Krakow, a Showcase of Culture

February 11th, 2015
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Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow. © jesuscom/flickr

Krakow in southern Poland was a fun place to visit.  It is often described as one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.

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Busker in Krakow. © Sharon Lundahl

Like Prague, it is a walkable city. Most of the city’s historic area has been turned into a pedestrian zone with rickshaws, buggies and segways. It is a tourist magnet complete with its own Hard Rock Cafe, and the city’s squares teem with buskers and mimes.

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Florianska Street. © jesuscm/flickr

Krakow is a relatively small city, with about 750 thousand inhabitants, and was spared the WWII destruction of other Polish cities such as Warsaw.  Like other Middle European cities, the place is clean as a whistle.  The horse-drawn carriages even have a co-driver whose job it is to wield a butterfly-net-type sack on a stick as a pooper scooper…before the horse poop even hits the ground.

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Young Man in Krakow. © Sharon Lundahl

The Old Town district of Krakow is said to have about 6,000 historic sites and more that 2 million works of art.  Its historic architecture includes baroque, renaissance and gothic buildings.

You can find treasures and spend any amount of time exploring this 13th century merchants’ town, looking at wonderful old houses, theaters, churches and palaces lining cobblestone streets.

The magnificent interiors are famous for their color, stained glass, architectural details, paintings, sculptures and furnishings.   Don’t miss the ancient synagogues, 14th century fortifications, Jagiellonian University and the Gothic cathedral where they buried the kings of Poland.

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More Krakow Kids. © Sharon Lundahl

Even here, reminders of WWII’s devastation are never far away.  On a square near the wonderful medieval Krakow Castle is a simple wooden cross memorial to the Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in 1939 in the Katyn Woods.  And the old Jewish quarter has no Jews, though there are plenty of Klezmer music concerts and Yiddish museums to remind of how robust and vibrant that community once was.

Krakow is also the jumping-off point for tours to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps.  Although not a “fun tour”…such a trip is really, really a necessary (we think obligatory) visit for everyone to witness the pure monumental evil that was Nazi fascism.

Gothic Altarpiece of Vert Stross. © Nico Trinkhaus/Flickr

Gothic Altarpiece of Vert Stross. © Nico Trinkhaus/Flickr

The numbers, such as six million murdered, are incomprehensible to handle.  Seeing acres and acres of dormitories, with huge rooms filled with children’s shoes…and others with human hair which was used to stuff cushions and mattresses…brings the numbers into some human perspective.

Since 1979 more than 25 million people have visited this former concentration camp.  From 1955 to 1990 the museum was directed by one of its founders and former inmates, Kazimierz Smolen.

We watched several groups of somber Israeli high school students singing and holding ceremonies next to the huge gas ovens and couldn’t help but weep.

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Krakow at Night. © Arek Olek/flickr

 

A New City of Warsaw

January 22nd, 2015
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Golden Terraces Commercial and Entertainment Complex. © Jesuscm/Flickr

Warsaw was totally unexpected.  We found a modern city with skyscrapers–which was rebuilt after the total devastation of the central city by the Nazis in 1944.

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Pretty Girls in Warsaw. © Sharon Lundahl

The “Museum of the Uprising,” often called Poland’s best museum, should be seen by everyone.  It tells the story of 300,000 civilian Polish resistance fighters in occupied Poland who rose against the Nazis in August of 1944.  The spirit of the resistance fighters at first caught the Nazis off guard.  Then the Germans regrouped, and Warsaw experienced Nazi cruelty exceeding that they had suffered under previous centuries of Prussian and Russian domination.

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Photo of Warsaw from the Uprising Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

In the end about 800,000 Warsaw residents died–nearly two out of three of the inhabitants of their city.  Anything deemed of cultural importance was dynamited, and whole districts were set on fire.

Before WWII, 80 percent of Europe’s Jews lived in Poland.   In Warsaw there were 380,000 Jews in a total population of 1.2 Million.    Approximately 20,000 Jews live in Poland today: out of a total population of close to 40 million, the Jews represent at most .06%.

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Antique Shop in Warsaw. © Sharon Lundahl

Although the Jews in the ghettos and the concentration camps suffered the worst, of course, we should not forget that ordinary Poles were starved, killed and executed.

