Middle East & The Balkans − 2019

Although I've been to more than 140 countries, there's a lot of the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe that I've never seen. It's about time I got there.

Since Christmas, I've been in Thailand. My village of Ban Pao in the north has become my home base in Asia. It's where I go to relax and prepare for my next adventure. Ban Pao is also where I've microfinanced a couple of businesses and helped a local elementary school. After almost three months in one place, I've developed a serious case of cabin fever − for which the only cure is to hit the road again!

The map to the left shows the part of our planet that I'll be exploring next. There's lots here. We'll see how far I get. Where I go will depend on which countries I can get visas for.

As usual, I don't have an itinerary. I'll be traveling with as few plans as possible. I don't even have an end date − which gives me wonderful freedom to pause anywhere for as long as I like, or to move on when the weather changes. All I have is a one-way ticket to ... (drumroll, please) ... Islamabad, and that's where the first chapter will begin.

Please join me on this adventure. I'll do my best to entertain you. If you have questions or comments, please email me.

Pakistan − March 24, 2019

When I began my quest to see every country in the world, Pakistan wasn't on the top of my list. In fact, Pakistan is not on the top of most travelers' lists. Pakistan doesn't attract a lot of tourists. I've been in Islamabad for almost two weeks. The only foreigners I've met are people who work here.

Yet last year, the British Backpacker Society ranked Pakistan as the world's top adventure travel destination, describing the country as "one of the friendliest countries on earth, with mountain scenery that is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination." The heck with the travel warnings. This sounds pretty good to me.

200 million people in a country
the size of the eastern US
Until Pakistan implements its e-visa policy, getting a visa for Pakistan requires filling out a lengthy application, submitting your passport to a Pakistani consulate in your home country, and then waiting for a few weeks. This seemed like a hassle. Besides, I didn't want to visit Pakistan as a backpacker or a tourist. I wanted to have a "real" reason to be here, and to get to know this culture by working with the people here.

So, I've come to Pakistan as a seismologist under a Fulbright grant. This is a nice change from how I usually travel.

As a Fulbright Specialist, I'm being paid by the U.S.State Department to teach seismology and to consult with Pakistan's Institute of Disaster Management about earthquake preparation, response, relief and recovery. My visa, travel expenses, accommodations and food are all paid, too. I'll be in Islamabad for 30 days. Click here if you'd like to read the proposal I submitted to get this cool job.

If you've been following the news, you know that Pakistan and India had a minor military scuffle recently. Problems started February 14 when Kashmiri separatists killed 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir. India retaliated by dropping a few bombs on Pakistan. This was followed by an aerial dogfight in which Pakistan shot down two of India's planes. The commercial airspace between Pakistan and India was closed for a while. Consequently, my arrival in Islamabad was delayed until March 12.

Islamabad isn't like other cities in southern Asia. It has no history. It was created from scratch as a planned city in 1961 to be the capital of the new country of Pakistan. Having seen Mumbai, Kolkata, Dacca and Rangoon, I was shocked − and pleased − to find that Islamabad has modern public transit, wide avenues (all of which are paved!), green spaces, monuments, a high standard of living and 24-hour electricity.

The population has grown from zero to more than a million in six decades, making Islamabad the fastest growing, most modern capital city in Asia. From a viewpoint just up the hill from my house, I can see how totally organized this city is, and how clear the air is!

Islamabad by day and night, as seen from the viewpoint at Daman-e-Koh

The PMD is the center of Pakistan's seismology research
The Fulbright organization that brought me here arranged for me to have a host institution. The logical choice was the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), which is the nerve center of Pakistan's seismographic network.
Drinking chai (tea) with PMD seismologists

The armed guards who keep me safe
As a Fulbright Specialist, I'm treated like royalty. I live in a comfortable house in a nice neighborhood. I have a driver who will take me anywhere at any time. There are people (men) who cook, clean and do my laundry.

The only drawback is that, because I'm with the U.S.State Department in a time of political tension, I'm closely guarded. There's barbed wire around my house. Two armed guards are stationed outside my house 24 hours a day. I can't go anywhere by myself. If I want some fresh air, my driver chauffeurs me to the cricket grounds and waits for me while I run laps.

The cricket pitch where I jog in the afternoons

The Faisal Mosque, inspired by a Bedouin tent
On weekends, in the company of my chauffeur, I get to be a tourist. Last weekend, I saw − but didn't enter − the Faisal Mosque, which was the largest mosque in the world from 1986 until 1993. Around the city, there are modern museums and impressive monuments.
The Pakistan Monument gets lots of visitors.

A Hindu temple in Saidpur village
Near Islamabad, in the foothills of the Himalayas, are some traditional villages. Visiting these villages gave me a better sense of what most of Pakistan looks like.

In 325 BC, Alexander's army came to the area that is now Islamabad. There was nothing here then. So, the Greeks built a small garrison nearby and went home. Archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of this city. Today, it's a nice day trip out of town.

A comfortable spot for chai and snacks

I love how Pakistani garbage and dump trucks are decorated.

