My 12 Hour Visa

Once upon a time there was city in Germany called Berlin, and it had been divided into two sections, East Berlin and West Berlin, thanks to the Soviets not wanting the East Germans to escape into a free and prosperous Western society. A 12’ tall concrete wall had been erected around West Berlin, effectively closing it off to the world. However, a handful of entry/exit points along The Wall allowed people, including backpackers like me, to come and go from the city.

As a college kid studying in Switzerland and traveling around Europe for the summer, I had been using the economical and practical Eurail Train Pass to traverse back and forth across the continent with my friends. We tried to spend one night a week sleeping on a train in order to save spending our precious dollars on youth hostel accommodations.

On one such warm summer night, our train left Copenhagen, Denmark and headed towards our destination: East Berlin, the “scary Communist” city that we had heard so much about. During the night, our train conductor drove the train into the belly of a ferry. Apparently this was how trains were normally transported across water. It sounded like the sky was falling in; the noise was terrifyingly loud. With all the screeching, scraping, clanking and banging, I was at a loss as to how I had slept through this process the previous week. This time I was fully awake and seeing other trains, buses and vehicles in the ship’s belly was surreal.

Somewhere along the journey we had heard that we were supposed to get off the train and get our Visas for East Berlin, but we had not done so. When a guard asked us for our passports and visas, we explained we did not have visas, and he issued them on the spot. We deciphered the German stamp and learned we had been issued a 12 hour visa. A whole twelve hours. With so much to do and see, what were we to do with permission to stay for only 12 hours?

Watch tower at the Berlin Wall, 1983
Watch tower at the Berlin Wall, 1983

Signs were not evident for entry into East Berlin, yet after asking other travelers we finally figured out how/where to enter. We passed through the famous Checkpoint Charlie, and immediately we felt deflated. None of the immigration officials smiled. Scowling, they had stamped our passports and brusquely waved us away. We were in. We had 11 hours and 45 minutes left.

We were required to exchange our currency into East Deutsche marks, which was the equivalent of about $10 US dollars. That didn’t seem too unreasonable, but the caveat was that if we didn’t spend all our East Deutsche marks during our 12 hour visit, we had to give – not exchange – them back, when we left East Germany. Surely, we thought, we could spend $10 during the day.

The local streets were mostly deserted. The few cars we saw were smaller older models, and they seemed to be made of thin metal, like that of a tin cup. People were dressed in dated clothes, and we deduced that all the ugly shoes that had not been sold in the United States must have ended up in East Germany, because their shoes were the clunkiest and ugliest we had ever seen. The East Germans stared at us; most did not smile. One young boy was friendly, and he spoke some English and German with my American friend Barbara, who had studied German for several years. He wanted her address so he could write her.

We wandered around and window shopped. It was a Sunday and most shops were closed, but we could see price tags and realize that anything we could have bought – T-shirts, shoes, purses, etc. – would have been inexpensive. The five of us finally came upon a restaurant that was open. Restaurant Moscow was the name, and we were treated to a chilly reception. The waiters were formally dressed in their jet black uniforms, complete with waist length jackets and long white aprons. We wore well-worn jeans and dirty white tennis shoes. We had not showered for a day or so, and I suspect they knew; the maître d escorted us to a table in the very back of the empty restaurant. We took our time over lunch, eating a whole chicken while trying to politely discard its oily and flavorless skin. The cola we drank was simply terrible and of course tasted nothing like Coke, the real thing. We tried our best to run up our bill, and were delighted that we had managed to spend nearly $8 each!

Bombed Out Building in Berlin
Bombed Out Building in Berlin

A vanilla ice cream that I later bought in a small bakery tasted like plastic, and cost about a dime. We wandered some more and finally found a museum that was open. The entrance fee was an affordable 25 cents, and its exhibits failed to capture my attention or give me any inkling of wonderment. (The museum at Checkpoint Charlie later turned out to be captivating.)

By this point we had only spent about 6 hours in East Berlin and we had seen enough. Perhaps our 12 hour visas had been a blessing! As we made our way back towards Checkpoint Charlie, we were very startled when three uniformed and armed border guards stopped us cold. Yelling at us in German, I gently offered up Barbara to be our translator. Later she told me her heart was pounding and she was really nervous answering their questions. Who wouldn’t be, surrounded by scary Communist uniformed men holding semi-automatic weapons?! It turned out we had jaywalked, and it was time to pay a fine or be arrested.

Lovely graffiti on the Berlin Wall, 1983.
Lovely graffiti on the Berlin Wall, 1983.

