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Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Three

This was my wedding anniversary and I missed my wife.
Today we spent nine hours in the truck.  The highlight of the nine hours was crossing the bridge over the source of the Nile. Another unwritten Bucket List  item. This is the White Nile. The other source is at the top of the Blue Nile. The bridge we were crossing was at the northern end of Lake Victoria. This spot is further south than the source of the Blue Nile and it is generally granted that it is the true source. However, about ten years ago a few truly intrepid explorers went up a river that feeds Lake Victoria and claim to have found a little spring that is THE true source. More power to them, I’ll go with my belief to have seen the source of the River Nile, because it makes me feel special I guess.
I also want to think that Lake Victoria is the lake that was in The African Queen, so I’ll just think it is.

I can empathize with Mr Allnut here, after nine hours on the truck. I also missed my wife all day. I was also probably as filthy.

We made our first border crossing, into Uganda. Uganda requires US$50 for a visa. I tried paying with my pre 2003 $100 bill, but they would not take it. We passed  through Rampala which does not resemble a garden spot.
Intrepid Travel again had it right when they chose a campsite. This time we had real toilets and warm water for showers. There was a bar there where I was introduced to a liqueur called Amarula.

This is really good stuff. Amarula is a fruit in South Africa, favored by Elephants, and used as a flavor for this otherwise Baileys type of liqueur. It is a bit stronger at 16.5%, goes down deceptively smooth, and puts a nice end to a long trucking day.

Once again I thank Intrepid travel for helping cross-off an item I did not even know existed on my bucket list. Come to think about it, two items. Source of the Nile and a new booze.

Thanks for reading, share with a friend. Make a comment, please.

Bali: Paradise Buried.

If Bali is on your bucket list, scratch it off. I’ll save you the long plane ride and the money to get there by telling you that the romantic, idyllic paradise you have in your mind about Bali has been buried under tourists, traffic and trash.

Our introduction to Bali might have jaded us. I know it jaded my wife.

The line at immigration was not long, but the clerks were very slow. Directly in front of us were two grungy euro looking trekkers with dreads. I fully expected them to get seriously scrutinized and delay our entry even longer, but they sailed through like dignitaries to the upcoming ASEAN conference.

Then it was Mary Ann’s turn. Well dressed, polite, and the most honest looking face on either side of the coconut, I expected her to just pass through like a wind across the plains. However, the immigration man started seriously looking at her passport, page after page after page. We have residency permits from the UAE and Panama in our passports, along with stamps and visas from more countries than I can count.

The immigration clerk took her passport and handed it to a supervisor. He took his time scrutinizing it. Then he called over a guard, and they whisked my wife off behind a grey metal windowless and closed door.

This is the reception you get at immigration in Bali. Well, at least it seemed like it to us.

I figured I was heading for the same fate, I just had no idea why. Bali is part of Indonesia. Indonesia is a Muslim country, so I doubted the UAE residency permit was the problem. Neither of us has been to Israel, so what could it be? The first thing I did of course was politely demand to know where they had taken my wife.

“To office” was all the clerk said.

“Why” was my logical response.

“No full page” he answered.

“May I go back there and see her?” I asked, fully expecting a negative response.

He finished putting my visa in my passport and just waved me away. So I walked over to the door they had taken her through not knowing if it was going to be full of hungry tigers, hot oils, dragons or what. I found her sitting on an industrial couch which was indented with the impressions of too many posteriors that had sat there for too long. I asked her what they told her. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say “hell if I know”. I told her what the clerk had told me “no full page”.

The look of recognition crossed her face like a sunrise on the beach. “I told you I should have gone to the consulate and gotten the extra pages put in. But I have two blank pages. What is wrong?”

Then they called her into the inner sanctum, just her. 15 minutes passed while I watched a 15 year old tourism highlight video.    I began to think this was all I was ever going to see of Bali. It wasn’t even in English.