The uprising was an expression of hope for freedom and that others (the West) were coming to liberate them.  Two months after it started, the uprising was over, and an angry Hitler started to demolish all of Warsaw street by street to punish the resistance.  Virtually nothing remained.

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Chef from a Local Restaurant. © Sharon Lundahl

An expedition of American flying fortresses arrived too late and had little influence.  In spite of a capitulation agreement for humane treatment, most of the rebels were sent to POW camps in Germany.

After the uprising’s failure and the people’s massacre, the Soviets moved in as early as May 1944.   They dropped leaflets on Warsaw calling on the population and promising assistance.  By the end, little help was received.

The story was not over.  In the post-war Poland run by the Communists, Warsaw insurgents were tracked down, accused of collaboration and imprisoned or executed.

Fast forward to the future and the indomitable spirit of the Poles.  In the 1980’s Lech Walesa and his Solidarity Movement helped start the fall of Communism.

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Skyscraper and Stalin’s Building. © Jesuscm/Flickr

In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Warsaw was leveled, we were amazed by their dedication in rebuilding their beloved city.  Using photographs and paintings as blueprints, the Old Town was painstakingly reconstructed. It was only finished in 1962, and has now been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.   The Royal Castle, which marks the edge of the Old Town was reconstructed from a pile of rubble at great cost between 1971 and 1974.

Even though cities like Krakow are more popular with tourists, it is great fun to hang out at cafes and watch buskers on Market square.  There are many sights in the city worth seeing: the Royal Castle, King Sigismund’s Column, the Barbican, Wilanow Palace and many places connected with the Polish-born composer Fryderyk Chopin.

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Busker in Market Square. © Sharon Lundahl

A defining landmark of Warsaw is the towering Palace of Culture and Science; commissioned by Stalin as a gift from the Soviet people, it was built with about 40 million bricks and was finished in 1955.

In a recent magazine article comparing European countries, we read that a remarkably high 74 percent of all Poles report that they are “quite happy”.

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Photograph of Warsaw Burning in 1944. © Sharon Lundahl

The Fairy Tale City of Prague

January 9th, 2015
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Prague Panorama. © Pavel Moravec/Flickr.

At first glance Prague might seem like just any modern city, but any turn in the road reveals another fairy tale castle.  The city’s history shows in its medieval churches and palaces…now converted into art museums for Gothic and Baroque masterpieces.

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Art Nouveau–Alfons Mucha. © abaco77/Flickr

Fred visited Prague in 1973 when the Czechs were still reeling from the Soviets’ crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968-69. Then the city was grimy and depressed.  Soviet troops were everywhere with their big hats,  and secret police pushed through the night clubs demanding “documents” from patrons.

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Walking in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Still, the music Fred heard everywhere was all American.  Czechs chose the most anti-Soviet music they could find to play–country western and bluegrass!  A Czech told Fred that “the Soviets may occupy us, but they will never occupy our spirit.”

That spirit served them well.  Fast forward to our visit 40 years later, and the sparkling-clean city of Prague is a tourist magnet.  Prague reminded Sharon of the Paris of her first visit there about 50 years ago.   Food and lodging are not expensive, and you can linger in a sidewalk cafe for an hour without being bothered.  The feeling on the streets is happy, and the city is walkable.

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Pretty Girl in Prague. © Jakub/Flickr

We loved wandering across the 15th century Charles Bridge, with its kiosks to shop in for our store and street musicians and other busker performers offering entertainment.  Across the bridge from the Old Town, where we stayed, was the beautiful Prague Castle.

Although the streets are full of tourists, Americans are few.  It is fun to be on foot all day,  looking through the shops and quaint house of the Golden Lane,  the Mozart villa, and an Art Deco cafe where dissidents met in the 1980’s.

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Toy Museum in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Prague houses lots of museums, among them the Franz Kafka Museum, the Museum of Communism and the Mucha Museum of Art Nouveau works.

Today the Czechs like to be called part of Middle Europe, rather that Eastern Europe.  Perhaps this is an effort to disassociate themselves from their past of being under Soviet occupation.  Also, although most of the older Czechs speak Russian, they often refuse and speak just their few words of English.