Ruins of the Greek city of Sirkap, built ~180 BC

Click this photo for a short slide show of the parade highlights.
By luck, I happened to be in Islamabad for their biggest holiday of the year: March 23rd is Pakistan's Independence Day, the equivalent of America's 4th of July. The day is celebrated with parades, speeches and fireworks. Unfortunately, due to the current tensions with India, including rumors that India was planning an attack, celebrations were curtailed this year and I was confined to quarters.

Nevertheless, the city held an impressive 3-hour military parade, which I watched on TV. Click the photo to the left to see some screen shots. Or click here to see a 3-minute video replaying the parade highlights. The military parade was an impressive show of force, probably designed to discourage India from initiating an attack.

Meanwhile, last Friday, anti-government groups had planned political demonstrations. In order to prevent these demonstrations from being widely advertised or from getting out of hand, the government shut off everyone's cell phone service in Islamabad for a few hours. Hmmm ...

I'll be here in Islamabad until my 30-day visa expires on April 10. Being here as a visiting scientist is an excellent way to get to see a country and know its culture. I'm meeting lots of students, and making friends with professional colleagues. I've already been invited to come back. Next time, I'll visit on my own and be able to travel freely. That way, I'll be able to see the towering mountains to the north, which I've heard are amazing.

For now, I'd better get back to work. I've got another seismology lecture to give tomorrow morning!

Pakistan − April 9, 2019

Since my last blog posting, I've been busy giving presentations on seismic risk, geologic hazards, earthquake prediction and seismic engineering at ... In the process, I've seen a lot of Islamabad and Lahore, gotten to know this fascinating country and met many smart and friendly people.

Islamabad has good roads, public transit and shopping malls.

The Prime Minister House in Islamabad
Last week, I met with the NDMA on earthquake preparedness and response. Our meetings were held in the palace to the left, which was built as the home and office of the prime minister. (In other words, it's Pakistan's White House.)

The current prime minister, the wealthy former cricketer Imran Khan, prefers his own mansion. So, the administration uses this building as a meeting place for its many ministries. Photos are not allowed inside, so please click here to see official shots of the meeting rooms, staircases and chandeliers.

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)
Here's why I've come to Pakistan: About 10,000 Pakistanis die each year from natural disasters. With earthquakes, floods, cyclones, droughts, heatwaves, landslides and avalanches, Pakistan is shockingly disaster-prone.

87,000 people died in the earthquake of 2005. 20 million people were displaced by the floods of 2010.

These two events were wake-up calls for Pakistan. Since then, Pakistan has become one of the Top 10 countries with solid disaster management systems.

Students at Bahria University
It's exciting and gratifying to see Pakistan's government shifting from merely reacting to its natural disasters to having a proactive approach to disaster preparedness.

My visit to Pakistan was well-timed. Pakistan's universities are expanding their geology and meteorology departments.

The Fulbright program has allowed me to meet the new professors and to give guest lectures to their students.

Professors at Bahria University

Lunch with geologists at QAU
The US State Dept pays for my visit here. So, there are restrictions on where I can go and what I can do. Still, I've been able to socialize with faculty and students, go shopping, eat at restaurants, enter historic mosques and forts, and visit museums.

At one museum, I learned that Pakistan was once the home of the amazing Baluchitherium.

I've also gained about 3 kgs and 200 Facebook friends.

My students at the National University of Science & Technology

My local produce vendor

The extinct Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived

Ceiling mosaics in Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore

The stunning Badshahi Mosque in Lahore

Families in Iqbal Park, Lahore

Rickshaws waiting for customers

A friendly, outdoor dinner party
At the Badshahi Mosque, I had the place almost to myself − and entrance was free. Contrast this to India's Taj Mahal, where 10,000 tourists queue up every morning and pay $20 to get in.

In spite of what western media might say about political unrest in Pakistan or India's military threat, I've felt safe everywhere I've been. Prices are low. The streets are clean. There are few tourists. The infrastructure is good. Everyone I've met has been friendly and helpful.

Everyone wants to take selfies with me.

They don't want me to leave Pakistan.
My 30-day Pakistan visa expires tomorrow. I've been asked if I'd like to have my visa extended. I've also been invited to return to teach any time I want to. These are tempting offers, but I have to move on if I'm going to see the rest of the world.

I've been impressed by Pakistan in every way. The Fulbright program which has brought me here has been excellent. If you have an advanced degree (such as a PhD) and you'd be interested in a month of teaching and/or consulting in Pakistan, click here to learn more about the Fulbright Specialist Program and to start your application. Email me if you'd like to know more details.

Pakistan is an undiscovered gem with one of the world's oldest cultures, fabulous scenery, and wonderful people. Tourist visas will soon be available on-line. Although it's not easy to find a cold beer here, the food is delicious. Southern Pakistan is best in the winter, when it's cool and dry. The mountainous north can only be visited in the summer. If you're thinking of visiting Pakistan, come soon − before everyone else does!

Iraq − April 24, 2019

← Before buying my ticket to Iraq, I checked the US State Department website for their current travel advisory ... which assured me that I would not meet many tourists here.
As a child in Sunday school, I was taught that Iraq's Tigris-Euphrates Valley is where Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden. Certainly, this broad, fertile valley is one of the cradles of human civilization. However, modern Iraq is no Garden of Eden.

