Sunday, August 31, 2008

Egypt:The Blog -- Day Fourteen

Another wonderous day -- meaning another Wonder of the World.

We started the day by heading to Giza and seeing the Pyramids and the Sphinx. While not exactly in Cairo, they are part of this city. Except for the spectacle of the edifices themselves, and the life around them (the stalls, camel drivers, etc.), there's really not much "there" there, especially not after Petra. Still, they are something that should be seen, and were.

Then it was the mandatory "guide takes you to factory (shopping)" part of the trip. Surprisingly, it wasn't rugs, but instead perfume and papyrus paintings. But like rug buying, they were part of the experience and worth the detour.

Next was on to the Egyptian Museum. As everyone says, it is amazing how much is crammed into it, hundreds and hundreds of artifacts, mummies, sarcofagi and the big one: the artifacts of King Tut's tomb, including the gold mask that wasn't in the touring exhibit. (No pictures allowed, unfortunately).

Finally, we took a sunset felucca ride along the Nile to watch the sun set.

Cairo is definitely a dirty, crowded city, but not at all like the insanity I expected. Traffic moves -- no traffic lights, but many police directing the mash of cars, buses, tuk-tuks, and donkey carts. People dart in and out of it but none of it seems hectic or crazed. And right now, from my hotel balcony, I can hear a woman singing "Killing Me Softly" at an outdoor restaurant mixing with the sound of a muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer, which is a perfect summary of the diversity of this city.

Tomorrow Ramadan starts and I'm really looking forward to seeing the city after dark, when people who have not eaten or drank all day come out and eat, drink and party until the early morning hours.

The Pyramids, The Sphinx

Been there, done that.
Cairo is far more civilized than Delhi.
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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Egypt:The Blog -- Day Thirteen

Yesterday never really ended … at about 1:00 this morning, we arrived at Mt. Sinai and almost immediately climbed on our camels (yes, we’re wusses but we were more interested in making it to the top on time than in winning any fitness contest) to begin the climb to the top. We reached the end of the camel road at roughly 4:00 a.m., giving us an hour to make the final climb to the top before sunrise.

Of course, we were not alone, not by any stretch of the imagination – there were hundreds making the walk with us in the dark, carrying flashlights and breakfasts. It was really quite a sight to see the long row of swinging flashlights behind us and in front of us, forming a luminescent caterpillar up the mountain. As at Karak and Petra, we were not alone. Small stands dotted the trail, offering everything from tea to cokes to snickers bars, not to mention camels for those who realized mid-climb that it was quite a hike and blankets to keep warm at the top of the mountain. Our guide was terrific, helping us up the steep steps, making sure we got good camels, keeping the touts away, and making sure we had a good climb. (Immediately, the difference between the tour company in Jordan and the one in Egypt was apparent. The Jordanian agent was very nice but definitely had cut some corners; the Egyptian agency made sure we had a good guide and paid him and the camel owners enough to make sure we were properly taken care of).

As soon as we arrived at the top we staked out our position and … Ellery fell asleep! Got to hand it to that kid, she’s adaptable. As the sky slowly brightened, a group in front of the old church started singing hymns while another group of Germans seemed intent on laughing at their piety, but for the most part,
everyone sat still and watched as the mountains around and below us revealed themselves. Because of the haze, you don’t really see the sun rise as much as the slow dawning of the day, but it was a magical experience. Ellery and I quietly sang the Sh’ma, in part in response to the hymns, in part because it just seemed right.

After a while, pictures were taken and we made the 2 hour trek down the mountain for a quick trip to St. Katherine’s Monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Then it was back to the car and the long drive across the desert, under the Suez Canal to Cairo, where we quickly settled into our hotel overlooking the Nile.

Jordan:The Blog -- Day Twelve

Nothing much to report today, as we spent nearly all of it at the hotel pool.

Around 8:30, after a lengthy chat about U.S. politics with Rami, the owner of one of the travel agencies in the hotel, we hopped on a boat to cross the Red Sea to Taba, in Eqypt, where our Egyptian guide and drivers were waiting to take us to Mount Sinai. (There were two drivers, we were told, because one is not allowed to drive through the desert more than 200 km without a “spare” driver).

