Category Archives: Air Arabia

On The Way to Colombo

Here I am on an Air Arabia flight over the middle of the Indian Ocean on my way to a city I had never even heard of a year ago, Colombo. (I am wondering if I should be wearing a crumpled trench coat and smoking a cheap cigar, but I digress) Colombo is the capital city of a country I had only heard of because I am a news junkie, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is only a few years past a civil war that pitted the Tamil Tigers (never to be confused with the team from Detroit) against the establishment who never adopted a catchy name. Altogether both sides managed to kill about seventy thousand people until the the Tigers were, well, relegated to the minor leagues. That is the only reason I ever heard of Sri Lanka until my wife the travel junkie (god bless her) declared it was our next destination.

The flight is only half full but of course the only screaming baby is sitting behind me and kicking my seat. So I pulled out my new toy (no no no, not a toy, a valuable tool) my IPAD. For those of you living in the same cave I was living in before I bought this, it is a combination of everything Steve Jobs deserves sainthood for. I am currently listening to Bodhisattva at full volume on my ear plugs, while typing away on a more than adequate note taking app. In the old days we called this multitasking. Lucky youngsters today call it…hmm…I wonder if they even have a word for it. Anyway I am not bothered by the young Cossack behind me any more.

Cossack you say? Yup, this plane is full of Ruskies escaping the wonderful climate of Moscow. Air Arabia flies out of Moscow to Sharjah and onto many warm places with nice beaches. And they do it cheaper than Air Ruskie and you do not have to fly in a Tupolov. I am sure Vodka is available on those warm beaches, so they’ll be happy as tsars. So I just went into the song list and I am now rocking out to Back in the USSR. I only wish I could stick the ear plugs up the arskie of the Ruskie.

Due to the absolutely ludicrous belief that my IPad could mess with an A320’s navigation system and we could all end up back in Moscow, I am going to have to shut this off while we land. Meanwhile I am staring out the window at a marvelous sunrise over the Indian Ocean while listening to George Harrison perform Here Comes the Sun from the concert for Bangladesh. HMMMM, Bangladesh next month??? Nah.

A Journey to India

OK so I stole the title of this post. It was an excellent movie and I will try to write something worthy of it.

At the moment Mary Ann and I are at 35,000 feet in an Air Arabia A320. We are the only white people. That includes the Pilots and the cabin crew.

The plane we were supposed to fly didn’t work. With 178 brown people, Mary Ann and I had to march across the airport from our gate to another. This was 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time. We loaded up on busses and they took us out to a plane out at the edge of civilization. We all boarded plane that had not been swamped out after it arrived from Jeddah earlier that day. It had not been refueled either. It takes a long time to fuel up an A320. There was no air conditioning. It was a cool night but 180 people in an aluminum tube can really build up the BTUs. It got hotter and hotter. People started to push that little button to call the stewardess all about the same time. Ding ding. Ding ding ding. Somehow she recognized that if we did not get the air cooled down, this situation could replace Thahir Sq. on AlJazeera. So, about the time I was about to strip down to my BVDs, the air came on. But we were still sitting there. I went up front to get a glass of water and I looked into the cockpit. I wish I had not. Two ground techs and the pilot were in an argument. They were each holding some sort of manual and pointing at stuff, busily turning pages. None of this bothered me, I was starting a journey to India!

We took off at 11:30 instead of 9:30 p,m. I felt sorry for the driver in Chennai who was supposed to meet us at 3:00 a.m. and would now have to wait until 5. However, we are big tippers.

Along the way a thought came back to me that I get every time I fly. I do not think there is a single airline left on the planet that allows smoking on-board. Yet Airbus and Boeing continue to build aircraft with a no smoking lamp over every row of seats.

Why install these lights?

These lamps glow all night annoying light sleepers. They also serve as a perverse reminder that I cannot have a cig, which I would love to do while I pondered why the pilot had to read the manual before the flight.  The simple cost of including no smoking lamps in a new airplane should be something the cost accountants would red flag. Also, as new models of planes get launched, someone is paid to design a snazzy new version of a red X over a burning Marlboro. Then, there is the cost of maintaining them when invariably the little light bulb burns out. And what IF it burned out? I for one would take advantage of it and light up. This would of course cause a confrontation with the cabin crew.

“Sir, Sir, you cannot smoke!’

“But the captain turned off my no smoking sign, didn’t he?”