She came out alone with a look of bewilderment and the attitude you see before surrender. She explained to me that the last two pages of the passport are for “Amendments and Endorsements” and that they could not put the Visa sticker on one of these pages, and all the other pages were full. Well, this is one of those problems that you feel lucky to have, but stupid to have to suffer through. A full passport is a beautiful thing, unless you are using it.  I asked her what we could do, and she said we could “get on a flight to somewhere else Anywhere else.”  She was saying just loud enough that the officials in the back bowels of the immigration bureaucracy enclave could hear it. These guys were all dressed like traffic cops, cheap white uniforms with tin badges. I expected to see a whistle. One of them came out to ask her to go to yet another cage full of dragons. He did not close the door behind them this time. I could hear Mary Ann saying “OK, OK, we’ll just leave.” I had no idea where we would go. Thailand was underwater, we’ve done Hong Kong. Australia is too damn far. Besides all that, if there is no space in her passport, we’d probably end up in another colorless office with even less colorful mignons.

Then she walked out of the office and told me to follow her. She said something I never thought I would hear my Jesuit schooled wife say. “We are going to have to bribe the guy.”

So I went into this little office. The calendar on the wall was from the wrong month, and two years old. That calendar was probably the most modern thing in the office. If I remember correctly the phone on the desk actually had a dial on it. I was welcomed in like a sheep to slaughter. Little did he know that I was not exactly new to this. I lived in Latin America for too many years and dealt with too many petty  men in uniforms of too many corrupt governments to let him bother me. This had never happened to me in Asia, but I knew it was just human nature.

He started off by asking what I did for a living. I could have told him I was a writer for Conde’ Nast and that this story was going to go a long way to stopping the almighty tourist dollar.  My mind which has read a thousand spy/adventure novels was telling me to say “Yeah, buddy, I’m a major in the USAF and if you don’t quit messing with my wife I’ll call in an airstrike on your grandfather’s fishing boat.”

But I realized that he was in the right. He was being an asshole about it, BUT, Mary Ann DID have a full passport.

So it came to the transaction.

“What is your policy?” I asked.

He was at least honest enough to say, “This is only my policy, not the government’s.”

OK, OK, the negotiation was on. This was his way of increasing his take home pay. In these situations, the objective is for neither party to lose face. I waited for him to make the first offer. When he did, I turned to Mary Ann and said simply, “Shall we go to Chiang Mai?”

He showed a bit of vulnerability. I could tell he was counting on this American cash cow to make his day. I could have gotten rougher with him than I did, but he DID have us over a barrel.

I then offered him ½ what he asked for. This was no different than buying a knock-off watch from a street vendor. He came back with half between that and his asking price. Knowing that all I had in my pocket was half that again, I agreed. He was a very happy little crook, until I emptied my pockets and said “oops, that is all I have.” The top bill was a US$100 bill, which works like gold nuggets in the modern world.

Then this slimeball opened up Mary Ann’s passport and found a very suitable little place for the visa, quite easily. The bastard.

So now we were off to our pre-booked and pre-paid 5 star beach resort. (By the way, we would have lost that payment if we had not paid off the immigration man and he knew it.) We had to wait in a log line with dozens of other tourists to get an authorized taxi. I had to ignore, ignore, and ignore again a gypsy cab driver. We finally got to the front of the line after being pushed back in line by a group of Russians and bought our trip. Bali, being just one of the thousand islands that make up Indonesia, uses the Indonesian Rupea, which is one of those mostly worthless currencies. At the time of our trip it was about 8600 to $1. So the cab ride was like a 1,000,000, or something with a lot of zeroes.

After 36 hours in Singapore, the first thing I noticed was the litter. As we drove out of the airport the next thing I noticed was the traffic. We were back in the land of motor scooters, but even that concession to the congestion did nothing to ease the pain. Nothing moved. It took us an hour to go the short distance to our resort.

Thisis just an example of the traffic in Bali. Traffic jams are everywhere, day and night. It takes hours to go miles.

The narrow streets were not ready for the current population or tourism, and they are still building resorts. Apparently there is nowhere to take the refuse other than the swamps along the road. This is Bali? This is the Bali of my paradise fantasies? It was my wife’s vacation so I stayed quiet. But I could see her, still affected by the rude official introduction to the country, having the same reaction I was. THIS is Bali?

When we finally arrived at this 5 star joint we looked around for the normal reception party we have come to expect…a cool cloth to wipe off the tropical sweat and a cool drink to make you forget that you just spent 5 times as long in a cab as you should have, We barely got a hello, and our room was not ready. (It was already 2 p.m.)

This was just day one. My next post will be a bit more positive and show you some of the natural beauty of this island. Please excuse this rough introduction. Thanks for reading, tell a friend, ESPECIALLY someone who wants to go to Bali.

International Air Travel, My Style.

