…Nancy and I just returned from our expedition with National Geographic magazine which literally took us around the world in three and a half weeks and we are already talking about the next one. This was truly an amazing experience and we would highly recommend it to anyone who has interest in other cultures. At $70K per, this may stretch travel budgets, but it is clearly worth the cost. So much so, that I actually wonder how they make a profit. I would love to see a P&L.
After all fees were paid, inoculations concluded and visas stamped into our passports, we received new iPads which were previously uploaded with Nat Geo content. Later came suitcases and back packs along with recommended reading material. In each pack were electric adapters, audio receivers, various attachable plugs so we were ready for power supply anywhere in the world. Nat Geo was very good in prepping us as to what meds to bring, clothing, equipment, weather possibilities, etc. No surprises!
We arrived in Orlando and were met at the airport by a limo driver who gathered our luggage and we were off to the Ritz Carlton for a cocktail party. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Nat Geo staff and no one would accept a tip including that limo driver, bellman, etc. I literally did not spend a dime on tips the entire time…no one would accept gratuities. A first, and truly amazing. At the party, we met all 78 of our travel mates, enjoyed drinks and dinner then introductions of the staff who provided an itinerary and briefing.
Each member of the Nat Geo team was with us for the entire trip and was headed by Micheline, the tour director and her staff of 10 including an emergency room doc. The lecturers were distinguished experts in their fields and were nothing short of great. They included the highly sought after Spencer Wells, who is world renown population geneticist as well as the producer, narrator and writer of the PBS documentary entitled “The Journey of Man.” In addition, there was Jack Daulton, an expert in art history and comparative religions along with Michael Melford , a Nat Geo photographer whose pictures have graced the cover of many magazines, and lastly Pam Wells, Spencer’s spouse who is also a documentary film maker.
Off to the Private Jet
We were bused to the jet and were greeted by the crew on the tarmac who were standing on the stairs leading to the entrance in ascending order. The two captains were handsome British chaps dressed in their “blues” as were five other officers. The cabin attendants were dressed in uniform and were really good looking young men and women and Mike the Chef was decked out in his l’escoffier regalia. The crew totaled 16 in number. The plane was a 757 which had been specially refitted to accommodate 78 passengers with first class style seating throughout. Each seat was equipped with Bose head sets and receptacles for charging multiple electronic devices. Premium liquors, wines and beers were available throughout each flight while Mike prepared great dishes. This was clearly not your standard airline fare. Lectures along with power point pix were previously loaded on to our iPads and took place while in the air. All flights were daytime where we literally followed the sun around the world. Nat Geo staff handled baggage, customs clearance and form filings. They have this international travel thing down to a science where darn little is left to chance. Their attention to detail and service was impeccable even going as far as providing each passenger with $10 of local currency in each country for any incidentals. We never went to a baggage terminal. All bags were placed in our rooms upon arrival at each hotel.
Each hotel was of five star quality and truly unique. We were greeted ceremonially upon arrival with gifts, snacks and drinks as we entered each property. Registration was already completed by staff who made arrangements with their advance people on the ground. We were invited for more drinks prior to dinner each evening. Dress was always informal. Most guests wore fishing/ hiking attire throughout the expedition. Each meal was better than the one that preceded it…food was great everywhere. We generally had three choices as to where to dine: the buffet, the restaurant, or room service. The buffets were killer everywhere and the restaurants superb.
First stop was Lima, Peru where we were met by our local guides. We were divided into several small groups and boarded MBZ mini vans where each guide spoke into a head set which transmitted info to our individual head sets. This was the case everywhere we visited. Clarity was great. The next morning we boarded a small charter jet which took us to Cuzco where we thoroughly enjoyed The Monasterio Hotel…five star all the way. It was in fact a monastery built in the 16th century with beautifully manicured courtyards where liturgical music quietly filled the air. The next morning we boarded the Hiram Bingham Express train to Machu Picchu. We were actually riding the Hiram Bingham Orient Express in beautiful club cars with drinks flowing and live music rockin’. Nat Geo leased the entire train for our exclusive enjoyment. Once at the destination of the Citadel, I hiked up to Sun God summit. It was a challenging walk, but certainly not a Taboose trek. Machu Picchu is something spectacular to behold…amazing for the technology available during the 16th century.
