Category Archives: Travel Diaries

31 Countries and Counting…Reflections, Memories, and Lessons Hard Learned

Travel Diaries: A Christmas Pilgrimage to Bethlehem of Palestine (Part I of II)

Christmas Eve comes and goes, but once in ten lifetimes, you travel to Bethlehem.

3.10 Eastern European Time, December 24th, 2004.

I often wonder how we got there in the first place, a couple of guys with their girlfriends in the holy land.  I am so glad we went for it.

After a night in Tel Aviv, we catch a sherpa to Jerusalem.  There we meet Reuben, a Jewish American.  He is traveling here alone during his winter break, for pilgrimage.  As we make our way to the old city looking for shelter, we find a hostel right in the heart of old Jerusalem.  We are not quite sure why Joel seems hesitant.  We climb the narrow ancient stairway ascending to the second floor lobby.  “Do you have room,” we six ask.”  “Yes, replied the manager.”  Then he sees Reuben. “We have room for five,” he retools, staring through our new friend who doesn’t seem surprised.  “We don’t serve your kind here. Out! Out!”

As I look back on that moment where we watched Reuben flee down the stairs, I am ashamed that we stayed.  It was realistic that we kept our mouths shut.  I had only seen the aftermaths of these types of tensions and only on the news: decimated markets charred by the anger of this place.  Now we are seeing the makings of racial violence.   We are not sure what “kind” Reuben is.  The only difference we see is his skullcap, courageously pinned to his head. He is run off for it.  And because of our clothes, we find our shelter.

Our plans are soft.  We might enjoy Christmas Eve in Jerusalem; find a good street bargain perhaps.  But Bethlehem is only six miles away.  Somebody has the brilliant idea: let’s walk there. We cannot resist.

So, with map in hand and the travel warning to Palestine unheeded, we set off on the road to the city of David.  It takes only a few hours as city fades swiftly into the groves of the hilly countryside.  We walk past suburb and aside Jewish settlements, which inches their way in to Palestinian territory like us.  After a short walk down and up a small mountain, the barbed wire comes into view.

There they are, Israeli guards with their AK-47’s checking the trunks of each pilgrim who wants to get to the midnight mass.  I think, “well, good try folks.  Here’s where we get turned back.”  But it is not that way.  We get closer to the checkpoint, then right up to the fence. I try to make a connection with the guards.  They seem not to care about five wandering Christians.  So with great hesitation we simply walk past the checkpoint. No questions asked. No worries.  Not even eye contact. It is as if we are invisible!  And better that way.

Once past the military outpost, we scurry forth until we see the city.  There she is, Bethlehem of Palestine in all her Islamic splendor.  Before we reach the gates, we come upon a crowd of eagerly checker headed taxi folk.  They gather to collect pilgrims. And, I think to my Western media saturated self, “not a chance of getting in a car with these dudes.”  My companions feel more adventure than I.  And before I know it, we are crowded like sardines in the vehicle, flying off to the heart of the city.

When we pull up to Manger Square I am taken back by the Christmas crowd, on the one side, and the sublime melody calling forth from the lofty minaret of Omar Mosque, on the other.   In between the two religious buildings there are hundreds and hundreds of Muslim men.   Small shops line the Manger Square, and there is a stage in the center with a children’s choir singing “Away in a Manger.”  It begins to rain, and there are six hours until midnight.  We soon find out the worst news of all: you need to order your tickets a month in advance to have a chance of getting in.  Our five spirits were soaked. But the spark of adventure would fuel our hopes and grace us with the most unforgettable compassion we would yet to encounter.

Read Part II

Travel Diaries: Getting from Greece to Bosnia—The Journey of Destiny

They told us not to do it.  But what did we know, young lads out on our prime adventure? They said getting from Greece to Bosnia was too dangerous,  the remnants of the war too flammable.  But did we listen? No.  Did we take to the shelter of the Adriatic ferry?  Not a chance. Our path would lay inland, through the Macedonian mountains and into the heart of Serbia.

