In 1392 Erik and Shara flew across the ocean blue … oh, darn, we missed such a clever voyage by one year; in fact it is the year 1393 according to the Iranian calendar when we arrive in Iran. But as their new year begins at spring equinox, it has only just turned 1393. In addition to the utterly different calendar system, they have an unusual time offset from us as well, being past GMT by 3.5 hours … I hadn’t actually realized that any time zones went by half-hour increments off GMT.
We flew into Tehran through Moscow, and I can see how someone could actually live in the Moscow airport. We only walked from one terminal to another and hung out in terminal F, but this was an interesting and lengthy jaunt. I’ve never seen so many shops … you basically have to walk through a never-ending shopping arcade to get to the gates which are interspersed throughout the shops. Rows and rows and rows of sunglasses, a hundred times more duty-free liquor than you could shake a stick at, nesting dolls, Faberge eggs by the dozens opening up to reveal all manner of little things – castles, flowers, dancing couples, and pictures of the last Tzar, Nicholas II, and his family – high fashion clothing, perfumes, and the occasional small restaurant or bar. And it’s all virtually deserted. The walkway connecting terminals is like a 6-lane freeway on pedestrian scale, but virtually empty; the paths through the shops feel almost like alleyways, and the poor clerks and shop assistants must be bored beyond stiff … pretty women dressed all professionally with high-heeled shoes stand idly outside the store or busy themselves rearranging the lipsticks on a shelf. Feels a bit like the Hotel California. Compared to the dumpy and cramped little terminal we flew out of at JFK, this is The Ritz. Foreigners often have such high expectations of American facilities; surely any Russian flying out of Moscow to that JFK terminal (T1) must laugh a little derisively.
While sitting at a pub in the airport, I made note of some selections from the menu: “cheesecakes of cheese pancakes with sauce chocolate,” “pork skewers with potatoes on a rural,” and buckwheat porridge with onions.
We definitely got the red carpet treatment, well maybe not exactly red … as Americans entering Iran in the Tehran airport. Though we were one of the first people off the plane we were the very last people to leave the airport … after taking a long look at our passports, then extra paperwork needed to be filled out by immigration officers, then we were escorted in the “the little room” to have all of our fingerprints recorded. But everyone was very friendly about it … it’s just the requirements for us.
Reza is our awesome guide with excellent English and extensive knowledge, and easy-going. He will be with us the entire trip. I was quite nervous ahead of time how we might get along with someone for 16 days. But it’s going to be no problem at all as far I can foresee.
Tehran is not much to see as a city, very drab buildings shrouded in pollution. Some days the pollution is so bad that children are kept home from going to school. But the few old palaces and the mausoleum we did visit were beyond opulent. I’ve visited many palaces in Europe that I had always thought were opulent but really this was quite extraordinary. There are rooms with the ceilings and walls made of mirrors … cracked and placed into intricate designs. When you walk into these rooms and stairways it is though you are walking in a room of diamonds. Literally sparkling like diamonds – remarkable and even magical if you forget the country’s money was used for this ridiculous opulence rather than for feeding and caring for the people. Unfortunately you can’t take pictures inside these rooms. Though if you used a flash in one I think you’d be overwhelmed by the effects reflecting off the mirrors.
Here are some examples of outside spaces and peeking inside a door into one of these mirrored stairways at Golestan Palace.
Some other images from the Golestan Palace. The mother and daughter on the stairs had rented costumes to pose for photos; I asked them if they would mind if I also took their picture and they said OK. They looked so sweet in their period costumes.
Reza keeps saying Iran is a land of contrasts. One of these is the coexistence of incredibly ancient civilization history with very recent nobility history. So one of these palaces was that of the ruling dynasty until the revolution in 1979. Typically in Europe the palaces you tour of former nobility haven’t been inhabited by families actually living there for hundreds of years. Whereas this was abandoned only a few decades ago. One of the bedrooms of the last shah had daggers of mirrors hanging down in the shape of a star. The carpets were woven each completely unique and some as large as 140 square meters, the designs in the carpets reflecting/copying the design on the ceiling. One family business, all they did was make carpets for the royalty. Too much to write in the time constraints of a small post, but here are some pics from those palace grounds.
A couple things to note in these pics ... First is to notice how they used stained glass to color the mirrored pieces. The light coming through the colored windows reflects off the mirrored bits making them look like colored glass. So pretty. The second pic is just to document the first of I-don't-even-know-how-many photos I took of myself reflected in mirrors. I could make a whole gallery of pics of me with a camera to my face in a mirror ... for one thing, they're fun to take, and for another, you actually can't help it most of the time ... so many mirrors everywhere there's nowhere to hide yourself while taking the shot.
