everything Everywhere reader Danyelle Overbo provided today’s guest post on her trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. Her experience on the Big Island was very different than mine, which just goes to show that different people can have totally different experiences in the same place. I had the luxury of visiting the Big Island for the first time with a geology group from the University of Minnesota, so I was able to see it in a different light than most people.

Hello fellow readers of Gary’s wonderful travel blog Everything Everywhere! When I read that Gary wanted guest bloggers to help out, I jumped at the chance to be a part of his great undertaking. Now, I haven’t been to nearly as many places as Gary, but I did have a little adventure of my own on the Big Island of Hawaii during a week long vacation there from March 22-29 last year. I asked to write about it because I wanted to share my experiences as they were not the same as Gary’s. They weren’t entirely positive. I’ll try to be as accurate as possible about the specific places and times I was there.

The trip started off with a full day of airplane travel. I flew out with my family from the Las Vegas, NV airport on Hawaiian Airlines early Saturday the 22nd. It was a five and a half hour flight from there to Honolulu. Right off the plane we headed to the gate at the airport for the small plane that would take us to the Big Island. It was dirty and smelly and we waited there for hours with only a little bar and a snack stand for food. Once past the gate there were no shops or anything. Just a big dirty room we sat in for hours.

In order to get around the Big Island, you need to rent a car. It is named the Big Island for a reason. It’s huge. The drive, going across the island on the bumpiest road I’ve ever been on in my life, is a good 4 hours. The road around the island and from the airport is better kept, though longer. However, to get from Kona to Hilo on the better road is still only 3.5 – 4 hours since the road across the island isn’t well taken care of. This is a big downside for a vacation. Going back and forth across the island at least three times, I calculated at the end of the trip a total of at least17 hours spent driving in the car alone. That doesn’t include the normal day to day driving around we did either.

I stayed in a time share in Kona-Kailua. There are a few things you should know about Kona before you stay there. First off, let me say, that this was still Hawaii, so the weather the entire trip was incredible. It was warm and humid, but not too humid, and it only rained a couple times I was there. Even the rain is beautiful. I loved the weather. With that out of the way, let me describe Kona-Kailua. It is a tourist spot, no doubt about it. There are lovely shops, but nothing authentic. Everything is made for tourists. There are tons of great restaurants, I remember there being an Outback and Bubba Gump Shrimp along with a smaller sushi place and more, a supply shop to rent gear from in the middle of the shop area next to Outback Steakhouse with a huge pool in the back for scuba lessons, clothing shops, jewelry shops, a huge gallery of art store with beautiful and extremely expensive island art, two tattoo parlors that I saw, and tons of souvenir shops. The thing to remember though is that everything closes very early in the evenings. There wasn’t anything to do at night at all. I suppose if you are over 21 there are bars, but that’s it. At least while I was there in March anyway. Kona also has all the regular city stuff, blockbuster, IHOP, etc., but the place you mean when you say “I stayed in Kona” is the little area on Kailua Bay where all these shops are.

The other thing to know about Kona, and the Big Island in general, is that there are very few beaches. What I mean is that the damn things are small and scattered all over. It’s not how you’d picture Hawaii, miles of beautiful, bright blue waters with white sandy beaches. There are barely any beaches at all around Kona. I spend a total of 3 ½ hours on a beach the entire week I was in Hawaii. Partly, this was my group’s fault as we never made it to the northeast part of the Island with all the expensive shops where, I was told, had some lengths of beach. We also never made it to the black sand beach. If you do go, and you want to visit this, make it a priority because driving to and from it is a trip on its own and, as I said above, we’d spent enough time driving around. The one beach we spent time on is one of the tiny, wave-crashing, overcrowded beaches in Kona-Kailua called Magic Sands beach. It was small and, apart from the water being warmer and bluer, it was no different from any beach I’ve been to in California, except maybe smaller.

The first day I was there we all walked along the shops and, in addition to the regular shops, there is a great little outdoor market set up in the mornings. It isn’t every morning, I forget how often it was there, but it was there a good number of mornings. A bunch of stalls are set up like an outdoor swamp meet and you can go and buy tons of things. There was a lot of fantastic fruit for really cheap sold by the local farmers there along with clothing stalls, jewelry stalls, tacky souvenir stalls selling the same stuff as the shops like wooden bookmarks and ukuleles. I got a dress I really love at one of these stalls.

Wherever you are in Hawaii, no matter the island, you must experience a luau. I went to a great luau at the King Kamehameha hotel. There was great food, leis made of fresh flowers (for an extra fee), and great entertainment. The one I was at had dancers from all different islands in the area, even Maori dancers from New Zealand, doing performances.

I had two snorkeling experiences, one good and one terrible. We rented our own snorkeling gear one day and drove to this beautiful, pristine bay that the place we rented from told us about. Now, I looked up places to snorkel online and its not there. It was a bit of a drive from Kailua-Kona, it didn’t have a beach, and it didn’t have any boat docks. I would highly recommend renting your own gear and finding a recommended bay from locals and diving right in. This was the highlight of my trip. The other time we went snorkeling, it was a paid for tour, traveling to a spot by boat with a big group, and it was terrible. They took us to a part of the island where its some sort of preserve, they mentioned something about it being set aside for the children of the island. We had a tiny rectangle of space between the boat and the waves crashing dangerously onto the rocky shore in which to snorkel. I could literally watch the fish being swept back and forth as the waves moved. I’ve never gotten sea sick in the water before, but here I did.