As I start packing for yet another intercontinental flight, I came to the happy realization that I am now quite good at this. I know not to take more than one pair of shoes, two pairs of jeans, and save the weight and space for a few extra pair of BVDs.

In the last year I have been in five continents and if you want to get technical,  I could claim two sub continents. India is known as a subcontinent, but the Indian people are fond of telling you that they are their own continent. It is hard to argue with 1.2 billion people. And then there is the Middle East. I live here and I’ll be damned if I know what continent I live in. This aint Asia, nor Europe, nor Africa. I have never heard of anyone calling this area a subcontinent, so what is it? I’ll just go with subcontinent for ease of calculations.

As far as air travel goes, the Middle East is Middle Earth. Both Dubai and Doha bill themselves as the cross roads for the world. In a way that is very true. A person can fly from Dubai or Doha to anywhere important directly. Both cities are home to an excellent airline. Dubai boasts Emirates Air, and Doha is the proud home of Qatar Airlines, subtitled “The World’s Five Star Airline”. There is virtually no major country that is not served by either of them, together they have the globe covered. On top of that Emirates Air just reduced their fares because the price of oil dropped. Name me one other airline that did that!

I live in the UAE, about a half hour away from the Dubai Airport. This being Emirates home base you would think that I would be loyal to the home boys and that at least the majority of my travel would be with them. However, as any of you who know me are thinking right now, not necessarily.  For my trips to Thailand, the third of which  I am packing for right now, and for our trip to Hong Kong last month, I take Qatar. Why? Well, simply put $. Hundreds of $’s less. More $’s to spend on tours and stupid souvenirs. To fly Qatar I must first fly to Doha, which is a very short flight, then change planes at the Doha Airport. Qatar is building a new super airport, but I have no idea when it will be completed. For now, all planes coming and going must park in the next county. Passengers must  ride a bus into the terminal, and then another bus back out. It is a bit annoying and adds at least a couple of hours to my travel time, but it is the price I pay to save the $s.

Now that I have been a steady customer of Qatar, I am starting to climb up the ladder of their frequent flyer program. Soon I will be a Silver Flyer (please do not confuse that with Silver Surfer) and with a little creativity I will enter the ranks of the Golden Ones (please do not confuse that with getting older). As anyone who flies a lot and stays loyal to one carrier knows, stepping up a rank means multiplying  every mile you travel towards the grail of a free ticket. Someday, Qatar will owe me a free trip to somewhere I would never pay to fly to. (I hope that makes more sense to you than it does to me)  I am considering adding that to my bucket list; “Get a free flight to somewhere, anywhere at all”. It would not be my first time to achieve this, but last time I did it, mining companies were buying my tickets and it did not mean as much to me.

Back to my inspirational moment that led to this posting. Being good at international travel means more than leaving room in your suitcase for underwear (clean and otherwise) and souvenirs.

Let us consider proper travelling clothes. First let me say that anyone who dresses up for a flight is living in the fifties. Today, unless you have to go to a meeting right off the plane, it is ridiculous. Think of flying like taking the bus, it will simplify the journey.

So what to wear?I’ll do this from the bottom up.

Wear flip-flops or sandals. Not all airports make you take off you shoes, but when you have to, it is really nice to just kick off the sandals. In fact, a lot of TSA types will just let you pass if you are wearing nothing but flip-flops. If you are unfortunate enough that your destination is, say, Minnesota in January, you can pack a pair of mukluks and put them on before you leave the terminal.

Pants. Loose and baggy. That way they do not creep up on you and cause a lack of blood flow to sensitive regions. Also, if you can find loose and baggy cargo pants, then you can carry some essential in-transit items on your person, such as a couple of power bars, Ipod and  ear plugs, reading glasses, stuff like that. Yes, it means divesting your gear in one of those little trays before you pass through the security gate, but the trade-off is worth it. If you put all these things in your carry on bag it just causes more work for you once you get to your seat.

Shirt or blouse. Planes are notoriously over air-conditioned. What I find works best is a long sleeve cotton T.

Head gear. Most people do not wear anything. I always wear a ball cap, even when I am not travelling. I have found that this strange custom of mine is great on an airplane when I want to sleep. I can pull it down over my eyes. Combine that with the Ipod and you can drift into another world, while on your way to another world. The hat also keeps your head warm.