Having to wear a head scarf at all times, as every woman in Iran is required to do including foreigners, is, frankly, annoying. I like a cultural experience, but this is one I could do without. It’s hot and always falling off – clearly there is a technique the Iranian women employ but I don’t know what it is yet. I dread the hotter weather that is predicted. I am always conscious of whether it has fallen down.
We visited a mausoleum where Reza asked a random lady to escort me through, because women and men have to visit separate sides of the mausoleum, so Reza could not guide me. I had to wear a chador, which in this case was just a large piece of fabric the lady showed me how to properly drape over myself. She told me that as a first time visitor, if I made a wish inside, it would come true. But I was too preoccupied with trying to keep my chador together to remember to make a wish. My impromptu guide asked the shoe-check lady if I could take a photo … normally you can’t. First photo is mine, but second one Erik got inside the men’s side before he realized he wasn’t supposed to take photos. After we left the mausoleum and returned our chadors, the lady asked Reza where I was from. When he told her America, she said, "Oh, we are enemies!" At first I was horrified until I realized she was laughing and she was just kidding. She, like nearly everyone, recognizes the difference between individual American citizens and our government.
We walked through one of the traditional bazaars. The largest one in Tehran. We changed some of our US dollars with a money changer walking around the courtyard outside the bazaar. Reza said they give the best exchange rates, and that they are also like stock market traders. The crowd in the photo below is basically like a Wall Street where people are trading in gold and some other things. Very old school, eh!
Some obligatory photos from the bazaar.
Do you know what the green things are in the above photo? I certainly didn't ... they're almonds! I didn't know they started out green. Silly me.
Tehran traffic is hilarious in that it’s total chaos. Clearly, having only two lanes for each traffic direction in the city is a complete waste of pavement. The dotted lines might as well be the graffiti of hooligans for all the respect they receive. One way streets also mean nothing, particularly to motorcyclists, who not only lane split but drive between the bumpers of cars perpendicular to traffic while going the wrong way on the streets. And pedestrians are even wackier than any others I’ve seen. No rhyme or reason whatsoever to where and/or when they choose to cross.
This year’s activities from Ixtapa are a little spare; I'm just throwing everything into one post. I didn’t get to the wildlife sanctuary as much as I have in the past and I didn’t get off site of the resort (we stay the same place each year). The big unique excitement (ha) was getting to know the resort’s EMTs and hanging out in a wheelchair. We’ll get to that in a minute …..
If this is your first time reading a post from Ixtapa, you can find the posts from past years HERE. If you’ve vicariously joined me on this trip before, then you know my affinity for the small, dilapidated and utterly charming crocodile sanctuary just down the beach from our resort, where iguanas, turtles and a variety of birdlife also reside in a quiet lagoon of green water and densely-treed banks.
Among all the residents of this lush lagoon environment, I’m most smitten with the exotic, if slightly silly, spoonbill bird. They’re little devils to capture on film, though. (“film,” that is … rolls off the tongue so much smoother than “digitally.”) They live nestled deeply into the leafy branches of the trees. The first year I mostly just saw patches of pink and the occasional bill. I managed just a few pics. The next year, I dedicated a lot time to finding them and even got to witness them mating (see pics). THIS year I arrived my first day and found a nest with baby spoonbills!! I couldn’t believe it. The babies were feeding right out of the mother’s mouth. I was really quite beside myself at such a sweet score.
A short distance away was another nest with two juvenile spoonbills … it was interesting to see how they mature – that their feathers start out a very light pink and without the vibrant darker pink spots. Also their bills are just little stubby things, not yet elongated into the adult size.
I was so enthralled with the baby spoonbills I didn’t pay attention to much else that day. But I did finally sort-of-vaguely capture these little black and yellow birds that I’ve been trying to for 3 years now. They’re just little things and they flit quickly here and there and stay high, high up in the tree branches, disappearing into the leaves as soon as they land. I’ve learned to recognize one of their songs, though, so this year as soon as I heard it I would scan around and try to get a shot off before they scattered. If you look closely you can manage to pick them out, blurry among the leaves. Next year … these stinkers are on my hit list, for sure.