I had already decided that I would not return my few remaining East German marks upon exiting the country. I wanted a few coins as souvenirs, which I had carefully hidden, prohibited as that was. The guards took us to an office, wrote out our tickets and demanded another $10 from each of us. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for that (I was 20 years old and mostly fearless), so I started counting out my $10 in Swedish kroner, Swiss francs, French francs, British pounds and Danish kroner. The guards were none too pleased, and I made sure they got their $10 one way or another, but I was not about to give up any more US dollars. I won, and they let me leave. (That “ticket” they gave me is still secure in a 30 year old scrapbook.)

We boarded our train for the West, and I shortly found myself in trouble again. A heavyset grey-hair-pulled-back-in-a-too-tight-bun type of lady barked at me and slapped my camera when she saw me taking a photo out the window. Apparently we were still in the scary Communist side were photography of some buildings was verboten.

So while I was originally surprised and disappointed with a measly 12 hour visa, I ended up being thankful that we would not have been in East Berlin long enough to even spend the night. No doubt that suited our budget as well.

 

Best of Africa Photographs (Round 1)

Enjoy this short video highlighting a few best of Africa photographs taken during the 2014 summer in South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland.

Photos were taken with a Nikon D7000 as well as a Nikon Coolpix P510.

Note:  This YouTube video can be viewed full screen, and is best viewed in high definition.  (Hover over lower right corner of video for these controls.)

An American Safari

Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a herd of llamas grazing on the dewy grass during a recent Saturday morning bike ride. Other than their jaws chomping away on the grass, the llamas hardly moved and I could have easily missed seeing them.   I whipped my head around to confirm what I had seen, and then few hundred yards down the road a dozen chocolate brown cattle roamed around and baked in the sun.

That was when it dawned on me that I could embark on a new kind of safari – an American safari – right here in the good ‘ole USA.  I have been lucky enough to have been on many African safaris, and while a safari near Boulder, Colorado would not be the same as an African safari, it would be a fun way to spend an early morning in June.  So in order to fully appreciate my new American safari, I began to pay attention…

With llamas and cattle checked off my list, I tried to spot other animals, birds and interesting plants. As the miles passed under my wheels, I noticed similarities and differences between the safaris.   Drivers passed by at a steady clip, nearly oblivious to the llamas and cattle (and us cyclists).  Yet on African safaris, drivers would slowly putter along in their game viewing vehicles desperate not to miss the next animal sighting.

When a bunch of prairie dogs scurried in front of my bike, it reminded me of when dozens of African helmeted guinea fowl darted out from roadside brush and briskly waddled across roads in Kruger National Park.  While their appearances certainly vary in color (prairie dogs are beige and helmeted guinea fowl have colorful bright blue heads), they both have the ability to stop traffic.

  • African Helmeted Guinea Fowl Stopping Traffic
    African Helmeted Guinea Fowl - Stopping Traffic
  • Prairie Dogs
    Prairie Dogs - Getting Ready to Stop Taffic

Once when I was driving on a two-lane highway in the Kingdom of Swaziland, I saw over three dozen small white birds that were perched on the tops of wooden fence posts, one bird per post.  I instantly envisioned those bright white birds when I cycled past another set of fence posts in Boulder – only on top of these were white porcelain insulators (caps), which allow  for electrified wire to be attached to the posts without losing any electricity through the posts.  From a short distance away, the birds and the insulators looked the same.  See for yourself.

  • Birds on a Wire
    Birds on a Wire (or are they insulators?)
  • Insulators on a Wire (or are they birds?)
    Insulators on a Wire (or are they birds?)

Taking a break from cycling, I stopped and looked up at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and had a little déjà vu.  The mountains were so similar!  Kruger National Park in South Africa shares part of its eastern border with Mozambique and it is the Lebombo Mountain Range that straddles this border.   The height of the mountains in the Lebombos span from about 1,500 – 2,500 feet.  The foothills in Boulder are about 1,500 feet tall.  From where I stood, it wasn’t hard to interchange these two mountain ranges.

And so it turned out that paying attention gave me a whole new perspective on cycling in Boulder, and the many comparisons to my recent African safaris brought back fond memories.  Of course the main items that couldn’t be compared were animals such as lions, zebras and rhinos, but I’m pretty sure I would not have wanted to cross paths with them while on my bicycle!   I wonder what I’ll see on my next American safari adventure…

Freedom to Choose (Because I Can)

How much freedom to choose or independence do you need when you travel? Freedom to choose where to go and when to go? And independence to have the ability to not follow a trip leader or do what “everyone else does”.

