Monthly Archives: December 2010
Day two in Alexandria was another “you’re on your own” day. This was Christmas day and we would rather have been on our own anyway.
The 4 star we were in had an excellent buffet breakfast. Except that they served No Es Café instead of coffee. We decided to walk the cornice and see where it led us. We found a group of maybe 30 fishermen retrieving a large net.
The cornice in Alexandria is miles long. We knew from our touring the night before that there was a 4 Seasons hotel with a Starbucks waaaay down there somewhere so we walked a couple blocks inland and took the trolley.
Back in time…we knew about the Starbucks because the night before our tour took us to see the royal gardens. As we entered the gardens some officious guys in black leather bomber jackets (always a bad sign) stopped the bus. The head guy made our guide pull out all his IDs, asked questions about how many people were on board, basically got very unfriendly. We got in ok. It was already dark, so the guide was saying things like “look, palm trees” Yeah yeah yeah. But these gardens surround the Royal Palace of King Farouk, the last king of Egypt. His palace is now the Guest house for foreign potentates when they visit Alexandria.
This little excursion became memorable on the way out when the same power trippers in bomber jackets stopped the bus. One actually stood in front of it so we could not move. Our guide got out and an argument ensued. Our guard, the dude packing the semi-automatic was riding shotgun, got into the argument through the window. All the leather jacket dudes surrounded our guide, hence there was no one in front of the bus. Sorry, I did not feel like taking my camera out and asking them to say cheese. The guide jumped back on board and yelled at the driver “DUECE DUECE DUECE” which is Egyptian for “Haul Ass”. He did, and the leather jackets were running behind us yelling to the guards at the gate “STOP THEM”. We did not stop, even for the red light at the intersection outside the gate (no one in Alexandria obeys lights anyway). We were now fugitives from the black leather jacket brigade. Some people watched out the back window as we made our way back to the hotel. When pressed by the tourists what these guys wanted the guide said “entrance fees”. There is no entrance fee, so it was a sanctioned hold-up attempt.
OK Back to our free day.
Starbucks was Starbucks. It does not matter what city in the world you are in. At least they sold real coffee, not NO ES CAFÉ. The only thing we had planned for the day was another visit to the library The library has a planetarium. The two O’clock show was “The Stars of the Pharos”. Sounded good to me. We got there very early, bought our tickets (about $5 apiece) and then we went to the library museum. In the tradition of the original Alexandria Library, the new version is also striving to be a learning and cultural center. They have a modern art museum. Classic art museum, and an antiquities museum. We skipped this last one, hell the whole country is an antiquity museum.
The most interesting of the museums was the museum dedicated to Anwar Sadat. If your recent history is not clicking, Sadat signed the Camp David Accord. Still lost? Didn’t read the papers in the 70’s? The Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978, following twelve days of secret negotiations at Camp David. This could be called the only successful peace negotiation in the Middle East, ever. It was Jimmy Carter’s greatest achievement and has survived to the present. But Sadat did not. One of the displays is the blood stained uniform he was wearing when he was gunned down with an automatic weapon while watching a parade on a holiday. One of the vehicles in the parade had Egyptian soldiers in it. Two jumped out and ran to the dais blasting their guns and Sadat was dead. The museum has an original letter from Carter to Sadat suggesting the meets at Camp David, and many photographs of him with foreign leaders and the Pope. The funniest was Sadat and Nixon. Nixon looks like he has to pee and would rather be anywhere else.
The planetarium show was marvelous. I actually learned a lot. It cemented my resolve to return to Egypt and go to Luxor in the south. There are great temples there, and I feel an urge to see them. We will go in summer 2012, when it is warm and there is no fog.
On the way home we found a Shisha house. Shisha is the local way of saying Hookah, or hubbly-bubbly. We had delicious fruit flavored Shisha.
We returned to the hotel and werte met by Santa.
We had our Christmas dinner there. With my dinner I had a bloody Mary. It was nowhere as good as Joan’s Bloody Mary’s at the Cosmic Crab. If you are ever in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, they are the #1 attraction in the whole town.
Mary Ann challenged my writing skills. She said that if I could describe this Christmas dinner experience at all, she would finally give me credit for my talents. Well let me try. The restaurant was all decorated for Christmas . Sleigh bells, Christmas tree bulbs. Lights. They had a Flamenco Guitar player plucking along. They had a fog machine, and even a bubble machine. Everyone had their own Santa hat to wear.
They had a set menu, here it is. OOPS sorry, I cannot figure out how to make my scanner work. The instructions are in 18 languages, and I am not going to figure it out just now. Let me just tell you about it.
It is printed on fake papyrus paper. It starts off with the words HRISTMAS SET MENU. Maybe they did not have spell checkers back when they used papyrus. It describes a 5 course meal, each an adventure in gastronomical spelling.
Smoked salmon in Pineapple boat, duet of white and yellow lump eggs, cocktail sauce
Zucchini and Eggplant Pontage Scented Saffron
Roasted Turkey medallions farced, with chestnut sauce served with seasonal vegetables and potato chateau
Chocolate passion mouse laced with cinnamon and berry sauce
Trio of cheese platter with grapes, and salty crackers served like coffee or tea and Christmas cookies.
OK OK maybe I should have put that up on Facebook. I apologize. But we had a great time sitting there listening to Flamenco music with bubbles floating over the artificial smoke and wondering what lump eggs were, laughing at the creative use of language.
Our Trip Home
Just before dinner we ran into someone from our group. She asked what flight we were on going home. We told her the 3 a.m. flight “No your not” she said. That flight had been cancelled due to fog, and we would be leaving at 10 a.m. Cool with us, we got to sleep longer. Then after dinner she found us again and said the 10 a.m. flight was postponed until 12:30. I was not really worried, but Air Arabia has but two flights a day out of Alexandria to Sharjah, the 3 and the 10. If both were cancelled, what would getting on a flight at 12:30 be like?