The ground crew guy back in Sharjah must have provided excellent tech support because we landed safe and sound in Chennai Intl. One neon sign said Chennai Intl, another said Madras Intl. It made me think that change just might come slowly to India. It has only been ten years since India rebranded many of it’s cities. Madras became Chennai, Bombay became Mumbai while Old and New Delhi just became Delhi. I am sure there countless other towns and villages that shrugged off the last vestige of colonization and changed a name like SmytheTown to Rakamannaroil. When you are in a struggle to supply meaningful employment to a billion people, employing a few thousand cartographers and highway sign painters to celebrate your nationalistic pride cannot hurt. Now if they would only learn to drive on the right side of the road.

The reason I decided to cop the title of this post that my favorite scene in that movie is when they board the train to go to the caves. They have enough luggage for a circus. Every time I leave the Sharjah airport I am amazed at the amount of luggage the Indians take with them. Here is a photo taken at the luggage carousel in Chennai.

Almost every person going to India from the UAE has four or five huge bags and a television set!


That covers it for the journey. The next post will be my first impressions of India. I’ll give you a preview. A close friend of mine, whose talent with a quill I can only envy, who can humor me with colorful descriptions of a grey wall, went to India last year. When he got back I asked him “how was the trip?”

“The flight was fine. When you get off the plane, you are in India.”

That’s it. That is all a man who gets paid by the word to write for journals could come up with. I am beginning to think he nailed it.

But I won’t let you off so easy so stay tuned, tell a friend and make a comment.


Day Two in Cairo, Baby Jesus, Baby Moses and a Lot of Garbage

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 FamilyJosephMary 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.

The front of the Coptic Church

The church was built over these Roman ruins, hence the name "hanging church.

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.

Where tho Coptics of Cairo get baptized.

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.

I guess if Herod is after you this is a good place to hang out. I hope baby jesus was comfortable at least.

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.

Legend or truth it was a moviung place to think about. Jesus, Moses,on the same block.

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!

The Citadel with its 4 foot thick walls held up against those nasty infidels

The mosque of Mohamed Ali. This is the only mosque like this in all of Egypt, it is in the Ottoman style

This is a clock tower at the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. Ali traded the french a priceless statue of something which still stands in Paris for this clock tower. The clock has never worked. The French can't be trusted!

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.

Fresh garbage ready for sorting.

More garbage awaiting processing

Plastic bottles sorted and ready to be recycled.

This is a machine that chops the bottles up into little pieces. Then the plastic gets melted and turned into little tiny balls. Then it is sold to companies that make more bottles, plastic chairs, hangers, and so on. This seems very effective to me, and a way for a community to survive on an endless supply of garbage.

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.

OK, so it is a painting. But you can see the Muslim and Jewish clerics on the left, San Simeon on the right and the floating mountain in the middle.

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!

Relics of San Simeon

Relics of John the Baptist.



















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.

Egypt, Cairo, The Pyramids and My Buddy the Sphinx

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.

The paramedic made me comfortable but he was dissapointed I turned down a ride to the hospital. I just could not imagine the hospital.

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.

The beer of Egypt is called Stella. A light pilsner, tasty. Hotel price maybe $3

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.

I am the Sphinx. I guard the tombs of the Pharaohs. Ain't I cute?

Our first “tour day” was today. We started at the Egyptian Museum.

Main Entrance to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

My Grateful Dead ball cap almost fit the Sphinx. This one is outside the 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.

Papyrus is a rush. They cut it, peal it soak it "unwrap" it then press it. No glue or artificial sweeteners are used

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.

The sun God Ra behind the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Egyptiains pronounce it "KAY-OPS"

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.

Forrest and Mary Ann of Arabia. The camels name was Mickey Mouse.

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.

Adam and Mary Ann. He told her "dump the old man and take me back to America."

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.

This always meant Egypt to me. I am so happy I got up close and personal with this beauty.`

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.

Of all people, she pulled me away from my dinner and made me Sheik my Booty. Belly Dancing is not my forte, but I got a nice round of applause.

As Whirling Dervishes go, I have nothing to compare him to, but it was fun anyway.

Full moon over Cairo from the Nile. Not somethig we do every day.

And now, my favorite foto of the trip.

Sunset on the plateau of Giza. A view awed over for thousands of years.

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.

What Ever do We do when we are not Traveling?

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.

Beirut, Safe and Sane

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.

Entrance to AUB

Buiulding on AUB campus

Faculty housing AUB, with sports field in front. Mediterranean style? Well, duh, the med is right behind me!

Mary Ann on the Corniche. The AUB campus is to her left.

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.

Cafe society, Hookahs everywhere. They do not call them Hookahs, but I cannot spell and you could not pronounce what the do call them so why bother. I had one at my table for our last supper in Beirut. It is a very casual and civilized thing to do.