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Buskers in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

The Czechs are very proud, and rightfully so, that they split with the Slovak brethren peacefully.  This was the only amicable split after the fall of communism and the two countries are still good friends.  Many shops and businesses in Prague are still owned by Slovaks.

Prague was an important European city in the 19th century and is again in the 21st century!  We loved our visit there.

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Franz Kafka Museum in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Middle Europe (New Name for Old Place)

December 26th, 2014
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Czechs Stating Their Opinion in Prague. © Sharon Lundahl

Our memories of working abroad defined certain places as Eastern Europe–using the old “Cold War” dividing line of Russian influence.

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Wandering streets in the Prague old city. © Sharon Lundahl

Traveling in October of this year in the countries of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, we learned that most citizens prefer to be identified as living in Middle Europe.  They are tired of being affiliated with a term that they feel is outdated and which identifies them as being repressed under authoritarian regimes.

We also found that people in those countries didn’t want to speak Russian with us, as it was a reminder of the same period.  Knowing Russian was still sometimes helpful, as Slavic languages share many similarities.

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Pretty girls in Warsaw. © Sharon Lundahl

We could often read signs or understand words in Czech or Polish.  It was difficult to get along in Budapest, however, as Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages and looks and sounds really weird.

We usually travel to third-world or at least more far-flung countries, where we can purchase exotic handicrafts to sell in our store.  We knew that Middle European countries also had interesting handicrafts, and we were attracted by the possibility of train travel between the different cities on our itinerary.  Also, it was sort of Europe, without being so expensive.

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Budapest Train Station. © Shawn Harquail/Flickr

Traveling by train was a mixed blessing, however.  While it is relatively cheap, and the rail cars are clean…and some even have power plugs for our smart phones…there are problems.  First, we had to go to the main train stations to buy our tickets; there, no one spoke good English, and once we had to wait more than an hour while the computers were down.  Second, it was confusing to find out what track you should be on, and there were often changes of trains required before your destination.  Finally, the trips were always longer than advertised.

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My favorite Polish Pottery for Sale. © Sharon Lundahl

Even though the train cars were modern, we suffered from the poor state of the infrastructure and the fact that the tracks seem always to be under repair.  One time we stopped 45 minutes without anyone telling us why.  The final straw was when the train from Warsaw to Budapest took 11 1/2 hours, and there was no notification about when to depart the train.

We just flew the final leg of our journey, from Budapest back to Prague.  It was convenient and easy.

One big surprise was that in the EU no one asked to see our passports, until the time we took our flight back to the U.S.   When a train attendant came through, he was only interested in looking at our tickets.

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Shopping at a local market in Krakow. © Sharon Lundahl

Because of the wide geographical spread between the countries, there were noticeable differences in personalities.  It is said, for example, that Czechs are generally non-confrontational, while Poles might be more straightforward with their opinions.  It’s taboo in Poland to shake hands at the doorway, but OK for the other countries.  The Hungarians seemed more reserved in their manners than people in Prague.

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Real Polish T-Shirt. © Sharon Lundahl

All of the cities we visited, coming off a terrible 20th century, have blossomed into huge tourist magnets in the 21st.  Even in October, we shared the streets and shops with many tourists, although apparently few Americans.

Fred likes to buy T-shirts in the local language, but that took some effort.  The city centers were full of shirts saying “I (heart) Poland” or “Hard Rock Cafe Budapest”…all in English.  We finally found our way to real local shopping areas and markets.  We would know we were successful when we saw T-shirts for sale with slogans in Czech, Polish or Hungarian!

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View from Riverboat in Budapest. © Sharon Lundahl

The Story of Rugs from Hunza

August 18th, 2014
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Natural Dyed Wool in the Hunza Valley. © Didar Ali

Our own interest in Hunza began many years ago in Africa when we began to meet Moslem friends who were followers of the Aga Khan.  These members of the Ismaeli Shia sect are the most liberal of all Moslems, and they often spoke about their homeland in the high mountain valleys of Central Asia.

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Fred and Didar Ali. © Sharon Lundahl

The current Aga Khan has an estimated 15 million followers in more than 25 countries.  Their community supports less fortunate members in remote areas through humanitarian programs and successful world-wide businesses like the five-star Serena Hotel chain.