In fact, Iraq is a very messed-up place. Iraq is the home to at least four culturally distinct ethnic groups who don't like or trust each other. I became aware of this problem soon after I arrived in Erbil, which is in the blue part of the map to the left. My 30-day visa-on-arrival issued in Erbil was valid only for the northern corner of Iraq, aka Kurdistan, shown in blue. Unofficially, I was able to travel to the yellow areas.

How Iraq ended up with this mess is due to its complicated history, religious conflicts and oil. I'll skip the history, theology and geology lessons, but please click here for a concise explanation of how Iraq arrived at its current political quagmire. (I like that word.)

For this blog, I'm going to focus on the present and on one small minority group whom I visited called the Yezidis, also spelled Yazidi or Ezidi.

First, here're a couple of snapshots of downtown Erbil. Friendly place. No war. One tourist (me).

Evening in Erbil's central plaza with its famous fountains

A refreshing cup of tamarind juice

Yezidi pilgrims at the sacred temple at Lalish
So who are the Yezidis? They're an ancient people. They share DNA with the original Mesopotamians. 2019 AD is the Yezidi year 6769. So, their calendar started in 4750 BC, making theirs the world's oldest calendar.

Yezidis believe in one God, who created seven angels to protect us. Yezidis are descendants of Adam's first son − born before Cain and Abel. Yezidis pray facing the sun at dawn and sunset. They believe in reincarnation. Yezidis recognize Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, etc as sons of God. Yezidis seek love and harmony with all living things.

A Yezidi priest and his flock
I had the good luck to be in Iraq for the Yezidis' biggest religious holiday of the year. It's called Chwarshama Sur. It falls on a Wednesday near the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. It coincides roughly with Christian Easter. For Chwarshama Sur, Yezidis boil and color eggs. A Yezidi priest explained to me that the yoke of the egg represents the Earth. The albumen is the domain of the seven angels who watch over and protect the Earth. When Yezidis color their Chwarshama Sur eggs, they're honoring the blessings of our planet. The Yezidi priest also explained that the Yezidis were coloring eggs long before Christianity came along. Does this mean that the Christian tradition of coloring Easter eggs was borrowed from the Yezidis?

Colored eggs for Chwarshama Sur

Pressing olive oil for the Chwarshama Sur lamps

Click here to see everyone dancing.
For Chwarshama Sur, the entire Yezidi community turns out for dancing and picnicking on Shingal Mountain. The air is fresh with springtime. Wildflowers are blooming in the meadows. Life is good!

Before you rush out to convert to Yezidism, you should know that you can't be a Yezidi unless both of your parents are Yezidi. Furthermore, surrounded by violent and aggressive neighbors, Yezidis have been the victims of many genocides.

There are only about a million Yezidis alive in the world today. About half of them live in northwestern Iraq ...

... and this is where the sad story begins.

My host, Naim Ali, and his daughters
In June 2014, ISIS (known in Iraq as Daesh) invaded Iraq from Syria. ISIS quickly captured Mosul and made it their regional capital. Then on August 3, 2014, ISIS attacked the region of Shingal, the Yezidi homeland. Butchering Sinjar and the surrounding villages, ISIS murdered or kidnapped 6-10,000 Yezidis, while 300,000 Yezidis fled north into Kurdistan and Turkey.

The remains of the market bazaar in Sinjar

A bombed-out building in Mosul
Five years have passed. Central Iraq is still in shambles. 200,000 Yezidis are living in IDP camps. In the company of a tireless Samaritan (my old friend Amy L Beam) and with the help of several Yezidi interpreters and drivers, I've spent the last two weeks visiting the villages where the Yezidis used to live and the IDP camps where they live now.

I've passed through numerous checkpoints operated by competing militias. I've slept on floors in unfinished buildings. I've enjoyed the hospitality of people who have nothing, but give everything. I've heard harrowing stories told by survivors. In this blog, I'm going to share a few of these stories with you.

Rwanga (Qadia) Camp near the Turkish border

Amy L Beam interviewing Bassim with Nawaf (interpreter)
In August 2014, at the age of 11, Bassim was kidnapped by ISIS. He and his brothers were taken to Syria. Bassim spent four years in a jihadi training camp. Some of the Yezidi boys died as suicide bombers. Last month, Bassim and 13 other boys escaped during the final assault on ISIS in Baghouz, Syria. With luck and perseverance, Bassim was reunited with his family at Rwanga IDP camp. Bassim is very happy to be back with his family again, but sad that two of his brothers are still missing.

Khanki Camp near Duhok, Kurdistan

This family is divided between Iraq, Australia and Germany.
This is the Mahmoud Khero family − or what remains of it in Iraq. They used to own a prosperous farm near Sinjar.

On August 3, 2014, ISIS massacred this family, killing 12 men, kidnapping 28 girls and women to sell as sex slaves, and leaving the grandmothers and babies behind.

Many of the girls and women were eventually repurchased from their captors. One branch of the family now lives in Bielefeld, Germany. Another branch was granted asylum in Oldenburg, Germany. Two days after I took this photo, one mother and her children were sent to Toowoomba, Australia. The remaining family members are still in a tent near Duhok waiting to be sent somewhere. This is what a modern diaspora looks like ... and this is why the Yezidis say that the genocide is ongoing.