Upon approach, the Capt. dropped down to 1,500 ft and circled the island then reversed his flight path so that passengers on the opposite side of the plane might take in the breath taking aerial sights of the island and its surrounding reef. We were then greeted by the Islanders along with our local guide who is a professor and archeologist at the the University of Chile. She and her husband, also an archeologist, live on the Island and have been residents since the mid seventies. They began their research and excavations on the Moai stone carvings which brood over Easter Island when they were graduate students. The engineering and movement of these monoliths are still a question unresolved with certainty. Absolutely fascinating.
Again, we were greeted by Islanders adorned in ceremonial dress while offering a full array of local drinks and a customary Samoan welcome when we entered the hotel. The facility was wonderful as was the fare. I opted to take a long walk rather than joining the group for a tour of the Robert Louis Stevenson house. The day was January 4th, Nancy’s 71st birthday and she was “dragged” up on the stage to share in a Samoan dance with one of the Islanders. She hammed it up and rocked that joint. As a result, she was the hit of Samoa. We enjoyed a brief stay of only one evening. I believe it was scheduled to break up the long flight to Australia. While enjoying an amazing buffet of fresh seafood, I hurt myself with too many BBQd Aussie lobster tails…they just kept comin’ and I just kept eatin’.
We flew into Cairns which is located in the northeastern part of the country near Daintree National Park…the Australian rainforest. We stayed in a luxurious hotel where each of us had a suite of rooms with all the amenities including washer/dryer capability. We needed to do laundry by that time. One of the highlights of the this part of our expedition was a guided tour through the rainforest by an aboriginal who was raised in the forest. He was quite meticulous and respectful in handling the flora while explaining the utility of each plant, insect and animal. He then demonstrated how to apply camouflage using what Mother Nature provides to the point where animals as well as enemy tribes could run past the “decorated” unrecognized.
Later that same day we were invited to the most unusual plantation at the edge of the rainforest where Alan and his wife, Susan provided a tour through their own personal garden of truly exotic fruits, plants and trees. They then prepared a great lunch largely composed of “stuff” they have grown in this wonderfully natural environment which we enjoyed on their front porch while gazing into a small natural lake. In addition, they have created their very own personal rainforest. The grounds were naturally magnificent in this very remote part of the world. When I asked where they were from and what inspired them to live in this inhospitable environment Alan said, ” forty something years ago when Susan and I married we wanted our children to eat natural foods, breathe clean air and swim in unpolluted water so we decided to leave the Catskills. How does one go from Woodstock to this? This is a truly intrepid pair…much more than a couple of old hippies.
The “mother ship” touched down in Siem Reap where we were met by our ‘on the ground’ guide, Sam, then chauffeured to the Raffles Hotel of Singapore fame. This property is the perfect escape from the busy streets, shops and people of the city. After a delightful Cambodian massage at the hotel, we enjoyed a wonderful reception, dinner and a very interesting dance performance by a local troupe. This was clearly not of the “cheesy” variety most tourists experience.
The hit of our Cambodia visit was the tour of Angkor Wat. The temples are huge, intricate architectural wonders with fascinating history. This could be the mother load for art historians to study architecture, ancient culture and craftsmanship. Cambodians have endured a brutal past most recently at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the mid to late seventies. Our guide shared his and his family’s personal story at our coaxing which left us to ponder the cruelty and injustice that we so callously inflict upon each other throughout history. Cambodians are very polite and entrepreneurial people who are making great strides but still have a way to go. The resolve of her citizens is apparent and will no doubt carry the day. As an aside, I could not get Col. Kurtz of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” film out of mind the entire time I was in the country. (That movie was actually made in the Philippines).