The last official act of our tour was “Transfer to Alexandria Airport”. At least it was not in THIS bus.
When we got to the airport, for some reason the gendarmes would not allow the bus to pull up to the terminal. Our guide told the driver to hop the curb. We got half way to the terminal before we were stopped cold. We had to get out about 200 yards from the entrance and carry our bags ourselves. 2500 years of learning how to deal with tourists does not seem to apply to anyone flying. Inside the airport was pure madhouse zany craziness. Our group hung together like lost children, which in effect we were. There was one little sign that said Air Arabia. It did not look like the ticket desk, but it was. Everyone else was pushing and shoving and cutting in line. One of our group took it upon himself to be our hero. He collected all of our passports and pushed and shoved his own way to the counter. He made it clear that we were all members of an Air Arabia sponsored tour, and we all had to get back to work in Sharjah, and he would not accept any nonsense. He managed it! We all had boarding passes and checked baggage.
The flight home, being daylight, was beautiful. The Red Sea, Mt. Sinai were all clear. We got into beautiful Sharjah Airport and home 15 minutes later.
Impressions of Egypt.
I shall return. Only because I did not see Luxor or the Valley of the Kings. I feel like I must. One person I met in our group asked me “If Cairo did not have the Pyramids, would anyone come here?” he asked me that right outside the Egyptian museum. I could not quite agree with him that the pyramids were all there were of interest and I’ll repeat the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, and Jerry Garcia once again, “oh maaan”. They make the traffic and the overall dingy grey of the city well worth the visit. If you get the chance to go, just do it. I will take this opportunity to thank my wife for the experience, a bucket list item crossed off.
Thanks for reading. Tell a friend, and PLEASE leave a comment.
With apologies to Al Stewart. If you remember his wonderful song, Year of the Cat, hum along while you read my terribly improvised lyrics.
A foggy morning from a Bogart movie
In country where they turn back time
You go strolling with a crowd of expat tourists
Without a care for the grime
Cats are everywhere underfoot
they are everywhere that you look
On all the streets and in all the restaurants
It is the town of the cats.
OK line by line now.
The morning fog in Egypt is impressive. In both Cairo and Alexandria you feel like you are swimming in a bowl of mushroom soup from dawn ‘til 10.
A Bogart movie? Yeah. You expect to see Bogie around every corner. Especially in Alexandria. The entire town could be used as a movie set for any film set in the 30’s or 40’s. You would not even need to replace the street cars.
A country where they turn back time should be an obvious reference. Egypt makes a living on the fact that everywhere you go you are immersed in 5000 years of history. Alexandria history is really only 2300 years old. Alexander the great settled in what was not much more than a fishing village in 323 B.C.
Without a care for the grime might be a bit over the top, but I needed something to rhyme with time. Actually the city is pretty litter free. The locals pay for garbage clean-up crews when they pay their electric bill, and the streets are free of plastic bottles and the like. But it is a decaying city. It is a grey city. Like Cairo, it is not a beautiful city. It is set on a wonderful harbor and if someone were to tear it down and start over, it could be very beautiful. But 2000 years of unplanned development have created an unattractive façade.
Now, the cats. They are everywhere you go in Alexandria. They travel in packs, prides, herds and gangs. There is at least one cat for every souvenir vendor, and THAT says a lot.
The cats are not mangy or skinny. They do not look underfed or abused. They appear to be neighborhood cats that are encouraged to stay close and catch mice. I am not sure if they are venerated like the sacred cows in Hindi-land. They do not beg for food or attention, they are just everywhere you go in the town of the cats.
Back to the travel blog.
We left Cairo with our tour group of fifteen expats, all Americans from the UAE. It was a foggy morning. We were looking forward to seeing something on the trip, but it was impossible to see more than 100 feet or so. We were lucky however. That morning, in southern Egypt a convoy of American Tourists in bigger busses had a terrible accident. One of the busses sideswiped an 18 wheeler pulled over to the side of the highway because he could not see anything in the fog. 12 Americans died, something like 20 injured in the one bus. There were 4 or 5 busses all travelling together. Our bus pulled over for an hour because of the fog. We counted 9 accidents between Cairo and Alexandria. All seemingly fog related. Traffic in Egypt, for or no fog is miserable. There seem to be no rules, except that your horn must work. They test them all the time to be sure they do.
I will digress here a bit. The Egyptians have had their share of violence against tourists. The law is now that any time 10 or more tourists are travelling together they must have an armed escort. Ours was a nice guy who carried a semi-automatic in the back of his belt, under his suit coat. It bulged and was obvious. I’ll mention him again in part 4 of this trip.
Half way to Alexandria we finally got to a rest stop. It could have been a rest stop in Kansas in many ways. Exhausted travelers stumbling to the coffee shops and WCs. Cheap souvenirs all made in China. There was however a woman making fresh flat bread.
I was hoping that our first stop in Alexandria would be a restaurant for lunch. I do not believe I was alone in that desire. This is when you begin to wish you had a private guide. If we did I would have just said FOOOD.
Our first stop turned out to be the burial site of the first tourists in Egypt, the Greeks.
The catacombs of Alexandria were yet another place where you were not allowed to take photos. Sure, they sold post cards of the catacombs. Like I said, the Egyptians have gotten good at this tourist business thing.