4pm Eastern European Time, November 15, 2004.

We say goodbye to Greece after two long weeks of great exploration.  We three kings turn our eyes to the north.  Our wait at the Thessaloniki train station comes to a bittersweet end as Paul and I finish our masterpiece: a makeshift checkerboard on which to arrange our new plastic chess set. The vagabond’s pleasures are, after all, simple and light.  We double check the timetables again and board our train from Greece to Skopje, Macedonia, destined to arrive at 6.45pm.

We find our car, and as two and a-quarter hours  pass, Paul poises himself to deal the final check-mate.  Our watches tell us we have arrived.  “That was quick, I said to Mark.” So, gathering up our bags and supplies, we do what now seems like the most foolish choice.  We hop off the train, despite the fact that the Macedonian capitol looks strangely like the countryside.  Then falls our first stroke of fate. The car master, as the train begins to inch away, yells out to us, “SKOPJE!”.  We point to the ground beneath our feet with great pleasure and call back, “SKOPJE!”.  He urges us back to the train, “SKOPJE!”.  Now, nerves beginning to bubble, we raise our hands to the sky, and plead back, “SKOPJE?” Then, in a genius act of inter-lingual transcendence, the master stretches his arms like a desperate grandfather: “SKOPJE!”, he cries.  Our light-bulbs light.  And with out hesitation, we bust our move back to the train, calling out our unnerved praises, “SKOPJE!!!!”  While we boarded the moving train, we had no idea that our second stroke of destiny was peering out his window watching three ignorant lads get a second chance. By the way, did you know there was a time zone on the northern border of Greece?  Yeah, me neither.

Travel Diaries: The Most Dangerous Thing I’ve Ever Done…Atop Mount Olympus

I am devoting my post today to my Mum, Chris Jagger, who would have up and killed me had she known what danger I was in atop Mt. Olympus.  Love you Mom.  Happy Birthday!


Homer writes about Mt. Olympus in the Iliad. In the first book, the mother of Achilles (try not to think Brad Pit), contends that she will, “go myself to snow-clad Olympus to tell what you [Achilles] say to Zeus whose joy is in the thunder…and then I will travel to Zeus’ palace of the bronze threshold, and will kneel to him and think to win him.”

Well, we did not find the bronze palace, but as we were thousands of feet above the clouds atop one of Europe’s highest peaks, snow we had in plenty.  As we scaled the peaks of this once forbidden range, I had to wonder how many humans have ever scaled these walls since the first person in 1913.  I definitely had no idea of the danger involved.

November 9th, 2004.  With my black outfit, in my new Athens coat, we bussed to Litochoro and walked the long sunny road that seemed to run to the summit of Olympus.  This would be a long preperatory day.  The sun beat down on my black outfit and began to bake me.  Ahead was the summit, shrouded with clouds.  We got to the city and found our resources: maps, food for the next day, and a taxi.

The mountain was split up in thirds.  3,000 feet to the end of the road, 3000 to base camp, and 3,00o to the peak. The taxi took us to the first of these thirds, and we rested there for at time. The mountain trail lay before us ready to be tread. So, we walked it for three hours up steep inclines and uneven footing.  Winding our way up, we chased the sunlight and lost by a hare as the dark mist surrounded our base camp.

Camp A was desolate, having been closed for two or three weeks already for the season.  So in the early hours of the night, the six o’clock darkness came on to us.  It was cold.  We situated our place of rest, crawled in our sleeping bags, and curled together.  We ate dinner and were asleep by 7.30.  The stars came out and went as clouds passed through the marbled night.

It was a cold night, and my toes struggled through it.  But morning came, or rather, I should say, 9.30 did.  After 14 hours we we were out of our bags.  The sun gave its best shot at gracing us, but the clouds powered over our clear morning.  So we packed our essentials and left our big packs behind in garbage bags, laying them on the side of the closed lodged.  We would not be back for six hours.