These days airlines have started stocking their inventory with planes that have the acronym ER at the end  of the type designator. I.E. B777ER. The ER stands for Extended Range. If you look at international routes available you will find some TRULY Extended Range flights. I think the longest regularly scheduled flight these days is from Atlanta to Johannesburg.  That is something like 19 hours. Dubai to Los Angeles is 16 or so. Just a few years ago either of these flights would have been impossible. You would have had to change planes and probably carriers in London, or Amsterdam. Maybe more than one stop. If you think 16 hours is too damn long to be cooped up in a steel tube at 38,000 feet with recirculated air spreading flu germs, well you are not alone. A lot of people still opt for a lay-over in some city. But the problems with that solution are scarier to me than catching this years flu bug. Let’s take a look at them.

Lost luggage. Every time you switch planes in transit you give overworked underpaid luggage handlers another chance to send your bag to Shanghai when your destination is Topeka. Don’t even bother wondering how they do it, but misdirected luggage is still a significant problem even though the world’s airlines are getting much better about getting your bag on the same plane you are on. That being said, it has never happened to me (knock knock) .

Another disadvantage of a lay over is the extra costs. An overnight in say London could just about double your airfare, considering hotel, taxis, meals and a night on the town.

Maybe all you want to do is get out of the flying tube and walk around an airport for 4 hours between flights, like the good old days. Consider this, count meals, that trip to the book store, some time in the bar, the cute souvenir refrigerator magnet at the gift shop that you would not have bought if you had not made the trip to the bar  and before you know it your travel budget has taken a hit. Plus, that gives the luggage handlers four extra hours to choose which plane to put your bag on.

I always opt for the non stop on the ER. Just remember, you get on the plane, and sooner or later, you get off the plane.

Now about that recirculated air. Well, other than looking like a Tokyo traffic cop and wear a surgical mask, there just is not anything you can do. However, the air up there is not the only source of exotic diseases in an airplane. The plastic tray and the arms on your seat can hold and transmit all sorts of maladies. And then there is the toilet. I always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer and I use it before and after I touch anything. I think of it as preventing others from catching what I have, so I don’t feel like a paranoid. I also wipe down the food tray and the arm rests. Why risk it? Catching one of the worlds staphylococci can really ruin a nice vacation.

If the person sitting next to you is coughing, hacking, sneezing or bleeding uncontrollably, ask to be moved. Same thing if they stink, or especially if they are so fat they should have been made to buy two seats. If there are any empty seats, the cabin crew will try to help you, if you ask nicely. If you are not nice to them, about anything at all, they will not be nice to you, about anything at all. Frankly I think it is pretty shitty job which I would never do. Nobody tips you and some passengers can be real jerks.

Always carry a pen with you because you will need to fill out one of those immigration forms before you stand in the long line to have your passport inspected. Borrowing a pen from another (read: better prepared) passenger is embarrassing and brands you as a novice.

Many people will go to the trouble of finding the local currency exchange and buying Rupees  (whatever) before they leave home. I wonder if they have ever heard of an ATM machine?  Also, I just can’t understand why anyone uses travelers checks these days. These must be the same people who dress up for the flight. Hello? Eisenhower is not President anymore.

Thats it for today. I am off for Thailand now. All packed in my style, which means I probably forgot some stuff. My next blog will be from Chiang Mai. Stay tuned, tell a friend and please make a comment. Even if you do not know me, just tell me what you think about this post, even if you think it stinks like the guy who sat next to you on your last flight.

Kowloon, Lantau and Macau are Not Chinese Menu Items

They are instead three islands near Hong Kong, which we took whirlwind tours of this week. All three deserve more time, alas our time is limited. I have not blogged for three days simply because when we get back to our hotel, have some real menu items to eat, a couple of TsingTao beers (the best beer with Chinese food, but strangely not by itself), I just crash.  I suppose if we were 25 again, we would sample the night life in Hong Kong, which I hear is responsible for this smile on Buddha.

Happy is as happy does!

First, Kowloon.

Yes, believe it or not it is pronounced just like it looks like it should be pronounced. I have not delved into the history to find out who named it that, or why. Instead I will just assume it was where mad Cow Disease originated.

Kowlooning around!