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Hunza Poster. © Didar Ali

Sharon met Didar Ali, an Ismaeli from Hunza, when she was working in the Islamabad Embassy about ten years ago.  We started to buy wool needlepoint cushions made with natural dyes by women in his workshops to sell in the first years of our shop, Music for the Eyes, in Langley.

Traditional weaving in Hunza was historically quite basic — limited to a few village elders making coarse goat and yak hair rugs.  The Aga Khan provided support for the Hunza workshops dedicated to the training of young women, under Turkmen master weavers.   More than 250 women are now skilled carpet-weavers and earn decent wages.

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Hunza man dyeing wool for our rugs. © Didar Ali.

Even in the best of times, there are almost no  jobs in Hunza.  There are few natural resources and almost no exports to support a growing population.  The bad publicity resulting from extremist acts in other parts of Pakistan has drastically affected tourism.

In January 2010 a landslide buried an entire village in the Hunza Valley and hit three villages directly. The debris caused a natural dam across the river and destroyed most schools in this area.

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Hunza Girl Weaving Our Rugs. © Didar Ali.

In response to the resulting hardship, Didar Ali emailed us and asked us to buy some rugs.  We were able to send him pictures and colors we wanted, and his weavers created a new series of stunning gabbehs with natural dyes, intense colors and modern designs.

Even though we weren’t able to visit the Hunza workshops on this trip, we were able to send some boxes of books to schools where Didar Ali’s wife is a teacher.  We learned that at least 3/4 of the people in the Hunza Valley (and virtually all young people–including girls) are literate.  This is in a country where only about half of the whole population is literate, and millions of girls are blocked from attending schools.

This education has contributed to the high status of Ismaeli women.  Women and girls can even stroll bazaars alone at night without a problem, unlike in the extremist areas of Pakistan.

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Schoolchildren in Hunza with the Books we Sent Them. © Didar Ali.

This foreshortened visit to Pakistan has been our most “eventful” trip in many years.  Perhaps we were naive in thinking we could visit all our friends and avoid bumping into the troubles of the region.  What we learned, sadly, was that extremism, whether left or right wing, whether Moslem, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish, has engulfed our world and made it increasingly difficult for the 99.9 percent of us who are not on those extremist fringes to live our lives, to raise our families, to weave our carpets in peace.

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Hunza Ladies Weaving Rugs. © Didar Ali.

We will always be haunted by the image of the friendly young Pakistani children, amazed at seeing a foreigner, waving goodbye to us as they climb on board their school bus…and the bus door is closed by their armed guard carrying a machine gun over his shoulder.

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Rug Made in Hunza for Music For The Eyes

 

 

Hunza: the Inspiration for Shangri-La

July 27th, 2014
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Hunza Terraced Fields. © Gary Krosin.

We traveled to Pakistan in order to see the far-northern Hunza Valley, and especially to visit our friend Didar Ali and his designers and weavers who make rugs for our shop on Whidbey Island.

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Girl in Hunza Hat. © Didar Ali.

We chose May to visit Hunza, as Google calendar predicted sunshine and clear skies every day.  Good flying weather is essential, as the area has 8 of the highest 20 mountains in the world.  Sadly, Google didn’t reckon with this El-Nino-year of unexpected rains and floods everywhere, including where we wanted to go.

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Boy in Hunza Hat. © Didar Ali.

Formerly called simply “The Northern Areas,” Gilgit-Baltistan Province has the only snow leopard sanctuary in the world, as well as huge peaks such as K-2, the second highest mountain in the world.  This isolated, remote area has fascinated westerners for many years.

 

In the 19th century, the “Great Game” for influence between Russia and England played out here, and writers like Rudyard Kipling brought the exotic area to readers through books like “Kim” and “The Man Who Would Be King.”

In the 20th century, our fascination continued with James Hilton picking the area as his site GreatGame,Hunza,MusicForTheEyesfor the mythical Shangri-La in his book “Lost Horizons.”  More recently, the Hunza Valley showed up in Greg Mortenson’s school-building efforts in “Three Cups of Tea.”

During our trip, we were supposed to stay in the Hunza Serena Inn, in a magnificent setting with views of the Hunza Valley.  Located in the ancient town of Karimabad at the foot of Mount Ultar, the Inn looks down to green terraced fields and the Hunza River.