These catacombs were weird. The guide kept calling them unique. In a way they were. The reliefs carved into the walls were a vivid combination of Greek and Egyptian motifs. Obviously Greek heads wearing Egyptian style clothes. Maybe they just went native. He said that the catacombs were discovered by a donkey. The donkey just happened to fall into a 200 foot deep hole that was the center of the structure. This happened in 1920 or so. They found the tombs. They found jars filled with ashes, but they did not find any bones. Pardon me, but there should be some bones I said. The guide told me that they did not know how to mummify bodies, although he had just pointed out a relief of the god of mummies doing his thing on a body. It bothered me that there were no bones. I have been in catacombs with Inca bones. He could not explain it to me well enough and got tired of me asking.
After the 200 foot climb in and out of these catacombs, I was ready for FOOD. I tried to gather support from the other tourists, but the guide had a plan, sort of.
Our next stop was some Roman ruins, primarily a Roman Amphitheatre. I asked him if this was Alexandria’s version of Urban Renewal. He had no clue what I was asking and he got a bit nervous when some of the tourists laughed at the question. He started to explain how these ruins were unearthed during a construction project. When I said “no donkey eh” he actually laughed. I think he was starting to like me, even though every time we passed a decent looking restaurant, I groaned FOOOD.
The amphitheatre was very cool. I do not know if this is true in all amphitheatres, but if you stand in a certain place on what would be the stage, and speak towards the seats, your voice is echoed right back at ya. It does not happen anywhere else you stand, nor can anyone not right there on the exact spot hear the echo. I went first and cried out “Friends, Romans Countrymen.” The echo was astounding. I have to figure out if this is a normal feature for Roman amphitheatres or a quirky thing.
There was an outdoor museum here which displayed statues found underwater in the Alexandria harbor.
We still had two more stops to make before he would let us eat. The first was yet another citadel. Sorry, but I have been in enough forts in the Middle East already, so I stood by the sea, admired the view and pined for FOOOD.
The last stop he had in mind for us was yet another Mosque. I have seen many of these as well. In Egypt, mosques are open to non-Muslims all the time. I’m not sure why. This mosque was just right for Alexandria. Mosques take great pride in their carpet. This carpet was worn down like something in a welfare office, and it was dirty. But it WAS a tourist mosque, with souvenir hawkers and even beggars outside. I have never seen either of those at any other mosque.
OK, everyone was saying FOOOD at this point. Does he take us to a typical Egyptian restaurant? Nope. Pizza Hut. No one cared. The salad bar looked like it got hit by a tornado in minutes. There was no one else in the joint and the crew was having a lazy afternoon, then 15 hungry infidels invaded. Anyway, we got fed.
Then the highlight of the entire Alexandria experience. The Library.
The original library in Alexandria was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was a center of knowledge as much as a repository of books. Under royal decree it was to obtain a copy of every book published worldwide. It sent out buyers to all the known cities. Whenever a ship pulled into Alexandria harbor, the library took whatever books it did not already have. Some people say they just borrowed them and returned copies to the ships. However they acquired their volumes, they were the largest library in the world. Until Caesar. He started a fire in the harbor, and it spread and burned down the library and all but some books spirited out by the librarians. These were papyrus volumes of importance to Egypt, and from what I understand, they still exist in the rare book collection.
The library has gone through more than a few changes until 8 years ago when the new library was opened. It is a magnificent building. Situated a cross the street from the University of Alexandria it is well used. It is generously equipped with computers and such. Many governments in the world contributed to the rebuilding and equipping of this library, including USAID and Microsoft.
Our group took a tour, but we did not join them. I had a very special tour guide. Mary Ann is a professional librarian, and she was in Nirvana. We walked up to a rack of books. She laughed and said “Dewey”, I got what she meant. This library uses the Dewey Decimal categorizing system, instead of the Library of Congress system. She pointed out a few other things that only a librarian would notice. I spend a lot of time in Mary Ann’s library at AUS. It is as noisy as a bus station. This library was dead silent. People in study groups or doing independent research, and respecting the tradition of silence in a library, it was wonderful.
OK the next post is day two in Alexandria. It was our free day. We went back to the library, watched a show in the library planetarium about the Stars of the Pharaohs, rode a trolley across town, watched fisherman in the harbor and had chaotic trip home.
Thanks for reading. Tell a friend. PLEASE make a comment.
Our second day in the land of the Pharaohs was a “free day.” In tourism parlance that means “you are on your own buddy.” The guide gave the group the option to sign up for a “city tour”. Most of the group sounded interested. He told us we would visit the Citadel of Cairo, a Coptic Church, a Synagogue and the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. Mary Ann poked me in the side when I asked if we could see the Church of Rocky Balboa also. I do not think the guide got it. The people who did not drift away from the group at that point, definitely moved away from me when I asked if we could include a trip to Garbage City in the tour. So Mary Ann and I were the only two who signed up. The rest were on their own for the day.
Our first stop was the “religious area” of Cairo. This is where the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. This church is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt when they escaped King Herod who did not like the fact that people were calling baby Jesus the King of the Jews.
It is a 4th century Coptic Church. It really is quite beautiful inside. It is where all the Coptic Popes have been consecrated for 1600 years. I do not know much about the Coptics other than they are their own branch of Christianity, so much so that they celebrate Christmas in January. If you want to know more, there is this amazing tool called Google.
I can bore you with a few facts about the Church however. It is called “the hanging church” because it is built over the top of two Roman structures. The church is suspended between them, hence hanging. The ceiling of the church is built to resemble the structural hull of the Ark, from the inside, and upside down. The artwork inside is beautiful. The pulpit is built on pillars that are supposed to represent the five something or anothers, I was not paying attention to the guide, I was taking pictures. In the back area is a baptismal fount where Coptics have been baptized for well over a thousand years. It is the size of a small hot tub.