African fish-eagle soars his own version of freedom
African fish-eagle soars his own version of freedom

For people traveling with an organized tour, freedom to choose is generally diminished since the trip leader will make and implement most decisions.  You can just imagine the leader’s typical morning update: “Our plans for today include breakfast at our hotel, a guided walk around the historic district, buffet lunch in a local restaurant…” Having decisions made by someone else can be comforting and allow a traveler to sit back and relax. Or, having a group leader could cause a trip participant to feel like a puppet because the participant is basically controlled by the leader and simply follows the leader by just going along for the ride.

Friends or family traveling together (but not with an official tour group) could also have diminished freedom because expectations and peer pressure to stay together for the day’s activities may dictate that everyone follow along with a group decision. I once stayed and visited with friends in South Africa; we shared all our travel adventures until I was left on my own for a few days. I had an epiphany as I quickly realized that every decision I would make would have zero impact on anyone other than myself. I would not need to help co-ordinate meals or activities, I would not have to stick to a schedule. I could come and go as I pleased and if I changed my mind about my plans, it would not matter. It was not a case of “too much togetherness”, and it was not the first time I’d traveled alone in a foreign country, but I felt the excitement of freedom of choice.

On my first day alone I caught up on reading, wrote stories, and sorted through thousands of digital photographs. Uninterrupted and focused, I accomplished much. But time passed and I needed to explore. Thankfully I had my own Chevy Spark rental car (http://www.traveltalesandstuff.com/?p=180) and I had driven around town enough to be comfortable with a safe route. Yes, I was nervous for safety and security reasons (http://www.traveltalesandstuff.com/?p=144), but nonetheless, I wanted to explore. I was free to make my own decisions and had the opportunity, ability and courage to do so. So when a friend called to check-in and make sure my solo days were treating me well, he asked what my plans were for the day. “I’m going in to town,” I happily replied, “because I can.”

Another time I was traveling on a group tour in Tibet. (At that time, China did not easily allow individual travel in Tibet, so group travel was required.) While our adventures and group leaders were wonderful, I really wanted time alone to explore. Group constraints limited me to half a day, so I raced out of the hotel after breakfast and walked into town, into Lhasa. I wandered for hours and had time to see and appreciate typical daily life scenes that I could have easily overlooked if I had relied on someone else to point out the interesting bits.

  • Alley with Prayer Wheels in Lhasa
    A Tibetan woman spins prayer wheels near her smoke-filled courtyard
  • A Tibetan woman sews prayer flags in her small workshop

Taking advantage of my freedom, I befriended a woman sewing colorful prayer flags in her corrugated metal work room; I peered down an alley and snapped a photo of a woman spinning her prayer wheels as she entered her smoke-filled courtyard; I spied armed Chinese military guards pacing up on rooftops. I had grabbed what freedom I could and loved every minute of it, even when I lost my way. (Trying to decipher Chinese and Tibetan maps, even transcribed into English, is another story.)

Does it matter if we have the opportunity, ability and courage to chart our own course when we travel? It matters if we prefer to have freedom to choose and independence when we travel. Technically, someone on an organized group tour could say he has freedom to choose because he chooses to follow along and have decisions made for him. For some, that would be enough. For others, it would not. Traveling decisions are neither right nor wrong, they are just different. As an experienced traveler, I generally relish my freedom and independence. I personally appreciate the freedom to choose, because I can.

Liebster Award Nominee

How lucky am I that www.TravelTalesAndStuff.com has recently been nominated for the Liebster Award by Mr. Ben Pastore of TripAccomplice.wordpress.com blog fame.  Thank you so much!

Liebster Award
Liebster Award for www.TravelTalesAndStuff.com

As a fairly new blogger, I needed to peak at the Google data bank as well as Ben’s nomination post to learn what the heck the Liebster Award is….I’ll quote Ben Pastore here:   “The Liebster Award is awarded to bloggers with under 200 followers to try to promote their blog a little and also bring together a community of bloggers. The rules of the competition are as follows: The nominated user must provide a link back to the person who nominated them (me). Provide 11 facts about yourself. Answer 11 question set by the person who nominated you. Choose 11 more people and ask them 11 questions!”