Climbing Olympus was by far the most dangerous thing I have ever done.  For, in late November, pre-noon gave us not only icy paths and whipping wind, but we were not equipped for such conditions, with just our sneakers and modge podge coverings. Paul and I were wearing socks as gloves.

It was only a few minutes before we hit snow.  And the next three hours would be full of it.  As we climbed to higher places and along the switch backed trails, we eventually came to a height where the clouds were below us, and the expanses of Olympus came into the clear.

We were on our way up to the peaks on our right, and miles to the left stood other lesser peaks.  But lesser, in this scale, only means that there is large grandeur in the area. Up we went as if it would never end. Climbing along ridges where if we slipped to the left, we would get plunged thousands of feet down an icy slope.  And to the right, if we would fall through deceptive ridge snow, we would free fall down another thousand.

We found our way near the three hightest peaks, Skala, Skolia, and Mytikas.  So we went for Skala and Skolio.  The wind froze even the rocks. And we traveled on, until we conquered Skolio and Skala.  Then on to the very top: Mytikas. But the was shut by the winter’s wrath. Seeing that we were ill prepared with no ice picks or crampons for our feet, we decided that the dangers were too great.  We didn’t want those cliffs to be our fate.

We didn’t reach Mytikas.  Maybe someday we’ll go back and try.  But we did get some amazing perspectives and some great views.

Traveling down was a bit easier, because the sun had come out and melted the snow.  But otherwise we continued on atop the emerged rocks.  Three hours up.  Three hours back to base camp.  And then came the longest leg-paining walk to the mountain village.


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Travel Diaries: Chang Mai Thailand

We only scratched the ancient surface of Chang Mai Thailand.  But who knows how far back we went when we learned to cook Thai recipes passed down from generation to generation. Plus we had a great experience and a satisfied belly. So, if you are ever in Chang Mai Thailand, devote a day to cooking school.

We chose Baan Thai.  Located right outside the old city walls, Baan Thai was the perfect mid-sized city location to learn to cook the country’s most famous cuisine.

Chang Mai rests in the mountainous north of Thailand about a day’s train or an overnight train ride from Bangkok.  Thailand has an incredible transit system, so it is an easy in.  The city can trace itself back 700 years and boasts walls and temples at least back five hundred. CM lacks no charm.  So, when we picked up fliers for cooking class, it was almost a no-brainer.

Class started early and ended late.  We found our way to the grounds, and after  meeting the 7 or so other lucky tourists, the courteous instructors swept us away to the markets.  She showed us just what to look for as we purchased our ingredients for four meals.  Basket in hand, we discovered foods like ginger for the first time again. Other vegetables, I have not heard from since.

As the day went on, we completed recipe after recipe and delighted in the cashew chicken and green curry.  We discovered oyster sauce and learned about the pains, which create the curry paste.  We cracked coconuts and make milk.  And just when we felt like we could not eat any more, out came the next recipe.   I remember so distinctly reclining with our comrades and listening to Thai lore.  We even got a recipe book “compliments of the manager” :).  I have cooked with it for six years now but have not yet been able to recreate the authentic taste from that day.  Needless to say, I visit Thai restaurants now with a new appreciation and a greater ability to navigate the menu.  When in Thailand, you have got to take cooking school.


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Travel Diaries: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill has been for me more than an amazing destination, though it is that. I held one of my first jobs at this largest restored Shaker Village in America.   I have made a living, ate like a king, retreated, hiked, and picnicked with my family on this historic land. The timeworn buildings and their 81 renovated guest rooms overlook a sublime countryside with historic farms and mossy rock fences.

For over a year, I worked behind the front desk for the hotel. I helped cater the various meetings held throughout the village.  And I worked on trash and linen duty.  You can imagine how intimate I became with each building and its quirks.   I could answer the guest’s questions before they could spit them out, and during each work day– often filled with local drama– we each were give one of the delectable meals free and served at five star quality.   Corn pudding, meat that fell of the bone, fried okra, corn bread.  This was my kind of food: hearty, historical, and full of love.