Now the real claim to fame of this church is a small underground crypt in back of the alter. This is the room where Jesus, Joseph and Mary hid out for a while after escaping Jerusalem because Herod was after them. They did not allow photos back there, don’t ask me why. The room is quite small, maybe 10 x12. It looks pretty much like it did when the original excavation was done. This was the first time I have ever physically been where Jesus was. I had to think about that for a while. At least I did not get a nosebleed, but it was a touching moment.
I stole this photo from Google.
Now we walked about a hundred yards and we were at The Ben Ezra Synagogue. I had no idea what I was in for. I have to admit I have never been in a synagogue before, certainly not one that dates back to the first century. It was originally a Coptic Church, but after the Muslims took over Cairo they imposed a tax on the church, and they had to sell it. So they sold it to the Jews. The Jews wanted it because tradition claims that this is the exact site where a daughter of a Pharaoh discovered baby Moses in a papyrus basket after his mother had sent him adrift on the Nile. There is a beautiful monument to mark the spot. Again, no photos allowed. Being a tourist without a camera is a very naked feeling. Again, foto courtesy of Google.
Getting bored yet? Maybe I’ll include more pictures for ya, so keep reading, The best is yet to come.
The next thing on the planned city tour agenda was the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. It is shaped like a pair of boxing gloves, no not really. Neither is there a church of Rocky Balboa.
Ali was a strange ruler. He was influenced heavily by the Ottomans, as his mosque shows, and also by the Malmuks. He built his mosque in the mid 1800’s inside the citadel of Cairo The citadel was built about 1180 to defend against the crusaders. It sits on top of the highest hill in Cairo and has commanding views. The Citadel served various regimes as the Royal abode, right up until WWII when Montgomery used it as his Egyptian HQ, and stationed many troops there. I’ll just give you some pictures here, you do not even need to read the captions. But do not go away, you must see garbage city!
So now, the guide thinks we have lunch and he is done. Uh Uh. I want to see Garbage City. He had no idea it even existed and he has lived in Cairo for years. I saw it a NetGeo TV show called The Road Less Travelled and I insisted he take us there. He called his office and found out where it was. It turned out that it was really close to the Citadel.
The story here is that there are 3 large families in Cairo that go around the city and collect all the garbage. They deliver the garbage to this neighborhood. The people here make a living by separating out the recyclables and selling them.The guide and his driver both became tourists for this part of the trip. They were taking their own photos. I asked the guide for a discount because now he had a new destination for his customers. The look on his face said “only the tourists a weird as you.”
In this day of plastic bottles, plastic is their biggest market. Follow the bouncing photos below to get an idea of what is is like to live and work in Garbage City, Cairo.
When the guide spoke to his office I guess they told him to take us to another Coptic church that sits on the mountain above garbage city. This was an amazing church. It is carved into the rocks which was the quarry for the stones that they used to build the pyramids. It is called the Church of San Simeon the Tanner. It has the entire life story of Christ carved into the mountain sides and the pews of this church seat 10,000 people. They all have to ride buses from the city through Garbage City to get there so they must be truly faithful. Thursday is the day of miracles. These regularly scheduled miracles are healings, the cripples walk and the cynics believe. Obviously I did not attend on a Thursday.
San Simeon was the leader of the Coptics I would guess about 1300. He and the Jewish leader of Cairo did not see eye to eye. He was claiming hat the Coptics were a false religion and should be banished from Egypt, The Muslim leader was asked to settle the dispute. He was at a loss. So he referred to the Bible and reminded the San Simeon that Moses parted the Red Sea. Then he found the passage about men of faith being able to move mountains. He told him that if he could move that there mountain yonder, it would prove to him that his Coptic Church should continue in Egypt. San Simeon asked for time to pray, and could they all return on Thursday. To make a long story short (too late you say?) he made the mountain float in the air. If you don’t believe me, just look at the picture.
All Roman Catholic churches, and I guess Coptic churches have a relic in them, usually in the cornerstone. A relic could me a miniscule piece of bone from the saint for which the church is named. This Church of San Simeon of course has his relics, but it also has relics from John the Baptist. See the photos!
Our last stop was a store that sells clothing made from 100% pure Egyptian cotton. I of course bought a great shirt, but Mary Ann found the cotton sheets. They had 600, 800 and 1000 count levels of quality. She made me fell a 600 count sheet. It was wonderful. I asked her what our sheets were at home and she said “ZERO and they are not 100% Egyptian cotton either” This turned out to be the most expensive thing we bought in Egypt, and as soon as we put them to use, I’ll let you know what pure Egyptian cotton feels like.
Well. That’s it for Cairo. I was actually enthralled by the history and how the tourism people have made it all accessible. If you were a hardcore Egyptologist and did not mind getting your hands dirty, you could spend days in the Museum of Egypt, blowing the dust off of antiquities. If crowds do not bother you a person could spend all day staring at the Sphinx. Yes it is that cool. And if you are not prone to nosebleeds, you could spend the better part of a week circumnavigating the Great Pyramids of Giza.
The people of Cairo are very friendly and damned glad to have you there. They have been hosting and/or fleecing tourists since 330 B.C. People who do anything that long are bound to be good at it. Walking through the Cairo Bazaar you will hear the best hawker lines anywhere. “Come in and make your eyes happy” and “How can I take some of your money today?” were my favorites.
Day three will be our transfer to Alexandria and a tough day of touring, including the burial sites of the first tourists, as well as the Library of Alexandria, which is so old I think they invented libraries.
Stay tuned, thanks for reading, tell a friend and please make a comment.