The next day I came, I paid more attention to the iguanas, which I have also come to love here. I’m not really a lizard/reptile kinda gal. So the fact that I’ve developed such affection for the iguanas and even, yes, the crocodiles, just goes to show that if you take the time to really study something, it might surprise you with an unexpected level of awesomeness. (Though I’m quite sure this will never be true for my estimation of most spiders, scorpions, and some other insects.) I really could sit and study the iguanas all day. Here are some for you to ponder.
Now I thought to myself, “OK, I’ve gotten photos of the spoonbills mating and of their babies, now it would be cool if I could capture them in flight.” Well, guess what. Those critters decided to oblige me and several of them flew back and forth across an open space in the lagoon. I was so excited. I really could hardly believe it. I became disappointed, though, when I discovered that I failed to capture any of the activity in focus. I had presumed my camera would do a better job than I would choosing a shutter speed in the auto sports mode, but I'm thinking I should have just set my own speed on shutter priority. One thing I will say about this photography hobby I’ve picked up … the more photos I take, the more I realize how little I actually know about photography.
But anyway … here are probably the best of what I managed to capture. First, the cheeky spoonbill taunting me – “Will I fly? Will I not? I just might! Or I might not.” -- until my arm gets tired of holding the camera up in anticipation and I lower it. Then, of course, he takes off. They look simultaneously elegant and awkward cutting through the air with their long necks and bills, their long legs dangling down kind of gangly, and their beautiful pink wings fanned out.
Finally, of course, I had to watch some crocodiles. In years past, I’ve found dozens of them crammed together against the fence or under the wooden viewing platform. This year they were scarce, for what reason I don’t know. Maybe I came at the wrong times of day. But here’s a couple smiling beasts for you. The first pic would have been awesome if it was in focus.. Maybe my camera was just on the fritz that day.
The other wildlife playground near our resort is a lovely cove on Ixtapa Island, just a short ride by boat taxi or a pleasant kayak paddle away. Fish come right up to the beach, you can see them just standing ankle deep in the water. (Notice bottom right hand corner of first photo you can see some little fishies in the water; the splashes are pelicans diving into the water.) There’s a surprisingly diverse collection of coral and some truly beautiful fish. We’ve snorkeled there several times now. It’s almost unfortunate that I’ve snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef, because nothing will ever compare. But I’ve learned to simply classify that as a wholly different experience. So compared to all the other snorkeling I’ve done, for such a po-dunk little place, I think it’s a great place to go, especially for beginners, being able to start directly from the shore. And ... always a bonus: super yummy tropical drinks! (peeps = father-in-law and family friend with the pineapple-head tropical drink (the punch is inside the real pineapple); me and Erik with rum punch and beer)
And now we come to the demise of the rest of my vacation. I took a spill down some stairs (don't bother asking; I was dead sober!) with very jagged, pointy edges at the pool and majorly sprained my ankle and pretty much scraped all the skin off the front of my leg from ankle to knee with some extra deep gouges and holes thrown in here and there. This is how I befriended the EMTs who fixed me up after the accident and then changed my bandages three times after that. The pain, I'll admit, was quite extraordinary. But I managed still to play games in the shade by the pool and the last night I rented (free) a wheelchair from the resort and had what I could genuinely refer to as fun as Erik wheeled me around ... for those who know him, you're probably already firing up the imagination. Yes -- monster wheelies, bouncing down steps, letting go of me altogether to roll downhill, pushing me as though I were on an amusement park ride on a set of tracks, etc. I even managed a game of ping pong in the wheelchair! And I was besting my opponent, I can't help but add. There was a kid's ping pong table ... it was regular regulation size but about half the height of a normal one, so perfect for me in my chair, but a little more awkward for my full-height opponent. (i.e. Erik)
Also had a wheelchair to meet me at DIA airport ... one silver lining is speeding through customs as there's a special line for wheelchair folks. A couple more birds from the sanctuary for you. (see more birds from last year here) Until next year .....
For my last installment on photos from Prague, let's visit some more contemporary sites and revel in some more random shots to give you the flavor of this predominantly classic European architectural wonderland. You will find those who say Prague is overrated, overcrowded, architecturally unimaginative ... I agree only with the middle sentiment, but encourage anyone to visit regardless. To be sure, if medieval architecture bores you, you may not have quite as splendid a time as I did, but there's always an awful lot of mighty fine beer. :)
The John Lennon Wall (mostly referred to as the Lennon Wall) has existed for a few decades now, a symbol of peace in a city who has gained freedom from the Cold War era's communist iron fist less than 30 years ago. Originally painted with a portrait of its namesake, now people write and paint perpetually; if you made a time-laps photo over a year it would look like a kaleidoscope changing color and shape. When I visited it the second time when Erik and I concluded our Central European journey, it was virtually unrecognizable from when I first saw it only three and half weeks earlier. It had transformed almost completely.
