Sunday, December 31, 2006

12/31/06 Happy New Year Everyone! Sorry we haven't been adding any posts to this site but finally we have something big to report. Two days ago we bought a new RV!! It is a 2005 Seabreeze LX 8341, which means it is 34 feet long. Although it was listed on eBay as a used RV, it only has 4043 miles on it and as we moved into it we came to realize that no one has ever lived in it. It even still smells new. It has 2 slides, one in the living room and one in the bedroom. WOW does it seem huge! This is one of the 3 rigs that Elaine bid on through eBay and which we didn't win the bid on because we didn't meet the reserve price. But after the eBay listing expired, we contacted the dealership and negotiated such a great deal on it that it was worth driving all the way to Denton, Texas. This is just north of Dallas-Fort Worth and was 1000 miles from Tucson, where we shared Christmas with Elaine's sister, Aunt and 2 cousins. We took 1 1/2 days to drive here so that we could be here by Friday, so we could have them transfer over our satellite system and we could get the paperwork done before the long holiday weekend. The dealership is McLain's RV and they have been fabulously friendly and accomodating. There was a HUGE storm here Friday and part of Saturday and the rain was gushing down. They put both rigs door to door under a huge metal canopy which enabled us to move our stuff to the new rig. Now we are camped in the little area they have behind their dealership, where we are testing all the systems and getting ready to start the drive west later today.
We had been looking forward to New Year's Eve with the Boomers out on Sidewinder Road, near Yuma. This RV deal prevents that but it has been well worth it and we will be starting 2007 in a beautiful new home!
Sending big hugs and hoping that 2007 is a great year for you all.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Front of Rental House In San Jose Posted by Picasa
12/9/06 Sorry about the long delay in posting. We have been working on the vacant rental house in San Jose. Having just finished it today, we have now returned to Park Sierra in our RV and are sitting here with the rain pounding down on our roof. It is good to be back here where we can rest a little because working on a house gets harder every time! Luckily Tarra will be handling the re-renting of it, which should take place on the 15th.
The plan is for us to have a few medical appointments this next week and then start heading south the week after that. We would love to be with our Boomer friends on Sidewinder Road near Yuma before Christmas. On the way there, we will be swinging by San Diego to see Darran. We bought the used truck that our neighbors here, Alan & Carol Rodely, were selling and used it while working on the rental. Next we will drive it down for Darran to use, since he is going to sell his car.
The house that we were working on is the very first house that Elaine and I, and the kids, ever lived in together in 1979! I will attach a picture of it for those of you who would like to see it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

11/20/06 Just a quick update to let you know that we are back at Park Sierra and enjoying reconnecting with friends and neighbors. Of course, we are also unpacking from the trip and re-packing the RV so we can leave again the day after Thanksgiving. We will be returning to San Jose to work on the vacant rental house. As soon as that is dealt with, we can think about heading south for adventures with Boomers, Boondockers, and RoVing Rods. Everyone is asking where the next big travel adventure will be but we haven't had time to do any research or make any plans yet! Hope to do that while camping in the southwest soon. More on this later.
If you didn't receive our last travelogue, please read it below as I just posted it (forgot to do it on the 14th when it was originally sent.) Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!!
Dear Friends & Family, 11/14/06
Here we are in Key West, Florida and only 2 days
away from flying back to California from Galveston.
Yesterday we were in Nassau, The Bahamas. Luckily, we
have had wonderful weather for the entire crossing and
haven't needed the warm clothes that we carried along
on the entire trip thinking it would be cold crossing
the Atlantic in November! I suppose it is because we
took a southerly route.
Our last port before the 6 straight days at sea
was in Tenerife, The Canary Islands. It is located
off the coast of Morocco, and was a much larger island
than we had expected. There is also a large dormant
volcano there. We did a bit of shopping, since there
were also some low cost clothing stores. The people
were very nice and the entire place was clean, nicely
laid out with pedestrian streets, etc. and good
infrastructure for visiting cruise ships and
passengers. Next time we are there we are going to
explore the island more, as everyone said there was
lots to see.
I don't think I mentioned in a previous travelogue
that we missed seeing our RV friends, Joe & Carla
Calwell by just one day when we were in Messina,
Sicily. They had been camping near there in their
European RV but had to leave for the mainland the very
day we arrived. Now we will just have to see them at
the Boomer gatherings in the southwest this winter.
That is, providing we get down there ourselves. We
have another vacant house to deal with in San Jose
when we get back. Elaine's daughter, Tarra, and her
partner, Alonzo, have been handling things for us and
starting on the fix-up process and we really
appreciate that. Now we will have to finish things up
and try to get another good tenant in there before we
can travel south for the winter. We had hopes of
going to Mexico again this winter, as we haven't been
there for years, and we wanted to go with Jonna & Mimi
to their place in Akumal, near Cancun. Those plans
might be changed now.... Boo hoo.
Thursday night we will be landing in Oakland, and
spending the night at Tarra's in Fremont. Friday we
will return to Park Sierra to see our friends and
neighbors, pack up the RV, and head back to San Jose.
We will be trying to do a better job of keeping in
touch with people individually by e-mail, but probably
not right away. Thanks for traveling with us and we
will be looking forward to seeing all of you sometime
in the future. Sending huge hugs to you all.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Travelogue #13
Dear Family & Friends, 11-2-06
Here we are in Barcelona which is the third stop
on our cruise itinerary. We areńt doing much
sightseeing today because we spent about a week here
in 2005 when our first transatlantic cruise ended
here. It is a beautiful and interesting place to
visit, however. Today it is cool and there is a 40
percent chance of rain, so being in the internet place
is OK.
Our cruise started in Venice on Oct. 29. We had
met Lee & Susie Blattner at our B&B on the evening of
the 27th and spent the 28th exploring Venice. It was
a warm, sunny day and it was delightful to just be
walking around and taking pictures. There were about
4 cruise ships in port so it was crowded with tourists
but still fun.
The first port of call was Dubrovnik, in Croatia,
where we had spent 3 days in 2005 when we toured 7
Central European countries. So we didńt go into the
old town but went shopping for jeans instead. Because
of our 2 months in the Middle East, our wardrobe was a
little light and we needed something warmer for the
cruise ship. In fact, last night we encountered gale
force winds and high seas on our way here, but we
didńt get sea sick.
We have several more stops in Spain, and then
Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, before we have about
a week at sea crossing the Atlantic. The ship food is
fabulous, as usual, and we are enjoying the leisure
time and socialization with Lee & Susie as well as
other passengers. We are over our colds and feeling
Hoping that this finds all of you doing well and
enjoying some nice Fall weather.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Monday, October 23, 2006

Middle East Travelogue #12
Dear Family & Friends,
Today we are feeling better and I am determined to
catch up on the travel tales. Thanks everybody who
responded to our last few travelogues. It is always
great to hear from you and get news from home and hear
what is happening in your lives too.
We were still in Aswan when I quit writing
yesterday. This is the place where the optional trip
to Abu Simbel takes place; this is the one I mentioned
in a previous travelogue. Ramses II, one of the
longest reigning Pharohs in Egypt (67 years) built a
huge temple to himself, with 4 immense statues of
himself seated outside. I think these are about 100
feet tall. Also nearby there is a similar temple
dedicated to his favorite wife. Nefertari, but there
are only 2 statutes of her, and three more of himself
there! What an ego!! These 2 temples, and all these
statues were moved about 100 meters over and 65 meters
higher on the banks of Lake Nasser so that they would
be above the rising waters of the reservoir. The most
amazing part is that this was done over a 4 year
period, which tells you right off that it was done by
foreigners. Because the way the Egyptians all sit
around doing nothing, I don't think they could move a
one bedroom apartment across the street in 4 years
without help. Anyway, in order to create the same
kind of cliff arrangement in the new spot, there was a
huge dome built above the Ramses temple which was a
major engineering feat and the second largest dome in
the world. Can't see it though - it is covered with
rock and dirt to simulate a cliff. To get to this
site, we had to get up in the middle of the night and
catch another convoy. Luckily, it was a trip done in
a nice big comfortable bus. Driving through the
desert reminded us of crossing the Atacama Desert in
northern Chile where there has never been any rain
recorded and there is absolutely no vegetation. Same
I forgot to mention earlier that one of the first
places we went was to the Temple of Isis in Philae.
This is another temple that was moved but it has been
placed on an island between the old and new dams, so
it is near Aswan but you still have to get there in a
The last thing we did in Aswan was go to the night
bazaar to try to buy some nice blouses for our
upcoming cruise back to the USA. The market has nice
displays and great looking merchandise but it was
difficult to take advantage of it because of the
hawkers. The salemen are so aggressive and persistent
that within a short time, they drive you away. We
managed to hang in there long enough to buy 2 tops and
a scarf and then gave up. There are malls here in
Aexandria so maybe we will try those instead. Ir
isn't just in Aswan that this harrassment of
Westerners occurs, it is everywhere. In fact, just
walking down the street, taxis honk at us and also
pull over hoping we will hire them. The sad part
about this is that when real people who are not trying
to sell us anything approach us, we are so wary that
we are usually rude. Many people on the streets
welcome us and try to speak English to us. It is
From Aswan we sailed back to Luxor. In both
locations we became aware that there was lots of
garbage being dumped right into the Nile, as it was
floating right by us. We watched guys from the
Movenpick boat throw stuff right into the river and
this is one of the most expensive Swiss hotel chains!