A few closing thoughts on Jordan. It’s a wonderful country, spectacular really. And the people are so nice and friendly and open, a real contrast to Israel. It wasn’t perfect, of course (our guide in Petra, for example, managed to get me to pay him far more than I should have, for example, but in the scheme of things, the small bit extra was far more valuable to him than to me), but in the scheme of things, for a developing country, it was a superb experience.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Aqaba: The Last Day

It's amazing that this part of the world doesn't just spontaneously combust from the heat.
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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jordan:The Blog -- Day Eleven

Another great day in paradise, albeit one with little to report on.

Ellery and I spent the morning simply hanging by the pool trying to keep cool in the heat.

The afternoon was another incredible experience – this one underwater as we took a boat to the coral reefs just south of Aqaba for several hours of snorkeling in the truly crystal clear waters. It was impossible to tell really how deep things were because you could see forever. The fish were plentiful, from neon purple ones hiding in caves to bright yellow and black ones in enormous schools surrounding us to blue and yellow striped ones hiding in the coral. And can I just say … I truly love my daughter. She jumped right in – literally, from the deck of the boat, and swam sometimes with me, sometimes exploring the reefs on her own, happily discovering yet another wonder of life on earth.

The day ended with a strange request to our cabdriver: "Could you please take us to the hammam (Turkish Bath) next to the Pizza Hut?". No place lacks fast food.

Tomorrow we leave this relaxing place first for Mt. Sinai and then for the crazy, crowded, bustling, overwhelming city of Cairo. It will be yet a different experience from everything we’ve done so far, so we’re ready for it, but at the same time we’ll be sorry to leave Aqaba and Jordan behind. This is an amazing country; I could easily come back several times over to take it in again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Jordan:The Blog -- Day Ten

Were it not for the fact that I’m in pain and it’s about 110 degrees here in Aqaba, this would be another perfect day. Even so, it’s pretty damn good.

As with most injuries, it isn’t until the next day you feel it the most, and so it was with my fall from the horse. As I woke, each breath and each movement caused excruciating pain. As luck would have it, my German traveling companion is a nurse, and after confirming that I had a bruised, and maybe cracked, rib or two, she brought out the drugs. I thought I carried a fairly sophisticated first aid kit for third world travel, but it was nothing compared to hers. A few pills later and I was, if not as good as new, at least comfortable. So after a quick shower and breakfast, the four of us set off for the protected area of Wadi Rum.

Like the sights of the previous day, the protected area is vast but not as empty. After climbing aboard our open-air landcruiser, we passed through gates to the park and through a small Bedouin village full of children and camels and goats. Then it was through the desert again, this time with red sand all around, and mountains on both sides. We made a few stops to take it all in, climb into caverns and the like. Not a major event, but a good way to start the day.

From there it was on to Aqaba, which on a cooler day might actually be paradise. OK, not the town of Aqaba, which Ellery and I wandered through tonight, but the hotel we’re at, the Aqaba Intercontinental. And boy, did we need it … a pool that’s more like a river through the hotel, huge palm trees shading everything, and a beach with water so clear that it seems like you can see through it forever – even more amazing given the fact that this is a working port, with huge freighters docked just off-shore.

After the pharmacy delivered more of the wonder drugs (I had written down the name of the pills and drugs here are cheap, no prescription needed), Ellery and I sat at the pool and swam for most of the day, returning to our poolside room to nap, shower, change into clean clothes and eventually enjoy a nice walk into town for dinner.

Jordan:The Blog -- Day Nine (Part 2)

After we left Petra, it was time to continue on to Wadi Rum, the desert made famous by Lawrence of Arabia.

We were picked up by our guide (whose name I could never quite get) in a beat up old Jeep with doors that didn’t close right and an electrical system that shorted out quite frequently. It was perfect for the journey we were about to embark on. Already in the Jeep were our traveling companions, a mother and 20-something daughter from Germany.

We stayed on the paved road for a bit, and then cut off across the wide expanse of desert. Here we were all alone, circling the Wadi Rum protected area which we will visit tomorrow. The mountains – rock formations rising from the sand – were astounding, and changed dramatically as we drove around them, as did the sand, going from a light tan to a vibrant red. The jeep became stuck in the sand several times but somehow always made it out.

About an hour into the drive, we made our first stop, gathering dried twigs to make a small fire. Our guide brought out an old copper pot and we drank sweet tea while surveying our surroundings. We stopped a second time at sunset, truly in the middle of nowhere, and sat on the sand to watch the sun disappear over the mountains.

