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At the end of every trip Carol and I have traditionally reported our impressions of the places we have been. Unlike the rest of the reports of this trip which we collaborate on, these reflect our individual opinions.
Machu Picchu and Easter Island, our first two stops, had in common a constant theme that ran through the tour guides and the archeologists presentations; all of their commentaries revolved around the size of the stones that were involved in the building of the artifacts.
In reality, most cultures who built monuments moved rocks. The rocks moved by other cultures were as large or larger than those found in Machu Picchu and Easter Island and often showed more skill in carving and fitting; Romans, Greeks, Indians, Japanese, to name a few. Actually, Machu Picchu resembles a lot of the ancient cities of Northern Africa (Roman built or influenced). I had the impression that these two sites were hyped by the archeologists who discovered them and reflect the fact that these sites represent what little there is left for archeologists to discover and write about (we are a long time away from the early world explorers; Dr. Livingston has already been there). In short, our first two stops were not thrilling.
In contradistinction, the monuments in other sites on this trip were awe inspiring. Huge and graceful; miraculous to have been built when they were. The engineering, architectural, and building challenges, not to mention the organizational skills, boggle the mind.
In general, except for India, the people on the street are curious about American tourists and friendly. Our group invaded their lives and used them as subjects for our photo-art. These intrusions were taken by the natives with patience and good humor. Relative to most of the US (except for say, some of the slums of our larger cities), these people are incredibly poor. But somehow their poverty seems to lack a sense of desperation (again, except for the Indians).
Let me dwell on the Indians a bit further. The guides we had everywhere were friendly, funny, and well versed. They were proud of their culture and went to great lengths to show it in its best light. The Indian tour guides, as a contrast, spoke with distain and derision of the "ignorant" and "dirty" people that made up their population. Common jokes revolved around the lack of a "rule of law" - traffic rules are said to be mere suggestions, or the fact that the court system took upwards of 20 years to resolve a case, or the best jobs were those that were held by the civil servants because they were steady and provided a means for increased income through bribes. I was not favorably impressed the first time I went to India. The first impression remains.
The Trip Itself
In the end I am glad we took the trip. On the other hand, I would not recommend the trip to someone who has not traveled widely (as most of the people on the trip have). It is not safe to drink the water almost anywhere we were (except Australia) and squat toilets are a shock to the Western culture. National Geographic issues flashlights (for places inadequately lit or for power failures), bug spray, suntan lotion, and clocks as standard gear! The list of shots needed to take the trip is large and malaria and altitude medicine is taken while on tour. The places we have visited have limited "tourist attractions" in one locale and so the fly in/fly out pace of this trip is a logical response. For the person who has not traveled outside America, there are many places in the World that have so much more to offer; Paris, London, Rome, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Japan, Beijing, Shanghai, to name a few; that suggesting that anyone go to the places we have just been (unless it is part of a larger tour) is ill advised.
CAROL'S IMPRESSIONS OF THE TRIP ( A TRIP THAT IS NOT QUITE OVER AS THIS IS BEING WRITTEN - - WE STILL HAVE TO GET TO, AND THROUGH, DULLES ON JANUARY 20: INAUGURATION DAY)
It wasn't later than the second of our twelve stops on this trip (Easter Island) that Peter suggested we rename this trip "Rocks" (instead of the official name "Around the World by Private Jet"). That made perfect sense considering all of the various rocks, mostly rearranged by humans, we were going to be seeing. Anyway, taking inspiration from that humorous, but quite apt, start-of-the-trip characterization, my end-of-trip revision would dub this the Rock & Roll trip, as in: go look at Rock formations in the widest variety of shapes and formats imaginable after doing an early Roll out of bed (not only early, but early more frequently than the trip literature actually let on).
This trip was truly ambitious in scope. From December 29 when we first stepped on the plane at Dulles to our final dinner in Marrakech on January 19, we were in Peru, Easter Island, Samoa, Australia, Cambodia, China, Tibet, India, Tanzania, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. Those 21 days, plus the number of sites on the agenda, represent both the lure of this trip as well as (looking back) its limitations (although there weren't that many of those, in my view).
We, Peter and I, are hardy and energetic travelers when we travel by ourselves. On previous trips we've organized, any time our travel consultant put "half day at leisure" on the proposed schedule, we'd howl in protest and immediately add five other things to see. On this trip there was hardly any planned downtime, e.g. "half day at leisure," which you'd think would delight us but actually didn't. Keeping busy with a variety of activities at each location is really important to us but being (or at least feeling) constantly on the move turned out to psychologically (if not physically) somewhat tiring. On reflection, I think the reason wasn't so much the busy schedule as something else. I suspect that if we were on the exact same itinerary and were ourselves making the exact same decisions about timing (rather than being told the schedule), we'd feel totally energetic or, if not energetic, at least less tired and certainly in control.