In Luxor, we took a ferry across to the west bank
of the Nile, because this is where all the tombs are.
Then we were mounted on donkeys and we rode about 4
miles to the Valley of the Kings. What a bouncy
experience, but fun, especially on the ride back a few
hours later when we rode through some small villages.
In the Valley of the Kings, we visited 3 tombs which
were covered with very colorful frescoes and very
different than any of the temples we had seen. Then
we hiked up the cliff to the top and across the ridge
and down to the remains of a village where the tomb
builder workers had lived. From the top of the cliffs
we had a great view over the Nile Valley and we could
clearly see where the desert was and where they had
been irrigating. But the air was very polluted here
too, even though there aren't millions of cars like in
Cairo, so it must be from crop burning and cooking
The last day in Luxor we went on another convoy
and visited the temples in Abydos and Dendarra. By
this time we were definitely getting templed out but
amazingly, there is always something different to see
in each one. The best part was driving through the
villages on the way and watching the people. There
were many sugar cane fields, people working outside,
many mud huts where poor people live, and of course
lots of donkeys, sheep, goats and some camels. They
load these up with sugar cane stalks so they look like
huge stacks walking along the road. Women walk along
the road carrying everything on their heads including
huge heads of cabbages. In every town there are
police check points and there are little boxes built
on poles where they sit with a machine gun and watch
the traffic go by. We have heard that they receive
very poor pay; probably between $80-100 per month, and
if there is a problem they should respond to, they
don't bother. In Hurghada an offensive German tourist
was being beat up by 2 Egyptians with a tourist
policeman across the street watching.
From Luxor, we had another convoy to Hurghada
which is right on the Red Sea coast. On the outskirts
of town there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of
unfinished buildings. This area is being massively
overbuilt and it is causing degradation of the off
shore coral reefs. Our group took a boat out for
snorkeling on a very windy day, which made it
difficult. The corals and fish were not nearly as
good as they had been in Dahab, over on the Sinai
Peninsula. We ate dinner one night at Papas II which
is owned by Richard, an English guy. He gave us a lot
of information about the area. We also met a
delightful Dutch couple who has an apartment there for
diving and they spent hours with us talking about
Egypt, politics and the problems of the Red Sea.
As i mentioned in one of my last travelogues, we
had another middle-of-the-night convoy to Cairo. Here
we had our group farewell dinner and then people took
off for new adventures or home. Overall it was a good
tour which could have been greatly enhanced by a
better tour leader.
Today is the last day of Ramadan. This probably
means huge celebrations tonight. At least tomorrow
there will be restaurants open during the day and we
can get a feel for what Egypt is like during the 11
months of the year when there is no Ramadan, and
people aren't fasting all day.
Friday we fly from Cairo to Venice, where we will
join Lee & Susie Blattner in a hotel there. Sunday we
all board the cruise ship for our 18 day trip back to
Galveston. After a month here in Egypt, it will be
good to return to a western nation!
Sending big hugs to those of you who have traveled
this far with us!
Love, Mary & Elaine
Middle East Travelogue #11
Dear Family & Friends, 10/21/06
Don't have a lot of time or energy to write today
but I thought I would throw a few more travel stories
at you while I had some internet time left. We are
back in Cairo today, after getting up at 1:15AM this
morning in order to catch the convoy from Hurghada to
Cairo - ugh! Besides feeling crappy from lack of
sleep, we both have acquired the cold that was
circulating in our tour group. So we are chilling out
today, have our farewell dinner with the group
tonight, and then tomorrow we are back on our own
again. Hooray.
You might be wondering about my mention of convoys.
It seems that ever since the massacre of 52 foreign
tourists in 1997 at a temple in the Valley of the
Kings in Luxor, and the subsequent negative effect on
tourism for the next few years, the police have been
keeping a very close watch over tourists here. On the
roads our buses have to stop frequently at police
check points where sometimes they question the driver
or guide about our nationalities. On certain roads,
such as the one between Luxor and Hurghada, and
Hurghada and Cairo, because there are long stretches
of desert where there are no towns or villages, it is
a requirement that all tourist vehicles travel in a
convoy. These leave only twice a day and we have to
be sure to be up in time to get on the bus and join
them. The other reason for them is if a vehicle
breaks down, then the tourists can be loaded onto
another of the vehicles and still reach their desired
destination. Unfortunately, the convoy from Hurghada
leaves at 2AM, which means an early wake up for us
As a matter of fact, there was a mutiny in our group
over this, because most of us didn't really need to
get back to Cairo early this morning so we thought
Shona should have scheduled us for the noon convoy.
But she wouldn't budge and the group split up into 2
camps over it, which has been rather unpleasant.
Anyway, I ended the last travelogue with our
arrival in Aswan. This is as far up on the Nile as
cruise boats can go because this is where the dams are
located. This part of the Nile is interesting because
there are islands here, and also tombs cut into the
west bank of the river which we could see from our
boat and which were also lit up at night. The
mausoleum of the last Aga Khan is also on a hill over
there. Aswan is the 3rd largest town in Egypt, after
Cairo and Alexandria, although they have millions of
people and Aswan only has several hundred thousand.
There is a large Christian community here, which are
called Copts, so we visited the very different and
architecturally interesting Coptic Cathedral. Nearby
is the Nubian Museum,a most interesting place and with
well presented displays, if somewhat dim in areas. I
believe I mentioned in a previous travelogue that the
Nubians were totally displaced from their land when
the High Aswan Dam was built. Actually, they had to
move three previous times because of the first Aaswan
dam in 1912, then twice more when it was raised
higher, so these poor people were always getting
settled and then displaced! When all their land was
covered by Lake Nasser after 1972, some of them moved
to the Sudan and some settled in Egypt. Lots of them
are in Aswan and there is a chance to walk through two
Nubian villages on Elephantine Island in Aswan but we
never found the time to do it. The museum showed how
they lived, their rather colorful houses and mode of
dress, etc. as well as displaying a lot of artifacts
of archeological sites that were either moved or
covered when the High Dam was built. The most
interesting part was the photographic display and
explanations of all the archeological sites that were
catalogued and moved before the rising waters could
cover them. This was the result of a worldwide appeal
and the response of many nations, including the USA.
Within a relatively short period of time,
approximately 30 sites were cut up into moveable
blocks and set up in other places, including one that
has been transferred to a museum in New York as a form
of payment for all the money the USA provided for this
project. I believe our nation provided about 30% of
the necessary funds.
Besides visiting these places, our group
chartered a felucca and had an afternoon sailing
adventure on the river, visiting a nice botanical
garden on another of the islands. It was clear to
Elaine and me that although we enjoyed the felucca, we
were very glad that we hadn't taken one of the ImTrav
tours which involved sailing between Luxor and Aswan
on one of these. It would have meant sleeping on deck
with all the other group members and also there is no
toilet on board. Young people quite enjoy these
adventures but we are a bit older now and appreciate
our creature comforts! As we sailed back to our
cruise boat, weaving in and out through the many
islands and rock formations, we could see how greatly
skilled our boatmen were.
10/22/06 Had to stop writing rather abruptly
yesterday so I didn't send the above, as planned. Now
we are in Alexandria, where we have come for a few
days of rest and sightseeing and to hopefully recover
from this cold which is dragging us down. So I will
try to finish telling you about our other adventures
Sending big hugs to all and hoping all is well.
Love, Mary and Elaine