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Hunza River. © Jordi Boixareu@Flickr

The central city in Hunza, Karimabad, is basically a town comprised of six villages as you come from Gilgit on the Karakorum Highway.  There is a bazaar known for colorful shops and local dried fruits such as dried apricots, apricot nut, almonds, walnuts and mulberries.  Most meals are supposed to include apricots in at least one of its many variations.

Near the bazaar is Baltit village and the recently restored Baltit fort and museum.  The architects who built the Baltit fort about 500 years ago were Tibetan artisans invited to the valley by the wife of the Mir (king) of Hunza.

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Butcher In Gilgit. © Jodi Boixareu@Flickr

Other sights we hoped to visit were the town and fort of Shigar, the village of Khaplu’s wooden mosques and Gilgit’s centuries-old Buddhist manuscripts.  We planned to take daily four-wheel-drive explorations and hikes in this fairy-tale land surrounded by beautiful rugged and snow-capped mountains.

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Khaplu Fort. © Gary Krosin.

We chose to go via Islamabad and hope for good flying weather, as this was the simplest and least expensive way to visit the Hunza Valley.  The other more expensive and elaborate way to reach Hunza is to fly to China and then drive from the western Chinese city of Kashgar (now called Karshi) up the Chinese-built Karakoram Highway and over the high Kunjerab Pass into Pakistan to the Hunza District.

We chose wrong.  We later learned that a tour group of foreigners successfully visited Hunza a month later by driving in from China and seeing the sights we missed.  Oh well, maybe next time…

Stay tuned for the next blog, which will tell you about Didar Ali’s weaving cooperative.

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Gilgit Serena Hotel

 

 

Islamabad the Beautiful

July 10th, 2014

 

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The Serena Hotel in Islamabad. © Fred Lundahl

Islamabad has always been one of our favorite capital cities.  The construction of a new capital was begun in the 1960’s in order to reflect the diversity of the new Pakistani nation.

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Two Pakistani School Girls. © Sharon Lundahl.

Set against the backdrop of the Margallah Hills, the city was planned in huge open space grids with evocative place names like F-6, G-2, etc.  In a country filled with crowded cities with teeming bazaars, Islamabad was always a contrast and a breath of fresh air.

Its wide tree-lined streets made it especially beautiful.  Government buildings, foreign embassies, universities and mosques were laid out on spacious plots with lots of gardens.  Market areas were packed with shops, of course, but there was plenty of parking and lots of open parkland around.

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Security in Islamabad

In the old days, we hung out at carpet shops and wonderful book stores where modern hardback reprints of old 19th century histories and travelogues could be purchased for three or four dollars.  On weekends, when we weren’t hiking or biking in the hills overlooking the city, we could go to open air markets and buy wonderful handicrafts and rub shoulders with all sorts of people.

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Yasin, a rug friend and shop owner, with Fred. © Sharon Lundahl

Sadly, that Islamabad seems to be gone.  On this trip, some of the wide boulevards were blacked off with huge steel shipping containers denying access to entire sections of town, often where foreign embassies are located.

Now the largest employers seem to be security guard companies.  You can see countless men in

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Bilal, our Rug Supplier from Lahore, who showed us around.

uniform going to their guard jobs on scooters with machine guns slung over their shoulders.  These days companies making barbed wire and concrete barriers–both always in view–seem to be more successful than carpet makers.  Just getting into the lobby of the Serena, our five-star hotel, required four separate security checks.

Once inside the Islamabad Serena, you seem to be in another world.  Nested on fourteen acres of land and gardens, the hotel was built by the Aga Khan, to provide an oasis of beauty.  During our former trips, this premier hotel in Islamabad was full of Americans, many of whom were on temporary duty to or visiting the U.S. Embassy.  This time we only saw one American, a professor, during our stay at the hotel.  The few foreigners in sight were limited to mostly mountain climbers waiting, like us, for clear weather to fly to the high peaks in the north.

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A favorite Restaurant in Islamabad. © Sharon Lundahl

The American Embassy, which numbers over one thousand American employees, now houses all on the Embassy compound.  It has filled all its gardens and softball fields with trailers as residences.  There are strict restrictions on travel outside the embassy because of security.