Kowloon Is a five minute ferry ride across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong proper. By the way, when the Chicoms take over in 35 or so years, there will be no more English names for things. No Queens Blvd. or Prince Albert’s can. Nope, all the names will change to Mandarin. This will be tough on the locals as well, because they speak Cantonese. So to get to Kowloon one can take the ferry, or go under the channel in an automobile tunnel, or take the metro in another tunnel. We purchased what they call an Octopus card which is good on all local public transportation except taxis. Public transportation, including taxis, are one of the few bargains in the SAR. The what? The Special Administrative Region, the official name for “one country – two systems” rule in existence today. After buying our card, we walked for ages, it seemed like miles, underground to get to the metro platform. The first thing you notice after your sore feet, is that there is not as much as a gum wrapper on the ground. Hong Kong is CLEAN. No one litters. The fine for littering is 5000 HK dollars. (1US$=7.80 HK$, you do the math)

keeping Hong kong clean is everyones job, not just the thousands of people who get paid to do it. You really do NOT see people litter here.

Kowloon is supposedly the bargain shopping area for greater Hong Kong.  The most famous of the various shopping destinations is called Ladies Street. This is a six block long pedestrian walkway with hundreds of booths on each side of the walkway. Once you have walked a couple of blocks you notice that every 10th booth or so is selling the same junk, And I Do mean junk.

Ladies Street Block after block of junk

Not that I like any Yankee cap, but this one on Ladies Street is the ugliest I have ever seen!

Now the only hawkers in all of HK are for tailors. There are probably more tailor shops in HK than any other city in the world. I thought Bangkok had a lot of tailors, but HK has BK beat. I hate being tall and white in Asia. The hawkers see me a block away and make a move for me. I have my radar out now. If I see a guy with a handful of business cards head toward me, I duck into a storefront, vitamin store, bathroom fixtures, lingerie, it does not matter. But they wait  for me outside. They follow me at least a block telling me I am dressed like a beggar and should have a suit made, or three, special price for three!  They pester me until I enter the hunting area of the next hawker for the next tailor.  Mary Ann, who is the best dressed librarian in Sharjah had already decided she would have a suit made in Hong kong to go with the half dozen she had made in Thailand. She had already chosen her tailor, who happened to be in Kowloon, so the day was not a complete waste.

At this point in the process, Mary Ann turned to me and said she had lost interest. Then the sales lady said something like 3 suits for the price of 1!. All I know is now we need an extra suitcase to get home.

Lantau Island.

Our next day in fab HK was spent on another group tour. we like tours. Usually we hire a private car tour, just the two of us and a hopefully all knowing guide. But in HK they are prohibitively expensive, so we ride on buses with20 or so other people. At least most of these people are so old that I feel relatively young.

Lots of old people, and us! There was one guy on this bus I refused to be anywhere near because he was sniffling sneezing and hacking. Luckily I did not catch whatever exotic disease he had!

Lantau is the home of the worls “largest- outdoor- sitting -bronze Buddha”. Of all the buddhas I have seen in my travels he s the largest. I still do not know where the largest Buddha in the worls is. I think I will find out and put him on my bucket list.

He was very big, but where is the biggest? I'll have to Google that one.

Maybe this is a better photo. I am still learning my camera, and it was a grey day. We spoke to a tourist who went the next day and he said that it was so foggy that you could not see Buddhas head!

Buddha sits on a hill over a very nice temple that is well used. Every temple sells incense for people to light and make prayers. This temple sold the largest incense sticks I have ever seen.

I hear these burn for a week. They only sell them in packs of three, for about 700 HK dollars. You must really need to pray hard!

Lantau also has an amazing aerial cable ride which takes about 30 minutes to go from Lantau all the way to Hong Kong. It passes right near the HK airport, giving an excellent view of all the planes taking off and landing. This is a very busy airport as you might expect.

I think every international carrier in the world flies to HK. Why not? It is rated as one of the top airports in the world. The thing I liked about it was that the immigration lines were well staffed and that they had a single line to stand in which fed all the stamping stations, so you do not feel like you got "in the slow line again."

It also passes over an example of typical housing ing in BK. People here live in high rise buildings for the most part. One of our guides says the typical apartment is 500 sq feet. A person does not own an apartment ,only big companies. However if  one chooses, you can rent a government subsidized apartment, but they are not as nice as these.