Christian church and Muslim mosque next door to each other. The catholic church here is the Cathedral of St George.

A painting inside the cathedral depicting St. George slaying the dragon! The cathedral of St George is built on the very site where he did so! Well, according to the Lebanese. The Syrians claim the same for their country. It is basically a parable brought back by the crusaders showing that they had gone to the middle east to destroy evil.

Pigeon Rocks at sunset. You can sit here, have a beer, smoke a Hookah and see a great sunset. Very civilized.

The Cathedral of St. Stephen, Patron saint of the Grateful Dead

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.

Crusader fort. Bult during the first Crusade and upgraded by the next couple. You could just about call this urban renewal in Byblos. It was built mainly with stones from Roman ruins. It now houses a museum.

Crusaders used roman ruins to build their fort. This shows the mark of a Roman builder on a stone he used to build a temple.

These are the ends Roman columns used by crusaders in their fort as lateral supports.

Crusaders also built churches. This is the one in Byblos.

The main Roman road through Byblos.

This is what remains of a Roman colonnaded street.

Roman amphitheater dedicated to the god Bachus, in Byblos. This was moved to this location so the archeologists could dig underneath it to get further back in history. It is now 1/3 as big as it was, and the proscenium dedicated to Bacchus is in the national museum.

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.

Jeita Grottos

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.

They take you around in a little electric boat. The water is cold, and clear and delicious!

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.

Beirut from above. The teleferica takes nine minutes to get you to the top of the mountain.

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!

Random Thoughts About Nepal

Everyone should see Nepal.

My bonafides for saying that are simple. I have done my share of traveling (not enough yet mind you) and a lot of that has been in back water bizarre places. I have been all over the Altiplanos of Peru and Bolivia. I have been on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. I’ve been to Machu Picchu three times.  I’ve been so far south in Chile I can almost say I have been in Antarctica. I have walked in the Atacama Desert in a place with zero rainfall ever. I have walked on the Chilean/ Argentine border at 18,000 feet in what I learned afterwards was a mine field. I have been deep in the Amazon jungle, where I swam with pink dolphins and fished for piranhas. I have driven through all of Central America. I spent a year in the Arctic and seen herds of caribou that took hours to walk past me. I lived on a tropical island for four years with hundreds of species of birds.  I have hiked where there are no trails and fished where no white man ever did before me.  I have been to an Eskimo village and have seen Polar Bears in the wild. I once drove a truck over a bridge on a major river before it was open for business.  I have walked on the Hopi Mesas. I have taken a train ride across an Asian country and driven across America. I have even lived in Los Angeles. To top it off I now live in the Arabian Desert.

I say you must see Nepal because it is somehow more intriguing than any of that.

It is not the poverty you’ll find if you look, that is everywhere. It is certainly not the desire to separate a tourist from his money, which is a survival tactic which I admire. It is not the lack of essential services that leave garbage in the streets and cause random blackouts. It is not even the multitude of sacred cows wandering the streets like lost souls.

It isn’t the colorful garb of the people; most people here want to dress like westerners, except for women on ceremonial days and those sensible enough to wear Saris. It is not the maroon robes of the Buddhist monks that sparkle in the city streets and the countryside like so many Thanksgiving mums. It is not the preponderance of Holy Men drifting to and fro with their faces painted and wearing bright yellow silk.

Don’t come here just to relate with Tibetan refugees chased out of their homeland by the Chinese communists, and now doing beautiful weavings and rugs to survive. By the way, the Chicoms will be reincarnated as cockroaches. FREE TIBET!

It isn’t even the thousands of ancient temples of two religions, or the fact that, as old as they are, they are maintained and used for daily worship.  It is not that the result of this hetero religious society leaves a wake of tranquility and contentment, no matter a Nepalese’ station in life.

You should not come here just to see the most magnificent mountain range in the world.

But you should make a pilgrimage here for all those reasons. I count my blessings that I am married to a woman who made Nepal possible.

The origin of name Nepal is disputable, and I do not possess enough knowledge to claim I know. Kathmandu is a word derived from “Temple from one tree”. Kathmandu was a stop on the trade routes from India to Tibet and China. The people in this valley traded with the Tibetans for salt mostly. They then traded with the Chinese for what they had.  When they began to get prosperous, the King built a giant temple from one Thal tree. It still stands today.