So as per the rules, here are 11 facts about myself:

  1. Tennis is my favorite sport
  2. Before I was 25, I had traveled the equivalent of around the world 5 times
  3. I have seen Mount Everest
  4. I am lucky enough to have 10 young people call me Aunt
  5. One day I WILL speak a foreign language well
  6. Writing was the first thing I wanted to do when I grew up
  7. I once had 9 addresses in a 12 month period
  8. I have met two astronauts
  9. I cannot do a back handspring
  10. I still know people that I “met” when I was a baby
  11. Other than babysitting, my first job was working in a tennis pro shop

Secondly, here are answers to Ben Pastore’s questions:

  1. What do you picture yourself doing 5 years from now? Being in great relationship and successful in a new line of work
  2. Who is the person that has had the greatest influence on your life?  I’ll combine my parents in to that answer.
  3. If you were given a blank ticket good on any airline, where would you go and why?  Antarctica, because that is the only continent I have not visited and I would love to see vast space.
  4. What makes you sadder than anything else? The idea of lost hope.
  5. What was the last kind act you did for someone? Baked chocolate chip cookies from scratch
  6. Do you consider yourself a person open to new ideas? Yes
  7. What was the single coolest experience in your life? Perhaps trekking the mountains in Nepal, having researching nothing about it prior to my arrival.
  8. Would you still write if no one else could see what you wrote? Yes
  9. To your mind, what would you need to accomplish to consider yourself successful in life?  To actually have a positive effect in someone’s life.
  10. Who is the best ‘unknown’ author that you’ve read? I don’t know
  11. Would you be willing to change your thoughts and behavior if your life were in the balance? Yes

Thirdly, I nominate http://awhiskandaspoon.com,  http://thedailybubbletea.com and http://nohangingaround.com .  My questions for these three  Liebster Award nominees are:

  1. If you could go to the moon would you?
  2. Which is the hardest part about foreign travel for you – having enough time, speaking the local language, or figuring out logistics of where to go and what to see?
  3. What would you study if you had the chance to return to college (or attend for the first time)?
  4. Do you ever re-read a book?
  5. How many hours a week do you watch TV?
  6. Would you ever move to a foreign country and renounce your citizenship for tax purposes?
  7. How many dishes can you cook/prepare without using a recipe?
  8. Is your garage so full of stuff you have to park in the driveway?
  9. Have you ever given money to a friend just because they needed it more than you?
  10. How many books have you read about writing?

Lastly, as a Liebster Award nominee the rules are that you post your own facts/answers/nominees/questions on your blog and leave a link in my comments so I check on what you wrote.

How to Ride a Camel

Yes, I’m really writing about how to ride a camel, and perhaps I should write how to successfully ride a camel.  After all, if the rider falls off, then it can’t really be considered riding a camel, can it?

Life is good!  Riding a Camel in Wahiba Sands Oman
Life is good! Riding a Camel in Wahiba Sands Oman

Camels have really cool elbows and knees, and while they may seem disjointed and wobbly, they aren’t.  When you first approach a camel, you’ll notice how tall he is and may wonder how you’re going to actually get on.   From a standing position,  the camel first bends his front legs (i.e. his elbows!) which lowers the front part of his body, and then he  bends his back legs (i.e. knees) so he is fully resting on the ground.   At this point, you can grab hold of the saddle horn and swing your leg over so you are settled into the saddle.  This is the time to hang on tight!

Then the camel will straighten his back legs so his rump is in the air, yet for a moment his elbows (front legs) will still be on the ground. If you brace yourself by locking your arms and solidly holding on to the horn,  you won’t fall off.  Within seconds, he will be standing fully upright and you’ll have a whole new view of the world, from about 10′ up.

Four out of five dentists recommend....
Four out of five dentists recommend….

I have been lucky enough to ride a camel on three different occasions, in three different countries: Australia, United Arab Emirates and Oman.  Each experience was better than the previous one,  and in Oman I was delighted to ride a “clean” camel.  She didn’t spit or slobber on me, and she moved quite gracefully.  In fact, when she stood or sat down, she was able to remain much more level than my previous camels could (or did). It almost seemed as if she bent and straightened all four legs equally at the same moment.

 

At first the camel’s gait will seem awkward and off-beat, but once you ride along for a few minutes, you’ll adapt to the camel’s rhythm and enjoy the ride.  And don’t worry about sitting on the hump; you actually sit just on the back side of it.  Plus the saddle and padding (three thick blankets) provide comfort to you as well as the camel.

I would love the opportunity to travel for at least a few days with a camel caravan in a desert some day.  And I definitely recommend riding a camel next time you have the opportunity.    Also, if you get an opportunity to ride an elephant, do that too!  I’ll share my stories and tips about riding elephants in a future blog post.

Moscow Metro – Mastering Cyrillic on the Metro

I cannot read Cyrillic.  Nor can my sister who was traveling with me.  But, we still stood in the underground Moscow metro station with a color coded transit map in hand, and thought if we couldn’t read, we could at least decipher the red, blue and green train lines.

Originally concerned with unscrupulous taxi drivers and potentially Continue reading

Not all who wander are lost

%d bloggers like this: