The stamp: Laos
The backstory: In 1999, Cheryl Hannah of Aspen, Colo., was part of a group visiting northern Thailand.
The first-person account: One day our tour guide suggested we cross the Mekong River and spend the day in Laos. He found a local ferry (i.e. a fishing boat with a bamboo roof for shade) to take our group of 16 across. As a child of the 60's, I found just crossing the Mekong River, which I had heard about almost nightly on the news from Vietnam, to be quite an experience. In this area it's a wide, deep, muddy-brown river that the local people still use as a highway for transporting themselves and their goods from Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand downriver.
We were lucky enough to visit on market day, so we all enjoyed wandering past the displays of fruits, vegetables, T-shirts, hardware, plastic buckets, live chickens, dead pigs, and handcrafted goods. We got lunch from one of the market stands: rice, steamed vegetables, and pieces of pork flavored with a unique blend of spices that I've never been able to re-create.
It was hot and dusty, but our guide told us not to drink the water. Since it was the exact shade of the Mekong River (just slightly less cloudy), none of us argued with him! Instead, liquid refreshment consisted of warm bottled beer or fruit-flavored soda pop. Though very few of the Laotians we met spoke English, they all smiled constantly, and sign language worked for most of the day. Our trip back across the Mekong River into Thailand seemed like time travel from the 18th to the 20th century.
The stamp: Turkey
The backstory: Mark Koepping of Portland, Ore., was traveling last year on vacation from Greece to Turkey when he got this stamp.
The first-person account: I was on the Greek island of Kos when I thought of how cool it would be to go to Turkey. Bodrum is just a short boat ride from Kos but a world away. It's another continent--Asia Minor! Bodrum has the ruins of Maussollos, Mausoleum (aka the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus), one of the six lost wonders of the ancient world (the seventh, the Great Pyramid of Giza, is still standing). Bodrum also has a great nightlife. Many Europeans vacation there. From Bodrum, I took a bus to Ephesus, which is just outside Kusadesi. The Roman ruins of this city are spectacular! I also saw what remains of the Temple of Artemis: not much, just a column. The food has spices like nothing I have experienced before. Five times a day the mosques in this Muslim nation announce the call to prayer.
The stamp: Libya
The backstory: Bob Peterson of Carrollton, Tex., got this stamp while working in Libya in 1980.
The first-person account: I worked in Libya for six months for Occidental Petroleum. During my stay in Libya, the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was abandoned and then was burned down (supporting the hostage taking at the U.S. embassy in Iran). It was a tense period diplomatically.
We flew into Tripoli from London. The only other cities with flights to Tripoli at the time were Rome and Geneva, Switzerland. Most of Europe and the Middle East were not on good terms with Libya. The stamps in my passport were applied meticulously one by one at the immigration station at the Tripoli airport. All Arab citizens went first, followed by Europeans, followed by people from anywhere else in the world, and the last people admitted into the country were Americans.
Libya has an amazing history. I saw some of the most beautiful Roman ruins imaginable. Leptis Magna was the summer resort of Cleopatra and the Roman nobility. Much of the city is still intact and untouched by tourists. I also spent time in Benghazi, where many World War II battles took place. Lots of tanks and artillery left by Rommel (the Desert Fox) remain to this day because the dry climate does not induce much rust. We as Americans don't realize how important those battles were. He who has the oil, wins the war. (Not much different today, is it?)
The stamp: Syria
The backstory: Jean Christiansen of Flower Mound, Tex. traveled to Syria in February 2005.
The first-person account: I met my daughter and some of her friends, who were all living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and working at the U.S. embassy there. I flew into Damascus from Qatar and my passport was stamped at the airport. We spent a few days in Damascus at the souks, the mosques, and the shops on Straight Street--the street where Saul was allegedly converted and changed his name to Paul. We also hired a car and driver and went to Palmyra and Crac des Chevaliers. We drove right near the borders of Lebanon and Iraq, but did not attempt to cross.
The stamp: Sri Lanka
The backstory: Jean Christiansen went to Sri Lanka in August 2003, with her daughter and some friends.
The first-person account: We flew into Colombo, where my passport was stamped, and then toured Sri Lanka for a week. We visited Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy, and Nuwara Eliya. We stayed in local places (not chain hotels), and had wonderful food. Our guide was great, but his name sounded like "Dummy," and we had a hard time calling him that!
The stamp: Burma
The backstory: Jean Christiansen has been to Myanmar (formerly Burma) many times, but this stamp is from her trip in February 2006.
The first-person account: At that time I was living in Texas, but I went back to visit friends in Thailand and Myanmar. I spent several days with a friend in Yangon (Rangoon), and several days at Lake Inle, which is one of my favorite places in the world. As the sun went down, I hired a boat and took pictures of the fishmen--the famous leg rowers.
The stamp: Nepal
The backstory: Jean Christiansen has made several trips into Nepal. This stamp is from her trip in August 2003.
The first-person account: I was traveling with my son, daughter-in-law, grandson (10 years old), and granddaughter (8). We flew into Kathmandu, where my passport was stamped. We spent several days touring sights in Kathmandu, including the Monkey Temple, the pilgrimage site Pashupatinath, a Bakhtapur, and Patan. We then drove overland to the Chitwan Jungle, where we went on safari on elephant back and saw rhinos that looked like they were armor plated. The highlight of the trip was riding the elephants bareback into the river and bathing them. We also got a bath, as they continually used their trunks to spray us. The kids still talk about it!