Sardashte Camp, elev 1500m: A cold and muddy place to live

This generous family served me lunch in their tent.

Distributing oranges to thankful children
Not all of the displaced Yezidis live in IDP camps with running water and electricity. For lack of space, 2300 families live in makeshift camps on Shingal Mountain. They have no financial assistance or access to markets.

During the occupation of Iraq by ISIS, some of the Yezidis took up arms to defend themselves. They were not one of the "official" militias funded by Iraq, Kurdistan, Turkey or Iran. So, they're particularly discriminated against.

These independent Yezidis are denied entry into Kurdistan. Their children cannot attend public schools. The UN and NGOs turn a blind eye to these people.

I spent a cold, windy afternoon on Shingal Mountain visiting these Yezidis, eating their yoghurt, rice and vegetables, listening to their stories, learning how they captured weapons and used them to kill ISIS militants. When I arrived at Sardashte Camp with 100 kgs of oranges, they were very thankful.

The Muhktar tells his story, while Saeed interprets.
Some daring Yezidis managed to escape being killed or captured by ISIS.

Over chai, the Muhktar (elder) of Hatamiyah told a hair-raising story to me and Amy L Beam of how he led his village of 600 through ISIS enemy lines at night, over Shingal Mountain to safety in Kurdistan.

Saeed in the passport office in Mosul, Iraq
Saeed, the Yezidi interpreter in the photos above, worked for the US Army as an interpreter during the Iraq War from 2003 to 2007. He was promised asylum in exchange for risking his life on the front lines. He still waits for recognition for his work and a visa from the US.
In the past few years, I've visited the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, the gas chambers in Auschwitz, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the mass graves in Rwanda. I've noticed something that all of these genocides have in common: After a few years, the tragic stories get forgotten. The details start to change. History gets rewritten by new governments. To put a stop to these genocides, it's important for the stories of the survivors to be recorded and distributed to document what really happened and to keep the truth alive.
My colleague and guide through the Yezidi camps, Amy L Beam, has spent the past four years recording the stories of the Yezidi Genocide. Her book, The Last Yezidi Genocide, is a record of the survivors' stories, as well as a detailed telling of the events as seen from the ground − not what was told by the international media.

The story of the Yezidi Genocide must be told far and wide. I've started a GoFundMe drive to raise money to translate Amy L Beam's book into Arabic, and later into Kurdish. These are the people most affected by this human tragedy who need to know each other's stories.

Please donate and help spread the word. For a donation of $40 or more, I will mail you a copy of The Last Yezidi Genocide in English. If you are ever in Iraq, you are invited to a tour of the Yezidi IDP camps. You will be warmly welcomed by everyone.

Useful links:


(Note: There are no administrative costs associated with your donation. Except for the 2.9% fee that your credit card company will charge, every single dollar you donate will go directly to translating this important book.)

Tajikistan − May 6, 2019

After seven weeks of serious work in Pakistan and Iraq, I was ready for some R&R. I took a chance on Tajikistan − someplace I'd never been before. Before coming here, I knew that Tajikistan had been the smallest and poorest of the former Soviet republics. After its independence in 1991, this country suffered a decade of civil war. In the recent past, much of its economic activity involved Afghanistan's opium. So, I wasn't expecting to find much here.

I bought a one-way ticket, planning to stay for only a few days just to look around. I ended up loving this little country so much that I stayed for two weeks.

Freedom Square, the Palace of Nations and the snow-capped Fan Mountains
Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, is a real gem. Its compact city center is pedestrian-friendly. The monuments and parks sparkle. Streets are shaded by flowering trees. There's lots of public art. Friends and families gather and talk on the wide sidewalks. In the near distance, tall snow-capped mountains beckon.
Ismoil Somoni monument

A traditional Tajik costume
I measure how friendly a country is in several ways:
  • Do people say hello to strangers?
  • Do they like to have their photo taken − and then do they ask for a selfie with me?
  • Are their clothing styles varied and colorful?
  • Do shop owners invite me in for tea?
  • Do cars stop for pedestrians in crosswalks?
  • Are the policemen happy to give directions?
  • Are the taxi drivers honest?
Tajiks win on all points. They're the happiest, friendliest folks I've met all year.

More traditional costumes
Under the direction of President-for-Life Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan has become peaceful and quietly prosperous. Mr. Rahmon's government maintains law and order, has resurfaced many of the roads, installed mobile phone networks, and built the world's tallest dam, from which Tajikistan will produce 80% of its electric power. (Incidentally, Tajikistan controls 40% of Central Asia's water supply.)
I'm not a big fan of opera or ballet. But when you can get a great seat for a professional ballet troop performing a famous ballet with a full orchestra in an exquisite theatre for only $2, why not buy a ticket? I was impressed.

The Ayni Opera & Ballet Theatre

Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty

Outdoor public art on Rudaki Boulevard promenade

The restored Hissar Fortress, 16th century
Tajikistan's #2 city is Khojand, in the north end of the country. Khojand is famous for having been Alexander the Great's northern-most Central Asian outpost. Later, Khojand was an important stopping point along the Silk Road. That's why there's a fortress and a huge market in the middle of this town.