A short time later we arrived at our destination, a tented camp on the outskirts of the protected area. There we were greeted by 6 other travelers – a couple originally from France but working in London, and four Hungarians who had driven to Jordan from Budapest through Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria – now *that’s* a road trip. After a dinner of salads and grilled chicken and conversation, we called it a night, an end to a perfect day.

Jordan:The Blog -- Day Nine (Part 1)

This was one of the most spectacular days I’ve ever had traveling.

We started early in the morning, before 8 a.m., and headed directly to Petra. At the entrance, we were met by our guide for the day, Mohammed. Although we would not have done so ourselves, the tour company had arranged for us to ride a horse to the opening of the Siq, the narrow canyon that hides Petra from the world. All started well, with me and Ellery on the same horse. I guess we looked so comfortable that the horseman handed me the rope reins. We walked on for a bit and then I lifted my camera to take a picture, which resulted in the reins falling on the horse’s neck. Big mistake, as the horse immediately took off at a fast pace. Ellery and I held on for as long as we could but it was no use; eventually we both tumbled off onto the hard, stony ground. I was a quite scraped and bruised; Ellery fared much better, and we soon were back on our horse for the rest of the way.

As we entered the Siq, Mohammed did a wonderful job of explaining the history of Petra, the various small carvings and water canals hidden in the walls. I told Ellery that at some point we would come to a corner and she would be amazed. I didn’t realize that, even having seen photos and movies, I would also be amazed. Mohammed told us to close our eyes and then pulled us to just the right point, where the massive Treasury building just comes into sight through the rocks.

Really, no words can describe the sight that unfolds in front of your eyes – and it isn’t just the iconic treasury building. Petra is vast and there is no way to see it all in one visit. After the Siq, a wide path opens and all around, on every mountain, is another building carved into the side – they are up high in the mountain and down low underground. For once, the crowds seem to actually enhance the experience, as everyone walks, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.

Again, like Karak, Petra is alive. Along the path are stalls selling trinkets, places to sit and have a glass of tea, and offers of donkey and camel rides through the site. Mohammed pulled us aside, off of the path, and up into the mountains away from the crowds. Ellery was like a mountain goat and couldn’t be contained, climbing well ahead of me and often Mohammed as well, in and out of caves with vivid layers of color, above and below carved halls and tombs, on top of pillars and around statues. As amazing as the view from the path was, the views from on top were even more spectacular, as you could see the entire ancient city unfold. At one point we stopped in a cave where two Bedouin women offered us tea, and we sat there and took it all in.

Eventually we came back down to the path, and walked through a small site of Roman ruins that are being excavated by professors and students of Brown University. Our tour – about 4 hours of climbing and walking – ended just past these ruins, where we grabbed some cold water and rested. Although we contemplated taking donkeys up to the Monastery, a building high in the hills similar to the Treasury, we needed to make our way back to the gate for the continuation of our journey, sadly knowing that there was so much that we missed. So, we leisurely (and safely) rode the donkeys back to the Treasury.

Jordan:The Blog -- Day Eight Redux

Today started with a border crossing – the Allenby bridge between Israel and Jordan. We arrived at the bridge well before the 8 a.m. but still weren’t allowed to cross the first checkpoint until after 9 a.m. There was a definite pecking order: first the trucks went, and there were many of them, then the empty taxis and vans to pick people up crossing from Jordan, and there were many of them, and then yellow Palestinian shared taxis started to go, and there were many of them. And of course each vehicle had to be searched, the drivers had to show their papers, and everything had to be inspected. Fortunately, Shuki’s smile and pleas (“I have another job to pick up in Jerusalem – what will I do?”) got us through. Did I mention how much I liked Shuki?

At the Israeli side of the border, we were passed through rather quickly, but no one offered the slightest bit of help or explanation to the few of us travelers who clearly had not done this before. “Where do we go now?” “Why are you taking our luggage?” Eventually, we figured out that we had to take another shuttle bus to the Jordanian border crossing, a bus that didn’t leave for 45 minutes. Once on the bus, we were stopped twice for document checks and at the last our passports were taken.

Arriving in Jordan was a welcome sight. Mansur, our driver for the day, was there waiting for us and now we weren’t lost at all. He made sure our luggage got to the car, our passports were returned to us and all was right with the world.

We then began the drive down the Kings Highway, passing Bedouin camps and small villages, eventually arriving at our first stop, Mt. Nebo. Mr. Nebo is thought to be the place were Moses saw Israel before dying and like all other religious sites here in the Middle East, there were layers upon layers of the people who had come since – the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Muslims. There were some Roman excavations going on, and some beautiful Byzantine mosaics on display.