Buildings like these are all over HK. Crowded together. In mid town they are much dingier, and do not have the view. Our guide showed us the most expensive apartment building in HK where the apartments are 5000 sq. feet and rent for...US$21,000 a month. Plus a big dollar amount for a parking space. If you drive to work, you pay another huge monthly fee to park in a building in town. Therefore, public transportation is inexpensive and very well used. The buses and metros at rush hour are crowded as a beehive in spring. I think that the best business to have in HK must be elevator maintenance and repair.

On to Macau.

Macau was a magic name to me when I was 8 years old because that was where all the really good firecrackers were made. That was all I knew about it. Now that is not the case. The fireworks industry has gone away and is replaced by casinos. In fact Macau now makes  more money from wagering than Lost Wages, Nevada.  It is another SAR. It pays no taxes to the Chicoms. In fact there are no taxes in Macau at all, which makes it a shopping haven. It is a separate government from HK and you must pass through immigration and customs going both ways. (Just a bit of a brag…I counted my the stamps in my passport while standing in line returning to HK. When I get back to the UAE, they will have the honor of applying the 100th stamp in my precious blue book. Wow.)

Honk Kong is a very strict place. they have rules and rules and rules. They are serious about them and fine you on the spot for violating them. Littering I have mentioned. They also restrict smoking to little permitted smoking areas. You can always find them because they have groups of people puffing away. ut the weirdest rule I have run up against is the customs regulation about how many cigarettes you can bring into the country. Get this, the number is 19. One short of a pack. If anyone can explain that I will be glad to hear it.

Rules at a park in town.

Rules at a beach. Check it out...there is nothing left to do!

Macau being the gambling capital of the world,is now waging a civil war to build the largest casino. An old guy named Dr. Ho used to have the monooly on casinos in Macau. He also owns half the airport,docks, and other infrastuctures. Now, American and Australian companies are moving in.

This is your first view of Macau from the ferry. It is one of many American and Austarlian casinos in the SAR now. MGM and Wynn also have built monstrosities.

This is Dr. Ho's latest attempt at having the biggest gaudiest casino in Macau. Rumor is, it will be surpassed very soon. With all the money the Chicoms drop at the tables here, there is just no limit .

There is another type of gambling one can do in Macua. The stakes are your life, or maybe just your sanity.

From the top of this tower, you have three options. First is to walk around an un-barricaded sky walk. Next is to bungie jump off of it. Or you can just jump, attached to a rope that finally slows you down as you approach the ground. The height is 764 feet, the worlds highest bungie or free fall site. I just bough the t-shirt.

Macau was settled by the Portuguese. There is a long historyof Christain in-fighting in Macau with Dominicans, Franciscans and of course the Jesuits all trying  to reign supreme. One of the iconic structures of Macau is the remains of the church of St. Paul.

All that is left of a church built in the late 1600's. On the street next to it were two groups passing out literature, one of them was the church outlawed in mainland China"fong garonadinggong" or something like that.

 

And of course there are Buddhist temples and any tour in this part of the world will take you to a Buddhist temple. It must be in the licensing contract. Finally after visiting enough temples to start feeling outright religious, I found something unigue.

This is a singing water bowl. First you throw a coin in the bowl which is half full of water. Then you rub your palms quickly back and forth across the two handles until the water starts to actually bubble, and the the bowl sings. It is supposed to bring you good fortune. I was hoping it would help me take back some of Dr. Ho's money.

Our last stop was a casino, and thank Buddha we only got a half hour to gamble. I did not win any money…singing bowl or not. But I only had a half hour to lose. Mary Ann went to a facory outlet next door and further burdened our suitcases for the return tripwith some really nice and very inexpensive brand name clothes. If you come to this part of the world, HK is just fine. It is exciting and vibrant. But for better deals and more fun, be sure to visit Macau.

That is it for today.  My next post will cover the Hong Kong Harbor Symphony of Lights. Stay tuned. Tell a friend. Make a comment. You CAN write a sentence can’t you? I should say thank you to my regular commenters.

Alexandria Day 2 and Stuff I Forgot.

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.

We should maybe had jumped on this tourist bus, I mean it WAS Christmas day!

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.

A group of fishermen had just finished bringing in a large net out of the harbor. If you look close you will see a cat helping himself to a piece of the catch

This guy was my favorite of the fishermen. His job was to guide the net while he was in the water. If you look closely he is smoking a cigarette which he managed to keep dry the whole time!

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.