The Islamic complex of Sheikh Massal ad-Din in Khojand

Khojand's Panchshanbe Bazaar, the largest market in Central Asia
Tajikistan is about the same size as Iowa ... but very unlike Iowa! Tajikistan is 93% mountains. More than half of the country is above 3000 meters. Tajikistan has dozens of peaks above 6000 meters. It's highest peak, 7495 meter Koh-i-Somoni, was the highest point in the former U.S.S.R. Tajikistan's largest national park (Pamir National Park) comprises 18% of the country.

My road-trip from Dushanbe to Khojand via Iskander-Kul took me back and forth through the jagged Fan Mountains. My guide explained that these are merely Tajikistan's hills. The real mountains are the Pamirs.

Just 45 minutes from Dushanbe, I was already in the mountains.

The Fan Mountains, elevation 4500+ meters

Drive carefully, no guardrails

Crystal clear Iskander-Kul (elevation 2200 meters), Fan Mountains in the background
On the far side of Iskander-Kul is where Tajikistan's president has his dacha (summer bungalow). That's also where the trails start for several hikes to the alpine lakes above.

In early May, my trekking opportunities were limited because the trails are still full of snow. The roads into the Pamirs aren't open yet either. July and August are peak season for hiking in the high country. Now that I know how easy it is to get a Tajik e-visa, I'm already thinking of when I can return for a longer visit. Tajikistan is a beautiful country. I'd like to see more of it!

Oh ... and did I mention that Tajikistan is not expensive? Transportation, housing, food and entertainment were all less than what I would've expected to pay.

The Balkans − May 31, 2019

In late 1981, I passed briefly through Yugoslavia, en route from Athens to Venice. In freezing rain, my bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. I took refuge in a local militia's hangout, which served hot food and cold beer. Some of you know the story of how I managed not to get killed that night. But I never saw much of Yugoslavia because my bus was repaired before dawn and I was on my way to Italy. Now, I'm pleased to return to a region that I've often wondered about − and to be here at a time of year when there's no freezing rain.

The former Yugoslavia is now six sovereign states − seven, if you count Kosovo. Throw in Albania, Greece and Bulgaria and you've got the Balkans. I've been to Greece and Croatia, and loved both of those countries. This time around, I want to see everything that I missed the first time that I was here almost 40 years ago.

I scored a bargain flight from Tajikistan to Istanbul. From Istanbul, a luxurious train took me to Sofia, Bulgaria. (I love trains!) For the next few weeks, I'm resolved to travel by buses, trains, cars, bicycles and boats − anything but airplanes. I'll see more that way. Still, this tour of the Balkans won't be long enough to really get to know all these countries. I just hope that I can get a good enough taste of what's here so that I'll know where to go and what to do when I come back here again.

Although these countries have recovered from the end of the Soviet era and from the Balkan wars of the 90s, tourism isn't fully developed here ... yet. The locals are friendly. They're happy to see visitors. Prices are low. My first impression of this area is that the Balkans are like Europe of the 70s − which can be a very good thing.
Of these countries, only Bulgaria is part of the EU. Most of these countries have their own currencies, which sharpens my math skills (ha!) and ensures that I'll have some new additions to my currency collection.


Population 7 million
As big as Virginia
Capital Sofia
History A Roman regional capital
If you like history and culture, you'll love Bulgaria's capital city, Sofia.

The area around Sofia has been inhabited for thousands of years. Fertile soils and natural hot springs drew the first inhabitants here. The Thracians lived here during the Bronze Age. In 29AD, the Romans founded the city of Serdica here and made it one of their regional capitals. The city was an important trading post on the Silk Road. To the Byzantine Empire, Sofia was second only to Constantinople.

Archaeologists have been busy here. Sofia's Archaeological Museum contains 6000-year-old treasures. Even more impressive is the Roman city of Serdica right in the center of Sofia. Serdica's ruins were found during construction of Sofia's metro system in 2010-12. When you ride Sofia's subway, you walk past 2000-year-old stone walls on the way to your train. It's like a time machine to step from a Roman city onto a 21st century train.

Because of its location between Europe and Asia, and its significance to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Sofia has inherited a rich cultural mix with mosques, synagogues and churches throughout the city. The oldest church dates to the 4th century. The most famous is the Aleksander Nevski Church, a neo-Byzantine masterpiece and a symbol of Bulgaria. Walking around the city, I was wowed by all the stunning gold-domed Orthodox cathedrals.

Aleksander Nevski Church

Interior of Sveta Nedelya Cathedral with its Byzantine murals, 1882-1912
Sofia's cathedrals are revered sites to which pilgrims make long treks, light candles, burn incense and give offerings. The interiors of these cathedrals are cavernous. Without pews or benches, they're particularly spacious.

As you can see from the photo on the left, on a sunny day, smoke from the candles and incense is illuminated by shafts of light from the stained glass windows, creating a ghostly and mystical atmosphere.

It took me two full days to see just half of Sofia's museums. Whew!

In one museum, I learned that the city's name comes from one of its oldest churches called Sveta Sofia, who was the goddess of wisdom and fate. Does this mean that people were wise to follow their fate and to settle here? There's a 24-meter tall monument to Sofia in the middle of the city.