Fast forward to today. Nepal was never colonized. However, being India’s neighbor, as well as China’s the Brits, big in both, decided that a presence in Nepal would be a good idea and opened a type of embassy there in maybe 1850.  There is a bit of the colonial influence left over. For instance, they drink tea and drive on the wrong side of the road.  The good thing is that English is the second language of Nepal, which is great for tourists.

Nepal has many different regional identities, each with its own culture and style of dress. They have fought each other in the past for domination. They have been united and separated more than a few times. There remains only one Kingdom inside the territorial boundaries of Nepal, a place called Mustang. Mustang sits at the base of the Himal, in the central to western part of the country. There are no roads or air travel to Mustang. You have to walk it. It is not that big on the trekkers list of places to go. You need special permits and Mustangese guides. I have seen photos of the village of Mustang and I could see myself getting into shape, breaking in a pair of hiking boots, and going there someday. But maybe not.

Back to Kathmandu. The area our hotel is in is called Themal. I have mentioned before that it is the trekkers Disneyland. You would only stay in a hotel outside Themal if you were a businessman staying at the Hyatt. The Hyatt is convenient to the airport, and nothing else.

Walking the streets of Themal (not the sidewalks, there are not any sidewalks in Themal) requires a constant effort to not get hit by a motorcycle or a rickshaw.  You must do this while sidestepping Tiger balm vendors, flute vendors and little women selling little purses. It is a waste of time to be nice. You just learn to walk down the street muttering no,No,NO even when you are not being approached by a hawker. Learning to walk this gauntlet of cultural capitalism is an art form.  Once you have perfected it in Themal, it will serve you in the rest of the world. Every once in a while you might see something in a store window or on a table in the street. If you stop to look at it, boy are you in trouble. The owner of the store will be upon you like a tiger on a lamb. Pick it up and admire it and the owner will consider it sold. The only thing left to do is negotiate the price. DO NOT start doing this unless you really want to buy it. Make that an unwritten rule to follow faithfully. There are no fixed prices, even if there is a price tag on it, which is rare. The vendor will start with “very good price.”

You reply “oh yeah, how much?”

He says, for instance “1000 Rupees.”

You are now into a negotiation which culturally means a sale. You both lose face unless a transaction is completed. You lose face if you pay 1000 Rupees. You should first look surprised, aghast or even insulted by his asking price. Start to put the object down on the table and walk away. This is expected. He will follow you and say a variation of “How much is good price?”

You counter with ½. “500 Rupees”.

This of course will result in him giving you the same look you gave him when he said 1000. He will counter, you will counter, and before you know it you are at 750 Rupees. A sale has been made. Well, not quite. You pull out a 1000 Rupee note and he will invariably claim he has no change. He is counting on you or your partner having to get on your way to dinner, or to answer the call of Yeti’s revenge. You insist. You put the article back. He runs down the street and returns with change. All is well. When you get home you will have a souvenir and a memory. The memory will serve you well, the souvenir maybe not.

One thing you could do in Kathmandu, if so inclined, is to become a Bollywood fan. Bollywood makes movies in India that are immensely popular. Even at a few rupees admission fee they take in more money than most Hollywood productions. We get them on TV here in the UAE because of all the laborers from the sub-continent. In Kathmandu, they are playing in the theatres instead of the latest Hollywood cop movie. They are about 4 hours long. They are not subtitled. They really do not need to be. They are very graphic. Every few minutes, no matter what the plotline, they break into a huge song and dance number. Imagine watching this;

The movie opens with a man and woman obviously falling in love, and singing and dancing about it. They are co-workers and they sing and dance about that. But the woman is engaged to the boss, as revealed by song and dance. The boss is a crook, song and dance. The company is building a dam on the river going thru their town. The boss, instead of paying for concrete is using bat guano building the dam. Sing and dance. There is nothing our young heroes can do about their love or the corruption, so they sing and dance. Then the boss man falls into the cement mixer and becomes part of the damn, and our heroes get together, big song and dance. Then the heroin has a disfiguring accident, sad song and dance. The hero drops her. Sadder song and dance. The heroine disguises herself. The hero falls in love with her again, she then reveals herself and tells him to fuck off while singing and dancing. About this time the monsoons hit and torrential rain is falling. The river is rising and everyone is singing and dancing. Then the bat guano dam breaks, somehow everyone is singing and dancing as they get swept away by the river, but our two heroes hold on to the top of a Stupa and survive and sing and dance happily ever after.

That is Bollywood, the most popular form of entertainment in Kathmandu. Maybe the hash helps, I would not know.