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dear Family and Friends, 10/19/06

Haven’t had time to write an in depth travelogue
for quite some time, so this will probably be lengthy.
I will break it up into parts. The last one I wrote
was from Cairo, and we have been lots of places since
Our tour group is made up of a Canadian couple, a
New Zealand couple, an Australian couple, an English
couple, a young single girl from the Netherlands, an
older single lady from New Zealand who now lives in
Australia, our young tour leader from England named
Shona, and us, so it is quite an international group.
It is also mostly people older than forty five, which
suits us, especially since many are really experienced
travelers. Once the tour started, we visited the
Egyptian Museum in Cairo (awesome), the Citdel in
Cairo where there was an interesting mosque and a view
over the whole city (if the air hadn’t been so
polluted), and the bazaar area called the Khan El
Kahlalli, as well as the Pyramids of Giza.
Surprsingly, these are actually within the city of
Cairo, since the urban sprawl has enveloped them. I’m
sure they used to be even more awesome than they are
now, as they were once covered with a pink limestone
facing, which has been stripped off by preceding
generations and used in other buildings in Cairo.
Elaine and I also wanted to visit the area called The
City of the Dead, which is the Northern Cemetery where
there are tombs, but also somewhere between ten and
fifty thousand people living there. The tombs usually
have extra rooms for the family of the deceased and
poor people just moved into them. Because it is a
questionable area to visit on your own, we drove by it
with our tour group but didn’t actually go in. It is
a statement about how overcrowded Cairo is that people
actually live like this.
That night we took the sleeper train to Luxor.
The compartments were for two people and were
comfortable. They served us an airline type meal
which was basically inedible, then the porter changed
the compartment so there were two sleeping bunks. We
arrived in Luxor at about six AM and then transferred
to our cruise boat. This was also pretty comfortable,
but the cabins were about half the size of the ones we
have had on other ocean going cruise ships. Almost
immediately, we were whipped off to Karnak Termple on
horse-drawn carriages. The temple is awesome and has
a huge hall with one hundred and thirty four huge
columns all covered with carvings and hieroglyphics.
There were also several obelisks that were big and
other interesting features as well which I won’t bore
you with now. Upon our return to the boat, we started
sailing up the Nile. It seems funny to say “up” since
we were sailing south, but the Nile flows north and
also the topography is such that Aswan is higher than
Alexandria, so it really is going up. That evening we
anchored off Esna, waiting for our turn to go through
the lock there. It was late afternoon and we were
enjoying a cold beer out on the top deck, looking at
all the other cruise ships gathering there. Soon
there were lots of rowboats around with men in them
yelling and throwing merchandise to the people on the
cruise boats. These were guys trying to sell things
like clothes and blankets and they were very
persistent. It didn’t even seem to faze them when
people kept throwing the stuff back to them and
occasionally things landed in the water! When someone
wanted to buy something and a price had been
established, then money was put in a plastic bag and
thrown down to the guys in the rowboat. We were quite
impressed that they had such good aim and could hit
the top deck of the cruise boats which were usually
three or four stories tall.
The weather has been tolerable, since it has been
cooler than we were lead to believe it would be.
Aswan is always hotter than Cairo by about eight to
ten degrees, but being on a cruise boat on the Nile
was very pleasant. It was so enjoyable to sit on the
deck and watch the green fields and small villages go
by. In some places we could see the tall, dry, brown
hills behind the green fields which made us aware that
the desert wasn’t very far away. In Egypt, all the
food is produced on only about four percent of the
land, this being the land that is within a close
distance of the Nile so it can be irrigated. The
construction of the High Dam at Aswan has caused a
fife hundred kilometer lake to back up behind it and
it is this lake that has enabled Egypt to survive
through the last two droughts and which is causing
them to try to increase the amount of land that they
can use for agriculture. One thing that was so
obvious is that in the areas near the Nile, the most
predominant animal is donkeys, not camels. They use
them for riding, pulling carts, and carrying produce
and they are everywhere. There are also sheep, goats,
dogs and lots of kids. Another thing that occurred to
us was that we were not seeing many women once we left
Cairo. It is the men who do all the public stuff such
as selling, driving vehicles, working in stores, etc.
This is definitely a male dominated country! Every
employee on our cruise boat, and the other boats which
docked near us, was a man.
By the way, one thing we learned about Nile
cruising is that there are so many cruise boats who
basically do the same itinerary, that when we docked
somewhere, like Luxor, we usually had another cruise
boat tied up on both sides of us, which somewhat
ruined the ambience. You have to walk through as many
as three or four other boats to get to the ramp to
disembark to the bank! This is true even of cruise
boats that clearly were much more luxurious than ours.

There is lots more to tell you but my time is up
here for now so I will send this and write another
installment later today or tomorrow. Sending big
Love, Mary & Elaine

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Dear Friends & Family,
Sorry there hasn't been time to write a travelogue
lately. Actually, there has been time but no internet
as we have been on the cruise boat on the Nile. Now
we are in Aswan where we will be taking a long bus
trip to see the Ramses II temple at Abu Simbel
tomorrow. We have to leave at 4AM to drive up there.
This temple was one that was entirely removed from the
cliff it was carved in and moved so that it would not
be covered by the rising waters of Lake Nasser after
the Aswan High Dam was built. Amazing. Today we
visited a Nubian Museum here showing their culture and
some of the 30 odd sites that were moved from Nubia
before the dam waters covered them. More on this
We are enjoying the cruise boat where there are
three tour groups from Imaginative Traveller sharing
the space. The Nile is beautiful with green lush
areas on both sides, palm trees, lots of agriculture,
donkeys, water buffalo, many birds, and occasionally
small villages. It is relaxing to watch it all flow
by from the lounge area on top of the boat. Our
travel companions are nice and there are 12 in our
group, so we are enjoying that. We also have made
friends in the other groups.
Rather than just go up the Nile, we stop every now
and then to see a sight. There was also a lock that
we went through but we didn't see it as it was during
the middle of the night. Tomorrow afternoon we leave
here and go back to Luxor on the boat, so more
enjoyable cruising is ahead of us.
Time is running out so I will have to catch up
later on the places we have seen, what our group is
like, etc. Just wanted to let you know we are well
and having a great time.
Sending big hugs,
Love, Mary & Elaine