If any of the foregoing suggests that I've had second thoughts about going on this trip, perish the thought- - although having said that, I do have one important reservation. I am intentionally writing these Impressions without having read Peter's. However, knowing that Peter does not like limitations on his freedom of movement, e.g. especially group tours, for him this Nat Geo journey was a "CC, I love you enough to override my common sense, my periodically uncooperative knee, and my intense dislike of group grope trips" kind of trip. For his spirit of adventure and his accommodating wonderfulness, I am truly grateful. Thank you, Love!!
So, having confessed my role as the instigator and nagger-in-chief with respect to going on this trip, why was I interested in the first place? First, we would have never, ever put together a 12-stop trip like this via commercial airlines. Any on-our-own alternative would have required designing two or three separate trips, organized more or less by geography. Guess what. That was not very likely to ever happen. Besides, a chunked up version of this trip, even if we covered all the countries, wouldn't have been the same as this trip in the sense that this trip, overall and with all of its links, turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts (the individual stops).
In addition, if we hadn't taken this trip, there are places that realistically we just wouldn't have gone out of our way to see (Tibet is one example, and Easter Island is very likely another one). Also, Peter's not wild about India, so it may have been harder to get him to visit India on our own than to see India as part of the larger package. Finally, about 18 months ago we'd planned a 3-week trip to South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, etc. to visit both urban areas as well as a number of game reserves. Several months before our departure on that trip, by almost simultaneous mutual acclamation, we decided we really didn't want to spend that much time on such a trip (Peter said it would be like staying in a zoo for 2 weeks- -interesting at first but at some point, probably earlier rather than later, just much too much). It is therefore doubtful we would ever have seen the Serengeti if not for this trip.
Lest the previous several paragraphs sound like a rationalization, let's just say it a marshalling of all the voluminous good reasons for taking this trip. All in all, although with stops mostly sufficient for "just a taste," the succession of tastes we got during this Nat Geo "world buffet" was, in my view, exceedingly delicious.
Other positives? I think it's fair to say that traveling with 86 strangers falls into both the positive and the negative column, likely more positive overall for me than for Peter. As happens in any group that size, natural sub-group affiliations begin to coalesce rather early on. We met some fascinating, funny, fabulous people whose presence tempered the fact that there were others (really relatively few, in my opinion) with whom we shared no vibes or negative vibes. Our travel mates have a variety of backgrounds, some still working full time while most of the others were retired. Their backgrounds include everything from aerospace to forest ranger to insurance to hotel management to a cashed-in E-Bay exec (the E-Bayers were the youngest couple on our trip, probably in their early 40's. The oldest traveler was a woman in her early 80's). I liked the opportunity to be with these new acquaintances, or not, as our various travel moods and temperaments worked out on any particular day. Will we stay in touch with any of them? Not likely, but that in no way diminishes the extra spice with which these travel mates flavored our experience.
Traveling in our "private 757" was a hoot, and often a huge help (like being given special permission to land at the only airport in Agra (Taj Mahal), which is a restricted military airport). That reminds me: there was an informal contest to name our plane. Some of the suggestions included Inherit the Wind; Wild Blue Yonder; Voyager, etc. The winner, by acclamation, was "There Goes the Inheritance." This got shortened to "Inheritance." Every time we got back on board, Louise, the chief bursar on the flight, would say "Welcome back to your private jet Inheritance."
We had a delightful English cabin crew who would often greet us in the costume of the country we were in and otherwise put on delightful little mini-shows while we were flying. They were also able to avoid the dry and repetitive departure safety talk by making comments such as, "The cabin will be dimmed for takeoff-to enhance the skin tone of your flight crew." Or, "Put on your rubber duckie and pull the tail" (this of course was the yellow life vest and inflator pull). Or, "If the oxygen mask descends, first stop screaming and then …" And, bless their bright pink uniforms, none of them was bothered by the odd purse or carryon bag left on the floor (not under the seat) during takeoff or landing. This turned out to be an indirect safety feature since it meant that half the plane didn't get up 20 minutes after departure to open the overhead bins. (Thompson Air, from whom the plane was chartered, has bright fuschia pink colors for the cabin crew: skirts for the ladies and ties for the men. It was a cheering, playful color choice.)
It was a lovely luxury to be able to leave things on the plane. (That felt very "private jet-y" indeed.) Nat Geo gave each of us a little item from every country we visited. Those added up and instead of having to cart them around in our suitcases (until we got to Marrakech, that is, when everything needed to get into our suitcases), we were given very light weight zippered bags to collect miscellany to leave on the plane. Our leather reclining seats were also equipped with power outlets, which we used to keep the computer and our camera batteries fed.