The stamp: Brazil
The backstory: Chelsea Wald of Silver Spring, Md., visited Brazil when she was a Fulbright Fellow in Chile in 2001.
The first-person account: The Brazil Fulbright Commission decided to invite all the South American Fulbrighters to Brazil for a conference in the spring of 2001. But they didn't seem to realize what a hassle (not to mention expense) it would be for us to get visas! In the end, I went to the Brazilian consulate in Chile to apply for the visa, and I was granted one.
The Fulbright conference was in Brasília, the capital city. From what I understand, it's a planned city that was basically hacked out of the jungle in order not to favor any of Brazil's other cities with the seat of government. The architecture there is phenomenal--everything is larger-than-life and utterly symbolic. But my biggest impression of the place was that it was empty. No one was walking down the streets (in fact, the sidewalks were falling into disrepair), the restaurants were lonely, and, in some cases, those monumental buildings were kept company only by our small group.
The stamp: Bangladesh
The backstory: Chelsea Wald was invited along with her husband, to join their close Bangladeshi friends from Baltimore as they visited their families in Dhaka in the fall of 2006.
The first-person account: It was a once-in-a-lifetime invitation, so we dropped everything and went. But the logistics of the trip weren't easy. Besides getting many vaccinations (ouch!), we had to apply (and pay handsomely) for tourist visas. It still boggles my mind that a country that desperately wants tourists would want to put up such a barrier to tourism, but I suppose it's only fair, since we require Bangladeshis to jump through hoops to visit our country. But everything went smoothly, perhaps in part because the official at the embassy had grown up in the same middle-class neighborhood as our friend, and he could hardly believe that it was our destination.
Highlights of the trip? There were so many! The greatest privilege was getting to stay in the home of our friend's family. We became close with the four children of the house and their cousins and friends, playing the Bangladeshi version of Sorry for many hours and waging dozens of thumb wars (a game we taught them, to their delight).
We also visited the beach resort of Cox's Bazar, staying in the finest hotel there for the price of a Motel 6 and eating frequently in what's possibly our favorite restaurant in the world--the Angel Drop, which stands bravely but precariously on stilts over the surf and provides diners with both total privacy and an expansive view of the Bay of Bengal.
Our other favorite destination was Srimangal, in the region of Sylhet, which is the heart of tea country. Tea is one of Bangladesh's largest exports, and the landscape where it's grown is magical. The tea plants are chest high and lush, and they're interspersed with shade trees that extend their branches to offer just the right amount of shade to the tea plants. Not so great are the conditions under which many of the tea pickers work--it's a hard job, and I understand that the pay is abysmal. For an outsider, however, the region looks simply idyllic. What's more, there are no tourists as far as the eye can see.
The stamp: Suriname
The backstory: Richard J. Pazara of Arlington, Tex., visited Suriname in 2004.
The first-person account: Since it is the only country in South America to require an advance visa for Americans, Suriname is not highly visited. So it's very laid-back, and because of its history, it is a mix of cultures. I really got a sense of getting along and tolerance there. For example, the mosque and the synagogue are right next door in Paramaribo, and they don't even have a fence between them. I really enjoyed my time there.
The stamp: Mozambique
The backstory: Richard J. Pazara visited Mozambique in 2004.
The first-person account: I flew into Maputo, spent two nights, then took an eight-hour bus ride to Pretoria, South Africa, where I rented a car to see a Durban, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Johannesburg before flying to see Victoria Falls. A visa was required, and I obtained it at the airport on arrival.
Maputo is a normal developing city with a few nice hotels and lots of grungy seen-better-days areas. I spent the second day flying to Inhaca Island and back. Since I had no bags, I took the local jitney, which stops a block from the airport--you know the deal Taxis from the big hotel costs US $20 and the local transportation costs 20¢.
On the return jitney ride, I jumped out 10 or so blocks from my hotel to do a little walking and happened upon a beautiful new building, which really stood out from the surrounding seediness. I quickly saw that it was a mosque, and knowing that non-Muslims are not allowed in some parts of the world, I just peered thru the fence. It was Friday and about time for the main prayer service, so mosque atendees filed past. One greeted me (in English) and invited me in, where he presented me to the imam. The imam was dour and certainly looked the part with his robes and beard.
He asked me what I wanted and I thought What have I gotten into? I told him the building was quite impressive, so he asked if I wanted a tour and assigned his son, who was about 20, to show me around. The son spoke very good English and spent 15 minutes explaining the mosque's history and the recent building program, funded mainly by the Muslim community in South Africa. He asked about me and had no reaction to my being from Texas. He spent another 15 minutes showing me the school and then begged off since the prayer service was about to start. I left totally impressed and uplifted at the hospitality and lack of hostility.
The stamp: Port Lockroy, British Antarctic Territory
The backstory: Billy Hancock of St. Petersburg, Fla., visited Antarctica with his wife in January and February of 2005 as part of a Grand Circle Travel group.
The first-person account: Getting to Antarctica is difficult, so we traveled in stages--first to Buenos Aires by plane, then flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, then across the Drake Passage by ship to the Antarctic Peninsula (600 miles from Cape Horn). We spent a week in Antarctic waters and made a total of 11 landings by boat. One of places we landed was Port Lockroy, a British research station that mainly monitors penguin colonies. The station, as a courtesy to visitors, will stamp their passports. There are no towns or commercial airports in Antarctica.
Antarctica in different from any other place on the planet because of its remoteness and isolation. We enjoyed the spectacular ice formations, the wonderful wildlife--penguins, seals, and whales--and the temporary isolation from civilization.