Friday, October 06, 2006

Middle East Travelogue #9
Dear Friends & Family, 10/6/06
Now that we are somewhat caught up on the travelogues, we want to tell you a little more about Cairo.
I think we already mentioned that the traffic is crazy here. But they do drive slower than in Syria! The most annoying thing is that they honk all the time, especially at us, the taxi drivers anyway. That is because there are too many taxis here and they all want us to hire them. A thing that also amazes us is that there are donkey and horse carts going along these very busy roads too. Usually they are selling fruits and veggies. Today we saw one that had oranges all stacked up in pyramids, plodding down the road with not a single one falling off the stack!
The scariest thing is trying to cross the street because pedestrians do not have the right of way, and often the drivers don't even stop for red lights. So what you have to do is start out when the lane nearest you has a small opening, and then work your way across each lane. One day we did this across a street with about 4 lanes of traffic each direction and when we got to the other side, a Muslim woman looked at us and said, "Very good." It made us laugh.
The Egyptians are very friendly and often they greet us with a big "welcome". We passed a guard outside one of the embassies the other day and he said "Welcome", so we said, "Thank You", and then as we walked away he said, "I love you". That made us laugh too.
Costs here are much cheaper than Jordan but not as cheap as Syria. Here almost everyone expects some "baksheesh", which means either bribes or tips. Luckily, this usually means only an Egyptian pound or two, and each pound is worth about 20 cents. The biggest challenge Egypt has is over-population. There are way too many employees at almost every place of business. We have heard that people get by on between $60-300 dollars a month, but we don't know how they can do it. There are lots of very poor people here but most of them don't beg. They sell tissues (like Kleenex) on the street.
There is a very good underground train system here called the Metro and it is clean and cheap. For 20 cents you can get almost everywhere in Cairo. The best part is that the first 2 cars are reserved for women only, so we get to ride those instead of being on the others which are packed with men. The buses on the street are cheap too and usually very packed with people, some hanging out the doors while the bus is moving. It is very safe to walk the streets here, although many are very dirty with lots of litter, broken pavement, and abandoned cars.
Ramadan is still presenting some problems but also has been interesting. Last night we tried to find a place to eat at about the time the Muslims were sue to break their fast and every place we went was packed. We passed a Hardees (like a Carl's Jr.) and every table was taken, and people were just sitting there with some food and a drink in front of them but not eating it yet because they had to wait until the right time! Even on very busy streets, traffic disappears because everyone has stopped to eat. As we walked along the street, we could see people eating everywhere: on the sidewalk, at their place of business, etc. We passed a gas station where they had cones blocking it off and all of the 15 employees were all sitting in the back by the back wall eating take out food together. We tried to go to a supermarket and it was closed and we could see the employees eating inside. Today we had to resort to eating lunch at McDonald's because no other places were open because everyone is fasting. What a crazy time to be here!
Everyone eats on the streets because this is where a lot of their life takes place. There are people out there shining shoes, repairing bikes and cars, selling things, cobblers, even putting new tires on cars right in the street. Part of this is because it is warm here, even late into the night.
Yesterday we hired a taxi to take us out to two of the lesser know pyramid sites: Saqquara and Dashur. The very old Step Pyramid is at Saqquara, and also some tombs with some very fine carvings called reliefs, showing what life was like during the times of the pharaohs. The Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid are at Dashur. These are the 2 oldest pyramids. Actually, there were many more there but most of them have slumped into a pile of rubble now because the limestone blocks that covered them were removed and used on other edifices. Because these areas are about 20 miles outside of Cairo, we drove through places where there were lots of green and productive fields, and also date palm groves. They grow sugar cane here, rice, corn, cauliflower, and also some fruit. Pears are currently being harvested. One of the little villages we drove through showed us how people live who aren't in the city. There are very rough dirt streets, lots of donkey carts, water buffalo to work the fields, and lots of street activity.
There has been one negative event that we heard about. Some Aussies staying at our hotel had moved there from the St. George Hotel because one of them had been molested there. She had awakened from a nap when she felt a hand down her pants, and it was a hotel worker who had used his key to get into her room, and he actually had to reach over her sleeping husband to get to her. What nerve that guy had!! Of course, they reported the incident to the tourist police and also the Australia Embassy.
Other than that, Cairo has been great so far and we are looking forward to our tour through the rest of Egypt. That starts Sunday, so we will report to you about our new group after that.
Sending big hugs to everybody.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Middle East Travelogue #8
Dear Family & Friends, 10/4/06
In an effort to catch up, I am going to type
another travelogue tonight and hope that it doesn't
bog you down.
Yesterday we wrote that we arrived at Aqaba, Jordan
on Sept. 28th. The 29th we caught the hydrofoil to
Nuweiba, in Egypt and there was a bus waiting there
for us to take us to a resort town called Dahab. If
you look at the geography of this region, you can see
that there are 4 countries that have port cities
within short distances of each other right there in
the Gulf of Aqaba which is part of the Red Sea.
Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We have
mentioned how Ramadan is affecting so many things
here, and the hydrofoil schedule was one of them. We
were supposed to leave by 10:30 or 11 and we actually
didn't get away until after 3. Of course, no one tells
you anything about why there is a delay and unloading
the ferry and then reloading it proceeded at a snail's
pace. The boat was packed with travelers, 98% of
which were men (very common in these Muslim
countries). We had to get our passports stamped by the
immigration guy on the boat and luckily he knew Nadine
so we got special treatment or the wait would have
been horrendous.
Dahab is mostly a resort town where foreign
backpackers hang out, so there are tons of small
hotels and beachside restaurants right on the Red Sea.
Apparently you can snorkel right there, because we
saw some people doing it, but we took a jeep the next
day to a place called the Blue Hole. This is mostly
for divers, but the reef is good along the edges of
the very deep hole, and we saw many beautiful fish,
corals, and other marine life there. The restaurants
there have very comfortable seating areas which are
well shaded and they also rented out fairly decent
snorkeling equipment. We stayed about 6 hours there,
and it only cost $7 each for the jeep out and the
equipment rental. Dahab was a nice place, and our
group enjoyed a nice seafood meal there but prices are
somewhat higher because it is a touristy spot.
Upon leaving Dahab, we drove to St Katherine's
Village where there is a monastery at the foot of Mt.
Sinai. We had a very nice hotel there but didn't get
the chance to enjoy anything but the shower and
dinner. At 8:30PM we left the hotel and met our guide
near the monastery for the hike to the top of Mt.
Sinai. Usually they do this hike in the morning and
arrive for the sunrise, but that means getting up at
1:30 or 2 AM, so we decided to go up and sleep on the
top. A girl on our Morocco tour last May had told us
it was good to elect to take a camel up because then
you don't have to watch every footfall in the dark, so
we rented camels. Some of our group hikedup. We rode
the camels for about an hour and a half and then they
dropped us off at the foot of the 750 stairs we still
had to climb. Camels don't climb stairs well. It was
after 11:30PM by the time we got to the teahouse at
the top where we rented thin mattresses and thick
blankets and slept out under the stars. At 4:30AM a
Korean church group arrived and woke us up! At 5:30
we had sunrise, which was nice but not as spoectacular
as we had expected. The Koreans started singing
hymns. There are brown granite mountains all around
the peak we were on, so we gotsome interesting
pictures as the sunlight got stronger on them. After
the 750 steps down, there are over 3000 "Steps of
Repentance" which leave one with rubbery legs no
matter how young and fit you are. So we took the
camel track down in an effort to save our knees. It
was not too bad a hike back down. Of course, Mt.
Sinai is the spot where Moses supposedly received the
Ten Commandments from God, so that is why everyone
goes there. Nadine told us that there have been over
1000 people up there with her groups at times, but
this time there were less than 100.
We showered again at the nice hotel and drove to
Cairo. We had to drive through very barren desert and
in spots we had goats and wild camels running in front
of our bus! Then we drove north along the Red Sea
coast towards the Suez Canal. There are lots of
resorts and condos along this shore. We couldn't see
the Suez Canal because we drove under it in a tunnel.
Arriving in Cairo, we took a while to get through it
to the hotel because there are now over 20
millionpeople living here; some estimates say 25
million. It is one of the most densely populated
places in the world. But it was thrilling when we
drove across the bridge over the Nile. We arrived at
our hotel which is in a nice area because there are
lots of embassies in the area so lots of trees
and green spaces.
We have spent the past few days walking in various
areas of Cairo looking at all the chaos and life in
the streets. One of the first things we had to do was
see a dentist because Elaine chipped a tooth. We got
the name of a good one from Nadine, and got an
appointment for the same day, but at 9PM! They keep
strange hours during Ramadan.
The rest of our group has left now because they
have 6 more days to explore Egypt. We are here on our
own until the 8th when our 14 day tour starts.
Tomorrow we move over to a more upscale hotel where
that group will meet because it is a more upscale
tour. Hooray. I will tellyou all about our time here
in Cairo in the next travelogue. It is an interesting
place to be! Everyone seems very friendly and often
people on the streets smile at us andsay "Welcome."
Sending big hugs to you all.
Love, Mary & Elaine
Middle East Travelogue #7
Dear Friends & Family, 10/3/06
Hello from Cairo where we finally have a bit of
time because we are finished with our first tour. Our
next tour, of Egypt, starts on the 8th. So we are
resting, exploring the city, and catching up on
On Sunday, Sept. 24 we took the bus to Amman,
Jordan. It became obvious immediately how much cleaner Jordan
was than Syria. Also the houses looked better with
most of them either being nice limestone blocks, or painted
cement houses, unlike Syria where most were either
cement block or unpainted cement, all with flat roofs.
Syria also had so much litter lying around. In
Damascus we looked over a low wall near the Citadel
and saw a lot of garbage in the canal there and pawing
all through it was the biggest rat we have ever seen.
It was about the size of a small dog! There is also a
lot of pollution in the air, which eventually makes
the limestone blocks look dingy. But anyway, Jordan
was much cleaner, the roads were better, the traffic
less chaotic, and their cars much newer and nicer.