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School Children Visiting the Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

When we were out with Pakistani friends shopping or eating in restaurants, we NEVER saw another westerner.  In museums, which used to be full of foreign tourists, they turned on the lights for us.  We were the object of curiosity to groups of children on field trips, who were not used to foreigners.  They left on their school buses, each armed with the guard carrying the ubiquitous machine gun.

Each day we returned to our hotel to find that the flight to the mountains had once again been cancelled by bad weather…or by finding we were not next in line for the few available seats.   There was just one daily flight to Hunza in a propeller plane to the 12,000 foot landing strip, and the view had to be clear to fly.

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The Serena Hotel. © Sharon Lundahl

The fallback plan had been to drive to Hunza, which took about 20 hours…if there were not any landslides.   Clearly, we did not want to drive through Taliban territory in Waziristan, and so decided to cut short our trip and return home.

When we travel we always use the free online “Smart Traveler Program” run by the U.S. government to register when and where we will be in case of emergency.   As we had left Pakistan early, we were in our shop on Whidbey Island when our phone range with the “Amber Alert” text sound.  The message was a warning from the Embassy in Islamabad to all Americans in light of the bombings at F-6 (our favorite hang-out) the night before.

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Musicians at the Serena Hotel. © Sharon Lundahl

 

Getting There is Half the Fun– MuslimMingle.com

June 22nd, 2014
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Dubai. © Eugene.Kaspersky@flickr

Our trip to Pakistan, once we decided not to go the expensive and problematic route through troubled Western China, was a simple flight on Emirates, a great airline, from Seattle to Dubai, followed by another up to Islamabad.  The flights were as a good as any 16-hour trip in Economy could be.    We were given a hard drive full of about 100 movies and tv shows, and had multiple empty seats to let us expand.

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Emirates Air Hostess (Gabriella from Argentina). © Philip@Flickr

The trip over the International Date Line dumped us in Dubai at one of the world’s busiest airports for a seven-hour layover.  We were in Dubai International Airport’s $ 4.5 billion Terminal 3, the exclusive province of Emirates Airline.   Covering nearly 18.5 million square feet, it is the largest air terminal on the planet.  It is also ranked as among the world’s most passenger-friendly terminals.

As of this time Dubai’s traffic is 75 million passengers a year, moving it past London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport.  By 2018 that number is expected to pass 90 million.

Dubai Airport at 3 AM. © ColleenLaughlin@Flickr

Dubai Airport at 3 AM. © ColleenLaughlin@Flickr

Dubai is a favorite destination for Middle Eastern travelers, both for its open-minded acceptance of all cultures, as well as for its catering to all kinds of tourists.   There is everything in Dubai from Disneyland-like resorts, to beaches, to ice-skating, to over-the-top seven star hotels and to themed shopping malls.

There were lots of long “sleeping” chairs, so we catnapped and watched humanity pass by.  Even though it was after midnight, shoppers were crowding in the 100 or so stores in our terminal, buying everything from the usual airport gifts to $ 11,000 bottles of 1947 Cheval Blanc.

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Down on the Docks in Dubai. © CharlesRoffey@Flickr

 

The airport was the most culturally diverse place we have ever been.  Through this ultra-modern terminal passed more different type of people than we had ever seen anywhere.  This being the “Little Haj” season, the were numerous Moslem men and women of all ages clothed in white haj dress, wandering through the high-end boutique shops and restaurants…many of whom looked like they had never been on any flight before.

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Islam Hitat and Sharon. © Fred Lundahl

We encamped on a couple of sleeping chairs beside a beautiful young Moslem girl, Islam Hitat, dressed from head to toe in black.   Sharon engaged her in conversation (she spoke both fluent English and French) and learned her fascinating story.   She is from Morocco, has a college degree in economics, and has parents who are quite secular–her Dad is a policeman.  Evidently Islam found herself a bit at odds with other Moroccans her own age who were becoming less Islamic while she was becoming more religious.

Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. © JamesForsyth@Flickr

Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. © JamesForsyth@Flickr

As it was nearing the time to marry, Islam did what many young people now do–go on-line to look for a mate.  She signed up on MuslimMingle.com and struck up an on-line relationship with a young educated Afghan man, who had also found himself becoming MORE religious than others around him.   Their only common language, interestingly, was English, as he was then living in London.