By day, I played tourist, walking around, gaping at the beautiful old buildings and admiring the treasures in the handsome museums. When the museums closed, it was time to find a delicious meal − which was easy to do.

Sofia History Museum, formerly a Turkish Mineral Baths

Boulevard Vitosha, a pedestrian walkway
Through the middle of downtown is a wide pedestrian mall lined with cafés. Having just come from Iraq and Pakistan, I had wine with every dinner. On clear evenings, I sipped fine local reds while gazing at snowcapped peaks framed by flowering trees.

It's a good life!

Authentic Bulgarian cuisine at the Manastirska Magernitsa
I spent four nights in Sofia and made the most of the arts scene. I attended Beethoven's 9th, Madame Butterfly, An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, and an art opening. Every event was held in an elegant state-owned theatre or hall. Good seats never cost more than $20. Naturally, every event was sold out. I admire the way that the former Soviet republics continue to support and subsidize the arts.

North Macedonia

Population 2.1 million
As big as Vermont
Capital Skopje
History Alexander the Great and Mother Teresa born here
From Sofia, I took a bus over the hill to Skopje in North Macedonia.

I thought the name of this country was just Macedonia. But no. In February 2019, in order to avoid confusion with the province in Greece called Macedonia, this little country was required to change its official name from Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (abbreviated as FYROM) to North Macedonia. What a mouthful.

Alexander the Great and Mother Teresa would never have agreed to say "Hi, I'm from FYROM."

What I found in North Macedonia was a peculiar surprise.

In 1963, a major earthquake leveled Skopje. Still under the influence of the USSR at that time, the city government opted to rebuild the city with a utilitarian and efficient style called Brutalism, under the direction of an architect named Kenzo Tange. The result of Tange's work was a dramatic cityscape which reflected the streamlined look of the 60s. Click here to see what Skopje used to look like.

In 2010, Skopje's government decided that it was time for a major makeover. They refaced many of Kenzo Tange's buildings, and built 20 new buildings and 40 monuments along the river. The makeover is staggering and a bit bizarre. Now, instead of looking like something from the 1960s, Skopje looks like something from 60AD.

Skopje's riverfront and the Archaeology Museum

Hotel Senigallia in the Vardar River

Alexander on his horse
Skopje's wacky architecture isn't limited to the public buildings. Check out the Spanish-galleon-themed hotel where I stayed, in the photo above.

This city is a walk-through art gallery, museum, restaurant and casino. Totally kitsch. I'm not sure that Mother Teresa or Alexander the Great would approve, but the city had to do something after the earthquake in 1963.

Fortunately, some parts of Skopje have not been made over in Romanesque style. The old Turkish bazaar still has the narrow cobblestone streets and colorful shops that it had in the Ottoman times.

Historic Čaršija (Old Turkish Bazaar)
North Macedonia's special distinction is that, unlike its six neighbors to the north, Macedonia managed to become independent from the former Yugoslavia without bloodshed. Consequently, this little country is the most relaxed and peaceful of the Balkan states.


Population 2 million
Smaller than Puerto Rico
Capital Pristina
Status Europe's newest country?
Kosovo isn't quite a country ... yet. About half the UN recognizes tiny Kosovo as a sovereign state. But the other half of the UN respects Serbia's claim to Kosovo as its own, albeit disputed, territory.

Kosovo's odd status creates an awkward travel conundrum. If you enter Kosovo from a country other than Serbia, you cannot continue into Serbia because you'll be deemed to have entered Serbia illegally. With this in mind, I had to plan my travel in and out of Kosovo carefully.

Statue of Bill Clinton
Americans are loved here. Kosovo might be the most pro-American country in the world. It all started in 1999 when the US-led air strikes routed the Serbian army and paved the way for Kosovo's independence.

Now, there are boulevards named Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (spelled Xhorxh Bush). Even Bob Dole has his own street. American flags are flown everywhere. One of the most common names for girls under 20 is Hillary.

When Kosovars found out that I'm American, I was given VIP treatment. I happened by the archaeological museum at the Prizren fortress. At first, I was told that the museum was closed for renovation. But everything changed when the staff heard my American accent.

A friendly café / bar in Pristina

Picturesque Prizren's Old Town by the Lumbardhi River
The museum director came out of his office to give me a special free tour of the archaeological dig and of his museum.

Kosovo was an easy place to visit and a hard place to leave.

Reconstructing an Ottoman urn at the museum
Prizren gets my vote for being the prettiest, friendliest little town I visited on this whole trip. One of the nice things about not booking everything in advance is that it's easy to change plans. One morning, I asked my pension if I could stay an extra day or two. No problem! ... and so I did.


Population 2.9 million
As big as Massachusetts
Capital Tirana
History Communist and isolated until 1991
After decades of isolation, Albania is Europe's least discovered country and its best kept secret.

From World War II until 1991, Albania had almost no tourism. The few foreigners who managed to get visas to come here were watched carefully and treated like spies. Bribes were expected. Bags were searched. Hotel rooms were bugged.

All that has changed now. With new roads and hotels, Albania is about to become a tourist's delight. I was impressed by what I discovered here.