There was also much more English on their signs,
probably because the current king’s mother was
English, he was partially raised there, and the past
king (his father) was married to an American (4th
Amman is a city which is built on many hills. Our
first day there, we walked to the downtown in search
of a restaurant for lunch. Our tour leader had yet to
arrive and couldn't give us any guidance about this.
We never did find a place to eat because all the
restaurants and food stalls were closed because
everyone fasts during Ramadan. That evening, we met
our new tour leader, Nadine, an Australian woman of
about 27. She has done lots of tours in Jordan and
Egypt so she would be able to help us a lot with these
countries even though she is not from them. We also
met Jim and Le, a couple from New Zealand who are
living and working in London, and who would be with us
for the rest of this tour. It was nice to now have a
group of 8! The next day, we had a walking tour of
Amman that included the citadel, on a hill overlooking
the city. It was from ancient times but the ruins
were mostly Roman. In the museum there were remnants
of the Dead Sea Scrolls which had been found in 1952
near the River Jordan. They just looked like some
fragments to us. We also saw the Roman amphitheater
which is right downtown and was where that tour group
was shot just a few weeks ago. No wonder tourism is
down in this country…
That afternoon we drove out to three "desert
castles". These were all built at different times and
were very different in structure, but all interesting.
One of them was a kind of hunting lodge and there
were frescoes on all the walls and ceilings with
paintings of the hunting of animals, and a lot of nude
or partially nude women. More than just hunting was
probably going on there! Our group went out to dinner
to a nice restaurant which was a simulated tent, and
here they served a lot of mezzes, like they did in
Syria, and a huge platter of lamb, sausages, and
chicken, plus some veggies. But the food was much
better in Syria.
The next day we took a van to the Dead Sea, where
we had a day pass at a fancy hotel called the Dead Sea
Spa Hotel. Of course, it was impressive to see the
Dead Sea, which is 400 meters below sea level and the
lowest spot on earth, and realize that the hills and
deserts we were seeing across it were in Israel.
Because the salt content is about 30%, it is
impossible not to float in this water, and actually
you float really high so it is possible to float
standing up or sitting. Many people covered
themselves with mud and let it dry, then went in and
washed it off and said it made their skin really
smooth. The salt made any little nick or abrasion
really sting. We didn't last very long in it, even
though it was a nice temperature. Mostly we hung out
at the 4 very nice pools and had a wonderful buffet
lunch so we got to taste a lot of different foods.
Next stop was Petra, and on our drive to Wadi
Musa, where it is located, we saw lots of Bedouin
tents where people live out on the desert. They
mostly raise sheep and goats, and often they have
camels. The terrain is very dry and it is hard for us
to believe that there has been so much conflict for so
long in this part of the world over land that has very
little water and thus not much vegetation. It is very
barren - like Nevada. Petra is located in a narrow
desert gorge of mostly red rock which occasionally has
incredibly colorful layers because of a variety of
minerals in the rock. Here the Nabateans cut huge
monuments into the rock and because of the dryness and
the terrain, they have survived for thousands of
years. We had a good guide who walked us through the
very narrow entryway, called the Siq, and then
explained all about the many carved edifices and the
way the people lived there so many years ago. After
he left us, we hiked up several hundred steps to the
top of a mountain where another big monument had been
carved. It was very hot during the afternoon, and we
took our time. The nice thing was that there were not
a lot of tourists here. Usually there are thousands,
but we were the first to enter and were alone in the
ruins for quite a while. We got good pictures because
there were not hordes of people in them. Elaine and I
had a nice picnic lunch in the shade of a cliff on the
way down the mountain with great views. By the end
of the day, we had walked over 12 miles!
That evening we drove to a desert camp in Wadi
Rum. This camp was such a delightful place, with
comfortable seating areas under the stars, right next
to several large stone hills, and with tents set up
with cots for us to sleep in. They had cooked the
succulent dinner in an underground pit. It was lamb,
chicken, potatoes, and veggies served with several
types of salad, pita bread (of course), and fruit for
dessert. Then the Bedouin guys who worked there played
a guitar like instrument and a drum and sang to us.
It was very enjoyable. The next morning, we had a
camel ride in the desert around some of the brown
granite hills in the area. Too soon we had to leave
to drive to Aqaba, where we would catch the hydrofoil
the next day for Egypt. It was very hot there, and
not a lot to see so we chilled out in the air con in
the hotel during the afternoon. A nice fish dinner
together with our group and then a beer at an English
pub helped us say goodbye to Sophie and Jayo who were
not going on with us to Egypt.
More about our transfer to the Sinai and the
events there, in the next travelogue.
Love, Mary & Elaine
Dear Family & Friends,
Tonight we are in Dahab, Egypt, on the gulf of
Aqaba in the Sinai Peninsula, having taken a hydrofoil
from Aqaba, Jordan earlier today. It is beautiful
here but very HOT in the daytime – well over 100
degrees, I’m sure. Since one of the purposes of these
travelogues is for us to have a “journal” of our
travels, as well as keeping our loved ones informed, I
am going to continue from where we left off last time,
even though that was nearly 10 days ago. We have been
doing too many things and moving too fast for internet
time, and once, when we did have time, the server was
Our last travelogue was from Hama, a place which
has interesting water wheels for irrigation purposes
and not much else. From there we took a public bus
across the desert to a place called Palymyra. It is
an oasis city known to have been settled from the 19th
century BC, but it really boomed during Roman times.
This was because there were lots of caravans passing
through because this was on the Silk Road, and they
taxed them heavily, which paid for beautiful civic
buildings. Today these are ruins, but quite extensive
and interesting ones. We had an excellent tour guide
who explained everything to us and we walked all over
the site, which is huge. There are a lot of columns
left on the main street and we tried to imagine it
when caravans of over 4000 camels came into town.
After that we drove out to the outskirts where there
were several types of tombs. We climbed the 4 stories
of an above ground one, then visited several
underground ones. Families used these and often there
were over 400 people buried in them through the
centuries they were used. The best one still had the
sculptured heads of the people buried in them
installed on the front of the niches where the bodies
were placed.
The most amazing thing is that there were hardly
any tourists. Usually there are thousands of people
in the town and the time we were there we probably saw
about 50. Of course, this is because of the war and
also Syria’s position with regard to Hezbollah. There
are Bedouin people who live here and we visited one of
them at his place in the oasis and had tea with him.
Later Jayo and Sophie rented a couple of his camels
for a ride through the ruins. In the evening we went
up the hill to the citadel which overlooks everything
and tried to time it for sunset, but there was a dust
storm and we couldn’t even see the sun.
The next day we took the bus to Damascus, another
very old city at about 8000 years old. Bashar bribed
the bus driver to stop for 30 seconds at a sign that
said Baghdad with an arrow pointing left, and Damascus
with an arrow pointing right. We arrived on Friday so
it was very quiet because this is their holy day and
also with Ramadan starting soon, everyone went to the
mosque. We spent some time walking around in the
covered market area which is called the Souk, with the
big mosque nearby. Behind all this there is an
extensive and interesting Christian area, which we
also visited. After all this walking, we stopped at a
place for tea and there were lots of people in there
smoking water pipes called nargile. The tobacco
smells like apples or other fruit and the smoke is not
as offensive as regular cigarettes.
A few words about Ramadan. It lasts a month and
during this time Muslims are not supposed to eat,
drink, smoke, or have sex in the hours between sunrise
and sunset. So they get up before sunrise and eat a
big breakfast, then fast all day, and then about 6:30
PM everything stops while they all break their fast.
Usually this is like a big party at their homes. Even
traffic on very big and busy streets disappears during
this time. The fallout from all this is that many
people are very crabby during the day and they use it
as an excuse to do even less work than usual.
Additionally, we have already seen about 4 fistfights,
probably caused by low blood sugar! Lots of
businesses have reduced hours, it is difficult to find
a place to eat at lunchtime, it is almost impossible
to find a place to buy alcohol and if you can find it,
it costs a LOT more, and lots of businesses are closed
too. This is somewhat like Christmas is for us, and
there are even lights they put up on their houses of a
crescent moon and star, plus other colored lights.
They buy new clothes for the end of Ramadan, and they
give gifts to each other too. We have witnessed so
much inefficiency during this time that we have come
to the conclusion that it is a bad time to travel, but
hey, we are already here!
The second day we were in Damascus started off
badly when I broke my toe by hitting it on the bedpost
in the hotel room. I managed to limp my way through
the Azem Palace, an interesting extensive home of a
former Pasha, and also now a museum showing a lot of
cultural items, such as costumes, musical instruments,
utensils, and furniture from past centuries. We
revisited the souks which were now teeming with people
and much more interesting. The Ummayad mosque was now
available to us and was absolutely stunning with
beautiful glittery mosaics, stained glass windows, and
beautiful tile work. One of the best mosques we have
seen yet. Since this was our last day with Bashar, we
all had a nice dinner at a terrace restaurant and
right in the middle of it the electricity went off and
stayed off. It was a challenge getting out of there
and back to our hotel.
The night before we had gone out to dinner with
Bashar and one of his girlfriends. He is from a very
traditional family and he told us that the way they
arrange marriages is that he would indicate to his
mother which girl he was interested in and then his
parents would visit her parents. If the parents
thought that the girl was a good solid citizen
(meaning a virgin and of good character) and her
parents thought that he was OK, then they would dicker
about a dowry. Sometimes these get quite pricey –
like over $20,000!! Eventually a very expensive
wedding would occur and they would live happily ever
after (hopefully). If not, they can easily divorce by
the husband just saying to the wife, “I divorce you”.
But there are very strict laws about spousal support,
child support, and child visitation rights. We even
were taken into a visitation center in Aleppo where
parents are able to have visitation time with their
children when they are not allowed to go to the
ex-partner’s home anymore.
Now that you have heard almost everything about
Syria, I am going to close this and tell you all about
Jordan in the next travelogue.
Thanks to those of you who have sent us e-mails.
We are always happy to get news and greetings from
home. We are both happy and healthy and hoping that
you are the same. Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Middle East Travelogue#5
September 19, 2006