After only six weeks of on-line courtship, those young people–both from cultures where arranged marriages are still the norm–decided to get married.  Her new boyfriend flew to Morocco and formally asked her father for her hand in marriage.  After the wedding, they went to Jalalabad in Afghanistan to meet his family.  Although they were nice to Islam and gave her a couple of expensive diamond and ruby rings, she said she became afraid when hearing shooting at night… and did not like not being free to leave the compound.

A Dubai Police Car. © MubarakFarhad@Flickr

A Dubai Police Car. © MubarakFarhad@Flickr

So when her husband had to leave on a business trip, Islam insisted on returning to wait for him in Morocco.  Obviously, he is a wealthy Afghan, as he promised to buy a condo in Dubai for when they are in the area.  We asked Islam if she planned to continue with her career.  She said that wouldn’t be necessary, as her new husband has promised to give her anything she wants.  We wish Islam well.

Off in the dusty distance we could see the iconic high rise towers of downtown Dubai, including the Burj Khalifa–the tallest building in the world.

Dubai,MusicForTheEyes.com

Dubai from a Viewing Platform on the Burj Al Arab. © JonChoo@Flickr

 

Pakistan! You’re going where?

June 13th, 2014
Pakistan,Hunza,Karakoram,MusicForTheEyes

The Road to Hunza. © JamesTworow@flickr

Yes, Pakistan.  Actually, the far northern part was our goal.  Our May trip was planned to see a number of good friends and business colleagues in a country that is mentioned every day in our newspapers…and not in a good way.

Pakistan,Islamabad,Security,MusicForTheEyes

Security is Everywhere. © BennyLin@flickr

We have both visited Pakistan on a number of occasions during our diplomatic careers–Fred, first in the 1980’s, and Sharon, last in 2004.

Frankly, in our era it has long been a troubled place.  It has been ranked the 20th most climate-vulnerable country, because of many serious floods, earthquakes and avalanches on mountain roads.

Pakistan,Floods,MusicForTheEyes

Flooding in Pakistani town in 2010. © DvidShub@flickr

Also, terrorism and extremist activity have caused dangers not only to foreigners, but to Pakistanis too. Most recently, the U.S. unilaterally killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.   Even in earlier decades, there was danger; a mob sacked the U.S. Embassy and killed diplomats in the late 1970’s.

99.9 percent of the population is peaceful and pro-western, but that other .01 percent has caused a lot of trouble.   Can you imagine the stress of trying to live a normal life in Pakistan?  A school girl is shot in the head for advocating education for girls!  Wow.

Pakistan,Islamabad,MusicForTheEyes

Pretty Girls in Pakistan. © Sharon Lundahl

A recent Gallup poll asked nationals of over 100 countries how happy they were, and the results showed Pakistan as just about the most unhappy country in the world.

Still, we have a number of close friends in Pakistan, and we buy the majority of the rugs in our shop from there.  Pakistanis weave amazing carpets and are good business partners.  We thought it was time to visit them…however carefully.

Our goal was to visit the wonderful Ismaili weavers in the Hunza valley of far northern Pakistan.  We will be writing several blogs about our trip but, with all honesty, must admit that we didn’t reach our goal.   We curtailed our trip early and cannot recommend Pakistan–as the situation now stands–as a destination for even an intrepid traveler.

Hunza,Pakistan,MusicForTheEyes

Making Rugs in Hunza. © Our friend Deedar Ali

Pakistan is a big country ranging from hot tropical coastal plains and deserts in the south to very high mountains, the Hindu Kush, in the far north.  In between Karachi (yes, the airport attacks) in the south, and the capitol of Islamabad, (yes, the bombings), are fascinating ancient civilizations dating back thousands of years.

But, our destination was Hunza, a 12,000-foot valley in a region containing eight of the 20 highest  peaks in the world.  This includes K-2, also known as the “Savage Mountain” because of the second-highest fatality rate of its climbers.  It is the second-highest mountain on earth, after Mount Everest, at 28,251 feet.

K-2,Pakistan,MusicForTheEyes

K-2, the “Savage Mountain”. © AamirChoudry@flickr

Our plan was to fly to Islamabad and then skip over the dangerous Waziristan bits by flying up to the far north.  Unfortunately, the global bad weather brought by this year’s El Nino not only has caused bad floods in England and Bosnia, but has resulted in unseasonal torrential rains in Afganistan and Pakistan and messed up our plans to fly to Hunza.