Skënderbeg, Albania's 15th century hero
Albania has replaced its statue of Joseph Stalin with a more appealing historical figure: A king named Skënderbeg who fought against the Ottoman empire. He now gives his name to Tirana's main square.

State-owned stores have been replaced by restaurants, cafés and private enterprises. I only spent 24 hours in Albania's capital but it was a fun and friendly day.

Carousel in Sheshi Skënderbeg Square

A bunker in the middle of downtown Tirana
One oddity about Albania is its 1000s of bunkers, leftover from its very cold war with the rest of the world. These concrete mushrooms, designed by former President Enver Hoxha to protect him and his friends in case of nuclear war, are impossible to destroy. So they've been converted into museums, bars and even a hotel.

My main reason for visiting this country was to see the Albanian Alps, also known as the Accursed Mountains.

Click this photo to see the 10-car ferry on this lake

Crystal clear mountain streams
Getting to the Accursed Mountains in northern Albania required three buses, two days and a scenic 3-hour ride on the Lake Koman Ferry. From the final ferry dock at the top of the lake, a van took me to a valley that reminded me of Yosemite NP. From there, trails lead up and over passes in all directions.

Did you know that Albania has high mountains, crystal clear mountain streams and real wilderness? I sure didn't. It won't be long before this secret gets out.

The trail from Valbona to Theth
Albania impressed me. Of all the countries that I visited in the Balkans, this is the country that I'm most likely to return to. I'd like to do some more trekking in these gorgeous mountains.


Population 700 thousand
Smaller than Connecticut
Capital Podgorica
History One of the treasures of ancient Venice
Ahhh ... beautiful Montenegro! Travelers had told me about its Adriatic coastline, with some of Europe’s most stunning seaside scenery, especially the towering mountains and sparkling waters of the Bay of Kotor.

I spent three days and nights in the old city of Kotor. Like Dubrovnik − but smaller − this city was one of the treasures of ancient Venice.

Also like Dubrovnik, there are lots of tourists here, especially when a cruise ship is in port.

The fabulous Aman Sveti Stefan resort

The old city of Kotor with a cruise ship in its harbor

12th century Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor

The summer season on Mogren Beach at Budva (near Kotor)
Kotor is a place for wandering through narrow cobblestone streets, visiting a museum and a cathedral or two, and finding the perfect spot for wine, salad and seafood pasta, while being serenaded by a guitar or a violin. The best time for dinner is about 10 pm, after the crowds return to their cruise ships.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Population 3.5 million
As big as Costa Rica
Capital Sarajevo
History Bosnian War 1992-1995
I entered Bosnia & Herzegovina with gory images in my head of the war that ravaged this country 25 years ago, killing about 100,000 people and displacing 2.2 million more.

What I found was a lush country with picturesque towns and happy people. This is a delightful country, well worth a visit to see its heritage and enjoy its hospitality. I'm reminded of an old adage: You can never know what someplace is like until you go there.

The restored town of Mostar and its famous bridge
I visited two cities heavily damaged by the war: Sarajevo and Mostar. The historic sites have been restored. Survivors have begun new lives, and are ready to welcome visitors.
Amela and Mohammed who made my breakfasts

Restored City Hall in Sarajevo
Something that I find fascinating is how every country tells its own version of history. In the western media, I remember reading that the Bosnia war (1992-95) was an "ethnic" conflict. But that's not what a Bosniak will tell you. Although there are religious differences throughout the Balkans, Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks all have the same ethnicity: They are Slavs. Bosnia has been a mixed society of Christians and Muslims for centuries. Bosnia is content to remain mixed. To the Bosniaks, the wars in the 90s were attempts by Croatia and Serbia to use religion as an excuse to claim parts of Bosnia's territory.
Simplified map of Balkan religious diversity
Bottom line: If you're ever in the Balkans, don't hesitate to visit Bosnia & Herzegovina. This is a charming and hospitable country.


Population 7 million
Smaller than South Carolina
Capital Belgrade
History Starts wars
... and finally we come to Serbia, whose capital (Belgrade) was once the center of power of Yugoslavia. From here, Josip Broz Tito ruled in various military and political roles from 1943 until his death in 1980.

During his 37-year reign, Tito managed to hold together Yugoslavia's seven diverse provinces. Yugoslavia survived for 12 years after Tito's death, even hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

Then, in 1992, everything came apart.

Signs of lingering discontent with the neighbors
As I walked around Belgrade, visiting museums and chatting with folks who live here, I got the feeling that Serbs are nostalgic for the decades when Tito commanded a great nation. Tito is revered, with statues of him throughout the city.

Meanwhile, in parks and on boulevards, there are banners protesting against the provinces that broke away from the former Yugoslavia. Serbia still doesn't recognize Kosovo as a country.

Serbia has its own version of history, too. In Bosnia, at the Sarajevo Assassination Museum, I learned about the Serb who started World War I. In contrast, the World War I museum in Belgrade explains that the war started when Austria invaded Serbia, with no mention of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serb.

One of many Tito statues

15th century walls and 20th century weapons
Still, life goes on. Belgrade retains much of its former glory as one of Europe's elegant and notable cities.