I’ll start this post at the Pyramids. In the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, General Montgomery and Jerry Garcia, “oh maaan”. Mary Ann, who has been here before, warned me that I would be overwhelmed and might cry. I was so overwhelmed I had to get into an ambulance, but more on that later.
Let us start with the midnight flight from Sharjah to Alexandria. I have learned to really like Air Arabia. This flight took us over the holy city of Mecca, over Mount Sinai and over the Red Sea, although it was too dark to see any of it. We got into Alexandria at 3 a.m. I had the fantasy that a flight to Egypt leaving at midnight would be nice and quiet. Wrong. The plane was full of crying babies, make that screaming and crying babies. One thing I have learned to not like about the culture here is that they do not shut their kids up when they scream. I have never been on a flight with so many kids. Taking a baby or even a toddler on a midnight flight is just cruel so I cannot blame the kids, but I was ready to crack a few parents heads. But like all flights do, it eventually ended. 3 a.m. in Egypt, and sure enough we were met by the tour company, In Arabic, the word for thank you is Shakran. They even spelled Nash correctly. We have grown used to seeing such a simple name mangled, (Mash, Gash, Rash, and Cash) that it is good sign when they get it right. Plus it meant we had our ride to Cairo, two hours away. It was just us in a Cushy Town Car, no crying kids. Things were looking up.
As an aside here, the rep from the tour company who met us at the airport was named Mohammed. It is the most common name in the Moslem world, so it was easy to remember. At the hotel, we were approached by a cab driver who would take us anywhere we wanted…his name, I swear was Obama. The guy who led the tour the next day was named Osama, “Just call me Sam” he said. But I digress.
We are staying at a hotel called Barcelo Pyramids in Giza. We stayed at a Barcelo before, in Mexico, and they deserve the four stars. We crashed, got up at noon, and went to the roof top pool to have an Egyptian beer.
I got my first view of the Pyramids from there, across a smoggy, unpleasant stretch of Giza. This is not a beautiful city.
That night we went to the Pyramids Sound and Light show. (This is done in the same outdoor theatre where in 1978 The Grateful Dead did a two night stand for Dead Heads who invaded Cairo in tie-dies. I missed it and have always regretted it.) The show borders on cheesy, the sphinx talks, laser beams blast across the Pyramids and anyone with any historical knowledge is not going to learn much. But seeing the Pyramids and sphinx for the first time, all lit up like Las Vegas is mighty impressive. You get an idea of the size of them, even in the dark. Supposedly the footprint of the Great Pyramid of Cheops could contain most of the Vatican, with Rhode Island thrown in just for kicks.
Our first “tour day” was today. We started at the Egyptian Museum.
This is of course where they keep the King Tut stuff. His was the only tomb found in the Valley of the Kings that had not been cleared out by grave robbers. Consequently there is a whole wing just to house his treasures. Amazing because he was a minor pharaoh who died young after ruling less time than Nixon. It leaves you wondering what must have been in the tombs of Pharaohs who ruled as long as FDR. In size, this museum (built in1901 or so) is not as big as any of the Smithsonian museums in DC. But it is so crammed full of everything from mummified crocodiles to King Tut’s death mask that it boggles the mind.
There are important items, statues and such, from all over Egypt that the guides make sure you see. There are guides speaking most of the major languages to tourists from Japan, China, all over Europe and even America. The worldwide drop in tourism due to a combination of the economy and manufactured fear has not hit Cairo. The joint is jumping. Everywhere you go is jam packed with groups of geese being led by mother hens chattering away like ducks. (How is THAT for mixing metaphors!)
The guides race from the old Kingdom to the middle Kingdom to the third, stopping long enough to quack about a statue or a burial crypt. They move fast to not hold up the other groups behind them, and to keep the tourists from breaking off in search of Tut. They cover the important stuff, but crammed in this corner and that cubbyhole, down some dark hallway, and behind the sign to the men’s room is more STUFF. Thousands of things, large and small. The collection is all over the place. Items that would be the proud possession of the LA County Museum, are just gathering dust with nary a word describing what it is and therefore ignored by the masses. I got the feeling I could walk out with something like a cat statue, and no one would ever miss it. Word is that in 2012, they are opening a new museum behind the pyramids to better display these things, and, believe it or not, empty out the BASEMENT of this museum of STUFF gathering cobwebs since 1901.
Well, Mary Ann and I did break away from our group and headed for the Tut wing. There is enough gold in this collection to pay off some national debts. Impressive, awe inspiring, breathtaking are all insufficient to describe the feeling you get as you wander the length of this wing of the museum. Then, finally you get to the special room where the iconic Tut Death mask is displayed. No photos are allowed anywhere in this entire museum, (unless you are Japanese I guess) and I must say that no pro photo I have ever seen of the Tut mask comes close to the beauty of this treasure. Astounding.
The museum has an excellent gift shop. The only thing I bought was a King Tut baseball. Too bizarre to pass up!
We found our group and headed off for lunch. We found ourselves sitting in a restaurant called the Cleopatra, in Giza, in the shadow of the pyramids, and listening to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” sung by the Chimp Monks. Way too weird.
From there they took us to a papyrus museum. The word museum is a stretch. They did show us how papyrus is made.
But the main purpose of this “museum” is to sell you paintings on papyrus. Some were gorgeous, some, well most, were truly expensive. Our group bought a bunch of them, which is good for the tour guide who gets a cut. He could have taken us to any of a dozen such “museums”, so they take care of him. Me? Well I found a drawing that was on the Grateful Dead poster back in ’78, so I had the artist write, in hieroglyphics, Grateful Dead Cairo 1978. Another useless souvenir.
Now it was bucket list scratch off time. We headed for the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the first and largest of the three. Actually there are nine here, six for queens.