Dear Family & Friends,
Hello from Syria. Today we were within 45km of Lebanon and all was quiet, so the ceasefire must be holding. We are learning lots of stuff about Syria and having very enjoyable travel experiences here, so this is likely to be another long tale. If that is a problem, read it in segments over a few days.
First of all, I think in the last travelogue the computer eliminated the letter i altogether, instead of changing them all to y's, so hopefully you could still read it. Every Internet place presents different challenges! Internet costs more here than in Turkey: between $2 and $1.50 per hour. Still affordable.
Crossing the border into Syria was an interesting experience. Jan, our Turkey tour leader took us to the border where there were big gates and fences and a bunch of trucks trying to cross but absolutely no tourists! The guard there would not let us walk to the next area, where we had to get stamped out of Turkey, so we had to wait for a Syrian taxi to come. Finally, when it didn't come, one of the border guys drove us over in his car but of course, he charged Jan for it ($7). After getting stamped out of Turkey, we went to the Syrian side, but we had to walk there (about 200 yards). Right away the Syrian border guard we first met said "Welcome to Syria", something which has happened with nearly everyone who talks to us, even when we say we are from America. They are very friendly people. They went through every page of our passports with great care because if you have a stamp from Israel in it, they won't let you in. Also, you must already have a Syrian visa because you can't get one at the border. They cost $100. So they spent a lot of time and even called our tour leader on his cell phone, then finally we got our stamps and waited there. Our tour leader, Bashar, came a short time later and we were off to explore Syria.
He had a minivan waiting for us, only in Syria minivan are really much smaller than in Turkey because they drive these little Suzuki type vans. We headed for Aleppo, about 50km away and the driver drove like a bat out of hell, something everyone here does, we quickly learned. Also, they pull right in front of each other and everyone takes it in stride. We did see some cars that had been hit a lot of times, and also quite a few old beat-up ones that run well. They are probably like Mexicans; master mechanics who keep things running with baling wire and chewing gum because parts are expensive and they don't have much money. One surprising thing is that gasoline is very cheap here. It is subsidized by the government and only costs 7 Syrian pounds per liter or about 50 cents a gallon. Because of this, public transport is cheap and so are taxicabs. Also because of this, at 3PM when the boss at the border goes home, there is a lot of traffic crossing the border to Turkey carrying cheap gas to sell there by bribing the border officials.
Our first impression of Syria was that it is much dirtier than Turkey, and after 2 days here, that first impression has not proved to be false. There is lots of litter everywhere, piles of debris and building materials scattered here and there, the buildings look dingy, there are lots of rocks scattered around, and where there are trees and grass, they often need trimming. The houses are mostly all built of limestone or cement and most are not painted. The new limestone ones look pretty but after a while the pollution makes them look dingy. There are not a lot of high rises here, as in Turkey. The buildings are mostly 3 or 4 stories tall. But today we entered Hama and here we saw that high rises are starting to be built. Bashar said this is perhaps a result of the fact that there are about 4 million Iraqi refugees here and 1 million Lebanese refuges, and they have caused a big housing demand, which has caused prices to skyrocket. He says a housing unit in Aleppo costs about $200,000 and this is for an apartment, not a house!
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world because it was on the major trade route - the Silk Road. Estimates are that people have been living there for 8000 years. The year 2006 Aleppo has been named the Center for Islamic Culture and they are very proud of this. There is a huge citadel towering over the town on a big natural hill right near the old center. We didn't go in it because most of the inside is gone. It just has a view over the city. There is also a very large covered market called a souq, which has labyrinthine alleyways full of little stalls selling everything from camel meat to carpets to gold jewelry to tourist stuff. But mostly the locals shop there because there aren't many tourists here. That has been refreshing, especially after parts of Turkey, which we think, are over touristed. On the other hand, when the souq salesmen see us coming, they are really after us to visit their shops and buy something! Most of them ask us where we are from and don't seem to be too repelled by the fact that we are from the USA.
Our hotel in Aleppo was right near the center and on a side street, thank goodness, because the traffic there is heavy on the main streets and they honk at each other all the time. This hotel was a definite step down from the ones in Turkey and our first room was not very clean so we had to move to another one. Also, there were large living room type areas on each floor and every night there were men sleeping everywhere there, making it look like a flophouse. At least the breakfast each day was a little different than the usual Turkish breakfast, something we were getting very tired of.
Upon arriving at the hotel, we met the new people who joined our group for this phase of the tour: Hoya and Sophie, a young couple about 30 from the Netherlands. They are delightful and we are so happy to have their company! Bashar, our tour leader is also great, with a wonderful personality and an easygoing manner. Right away we started learning so much about Syria because he is a native. First thing he walked us over to a falafel stand where we had a delicious wrap made out of falafel, tomatoes, chopped cilantro, and tasty yogurt type sauce in a thin pita bread wrap. Falafel is ground up chickpeas mixed with mashed hummus and sesame seeds, deep fried into little doughnuts which they then smash and put in the wrap. They first served us one of the doughnuts and it was delicious. The cost for this very tasty wrap and a cola was about 60 cents. We changed money and are now dealing with the Syria pound, which they also call the lira, and we are getting 51.6 to the dollar.
That evening, Bashar took us to a local restaurant for dinner. Here we were taken to the kitchen where there were about 8 choices of food we could look at and select as our main dish, then we sat at a table and they brought quite a few mezes, or appetizers for us to eat along with the ever-present flat bread, a delicious salad, the main courses, then fruit for dessert. It was way too much food and it only cost 300 lira per person or about $6 each. Bashar then walked us around the Christian Quarter, which had many old buildings and churches and was charming because most were floodlit. We went into 2 restaurants he knew and descended deep into their basements where he showed us passageways that had been dug so the people could get to the citadel underground when the city was under attack.
Just trying to cross the street in Aleppo was a big deal. The traffic never lets up and they never stop for you so you have to wait for just the slightest crack between vehicles and then start walking and they keep coming at you but somehow swerve around you. When we aren't with Bashar, we just find a local and stand by him and then when he starts to cross, we walk right along with him and we make it safely.
Another interesting thing is that here about 90% of the women are wearing the all black robes and head coverings (they look like nuns) and some of them even wear black veils totally covering their faces.
Politically, things have also been interesting. Bashar says that all the people of Syria support Hezbolla, and you see their flag and the picture of their leader nearly as much as you see the picture of the Syrian president. There was a picture of the Hezbolla leader on one side of our hotel entrance and the Hezbolla flag on the other side. On the back of the bus we took today, there was a picture of the Hezbolla leader on the left, in the middle a Hezbolla flag, and on the right a picture of the President of Syria. Many businesses fly the Hezbolla flag outside their entrances.
Yesterday we had a good tour guide for a trip to a basilica one hour away from Aleppo called St. Simeon. Some religious zealot spent 36 years sitting on a pillar and healing people for the glory of god and they built a big basilica around his pillar. Just seeing the countryside near there was interesting as it was very rocky and barren although they seemed to raise a lot of sheep and goats there. Between the border and Aleppo we could see that they raise olives for olive oil, grains, cotton, grapes, and pistachios. They are selling pistachios everywhere because the harvest has just occurred. Today from the bus we could also see okra, sunflowers, tomatoes, and melons. There were also large fields where there were lots of big tents set up and this is because they still have nomadic people who raise sheep and goats and continually move them for grazing. It was odd to see them camped right between houses of nice limestone with green and pleasant gardens and orchards.
Today we visited the most impressive castle left over from the Crusades called Krak de Chevaliers. It was occupied by over 4000 people in the 11th and 12th centuries until the Crusaders were finally run out of the country. It was never breached by the enemy because it was so well built - they just gave it up a couple of months into a siege because there were only about 200 men left by then. It is in a wonderfully complete state and we took several hours to explore it today. It is huge and way up on a hill so they could see for miles if anyone was coming. Saturday night there was a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet there, so there was a big stage and thousands of chairs set up in the courtyard. We were quite surprised that there was so much litter around inside and it obviously isn't being well prepared for tourists, even though they just had a huge influx of people there for the ballet. But this is something we are seeing all over Syria. There are plenty of employees but instead of doing any work or cleaning anything up, they sit around all day. After the fortress, Bashar took us to a nearby restaurant where we had another great meal, this time grilled chicken which you cover with an olive oil and crushed garlic spread. It came with an amazing number of appetizers again, plus salad and fruit, all for 175 lira or about $3.50. They nailed us on the drinks though.
Now we are in Hama in the best hotel we have had yet and Elaine is happy because there is CNN on the TV and also some other English channels. It is clean and comfy and we will enjoy it. But briefly as we leave early tomorrow for Palmyra. More in a few days, probably from Damascus, which we will reach Friday. By the way, Ramadan starts Saturday so things will get even more interesting. Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Monday, September 18, 2006