The last experience I want to talk about is visiting the volcano on the Big Island. By far, this was the biggest waste of time of the entire trip, including the day we drove all the way to Hilo only to find out that the path to the waterfalls was closed. The hikes in the volcano park are really beautiful. You can look down into the crater from one of them, which is impressive. You can hike down into the crater in one long hike, and there is some beautiful rainforest to see. That being said, rainforest is rainforest. While beautiful, it’s not exactly exciting to stare at all day long. Really, the reason to go is to see the lava flow! Well, this isn’t always possible as lava isn’t exactly controllable. After hiking around the park, we were directed to another area, far away, where they were letting people walk to to see the lava drop off into the ocean. To make a long story short, hours of driving and waiting for the path to open up later, we got to hike to the cliff and look at a tiny speck of bright lava flowing into the ocean through a telescope.

If you have any questions about my trip feel free to email me. There was lots of stuff I couldn’t cover. I had some good times there too!

Traveling in Malta

Today’s guest post is from Linda Martin of the Indie Travel Podcast. The Indie Travel Podcast is has been nominated in the 2009 Lonely Planet awards for Best Travel Podcast.

When travellers think about where to visit in Europe, Malta isn’t usually top of the list. In fact, I’d never considered Malta as a destination until I accepted a job there – I’d barely even heard of it.

Malta’s a tiny country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, almost due south of Italy. It comprises three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo and tiny Comino. It’s a major destination for European tourists in summer, when the days are long and the sun is always shining.

The weather is enough of a draw for most people, but Malta has a lot more to offer than cloudless days and packed beaches. Due to its strategic location between Africa and Europe, it played a vital role in the Second World War, for which it was awarded the St George’s Cross which now adorns its national flag.

Malta appears again and again as you look backwards in the history books – there was the Great Siege in the middle ages, and St Paul was shipwrecked there at the start of the common era. These events are recorded in the living rock the islands are formed of – Valletta, the capital, is a fortress dating from the Great Siege, and you can visit the cave where St Paul sheltered. But the most interesting of these rocky memorials are those that date from prehistory – the stone temples of Malta’s first inhabitants.

The oldest free-standing structures in the world are thought to have been built by giants – and are named Gigantija accordingly. The Gigantija temples were built on Gozo in 6000BC – before Stonehenge or the Pyramids.

The Hagar Qim hypogeum is another major historical attraction. This underground temple is a network of rooms that’s carefully preserved against damage – only eight people are allowed to enter every hour, and that’s with a guide. It’s worth booking in advance, especially in summer. It’s amazing to see the well-preserved space where religious ceremonies were performed 6000 years ago.

If you’re not a history buff, and you’d prefer to sample the nightlife and the food, Malta has something for you as well. While Valletta all but closes after dark, you can head to the party district of Paceville and dance until dawn. Prices are starting to rise a bit after Malta converted to the Euro last year, but drink is plentiful and inexpensive.

Malta isn’t known for its cuisine, but there are a couple of local specialities you should try. Gozitan cheese, and Maltese cheese for that matter, is varied and incredibly tasty, and if you’ve never eaten rabbit, Malta is the place to try it. My favourite Maltese food though, is the ubiquitous pastizzi – a hand-sized pastry filled with ricotta or mushy peas. And they’re incredibly good value. But beware – if you have one, you’ll go back for more.

My favourite memory of Malta, though, is travelling around on the rickety old yellow and orange buses. Most are imported from the UK, and no two are alike – if they aren’t completely different makes, they’re personalised by the driver with flags, photos or religious
icons. It might take you a while to get to where you’re going on these buses, but the fares are cheap, and it’s a great, if bumpy, way to see the country.

So if you’re choosing a European destination for your summer holiday this year, Malta’s a good choice – soak up the sun and a little history, and gorge yourself on pastizzi.

The Palace of Knossos, Greece

While I’m off running around Upper Egypt, I’ve lined up some other travelers to do some guest posts. Today’s article is by Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler Podcast, one of the most widely listened to travel podcast on the internet. I was interviewed by Chris on Episode 128 on my experience in Micronesia. Chris is one of the finalists for the 2009 Travel Podcast of the Year on Lonely Planet.

Place of Knossos
Place of Knossos

One of the treats of a trip to Crete last Summer was a stop at the ruins of Palace of Knossos on Crete near Heraklion, Greece. Knossos is a ruin from the Minoan civilization which is the oldest civilization in Europe. The palace itself was built between 1700 and 1400 B.C. This is the palace that was reported to be the home of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth according to Roman mythology. But it seems that the Romans may have misunderstood some sort of athletic event involving a bull and a ceremonial double bladed ax called a labrys.

Our Guide

Our Guide

Or at least that is the story we learned from our English speaking guide. Hiring a guide definitely made visiting Knossos much more enjoyable. We visited in May which is before the crush of tourists and we had not arranged a guide ahead of time. It was fairly simple to sign up for an English speaking guide. We did have to wait while the guide got a group together of sufficient size.

Place of Knossos

Palace of Knossos

One of the things that became very apparent when you are looking at the site through the eyes of a trained guide is that all is not as it appears. The style of archeology practiced by the English archeologist Arthur Evans when he started to excavate in 1900 would make more modern archeologists cringe. Much of what you see is from Evans imagination as much as from his discovery. He reconstructed a number of things on the site with concrete so that you could see what at least he thought it looked like. He had artists repaint the throne room in a fashion that he thought would have matched the art of the time.

The ruins included a bath tub, a closed sewer system and a flush toilet of a sort. Not all the world has gotten to that level of sophisticated plumbing yet and the Minoans had it over 3 millennia ago.

Place of Knossos

Palace of Knossos

The ability to walk around structures from a civilization that the ancient greeks considered old is a wonderful treat. It appears that the downfall of the Minoans was the eruption of the nearby island volcano of Santorini. The resulting earthquake shook Crete but even more seriously a tidal wave sunk the Minoan fleet and left them at the mercy of the Mycenaeans.

Chris Christensen is the host of the Amateur Traveler podcast which focuses on the best places to travel