Stay tuned for later blogs on Islamabad and Hunza.

Pakistan,MusicForTheEyes

There is a Train Beneath. © Lucio Virzi@flickr

Jimi Hendrix’s Favorite Beach Town

January 17th, 2014
Essaouira,Morocco

Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

In previous trips we haven’t made it down from Marrakesh…and our buying sprees…to the coastal city of Essaouira.  This time, however, we faced a day of “shops closed” due to the big Eid El Adha holiday, so we decided to try to find out why our Seattle neighbor Jimi Hendrix liked the town so much.  We found out.

Essaouira,Morocco

Street Salesman in Essaouira.© Sharon Lundahl

Essaouira owes its centuries-old existence to its strategic position along the Atlantic coast.  The Portuguese, the first of several European powers to occupy the site, name it Mogador…a wonderfully sinister-sounding word that supposedly was Tolkien’s inspiration for the name he took for his citadel of evil–Modor–in the Hobbit books.

Essaouira,Morocco

A rug Store in Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

At one time it was called the “port of Timbuktu”, as it was the destination of trade caravans bringing products, including slaves, from black Africa.

Essaouira lies at the crossroads between two tribes: the Arab Chiadma to the north and the HaHa Berbers to the south.  Plus they  have the Gnawa, who originally came from further south, and who are especially known for a special and respected kind of Moroccan music.

Gnawa,Morocco

Fred and Sign About Gnawa Music. © Sharon Lundahl

Gnawa music seems like one long song, but is actually a series of chants which describe various African spirits and is used by followers for a state of trance.  It is also known by its instrumentation, using large heavy iron castanets known as qraqab and a 3-string lute called a hajhuj.  The rhythm is is traditional and hypnotic.

The present fortified seaport of Essaouira dates from the 18th century.  It is a wonderfully atmospheric little beach town surrounded by massive crenelated masonry walls.  Its houses glow white in the sun with embellishments of that wonderfully bright deep Moroccan blue paint.

Essaouira,Morocco

Fishing Port of Essaouira.© Sharon Lundahl

As expected, most of the shops were closed for the holiday.  We were able to stroll, un-distracted and un-tempted by bargains, along the fishing harbor and through the sunny narrow paths and alleys.  Those were filled with the debris of the previous night’s celebrations of outdoor street barbecues.   It is the custom for each family or group to kill and consume a sheep for this holiday each year.

Essaouira,Morocco

Fred Playing Harmonica. © Sharon Lundahl

Scorched metal bed frames and piles of still-smoking hot coals were often paired with the decapitated sheeps’ heads of the night’s feasts, complete with pitiful open little sheep eyes staring up at us as we stepped around them.  Much of the Moslem world eats the entire sheep, including the head, but apparently not the Moroccans.

Essaouira,Morocco

Dyes and African Viagra. © Sharon Lundahl

Most groups of residents out in the streets and alleys cleaning up the mess were not keen on having their pictures taken.  We were rebuffed until we heard a boy in a group of street kids playing a harmonica.  Fred–who has carried a harmonica in his pocket for over half a century–whipped out his instrument and played along with the young Moroccan to the delight of his friends.  They even let us take pictures.

Essaouira,Morocco

Beach at Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

In one of the few open shops, we were finally, at long last, able to score something written in Berber script .  We came across wonderful little badges in Berber and French that said “I’m Berber and I’m Proud of It!”  We bought them all.

Essaouira,Morocco

Goats in a Tree.© Sharon Lundahl

On the road between Marrakesh and Essaouira we came across the iconic photo that is in all the books of a bunch of goats balancing on high branches of an Argon tree eating its nuts…exactly that photo.  We screeched to a halt and piled out in awe to take photos after a fee was duly collected by the owner of the goats.  The goats were not tethered to their high spindly branches, so we could only imagine that they received a cut of the photo fees their owner had collected.

…and we never found Jimi Hendrix’s stash.

Morocco

Our companions on the trip: Linda, Jean, (a Moroccan), Greg and Shevaun. © Sharon Lundahl

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