Speaking of fed, we had a very engaging Irish chef on board whose menu, overall, was quite good. There was usually a three-choice menu: meat, fish or a veggie entre. I had no problem with the variety or quality of the food although I wasn't enamored about the timing of the service (an unavoidable consequence of the food handling equipment). We'd make our main meal choice and then rather quickly get a salad, bread, dessert and a cheese plate all on one tray. However, the main course wouldn't arrive for at least another 30 to 40 minutes, which caused a lot of us to eat the cheese out of hunger (cheese-eating was a useful prophylactic if, later on, "tourista" was in your unfortunate G.I. tract future but, for the rest of us, we'd have been better off not eating so much cheese).
Other seemingly small program components were unexpected but gratefully received. For example, all of our immigration forms and departure cards were filled out by the staff in advance. All we had to add was our signature. In each country, we were given two stamped postcards. It is remarkable how much time can be spent tracking down stamps for postcards. In each country we were given the equivalent of $10 U.S. in small change. That came in handy and saved us from having to stand in line to change money.
These are small, collateral, and relatively secondary matters. But they were indicative of the attention to detail that, overall, helped smooth the trip.
So what was my favorite place, experience, smell, taste, memory? My favorite place, it turns out, was the Serengeti. What majesty, with that endless horizon across the virtually trackless plain. What air, what clean and clear and pure and fresh air, only intermittently tinged with the earthy smell of migration when we were in the middle of tens of thousands of milling and moving zebras and wildebeests. What serenity, despite the migratory activity; there was a feeling of almost monastery-like contemplative meditation. What magnificent trees, the thorned acacia trees that in their maturity look like large bonsai sculpted by Japanese gardeners but which are actually shaped by giraffes who can eat around the acacia thorns. Peaceful but pulsing with life, tranquil at the same time it is turbulent, the Serengeti was beyond what I ever imaged.
As far as human rearrangement of the landscape goes, I think I was most surprised by and impressed with Angkor Wat. The ancient complex around Siem Riep (Siem Reap is a city close to Angkor Wat) has far more buildings and temples than just the often photographed temple of Angkor Wat. There are carved stone murals in many of these buildings that are so extensive it wouldn't be surprising if it took 10,000 carvers 100 years to finish the work. We only saw a small portion of the temple complex and it was overwhelming.
I also was moved by Easter Island. It wasn't just the famous moai, as interesting as those huge stone carvings are. Maybe it was a combination of a beautiful and quiet island (66 square miles with only 4,000 or so inhabitants), the clear air and unhurried pace, not to mention the fact that we saw Easter Island at the high-energy start of the trip.
It was also interesting to see Machu Picchu again. I was first there over 40 years ago, when it was both far less excavated and less touristy. However, the additional excavations had enhanced the overall experience and, surprisingly, I didn't find the additional tourists as any impediment to my enjoyment of the experience.
As far as my favorite "Rocks plus" experience is concerned, hands down it was the evening we spent at the Temple of Luxor, which Nat Geo had been able to secure for our private dinner party. Walking among the columns and statues at night, with expert lighting helping to create a really exceptional and mystical mood, all made for an unparalleled experience. At a festive party, rarely if ever does a hush descend by common if unspoken agreement, but that's what happened as all of us walked through the temple self-silenced and completely amazed.
What didn't I like about the trip? Really, there's not much of a list here, and amusingly it all relates to decibel content and levels. In India at the elephant polo party dinner, in Luxor at the dinner by the Temple, and in Marrakech at our final dinner, the music, which should have been subtle and in the background was instead auditorily heavy handed, overwhelming, and a conversation stopper.
Would I recommend this trip to others? Definitely yes, with the caveat (which the literature describing the trip may not have made clear enough) that this trip is not a vacation, this trip is not a gentle excursion, this trip is not particularly restful. Instead, as was mentioned repeatedly in the last 20 days by our trip leader, this journey was in fact closer to an explorer's expedition. "Expedition" means that despite the private plane and other apparent trappings of luxury travel, our three weeks were a rough and ready, albeit fascinating and ultimately do-able, physical and mental challenge.
That we didn't expect such a challenge quite to the degree it presented itself did not ultimately make this adventure something I regret having done. However, I would certainly mention it to anyone considering future around the world trips (whether Nat Geo's or anyone else's). Bottom line, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity, thanks to Peter, to take this "trip of a lifetime" and I am going to feel even stronger about this conclusion (I'll bet) when the passage of several months softens the remembered challenges but strengthens the overall recalled wonder and adventure of it.
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