And here are some other random wall drawings. Something fun around every corner in Prague.
Prague is a city suffering from a profusion of statues ... in every courtyard; on every building whether on the walls, the roofs or in a corner niche; lampposts and cornerstones aren't just lampposts and cornerstone but statues holding up a lantern or building. Remarkable. I love it -- there is simply never a dull moment walking around the city.
Lots of good doors, too, and doorknockers and knobs ... from super ornate, to old and weathered, to a little bit whimsical. Here is a tiny selection ...
A now a wee taste of more modern Prague, with some interesting architecture in the first two photos below. After that are some shots from the Kampa Museum, a museum of modern art. Outside are several installations of mirror sculptures that really turn your view of the world upside down, sideways, and every direction in between. I of course am standing normally vertical to take the photos (too early in the day to have any kind of inebriation tilt ... ha ha) ... but it might take you a minute to figure them out!
Some other shots around town. Just everywhere you look, there is something picturesque. It's not really my intention to be a guidebook; I'm showing you the world as I see it. So I'll forgo an explanation of every shot. But just imagine yourself surrounded by interesting things wherever you go. Well, interesting in my estimation.
This is a poster with the icon for the Communist Museum. It was a very informative display and I'd recommend it to anyone. But I have to say, what I love most about it is the evil little nesting doll that represents it. I even bought a shirt with this picture on it.
A fun teensy weensy car and some friends and me at dinner.
And lo and behold, you have reached the end of Shara's 3-part romp through Prague! Hope you enjoyed the tour.
For my first 3-Hour Tour post, I’ll start with what I thought was one of the most fun routes we’ve discovered on account of all the mines and old buildings we ran across. Our most picturesque voyage in that area.
Let me explain briefly that the area around Nederland, Colorado, and especially between it and Central City, is criss-crossed every which way with old mining roads and old forest service roads. The area around Central City was once known as the “richest square-mile on earth” for the wealth of minerals in the ground, particularly gold and silver. I couldn’t even guess at the number of old abandoned mining cabins, mines and ore processing buildings that dot the forested landscape. Of course, by now, every year there are fewer as their age has finally reached a critical point where many are collapsing. So I value each one I run across, not knowing how much longer it will stand.
So on this particular adventure, it was our goal to locate a 4x4 route from Mammoth Gulch Road to Gamble Gulch Road. We had pretty amazing luck ending up where we wanted to, considering the maze of roads that exist in this area … truly dizzying and hard to know in the thick forest if you’re driving in circles or not. We usually go out late in the day when the sun is beyond helping us, and our 1988 4-Runner ain’t got no fancy compass thingy in it. In fact, it ain’t got no fancy anything. Which is partly what makes it a great vehicle for exploring … a few more dents and scratches aren’t even going to be noticed.
Putzing around online after we got home, I found a description of this route saying to be sure to bring your GPS for this very confusing route … Bah!! GPS-users are wimps. We even managed to find -- mapless and GPS-less -- the “shaft house” listed as an attraction of sorts on the website, and we didn’t even know it existed.
The description on the website also says parts of the route are "not for wide or shiny new SUVs." Ha … Trudy is perfect, as stated above! Trudy is the name I have given to our trusty 4-Runner. The site also states it’s a half day trip … but as you know, we did it in 3 hours. Pretty much any drive time stated in any source for any driving condition on any road with any vehicle can be practically halved with Erik at the wheel. Fortunately we get along well in this respect as I’m typically game for the faster pace. A lot of 4x4 route drivers go slowly in order to minimize the bumpiness of the ride for passengers, but I personally like a bumpy ride, it’s more like being on an amusement park ride or something.
At one point the road dead-ended, and fortunately we got out of the truck to have a look around, for we found this charming abandoned mining cabin. The mine entrance is right next to it, now collapsed and filled in as most mine entrances have been for safety reasons ... though I miss the old days when I first moved to the area and a lot of old mines had not been capped and you could walk into them. The mining cart tracks now just disappear into the weeds.