Mary Ann and I either travel by ourselves, or we hire a private guide, usually option 2 so we do not need to deal with Taxis or –gasp- public transportation. This time we booked the entire trip through Air Arabia and we are in a group with a dozen Americans who all work in the UAE. They are good pleasant people. But, you know me well enough to know that I am not one to accept arbitrary limits on my fun. When the guide said, “OK, we are here for20 minutes” I growled “bullshit”. I have been waiting all my life to stand here, and no bozo with a stop watch is going to tell me when it is time to leave.
I was simply not prepared to take in the scope of this edifice, this monument, this tomb, this pile of 10 ton rocks. I could not set my eyeballs on wide angle enough to take it all in at once. My head was spinning back and forth and my neck was bent out of shape from looking up up up. Of course my cheap camera (Have I mentioned I hate my camera?) could not capture any of the grandeur. One could walk a half mile back and take a shot, but are you kidding me? I walked right up to the first layer of stones, taller than I am, petted one and said “You ROCK.”
Then, for some reason beyond all reason, my nose started shooting out blood like I had a severed artery. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Here I am bleeding on the last of the seven wonders of the ancient world like a stuck pig. A world heritage site now is stained with my type B+. (if you ever visit Cheops tomb, my contribution is on the second stone in from the NE corner).
Mary Ann was wondering what the hell she could do for me. I almost suggested she should put a tourniquet around my neck, but I was afraid she might take me up on it. Then an Egyptian man came running up. I thought maybe he was upset about me defacing his source of income. But he pulled out a pocket sized pack of Kleenex, which I immediately stuffed up my nostrils and turned them bright crimson. He led me away from the royal tomb, which was a good thing on its own, but then he walked me to an ambulance. The paramedic did what he could do. He then told me he wanted to take me to the hospital. I understood him but politely declined. He was not sure I understood him so he waved his finger in a circular motion over his head and went “Whoowhoowhoo.” Maybe laughing was all I needed because the hemorrhaging stopped. I had a larger problem than blood loss to deal with, I was late for the bus.
Our time at the pyramids was not over. Osama took us out into the desert where there was a herd of camels and their owners. Osama told us to beware of most of the guys, but that he knew one who would give us “good price”. I’m sure he got a cut here too, big deal.
Even though 20 minutes earlier my nose was a gusher, I knew Mary Ann really wanted to ride a camel, so I joined her.
We were led by a 12 year old named Adam, who is a hustler in training, but great kid. He had a well developed sense of humor, spoke English to us, shamelessly flirted with Mary Ann, and spoke Hindu to some people from India in our caravan. As long as the pyramids do not fall down, he will make a comfortable living.
From here we went to the Sphinx. As someone might say after they meet a movie star, I thought he was bigger. But he (she some say) was beautiful, even without a nose. Some say the French soldiers shot his/her nose off, some say it was an Egyptian Queen, jealous of how good looking she/he was. This is a very impressive antiquity. Built to protect the tombs, it has stood guard for thousands of years. I think this will remain my favorite memory of Egypt.
Our day was not over. We took a dinner cruise on the Nile with whirling dervishes (one of them a dwarf) and a belly dancer. The belly dancer dragged me onto the dance floor and I did my best to imitate her moves.
And now, my favorite foto of the trip.
Stay tuned for day 2 where we visit a Citadel buil to defend against Crusaders. I will take you to the church where Jesus, Joseph and Mary hid from Herod. 100 yards away from this church is a synagogue where baby Moses was found in the rushes of the Nile by the daughter of a Pharaoh. Amazing as all that sounds, we also visited a Coptic church carved out of the mountain that was the quarry for the rocks that built the pyramids. AND I will take you to a place called garbage city.
Thanks for reading, tell a friend and please make a comment.
In short we plan our next trip. I could not ask for a better lifestyle. I have an incredible wife. She is fearless on the road, except maybe crossing a busy street full of tuk tuks
That’s cool, we are never in such a hurry that safety should sacrificed.
Mary Ann is our travel agent. She will spend hours in the evening searching for hotels, flights, and things to do. She corresponds with tour agencies back and forth, back and forth until she is happy with the agenda and the cost. Sometimes out of the blue she will change the entire country we are going to visit. My input is slightly limited. For instance when we decided on Nepal, all I insisted on was seeing Everest.
Our next trip, over the Christmas holidays, is to Cairo. I have been thumbing through guidebooks, some as old as the pyramids themselves. We have the latest Lonely Planet, but after my experience with it in Thailand, I do not really trust it anymore. Lonely Planet used to have competition. Moon travel guides were excellent, but I Think they went the way of the dodo bird.
We rely on trip Advisor maybe too much. Go to any hotel on TA and you will find people who say it sucks and people singing its praises, same hotel the same month. Same thing with tour vendors “Oh he was wonderful” to “the worst ever”. I go to Tripatini, com. This site collects travel blogs, mine included, and tend to be more in depth and honest.
This time after comparing air fares hotels and tour prices, Mary Ann looked at a package deal from Air Arabia. It was cheaper AND we get picked up at the airport. Mary loves to find the “little guy” holding her name on a card. Our flight gets into Alexandria at 3:00 a.m. and apparently the taxi touts are horrible. I look forward to what the sign will say. Her name is Nash. We have been beckoned with cards that say Ash, Mash, Dash, hardly ever Nash.
Whatever source we use for Cairo, the word is Cuidado. The touts are crooks, the guides are crooks, and even the crooks can’t be trusted. These guys are pros. The pyramids are the longest running tourist trap in the world. “hey you Roman Soldier. You want to shoot off the nose of the sphinx?” “Psst French soldier, pretend the sphinx is Naploean and shoot off his nose. Three shots for a drachma.”