From Mt. Nebo we drove to the nearby town of Mandaba for lunch and a quick stop at St. George’s Church, known for its 6th Century mosaic of the Middle East. Not all of it remains but from what is there, you can tell that this was an extraordinary work.

We followed the Kings Highway further to Mujib, a most impressive canyon, nearly the equal of the Grand Canyon. My pictures simply do not do it justice (which is why I haven’t posted any).

Then it was on to the fort at Karak, a magnificent, imposing structure. Unlike the various sites in Israel, Karak seemed to be a living presence – there were Bedouins with their camels and horses inside the castle, and very little to get in the way between the history and the place itself. We wandered for quite a bit through the underground tunnels and the high walls, taking it all in.

Finally we arrived in Wadi Musa, the town just outside of Petra. After a brief stop at the tour office to make arrangements for the balance of our trip in Jordan, we settled into our hotel, the Taybet Zaman, built in a reconstructed old Turkish settlement, where the stone houses had been converted to rooms, and the entire place had the feel of history.

Yet, it was clear that Wadi Musa (and the hotel) have felt the difficulties of the last 5 years – things are looking a bit ragged, a bit tired, a bit empty. The Iraq War has not been kind to places like this, or the people who live here. According to Ali, who arranged our trip, not so long ago Wadi Musa was full of life, with people from all over the world coming in droves, filling the hotels, crowding into the cafes and restaurants, and buying souvenirs from the shops. And while there were plenty of visitors to Petra, Wadi Musa seems to have become a very sleepy little town.

Back Online -- Finishing Israel

We're in Aqaba now, so the next few posts will backtrack over the last couple of days. First, my promised thoughts about Israel:

As you can probably tell from the prior posts, I wasn’t taken with Israel. Not unexpectedly, I guess, I found most of the people very harsh and not welcoming or friendly at all. From people in shops to the hotel staff to, well, just about everyone. This was particularly true of our guide, Dafna. While she did a fine job as a guide, everything was quite rushed – I realize and appreciate that she wanted to beat the crowds, and that was nice, but she left no time for wandering or relaxing. More importantly, she had not a single nice word to say about anyone, whether she was speaking about the Palestinians or the Ultra Orthodox Jews or people she had guided before. When she wasn’t on the cell phone with her kids or her friends or the next tourist, she complained that people didn’t realize how much things cost, that people didn’t realize what it took to be a guide in Israel, that people didn’t tip, and on and on. (OK, got it, Dafna, you expect a tip.)

Fortunately, the people of Israel redeemed themselves in Shuki. Shuki was our taxi driver to the Dead Sea and to the Allenby Bridge. Shuki was in all respects Dafna’s opposite. He was relaxed, he was happy, he was in no rush, and he expressed respect and fondness for everyone. We were with Shuki for maybe 4 hours total, and Shuki alone made Israel a place I would want to return to.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wadi Rum

Amazing where cell phones reach.
I won't even try to describe this day pecking away at the blackberry. It ranks among the best of any I've ever had - even though it began with a fall from a runaway horse.
It is now close to ending inside a tent in the most amazing desert landscape imaginable.
More when I have the computer available ...
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Petra Again

Really its a shame I can't post photos because Petra might be -- is -- the most incredible place I've ever been.
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Oh. My. God.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Jordan:The Blog -- Day Eight

Again no internet (and tomorrow as well) so some thoughts on Israel will have to wait.

Today was an amazing day. The border crossing was long and tedious involving waiting, shuttle buses, more waiting, etc.

We were picked up by our driver of the day, Mansur, and immediately set off to Mt. Nebo, from where Moses allegedly saw Israel. There were significant excavations going on but what stood out the most were the mosaics. Quite beautiful.

Then to the nearby town of Mandaba where we stopped for lunch and a view of a mosaic map of the middle east dating from the Sixth Century at St. Gregory's church.

Next we headed down the King's Highway, crossing Wadi Mujib, a spectacular canyon on the scale of the Grand Canyon.

From there we went to the Crusader Castle of Karak. Magnificent. Almost empty, fairly unspoiled and incredible to walk through.

Finally we arrived at our home for the evening - Wadi Musa, just outside Petra, which we visit tomorrow morning.