Mary Ann about to hop on a trolley. It was old, but comfortable. Slow but a wonderful touristy thing to do. We saw parts of Alexandria we would have missed otherwise. A young man from some war torn country in Africa sat across from us and asked if we had ever been to his country. How do your nicely say "not in this life bud". Anyway he was an art student at the U of Alexandria, and a Christian on his way to church for Christmas service. Nice kid. We suspect some missionary types got him the hell out of Dodge. We wished him godspeed.

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.

A beautiful Italian style palace. When the revolution came, the king fled to Italy, leaving this palce and the gardens behind. Overweight charges on his airline I guess.

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.

This sundial is on the grounds of the library. I checked it against my cheapo watch. The sundial was right on time!

I got busted for taking this picture in the art museum. It is a drawing of the original light house of Alexandrai. The light house, excavated a bit in the last 20 years is now being turned into an underwater museum to show all the antiquities laying about on the harbor floor. It should be ready in another 100 years or so. Enjoy this foto because I really had to talke my way out of trouble to get it. They think I deleted it!

Books I found and liked.

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.

I can't name the flavor. No one spoke English in this joint I just ordered what the old mand next to us had. They gave us new hoses in a sealed bag. The old time regulars all brought along their own hoses. I related it to having your own bowling ball. They also bring a really good glass of tea. Shisha joints are a fantastic bit of culture, very civilized and a "should do" item for any tourist. Price? About 50 cents!

 

We returned to the hotel and werte met by Santa.

Santa in front of our hotel. Egypt is 25% Christian, so this was just a little bit of a surprise.

 

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.

We each got our own Santa hat

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.

Course 1

Smoked salmon in Pineapple boat, duet of white and yellow lump eggs, cocktail sauce

Salmon and Pineapple is not a combo I ever thought of before, but it was delicious. I never figured out what the lump eggs were.


Course 2

Zucchini and Eggplant Pontage Scented Saffron

Course 3

Roasted Turkey medallions farced, with chestnut sauce served with seasonal vegetables and potato chateau

Course  4

Chocolate passion mouse laced with cinnamon and berry sauce

mmmm mmmm good.


Course 5

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.

An attempt to capture the ambiance in the restaurant.

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.

I am not sure if this is for people who have traveled too much or had too much fun travelling.

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.

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.

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.

The Top of the World! Everest!

Everest. One word, wow. It was a beautiful clear day. Our Budha Air flight was on a 17 seat Beechcraft. This aircraft is a small tubular unit with one seat on each side of the aisle. A six foot tall person cannot stand erect in the aisle. Mary Ann dislikes small planes and she was uncomfortable at first. Once we got to the mountains, her demeanor changed.

We flew out of the domestic airport. Other airlines serving it had names like Yeti Air. They take security more serious than any airport I have ever been in. We got frisked three times between entering the airport and getting on the plane. They found both my lighters. At least two other airlines run “mountain flights”. This is a major tourist attraction, and we found out why.

We left at 6:30 in the morning and were back in the hotel by 9:00.

It took about ten minutes to reach the Himalaya range.  They gave each passenger a map which named every peak along the way. We went West to East skirting the range at about 30,000 feet. That let us see the mountains up close and personal.

This range is very different than the Andes, which I have flown over and through dozens of times. Not just because they are higher, but because they are much more “ragged”. The Himalaya are a set of very sharp peaks and deep valleys, with many rivers and even a couple of large ice lakes. They are a brilliant white, and you can see giant ice flows with well defined patterns. It left me with an even more impressed reputation of all those (especially the early ones) who have done on foot what I was doing in the air.)

And then we flew over the top of the world, the third pole. Everyone has seen photos of Everest and is familiar with the shape of this amazing mountain. When you get  so close you feel like reaching out and touching her, it is moving and thrilling .  It was a once in a lifetime experience. It was a bucket list item.

As we started flying back and descending in altitude, all I could think of was, “It’s all downhill from here.”

I’ll probably never stop talking about it, but for now I’ll post some photos in an effort to share this thrilling experience with you.

Over the himalaya

View from the cockpit Everest in front

Yes, they let me into the cockpit. Which was a good thing because my window was dirty and over the wing, so most photos kinda suck.

Awe inspiring

Top of the world!

My next post will cover the rest of an amazing day which included watching an ancient rite of cremation of bodies along a river on the outskirts of town. If you can handle it, I have photos.  I also will share with you the origin of the Kama Sutra with some “adults only” photos. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, subscribe if you have not already, and tell a friend.

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