At least it will not be hot.
I cannot believe I am in Beirut.
There is a National Geographic adventure show titled Don’t Tell My Mother. That is how I feel. The name just brings up memories of not so far in the past wars and such. However, at the end of 2010, Beirut is a prosperous and peaceful city. I do not know where the money comes from. This is not an OPEC country. But there is a lot of money on the streets of Beirut. The little research I did indicates the the diaspora from the 1975 to 1990 war has created an influx of money back into Lebanon at a $1,400 per year per capita rate. But that is not why you read this blog, is it. Back to stories and pictures.
Our first excursion after we checked in was to the American University of Beirut. Seems how my wonderful wife works at the American University of Sharjah we decided to see the campus and the library.
First, the Campus. The AUB was established by some American protestant missionaries in 1866. At the time, there were many protestant missionaries in Beirut, trying to covert Muslims. The area already had many Christians, but they were all Maronite Catholics. I could go into just what the Maronites were ,but Wikipedia does it best. A movement came out of New England to bring “true” Christianity to the Middle East, at least in their minds. The effort was a total failure. According to all the records sent back to New England, there was ONE conversion. The University decided to go secular and it has succeeded ever since. The founder of the University found an amazingly beautiful piece of land. It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. It is wonderfully landscaped. It reminded both of us of UC Santa Barbara. Many of the buildings are 100 years old and very beautiful. Some of the faculty housing looked like expensive sea view homes in California.
The library was not half the AUS library. But the library at AUS is almost brand new, and probably much better funded.
The students at this campus were more familiar to me than the students at AUS in both dress and manner. Guys were bird dogging the girls like good college students should. They all wore western style dress. The girls were not showing anywhere near as much flesh as one would see at UCSB, but I do not think I saw a single abaya.
We walked across campus and found ourselves on the corniche. It was fittingly on Paris Boulevard. The Med was bright blue. The weather was absolutely perfect. Weather like this in early December is very unusual in Lebanon. They are having such a bad drought that the Muslim clerics did a rain dance yesterday. Really, there was a picture on the front page of the Local English language newspaper. In fact the drought and unseasonably warm weather have resulted in, for the first time in Lebanon’s history, a total lack of snow on the mountains. Lebanon comes from the Semitic word Leban, which means white. The early people called it this because after coming out of the desert, it was quite the sight to see mountains capped year round with snow. Not anymore. The locals are blaming global warming. You can agree with them or blame Obama if you must, but it is a fact. For the first time in this country’s long long history, no snow.
However, the people of Beirut (or as it is called locally Beithruth) continue living a cafe society life.
Byblos, Older Than Dirt
Speaking of long long histories, today, our second day in Lebanon we visited one of the longest continually inhabited cities one earth. How long you ask? At least I hope you asked because I mean to tell you. Here is a list with approximated epochs of inhabitation of the city of Byblos. If you do not like history, just look at the pictures,
First, Byblos is maybe 30 miles north of Beirut, and on the Med in a beautiful location. But enough of the real estate blabber, back to the history. Archeologists have found proof of life here going back to 5000 B.C. That is the Neolithic age. It was occupied during the Chalcholithic age (Google it, I had to) age between 3800 and 3000 B.C. It was occupied during the early Bronze Age from 3000 to 2300 B.C. Then started the rule of the Semitic Amorites (Google that too) from 2300 to 2200 B.C. Then the age of conquest began. The Hyksos Dynasty, (is Google your friend yet?) came from Asia and took over Byblos. Then the Egyptians took over in 1500 B.C. They held on to Byblos for about 300 years until a group I cannot identify, called “the Sea people”, a gang of seafaring baddies who roamed the med, took over and held it until Assyrian-Babylonian rule from 1000 to 550 B.C. When the Babylonian empire imploded, the Persians moved in and ruled until 333 B.C. Then Alexander The Great and the Greek empire took over. They held on until the Romans moved in and under Pax Romana ruled Byblos until 330 A. D.
Now that we are in the A.D. period of history we see the Byzantines move in and bring Christianity. It was a Byzantine/Christian city until the Arabs invaded in 637 A.D. This coincides with the birth of the Muslim faith. It took a while for the boys in Europe to get it together and send in the first Crusade in 1098 A.D. The crusaders ruled Byblos, although they called it “Giblet”, until 1289 when the Mamluks invaded. Then the Ottoman Empire laid claims to Byblos and held it until 1918.
After that, all hell broke loose.
That is what I mean by Older Than Dirt. Archeologists first started working here in about 1950 when someone was going to build a couple of houses to take advantage of the view. When they started digging, they found all these ruins. The deeper they dug, the older the artifacts. Like I said before, the stuff they found goes back +/- 7000 years. No one has done any archeology here since the civil war started in 1975. I have more photos, but I can tell you are bored, so I will move on. If you want to learn more about this amazing city, use Google, read a book, or travel.
We also visited a tourist attraction called Jeita Grottos. They were very amazing. They are a main source of Beirut’s water supply. They resemble the Carlsbad Caverns with stalagmites hanging from the top of the caves sometimes for a hundred feet or more. They were discovered by an American missionary who probably got tired of trying to convert Muslims and decided to go spelunking. They prohibit photography inside the caverns, and make you check your camera in lockers. Ironically the lockers all have ads on them for Kodak film. Go figure. I suppose the reason for this to be able to sell you a CD with photos, so I bought one, and the photos follow. OOOPS, the CD I paid good money for does not allow one to copy photos off of it. SO, Google to the rescue, here are a couple shots.
These gottos seem like the perfect spot for a fantasy film with wizards and dragons. Hey, anyone in Hollywood reading this?