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We're in Jordan

Pictures aren't transmitting but we've already seen some amazing things including Wadi Mujib, a spectacular canyon, and the castle at Karak.
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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Israel:The Blog -- Day Seven

Our last day in Jerusalem …

We started by revisiting the Tower of David Citadel, this time to view the museum and the ruins. It’s a very well done exhibit and presentation of the history of Jerusalem – once again, without the last 100 or so years.

Then I finally convinced Ellery that no trip to Israel would be complete without a trip to the Dead Sea, so we hired a taxi and headed to Mineral Beach. The landscape changes on the drive were drastic – from the landscaped greenery of Jerusalem, to the barren and hilly desert dotted with Bedouin camps, to the deep ravines that lead to the Dead Sea, and finally the steep craggy cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. While we did not get to Masada, it was easy to see why a fortress on these cliffs would be so valuable.

Mineral Beach was definitely an experience. No question but that you can locate every single scrape and scratch on your body as it comes into contact with the salty water. Ellery couldn’t take it for long, nor really could I. But we did the obligatory mud slathering and floating, and then spent the rest of the time in the cool fresh water pool. (There was also a sulfur pool but it was incredibly hot and smelly).

After a few hours we returned to Jerusalem (necessarily stopping at the Ahava factory) and rested for a bit before heading out once again, this time heading to Ben Yehuda Street – which I’m not sure we ever actually reached, but we did find a wonderful little area with tons of outdoor restaurants and cafes, where we sat for a last, long dinner in Jerusalem.

The Tower Of David Citadel

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Israel:The Blog -- Day Six

A quick report for a lazy day.

Today was spent almost entirely by the swimming pool. Ellery made yet another new friend (also from New York, like all the rest) and spent much of the afternoon with her and her family in the Old City. (Hopefully, she didn't whine with them the way she does with me).

I also took a quick trip to the Old City, to buy tickets to the Light and Sound Show at the Tower of David. And it was actually a good show -- 5,000 years of history in lights (minus the 100 or so years between the 1850's and today -- best not to offend anyone, I suspect).

The Polarbear Saga Continues

Last night, Polarbear wrote back:

Dear Ellery,

I don't know where I am except I am in the same hotel as you. Help me! What do I do? I am scared. I miss you very much.
P.S. Write back in the morning. I am going to sleep.

Ellery did as instructed and wrote back:

Dear Polarbear,
I have tried everything to find you. Don't be scared. I will find you soon hopefully. I miss you more.
P.S. Write back soon

Then, while Ellery was with her new friend Chloe at the Western Wall wishing to find Polarbear (and I was being persistent with the Housekeeping Supervisor) a wonderful thing happened. Polarbear came home! Yeah!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Brief Update

Days Three and Four now have photos -- although I must admit that the photos I've taken so far this trip are pretty bad. Maybe it's a psychological block of some kind ...

Israel:The Blog -- Day Five

We started at the limestone caves at Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese Border. Here we took a small cable car down the side of the cliffs to get to the caves, which were made amazingly colorful with mosses of all different kind, and beautiful blue water washing through. Watching the kayakers paddle through the rough waters made me miss my little kayak in the mountains.

Next it was on to the crusader city of Acco, which was also fascinating. The excavation and restoration work has really paid off here, as the entire city really does come alive as you walk through it. This is helped by the fact that there is a bustling old city around it, narrow walkways filled with shops and fish markets, as well as an active fishing port. (I honestly thought I took more pictures of historic Acco, but evidently I was too busy actually experiencing the city to photograph it).

Then it was back to Jerusalem along the coast, with a quick stop in Haifa at the Baha'i Gardens and a drive through Tel Aviv.

We made it back well before sundown (Dafna’s fears of traffic were for naught) so after an hour or so at the very crowded hotel pool, Ellery and I changed and headed to the old city and the Western Wall. I really wanted to have an “experience,” to feel something, whatever it is people keep telling me I should feel in Israel. But the bottom line is – nothing. I watched what was going on with the same interest as I watched observances in other countries and I was not moved. Alas.

The day ended on a less positive note. Ellery had forgotten Polarbear, her dearest stuffed animal, here at the hotel when we headed north, and we were sure it would be with housekeeping when we returned. But our pleas were unanswered; lost and found said they did not have it, or anything like it. So Ellery wrote Polarbear a note:

Dear Polarbear,
I hope you’re having a good time wherever you are. I really,
really, really miss you! Write back to me telling me where you are so I can come
and get you.
<3<3<3<3<3 Ellery P.S. Write back as soon as possible