Chengdu, China and Tibet
Chengdu is a large unattractive city of approximately eight million and houses the Panda Habitat. Other than the experience of witnessing the behavior of these special animals, I see no reason to return. The city is always “cloudy and misty” due to its location in a valley surrounded by mountains (that’s what our local guides told us but I personally believe it is smog). After only one evening, we took a charter flight to Tibet since our 757 pilots were not cleared to land in that difficult to navigate air space high in the Himalayas. Once off the plane, I developed altitude sickness of sorts. I have been higher than 12Kft. many times while backpacking without serious effect, but this got me…big time. I was suffering from a splitting headache, nausea and poor balance. Lovely! I was a bit disappointed in Tibet in that I was expecting something more from the most spiritual place on Earth, at least as some have said. Upon driving into the city of Lhasa, it felt like Las Vegas of several decades ago where these huge, glitzy hotels are going up all over the place. Somehow, that was not the picture I had in mind. I was sort of thinking “Seven Years in Tibet,” the Brad Pitt film of the nineties, but it just wasn’t so. To that end, I see no reason to return, but in all fairness, I just didn’t feel well the entire time we were in the country. The saving grace for me was the luxurious hotel which housed us. If you’re gonna feel lousy, there is no better place than the St. Regis to suffer.
I was looking forward to our visit to India for a host of reasons not the least of which was the influence of my friend Joe Prabu who is native of Calcutta, a Comparative Religions professor and a former colleague from my teaching days at Cal State, LA. India has always presented a certain exotic appeal for me even with its huge throngs of people, abject squalor and rampant government corruption. Our local guide said that in order to negotiate the streets and traffic, “one must have a good horn, good brakes and good luck.” He wasn’t kidding. We visited the Taj Mahal which was spectacular in every sense. What surprised me was the lack of supervision when visiting the site…no crowd control (a bit frightening). It was a ‘free for all’ and all visitors could walk anywhere on the property and touch anything they wished to further examine. That was the case just about everywhere we visited on this expedition.
I separated from the group to walk through a village known to house “the untouchables.” This is the lowest caste group in India who live in the worst poverty I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some brutal conditions in North Philly. There is just no opportunity for social, educational or economic advancement. None! Later in the day, I asked one of our local Nat Geo guides about the mind set of those folks and he responded with, “this is their lot in life and they are quite content to live as such.” My response privately was a typical Philly one…Bullshit! No one wants to live like that. Somehow, the Indians whose caste is higher than that of the ‘untouchables’ seem to think this is ok.
We were detained upon our departure while sitting on the tarmac…for four and half hours. Our pilots said the control tower would not grant permission to leave because of visibility issues. They later cracked that the delay was “balderdash.” We had another word similar to the Philly one previously mentioned. Further, we learned that the delay was the result of the Indian government playing “tit for tat” regarding the two Indian diplomats who had recently been expelled from the US. Later, the pilots determined that our water supply had been compromised while on the ground to further punctuate their displeasure with us Yanks. So much for my love affair with India.
This was my favorite part of the expedition. Africa was wonderful. The people are warm, welcoming and very charming. Once in Kilimanjaro, we transferred to small prop job planes to take us onto the Serengeti or the Ngorongoro Basin. Nancy and I elected to go to the basin due to the 25,000 animals who live there and we thought we would have a better chance of experiencing these beasts up close and personal…good call. Our driver spotted a lioness off in the distance and we watched her carefully approach in a majestic and regal manner. She had an air of aristocracy and seem to say, “I am queen of this jungle and I determine who may stay and I haven’t quite made up my mind about you.” She did a 360 around our Land Rover then leaned on it. All Nancy could do is prevent herself from leaning over and petting her with a “nice kitty kitty.” Our guide pronouncedly said, “LION”! We stayed in a wonderful thatched hut which is exactly what one might expect in the bush.
The suite was architecturally perfect for that environment. Large, dark wooden posts supported the ceiling and the suite was decorated in authentic Safari style…nothing cheesy about this place. A large bath tub sitting upon four feet was filled to the brim with bubbly hot water upon check in…just what one would need after coming in from a big game hunt. You could just see Hemingway sitting at the writing desk parked in a dark corner but in front of a cozy fireplace. This place was really amazing.
After dinner, we were escorted back to our huts by the staff due to the gathering of many wild animals on the premises…especially the Cape buffalo who love to graze and sleep in the grassy flats of the property. Staff asked us to listen for hyenas during the night but neither Nancy nor I heard them. That were also quick to mention that a lion was on the premises a week or so prior to our arrival and she took out a cape buffalo. They insisted we stay in our huts once we retired for the evening. No argument from me!