September 16, 2006
Middle East Travelogue #4

Dear Friends & Family,
Here we are in a large city called Urfa, which is not too far from the Syrian border. We will be crossing over tomorrow and meeting our new tour guide.
Today we had a farewell luncheon with Jan as tomorrow he drops us at the border and then has to take a 20 hour bus ride back to Istanbul!
The past few days have been the very best yet here in Turkey. We were in Cappadocia, of course. This is an area in the center of the country where there are many varied and incredible land formations due to geologic forces many years ago, mostly volcanic. When erosion worked faster on some layers underneath others, it made many tall columns with tough little caps on top of them, called Fairy Chimneys. Additionally, a lot of the rock was like sandstone and easy to carve into, so the residents carved out entire cities underground and retreated into them when there were invaders. The rest of the time they lived above ground and raised crops. The cities are many layers deep and they have ingenious things like rolling rock doors to block off the passageways, deep ventilation shafts, holes here and there to pour hot oil on any invaders who got in, etc. We visited several of these sights on our first day in the region after a very long overnight bus from Antalya. The second day we were there was the greatest day. It started at 5:10 AM when we were picked up by a van and taken to a place called Goreme. Here we were served coffee and cookies while everyone paid and got registered, and then we were off again in the vans to the place where our hot air balloon would be set up. A crew arrived with the equipment and quickly set it up and by 6:45AM we were in the air! The weather was cold, but the air was fairly still and the sun was soon shining. There were 6 balloons that went up from the company we were with and about 12
more from other companies. There were 4 compartments in our balloon with 5 people in each one. Seeing all the formations from the air and gliding over everything was fabulous. This was my birthday present for this year and I think it is the best one I have ever had. After an hour of floating up and down and even coming very near many of the projecting columns, we made a very soft landing in a grassy field where the crew quickly found us and packed up the balloon. They set up a table with flowers, small cakes, and champagne mixed with sour cherry juice (a popular drink here) and we all toasted a successful flight. They gave us a very nice certificate as a remembrance of our flight and by 9AM we were back at our hotel. The whole experience was the most efficient and enjoyable one we have had in Turkey. This might have been because it is owned and run by a young British woman, who is also one of the pilots. Later that day we visited the Goreme Open Air Museum. This is an area where many churches were carved into the cliffs and hills and some have frescoes painted in them.
Our action-packed day wasn't over yet. We had a rest at the hotel and then in the evening took a taxi to a hall where there was a folk music and dancing performance. We arrived early and were glad we did because they showed us all through the place, which is also a large cave cut into a cliff. The chef in the very modern kitchen proudly opened the huge oven so we could see the lamb he was roasting. Then we were seated at our table. These were arranged in tiers so that everyone could see the dance floor clearly. The musicians played Turkish music on unusual instruments while we enjoyed many different types of mezes – this means appetizers. There were also unlimited drinks available, so we tried several kinds of raki, the typical Turkish drink. It has a licorice taste and is clear until they add water to it and then it looks cloudy. The dinner was served during the dancing and was couscous with lamb, which was tender and delicious. Fruit and baklava for dessert, along with tea and coffee completed the very delicious meal. The folk dancing was quite varied and interesting with several numbers where they had audience participation. When the belly dancer started asking guys from the audience to dance with her, there were lots of takers! Everything ended at about 11:30PM and we were back at our hotel by midnight. Just imagine, all this cost about 20 dollars per person.
The next day we left early and this time we had our own minivan because the places we were going would require too many changes on the public bus. We drove all day across very dry looking terrain, which changed often because we crossed over mountains too. Our driver got pulled over by the police and got a speeding ticket, which will cost him 101 lira, or over 70 dollars. We stopped at a lokantasi for lunch. These are like little cafeterias where the food is all prepared and you just select some food and it is usually inexpensive but tasty. We also had to stop at a place, which is famous for making the best dandourma in Turkey. Dandourma is a type of ice cream that is very elastic in texture. I thought it was good but Elaine doesn’t like it. As we drove through the countryside we could see many women working out in the fields, raking alfalfa, or picking cotton. The houses in the countryside are smaller than in the cities and there are not the big high-rise apartment buildings that you see in all the cities. When we stopped for gas, we learned that diesel here is about 6 dollars a gallon, and unleaded gasoline is about a dollar more! The other funny thing is that when you stop for gas, they offer you tea. Our driver sat and drank tea with the guys there while the van sat and blocked the pumps! We also have passed many goats, which doesn’t surprise us because goat cheese is served every morning for breakfast. Often it is very salty. In the fields there are also lots of sheep, cotton and brussel sprouts. Most of the work is done by workers doing it by hand.
We arrived in Kahta at about 4PM and after checking into our hotel, we left immediately in another van for Mt. Nemrut. The new van had to be 4 wheel drive because Mt. Nemrut is 9000 feet high and some of the roads are very step to get up there. On the top there are 2 terraces, one facing east and one facing west. In between them is a very high mound of small pieces of rock, which they say covers the tomb of King Antiochus, the guy who had this crazy thing built about 2000 years ago. On the terraces were huge stone sculptures of himself and about 5 of the gods because he thought that he was one of them. Because of earthquakes the heads have all fallen off and just those are over 2 meters tall (about 6 feet). We arrived up at the top at about 5:30 and it was a good thing we had a lot of jackets and windbreakers with us because it was very cold and windy up there, even though the sun was still shining. It was also a fairly step climb from the parking lot to the statues – about ½ mile. We took pictures and waited until sunset on the west terrace because that is when there is supposed to be the best light. People who drive up there for sunrise use the east terrace. We were glad that we were heading down right after sunset because it was getting dark and colder very fast. Just building such a thing in such a remote place and so very high on a mountaintop seems like a crazy thing to do. It wasn’t even discovered until the late 1890’s and nothing was done to renovate it or make it accessible to people until the 1950’s.
From the mountain top area we could see over a very vast area and were surprised to see huge bodies of water out on the plains. This is because they have now completed a huge dam project called Ataturk Dam, which collects water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This is going to help bring in lots of factories and people into the region but is already causing problems with Syria and Iraq who claim that Turkey is taking more than their share of the water. We visited the dam today on our drive to Urfa and we had to surrender our passports to the guards at the gate and promise not to take any pictures. It is about the same size as Hoover Dam, at least the one we saw today. I think there are others.
In Urfa today we walked around the pilgrimage site where supposedly there is the cave where Abraham was born. There is also something around here concerning Job, but we didn’t see it. We spent some time in the bazaar where we found the cheapest prices in Turkey. We each got a tee shirt for about a dollar. Leather shoes were 7 dollars. We didn’t price anything else because the salesmen were over eager if we displayed any interest. The people here are very friendly and try to speak English to us. It is the first place we have been where they just want to talk to us and don’t have a hidden agenda. I think it is because there are so few tourists here.
Time to close and get ready for tomorrow’s adventures. More from Syria in a few days.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Middle East Travelogue #3
Dear Friends and Family,
Well, the last time I sat down to write there had been an incident in Jordan, and now there has been an attack on the US Embassy in Syria, another one of our destinations! I'm glad they are getting this out of their systems before we get there! We enter Syria on the 17th.
I had intended to write this send it a few days ago but when we went to the Internet place in Dalyan, we couldn't get on Yahoo! So if this is a little too long, that is why. I also have to get this written and sent quickly because in a short time we are meeting Jan & Lorna to go back to the bus station where we are catching an overnight (ugh) bus to Cappadocia tonight. Nine hours sleeping on a bus - not one of our favorites...