After this picturesque dead-end, we managed to turn around in very tight quarters and followed a different path which led us to what we'd been looking for ... Gamble Gulch Road ... a "regular" maintained dirt road. There was a gate at the end of the 4x4 path which fortunately somebody else had torn down, clearly for the purpose of allowing vehicles on the 4x4 route to pass through. Had the gate been standing, it would have been excruciatingly difficult and perhaps impossible to turn Trudy around on the narrow forested trail to find another route. Once on the Gamble Gulch Road, we ran across across more mines, shacks, processing buildings and artifacts from the mining days ...
The water leaves trippy colorful patterns on black plastic around this mine, which is pretty, but knowing normal water should not make those colors and should not be brown, takes a little from the beauty ... there are many contaminated mining areas.
A nice lookout, in a rare break from the narrow confines of the forest, to the backside of the Front Range mountains.
I’m always a sucker for European castles and cathedrals. Prague Castle and St. Vitus cathedral didn’t disappoint. The heart of “old town” or “classic” Prague lies between the castle/cathedral complex and the Old Town Square, with the Charles Bridge spanning the river between the two of them. The castle, I suppose naturally, holds the high ground, overlooking the rest of Prague and the Old Town in the distance. Here is a little photo tour through the cathedral, the castle and its grounds, which are lovely to walk through and provide excellent overviews, plus a quirky little attraction rather at odds with the uber-classic nature of the rest of old town Prague’s architecture. Then we'll take a brief jaunt across the bridge.
From my temporary residence near Pohorelec, I could walk downhill to the castle, entering it through the main gate, and passing by this lovely lantern which I always wished I could have seen lit at night. At noon each day, a column of castle guards marched into work (I presume). Hi-ho hi-ho. There was a wonderful gypsy band that often played for tips in the large open courtyard in front of the castle, I spent probably a total of a couple hours listening to them and watching the crowds filter in and out of the castle, wondering what sorts of folks wandered in and out of the grounds in its heyday ... what the guards once looked like with lances and swords and horses to ride, what scenes of stench and horror surrounded the castle during times of plague and pestilence, what ragged bands of Renaissance musicians sounded like twittering their flutes and drums.
The inside of the castle was actually surprisingly spare ... not full of opulent furniture and wall/ceiling moldings. It seemed to exist in a very functional state ... an administrative center rather than a lavish palace. It was here that I rediscovered my love for the word "defenestration," when we learned of the history of this seemingly preferred method of deposition of unwanted court officials (that is to say, throwing them out a high window).
My favorite part of the castle was actually walking the grounds and gardens along the side, where you can look over the city ... over the minions, if you will ... over the serfs and subjects of this architectural grandeur. Well OK, only in the imaginative past, those serfs. Nonetheless, very pleasant. First photo, notice the friendly guard hanging out amongst the greenery.
At one point, as you descend toward level ground near the river, you find yourself looking down into this rather odd space with dripping, organic-like shapes that look as if formed out of limestone or cement. In fact, it's a man-made wall whose features are called dripstone. It covers a large area of the Wallenstein Palace Gardens, and makes for kind of a jarring but not unpleasant juxtaposition of modern artistic architecture with very classic gardens and an outdoor stage where I found an orchestra practicing one day. There were several families of peacocks in the gardens which I watched with fascination as they claimed territory and persecuted one another, the mother peahens coddling the strong chicks and abandoning the weak ones.
And now for a study in feeling small and insignificant in the face of human accomplishment ... stand before St. Vitus Cathedral! You can see from the first photo, only a portion of the exterior can be captured in Erik's camera lens. I've stood before some tall cathedrals before, but this one seemed particularly immense, looming above me. Can't decide whether it's ethereal or sinister, reaching Heavenward to the wide sky or glaring down upon the punificent. Daunting, in either case .....
The inside of the cathedral ....
Check out the set of organ pipes!
Walking down through the cathedral and castle grounds, down long stairways and narrow streets, eventually you come to the Charles Bridge, the most famous bridge in Prague. After crossing the river, you can then continue on to the Old Town Square where the town hall with its astronomical clock presides. The bridge was undergoing renovation while I was there, so it was closed down to "one lane" shall we say ... which is to say at only half its normal width, it could get exceedingly crowded, almost claustrophobic during the day and evening.
The outside wall of the tower at the end of the bridge is very ornate and full of statues and coats of arms. All along the bridge are stone statues depicting sometimes kind of random scenes. Street performers line the bridge with their acts, and artisans with their crafts, but with the half-width bridge during renovation, this got to be a little too much. I'd like to return when it's fully re-opened. Just one more reason (excuse?) to come back to this lovely city.