We also visited Our Lady of Lebanon, a large statue of the Virgin Mary on top of a mountain overlooking Beirut. I did not know this until now, the Virgin Mary is honored in the Koran, Consequently the Muslim faithful visit this as much as the Christians. Besides that the views of Beirut are fantastic.
Our last supper in Beirut was special. I wont tell you what we aye, because this is not Facebook. But it was a totally Lebanese restaurant. There was a table of attractive young Lebanese women next to us. (I must say, I found the Lebanese women very attractive over all). When I ordered Hookah, the Hookah guy (what they call the Hookah waiter who serves you and keeps you lit) asked what flavor I wanted.m I shrugged. How was I to know? One of the girls spoke up and told me I wanted lemon flavored mint. OK. It was excellent. When the regular waiter came by, I just pointed at what the girls were eating, and we had that. They laughed at and with us. The Lebanese impressed me with how friendly they are.
On the Way Home. I made it Ma!
I am sitting in the Beirut Airport coffee shop, having a café Americano with Baileys and watching planes arrive and depart. They go everywhere from here. Air France flies jumbos into Beirut. Maybe the real Paris is too cold in the winter. The airport is modern, clean and easy to get through. I truly expected massive security checks with pat downs, but it was easier then getting out of Chicago to fly to Milwaukee. The only above the norm security was that the immigration man reads EVERY stamp in your passport ( I have 85, took him a while) to be sure you have never been to Israel.
In short, I must say that I of course had preconceptions about Beirut that were rooted in television news reality. That is not to say that things here are amusement park in nature. The military presence including tanks and soldiers with automatic weapons is ubiquitous. For instance there was a small story in the local English newspaper about an incident in Tyre (the southern border) between Hezbollah and Isreal. Israel was not called Israel in the story. They were quite simply referred to as “the enemy”. Obviously I will not say that it will always be a good tourist destination. But for us, now, it was fabulous. We did not have enough time to see all we wanted to see, so after checking off a few more places on the coconut, Lebanon deserves a second visit.
Thanks for reading, or at least looking at the pictures. tell a friend, make a comment.
Next post? From Cairo!
If you ever asked me in my younger days what would be an exciting week I may well have said something like “fly 5000 miles, have currencies from 4 countries in my wallet, and wake up wondering where I am.”
In my adult life I have had quite a few weeks like that. I am in the middle of another one.
The day before yesterday I was in Chiang Mai. A 90 minute flight on Air Asia took me to Bangkok for one night. At five a.m. I was on my way to the airport to catch a 7 hour flight to Doha on a Qatar Air Triple 7. After a three hour layover in the Doha airport, an hour on an A320 to Dubai, and hour in a cab to our townhouse, I spent one night in “my own” bed and got up with the call to prayer for my ride to the Sharjah airport.
As I write this I am in an Air Arabia A320 on my way from Sharjah to Beirut. Yes Beirut. They say it is the Paris of the Middle East. (I have heard that honorific compared to winning the NIT.)
I have a relationship with the back of the seat in front of me that the second dog in a dogsled team must have with the lead dog.
But I love it.
Let us start this episode of The Other side of the Coconut in Chiang Mai. I had planned to be there a month. My plans were for nothing more exotic than oral surgery and subsequent recovery. The surgery went extremely well and the recovery was like finding a $20 bill in an old pair of jeans, pleasant and quickly gone.
I was able to change my flight home very inexpensively.
So my month was now a week. I was very familiar with Chiang Mai. I had done just about every dumb tourist thing to do that exists there. I had timed this trip to the dentist to attend Loy Kathrong, which if you are a faithful reader you already know I enjoyed immensely.
There was one thing in the Lonely Planet book that I missed last time, and was determined to see this trip. There is a village in the mountains north of CM, near the border with Myanmar (or Burma if you prefer). The name of the village is Mai Salong.
Mai Salong did not exist before a regiment of the Kuongmintang Army escaped from China after the revolution, complete with their families, horses and traditions. Horses are rare in Thailand and the Thai word for these people translates to “The Galloping Chinese”. For the first 35 or so years of their existence, the villagers survived, and thrived, on the opium trade. The village was inaccessible except on foot or hooves. Eventually, the King of Thailand told the people that they would be accepted in Thailand, but they had to quit running opium, and let the government build them a road to civilization. The King also sponsored a new industry, that being the cultivation, processing and sale of tea.
Lonely planet described Mai Salong as a mini Hong Kong, steeped in Chinese culture and architecture. Poppycock. The only thing it is steeped in is tea. Lots and lots of tea.
It was interesting to find four Christian churches and two mosques in Mai Salong. I do not remember seeing a single wat.
The following day I was up before the poppies bloomed to go see an amazing, yearly, but amazing event. The entire Monastic community of Northern Thailand, 12,500 strong, gathers in Chiang Mai in a ceremony to receive alms. The monks arrived in the dark and filled about five city blocks on one side of a raised platform. The platform had a statue of Buddha and the venerated elders of the monastic community. The four blocks on the other side were filled with civil and military authorities. The point of the gathering, after much praying and chanting, was the thousands of monks walking thru the government/military people who put offerings in their big bowls. Normal civilians could also give alms. You bought them from an alms dealer nearby. The alms were mostly rice, noodles, bottled water and fruit juices. The bowls filled up quickly and people walked behind the monks and transferred the lot to large plastic bags. I would estimate that they collected at least a few tons of subsistence for the monasteries. I will let the following photos give you a better picture of the event.
OK, the plane is now coming into Beirut. I am looking forward to seeing this city that is so full of history and conflict.
Thanks for reading this post. Tell a friend, make a comment, and stay tuned for the story of our visit to the land of Danny Thomas.