In conclusion, I want to say that Nepal is the most intriguing place I have ever visited. I just began to scratch the top of the culture and religion that is so deep and old. There is really nothing else like it on earth. Nowhere has cultural and religious practices survived as long as they have in Nepal I am looking at opportunities to go back as more than a tourist. One is to go teach young monks to speak English. Live in a monastery and sing and dance the days away. Maybe.

Or maybe I will sell Yeti Tours. My guides and porters will take you deep into the Himal where Yeti sightings have happened, or at least Yeti footprints found. I will guarantee, 100% that you will NOT see a Yeti, even a footprint. If you do, your tour price is refunded.

No I have not been smoking hash.

Note: I am having technical difficulties making a proper presentation of the Kama Sutra post, but I promise it will come. Soon.

We Made it to Nepal!

We made it to Nepal. We are in Kathmandu. For me, this is a dream come true. I can’t thank my wife enough. We got here three days early because the University gvae mary Ann an extra three days paid leave, because EID started earlier than they thought it would, because the moon did something earlier than it should have. I don’t know nor care. It cost about $2 to change our flight, so we went for it.

We flew here on Air Arabia, or as the pilot pronounced it Air AHHRABEEEEAHH. It is the official airline of Sharjah, in fact it is owned by the Sharjah Government, which  means the Ruler. The Ruler pays Mary Ann’s Salary, so it all works out. Air Arabia is the first and largest “low  cost” airline in the Middle East. How low? $350 R/T.  Wonderful comfortable flight. The airport in Sharjah is brand new and quite efficient. Air Arabia is not the only airline flying in and out of it, but probably the only one I will ever fly. AA flies brand new Airbus 320’s. The other airlines like say, Air Kenya, are pretty sketchy. I went to a couple web sites of the other airlines and they touted their “fleet of six DC9’s”. They sound like a CNN breaking news story waiting to happen.

The Sharjah airport is also a big cargo terminal, bringing in all the toys the Emirates want to spend petrodollars on. Most of the cargo planes are of Russian origin and boy are they ugly.

Our flight arrived right on time.  Only thing is, in Nepal time is 45 minutes late. If in the rest of this time zone it is 1:00, in Nepal it is 12:15. No one seems to know why, it just is what it is.

We were met at the airport by our guide with Leis. I don't know the Nepali word for them. Very fragrant flowers.

My first impressions?  The politically correct people of the world have stopped using the term   “3rd world country” in favor of “developing nation.” Sorry folks, this is a 3rd world country, I have not seen anything I would call developing.

Don’t get me wrong. I like it here after one day. It is exciting. Heavy vibes. If that statement is too hippy for you, it is because I think this is where the hippies found their gestalt. Mind you, I am still a hippie at heart, so  I am qualified to say that. If a Hollywood costume designer ever wants to find clothes for a crowd scene at a Grateful Dead concert, or a 60’s  love-in, just come to Kathmandu. In the tourist area we are staying in, called Themal, every store sells the hippest stuff, a lot of it with peace symbols embroidered on it and great colors. After dinner tonight we took a walk and I was offered Hashish three times. The Haight-Ashbury LIVES! Lonely planet calls Themal the “Hippies Disneyland”.

Lots of color on the streets

With all the Hash in the streets here, you need something to smoke it in!

Nepal has the best T Shirts of anywhere I have ever been. There are thousands to choose from in Themal.

The other thing you can’t help but find is serious trekking clothes. People set out from here for 7 day hikes to the Mount Everest Base camp. That is 7 days each way. From what I have read and heard, the base camp is a zoo. Hundreds of people go there to actually attempt to summit Everest, but thousands go just to say they have been there. ME?  Oh noooo. I am going to take a flight over Everest in a smallish plane in a couple of days, on Buddha Air. That is not a joke.

Cool keepsake, but I want a T shirt!

It is a perfect 25 degrees. The air is fresh. The food we have found so far, including a Yak Cheese pizza has been excellent.

her first beer in Nepal. An Everest beer of course. Huge bottles, 7.5%. They go a long way!

We ate that at the Rum Doodle restaurant where beer is free for the rest of your life if you have stood on top of Everest. And oh yeah, the beer is wonderful!

This is another country where they drive  on the wrong side of the road, but that really does not seem to matter because the roads are not so wide that it makes any difference.

Before we left we hooked up with a guide who has set up everything for us. He has worked his way up from being a porter on the treks to the base camp, to being a guide on the treks, and now has his own company catering to people like us. So far he has been a gem. His name is Shankar, and he does not mind me calling him Ravi. You can take the Hippie out of the sixties, but you can’t take the sixties away from the Hippie.

Muchmore to come including our flight over Everest this morning. We saw the top of the world, and it was amazing!

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