After my year of employment, I would often return for solace and a connection with the stunning natural surroundings.  The hiking trails weave across of farm and woodland.  The protected groves shelter herds of deer, which can be easily tracked by the eager woodsman.

And, after five years of enjoying this natural and historical wonder, I will leave it full of memories. Bird watching, hiking, picnics by the lake, feeding the turkey duck, the river boat cruise, and enjoying the one-of-a-kind craft store top the charts.  Here’s hoping you get a chance to go and that my little family can make even more memories here as the years unfold.


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Travel Diaries: Beijing China

Beijing came on the heels of a one month music tour through Hong Kong and the Mainland.  It was 2004.  A generous grant from the Freeman Foundation sent 30 music students on the adventure of a lifetime.  We shared our craft with a prep school in Wuhan and lit up the map from Shanghai to Xi’an, from the Great Wall to the Li River.

And here we landed, in the ancient city of Beijing.  And like I would eventually discover, ancient cities which still operate offer a mix of historical majesty and bright hope.  Only three years earlier, the People’s Republic learned of their successful bid for the 2008 olympics.  Work had just begun.  We explored the forbidden city and endured the eternal line, which spun through Tiananmen Square and through the embalmed tomb of General Mao.   Across the street from this great landmark, I found two strings of gorgeous pearls and brought them home for my loved ones.  You gotta love great finds.  Our journey ended in the Temple of Heaven, where the Emperor for centuries invoked the gods on behalf of the dynasty. Magnificent.  A must see!

On my final day, I gathered the courage to wander alone (a skill every great wander must learn).  I hailed a taxi outside the hotel lobby and told him to take me to the government.  I wanted a tour of the great communist capitol hill.  I arrived, paid the driver with Yuan, and emerged to see a giant gated building with armed guards at every block.  Setting my stereotypes aside, I approached a guard and inquired about tours.  He responded in Chinese.  He hailed a fellow guard who, I learned, spoke amazing English.  I was disappointed that the leaders were in session and the tours cancelled.  Yet, this young 18 year old Chinese boy in dress and this 22 year old American boy engaged in one unforgettable conversation.  We spoke of our dreams and hopes. I asked what he thought about his government.  He asked about mine.  We shared a common love for justice and a vision of world living at peace.  It was a moment of hope and possibility, and for a suspended slice of time, two young citizens of the Two World Powers stood and talked like brothers.


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Travel Diaries: Singapore

The Island City-Country of Singapore has figured it out.   Internationally known more for its harsh rules than its brilliant society, this beacon Multicultural nation shines bright in the Pacific.

We visited in 2008 after I graduated from my Masters program. My wife and I through caution to the wind and took our then one year old girl half way around the world.  It can be done!  There we stayed for three weeks.  It took all that time to get used to the chicken’s feet in the food, though the oddities soon receded behind the brilliance.  Not the least of which was the vast array of tropical fruit known to man. This is not to mention the worlds finest zoo along with the Night Safari–a nocturnal zoo experience unlike anything you’ve ever dreamed.

While one might think that the botanical gardens stretch like a root throughout the whole plush city, there is one park designated especially to the national flower: the orchid.  You have never seen so many varieties displayed in one place.  Simply Beautiful.

One my best memories included the journey downtown and to the Museum of Asian Civilizations.  I spent hours slowly weaving through the exhibits on South Asian Buddhism, Islam in the Islands and Malaysia, The Chinese dynasties, Hinduism in Asia, and South East Asian Kingdoms.  This is a must-see for anyone interested in the contours and beauties of Asia.  Singapore, was a taste of the glory of Asia to come and a dwelling in the glory of Asia gone by.  If at all possible, don’t miss this destination.


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