This is a very pedestrian-friendly city. The city's center is a huge pedestrian zone of about 1 square kilometer. The main street, Knez Mihailova, is lined with ornate 19th century mansions built when Belgrade was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Knez Mihailova has been named one of the most beautiful pedestrian zones in Europe, and is a common meeting point for Belgraders. Full of restaurants and cafés, it's a great place for striking up a conversation with someone at a nearby table or just people watching. I confess that, in my three days in Belgrade, I spent about twelve entertaining and relaxing hours here. What a great place to discuss the world's problems and to formulate solutions!

A woman walking her "baby"
Sunset view of the Sava and Danube Rivers from the Belgrade Fortress

With sunset over the Danube, I'll end this long chapter. I've seen 7 countries in 25 days. If I'd been traveling through a single country, e.g. Yugoslavia, I might feel as though I'd done a pretty good job seeing the whole country. Instead, I feel as though I've barely scratched the surface of seven remarkable and unique nations.

Travel here has been easy. Prices are low. People are friendly. English is spoken almost everywhere. Since it's not summer yet, I haven't worried about finding a seat on the bus or a room in a hotel. I love traveling spontaneously, without booking tickets or accommodations in advance. That's how we all bummed around Europe 40 years ago. It's wonderful that there's a region where this travel style still works.

The only thing that bugged me about the Balkans is that everyone smokes everywhere. Many restaurants don't have non-smoking areas. This will all change when − and if − these countries join the EU. By then, more tourists will have discovered the Balkans ... and maybe then the Balkans won't feel like "old Europe" any more. This is true for many parts of the world, which is why I frequently give this advice: See the world now, before it all changes!

Madeira − June 10, 2019

Sometimes travel plans don't work out as expected. How you deal with unexpected changes in plans has a lot to do with whether you enjoy traveling − or not.

From Belgrade, I flew to Germany to visit friends and family. (My son, Dan, lives in Berlin now.) From Germany, I planned to fly to Sao Paolo, Brazil, via Lisbon. But I ran into a little problem in Lisbon.

The four Macaronesian Archipelagos
Although I'd applied on-line for an e-visa for Brazil, I hadn't received my e-visa by email by the time of my flight. So, in Lisbon, I was denied boarding. Oops!

The airline customer service desk was no help. My lack of a visa for Brazil wasn't their fault, so they weren't going to put me up at a hotel or give me an alternate flight. Standing in the Lisbon airport at midnight with no flight and no place to sleep, I paused and thought "What the heck do I do now?" (Ironically, starting June 17, Americans will no longer need visas to enter Brazil.)

Looking at a world map, I asked myself "Where can I go (1) from Lisbon (2) without a visa (3) that I haven't been (4) tonight?" The answer soon became obvious: MADEIRA!

With some quick computer work, I booked a flight to Madeira and an AirBnB in the old city. Betting that I'd have my Brazilian visa soon, I also bought a ticket from Madeira to Rio de Janeiro via Lisbon for next week. Remarkably, this ticket cost the same as my original flight to Sao Paulo. Then, after a coffee and a snack, I boarded my flight to Madeira. The next morning, I received my Brazilian e-visa while having breakfast in Madeira. So ...

Here I am in Madeira, one of the four Macaronesian Archipelagos. This is a stunningly, beautiful island: A delightful place with historic buildings, cobblestone streets, fountains, plazas, elegant hotels, manicured gardens, beaches with palm trees, warm sea breezes, impressive mountains, friendly folks, great food, and famous wines!

Funchal is Madeira's main town. It cascades down to a clear blue sea.
This charming, safe and pretty place is a destination that I would recommend to even the most cautious travelers. Most visitors are Portuguese, French, English and German. There are few American tourists. Yet English is widely spoken here.

Streets packed with cafés and restaurants

The Botanical Garden, high above Funchal
Madeira is the sort of place where people come to relax and have fun. After the Teleférico takes you to the top of the city, you can slide back down in a wicker toboggan, a ride which Hemingway described as an "exhilarating experience." Saturday nights, there's music and a free fireworks show in the harbor.

Descending the mountain in a wicker toboggan

Fireworks in the harbor, with the Santa Maria in the foreground

Hiking in Madeira's interior, with peaks above 1800 meters
In the interior of the island, Madeira has fabulous hiking trails.

5 million years of volcanism has created a breathtaking landscape. In the 500+ years since Europeans first came here, sturdy trails have been built to link different parts of the island. There's a paved road to the top of Pico do Arieiro (elev 1818m). From there, a well-maintained trail goes 7 kilometers to Pico Ruivo (elev 1862), which is Portugal's highest mountain.

After spending four beautiful days in Madeira, I have to admit that I'm pleased that I was denied boarding on my flight to Brazil. When would I have had such a good excuse to come to Madeira? And when would it have been so easy? I'm delighted to have discovered this little island. And I recommend that you do, too!

Now on to Brazil, which will be a new chapter in my continuing travels.

Having visited more than 140 countries, I'm often asked which one I like the best. I can't choose just one place, so I've nominated my favorites and posted a music video on youtube. Click here to see my Top 15. Click here to return to the world map. Feel free to email comments or questions.