Louise Leaky, the granddaughter of the Leakys of physical anthropology fame who unearthed the remains of the first human beings on earth, joined us for several evenings. She continues the work of her parents and grandparents and eloquently delivered a lecture about the ongoing activities of her family in Tanzania. She also told an amusing anecdote about the first and only time she flew first class and was joined by a televangelist who was attempting to sell her on the notion of ‘creationism.’ She never told him her name…very gracious and pretty cool.
I was not anxious to visit Jordan being Jewish and knowing just how that part of the world regards us. What I found was the exact opposite of my expectations in that this country is very hospitable and welcomes the West. Our Nat Geo local guide was quick to point out that , “we are not them” referring to the “crazies”…his word for Islamic Fundamentalists who subscribe to Sharia law. He talked extensively about Jordan’s history with America and Israel and reiterated the strong relationships established with both countries. He was also quick to mention that they are very interested in our American tourist dollars. The Jordanian population is 92% Muslim. One could hear the call to prayer five times per day, but my concerns were clearly put to rest early while early in the country.
The terrain is beige, sandy and hilly. The city of Wadi Rum is a desert composed of sand as fine as face powder with majestic mountains rising from the flats. The City of Petra is an ancient one discovered in the early part of the 20th century. It is home to the most spectacular stone carvings throughout the site, especially The Treasury facade. The detail created by the artisans at the time of construction in the 16th century is truly amazing. Nancy and I hiked the entire excursion which was dramatically elevated in spots and about a seven mile round trip. It was a long day ending with an authentic Bedouin Feast and performance by one of Jordan’s “ceremonial military units.”
I really enjoyed our time in Jordan and came to understand the frustration of the Jordanians relative to their sensitive geographic location. As our guide said, “we live amongst some crazy neighbors, and please understand we are not them.” I believe him.
Marrakesh, Morocco (last stop)
Marrakesh was probably my least favorite destination. While that city always had some allure for me dating back to that Crosby, Stills and Nash song, “Marrakesh Express,” it was not quite what I expected. For starters, the country is 99% Muslim and there is a sense of radicalism that was not very subtle…particularly amongst the older citizens. The old city is charming and somewhat interesting. It also houses the Medina along with those infamous souks which are located in an endless maze. We toured those souks in a torrential rain, and I can easily understand how someone can go missing and never be found…at least not until a ransom is paid. The city never felt safe to me, but that’s just me…probably!
We stayed at the very luxurious Mamounia Hotel which was very dark. I mean physically, very very dark. So much so, that we needed to use our cell phone lights to actually see what was on the buffet as well as finding the number and key hole to our suites. The entire hotel was lit that way. I dunno, maybe they host vampires. Speaking of which, there was a high level diplomatic meeting hosted at the Mamounia which included the Pakistani Prime Minister. Diplomatic vehicles were in and out of the facility with regularity and secret service type guys dotted every corner of that facility. Other than the souks, I did not find the city very inviting. I was especially put off with the indoctrination talks provided by our local guides who constantly spoke of the virtues of Islam. Next!!!!
On the way home, we made a brief stop at an American military base in the Azores for fuel then arrived safely back in Orlando. We departed the “mother ship” for the last time. That was a bittersweet moment. We traveled together, shared meals, experiences, laughs, lectures and we made friends with whom we shared all of these. While it was very good to be back in the good ol’ USA, there was a certain feeling of emptiness. Somehow, this was now over. It was like leaving a summer camp where you live with a group of folks and become close in an abbreviated period of time. Now, we are exchanging pix, stories, comments, etc. It seems that no one wanted this expedition to end. It was remindful of the closing ceremonies at the ’84 Olympic Games held here in LA. Nancy and I never experienced anything quite like it…no one wanted to leave the Coliseum. The fireworks were over, Lionel Ritchie sang his last song long ago, but the athletes stayed on way until the wee hours and so did we.
I’ll conclude these remarks with a comment made by Jack Daulton who said, “the most important part of our journey is that we share a common humanity with all the peoples of the Earth.”…a notion commonly known as “The oneness of Humanity.” That was my takeaway, and it took a trip around the world to bring that home.