We seem to be spending a LOT of time on buses, as a matter of fact. The public buses are nice, mostly air conditioned, and until yesterday, not too bad. But yesterday we had a 9 hour trip from Dalyan to Olympos which took about 6 hours longer than it needed to because of all the stops. This is the BIG disadvantage to having such a small group. If our group was bigger, the company would rent a minibus for the group and then it would go direct. There was kind of a funny incident on our first public bus. We were the first on at Pamukkale so we got the front seats with great views. Then we went to the next town where a bunch of people got on and it turned out that there were assigned seats so the bus guy made just about everybody shuffle until he got us in the right seats.
Pamukkale was one of our enjoyable stops on this tour. It means cotton castle and it refers to the white hillsides and pools caused by thermal springs. We stayed in a cute pension right near them and could easily walk up the hill to them. The biggest problem was that once you get on the limestone deposits, you have to take off your shoes and walk barefoot. There were areas we had to cross with lots of little rocks which hurt our tender feet. The deposits themselves were kind of smooth but sometimes had hard ripples in them. There are lots of pools but many are now dried out because the water flow has changed. There were so many people there that it was hard to walk uphill with all of them coming down from where the buses park. One lady ran Elaine into a tight spot and she hit her toes so hard that she now had a totally black and blue toe which looks like it is broken. Luckily, she can still walk if she uses her sandals. When we got to the top where most of the people were sitting around in the pools, they were nearly all Germans. One thing we have noticed in our travels is when you combine warmth and water, there WILL be Germans there! It was very hot the day we were there, which was kind of a bummer because besides seeing the pools and terraces, we wanted to walk through the ruins of Hieropolis at the top. This was a Roman city where people used to go for the curative waters of the thermal pools. It was finally abandoned because of all the earthquakes - they got tired of rebuilding it. The ruins were in pretty good shape and walking through the necropolis, where there were interesting sarcophagi, was the best but too darn hot to do it for long.
From there we took a bus to a coastal town called Goçuk where we boarded our gület. This is a wooden Turkish yacht about 70 feet long and which sleeps about 15. Supposedly we were going to cruise the Turquoise Coast, which is what they call the southern coast of Turkey because the water is such a beautiful color. Well, we motored over to a nearby cove where we tied up for a while and snorkeled. The equipment was crappy, and the area where we snorkeled had only a few sea urchins, some yellow sponges, sea grass, about 4 kinds of small fish, and one worm with lots of legs like a centipede. Luckily, the water was pretty warm and refreshing. Of course Lorna didn't swim or snorkel because she is so reclusive that she has not brought a bathing suit. In fact, she doesn't wear pants or shorts either - just long skirts, long sleeved tops, usually a safari jacket, a big floppy brimmed hat, and thick glasses. She reminds us of tales about Victorian ladies traveling. Anyway, Jan, Elaine and I enjoyed it. Then we moored for the night in another cove where the crew fixed us a nice chicken dinner and we enjoyed eating on deck. The temperature was perfect and we stayed up late playing cards with Jan and Mehmet, our captain. Of course we slept well with the quietness of the setting and the balmy temps.
The next day we moved on after breakfast to a resort town called Dalyan. This is a popular place for English people and prices were even quoted there in pounds. Here the big draw is a beach where loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs, some stupendous rock tombs carved right into the cliff face overlooking the town and across the river, and an ancient ruined city called Caunos. The first evening we were there we waited until late afternoon for a cooler temperature and then we 4 took a boat across the river and walked down to the rock tombs and climbed up there. It was steep and there was lots of loose rock so it was treacherous but we made it. Getting down was the hardest. There wasn't much in them, so actually they were better seen from a distance and we didn't need to climb them at all! Then we walked down to the ruins of Caunos and poked around there but darkness was coming so we had to hurry back to the river where our boatman was waiting. This area has a big estuary because of the river and the silting up of that area from it, so there were mosquitoes for the first time. I had some bites by the time we got back even though I had bug stuff on. The next day Jan, Elaine and I went on an excursion where they took us up the river to some mineral baths and mud pots. There we soaked for a bit, then went into the mud pools and got totally covered in mud, which is supposed to be excellent for the skin. Wow, did we look silly with all that mud all over us, plus it was a hoot to be in there because we were so buoyant we were floating on top of the mud pool. Luckily, they had showers to wash off all the mud, although we found out when we got back to the hotel and showered that we were still wearing some of it under our suits.
Next we went in the boat to the lake for a fresh water swim, then had lunch at a riverside restaurant of typical Turkish dishes. It was a buffet and the food was OK but not great. Then we went through the estuary which was covered in water reeds and bamboo all the way to the Turtle Beach. Here there were umbrellas and lounges to rent but we just kicked back on the sand, took a swim in the warm Aegean waters, and enjoyed the sun for 2 hours. It was a fun day and we think we look younger from the mud bath but who knows!
While we were walking in this town we were passed by a parade of cars following a pickup truck which had about 10 boys in the back, all between the ages of 7-10 I would guess, and all dressed up like little princes. The cars were blowing their horns and making a fuss. It turns out that this day these boys were going to be circumcised and this was a big event. They give them gifts and make them feel special; I suppose it helps with the pain. They say that after that now they a men. Yah, right...
Permit me to make a few more comments about the culture. Many of the older women wear traditional dress, which is either a long and baggy flowered skirt, with a long sleeved top and a scarf which covers all their hair, or in place of the skirt they wear big baggy pants. The younger women seem to be wearing mostly western clothes, and often, just look like women or girls in our country. It is common to see three generations of women together with only the grandmother wearing traditional dress.
The biggest pain here is being around all the people who smoke like fiends. For example, they even let them smoke in the Internet places and I had a guy next to me a few minutes ago who was about smoking me out. Nearly everyone smokes and there are butts everywhere as well as lots of air pollution. I'll bet they will have lots of health problems coming up. The young people are mostly very thin and fit looking. If anyone is chunky or fat, they are usually 40 or older. Childhood obesity is almost non-existent. This despite the fact that they eat massive quantities of bread at every meal and round bready things called simit in between!
Last night we had an interesting event at Olympos. On Mt. Olympos there is an area called the Chimera where gas escapes from the ground and fires light there spontaneously. So we went up there after dinner, in the dark, and hiked about a mile up a steep trail to see these. Took some pictures and then hiked back down, arriving back at our treehouse camp at midnight. This is a backpacker area and today we hiked through the ruins to the beach. We could see why they stay there - the beach was beautiful and the area is too as there are lots of pine forests around. Wish we could have been there earlier yesterday to enjoy the beach too.
I've got to get this sent so we can get back to the bus station. Sending huge hugs to everyone.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

September 6, 2006
Middle East Travelogue #2

Dear Family & Friends,
Hello from Selçuk, which is located 2 miles from the ruins at Ephesus, and which is not far from the Aegean coast. Before we describe some of our activities, I would like to comment on a few things. First of all, it is the keyboard of the computers here which is substituting the letter y every time I type an i. I have no control over this and hopefully, you can still understand what I write. Other letters and punctuation marks are in different places too, making these somewhat difficult to produce! (NOTE: For posting the blog, the letters have been corrected for easier reading.)
Secondly, apparently there were some difficulties in the sending of the first travelogue a few days ago. If you did not receive it and would like me to resend it, just let me know. Or you can read it on our blog at
Thirdly, yes, we just heard about the shooting of 6 tourists in Amman, Jordan on Monday and although this is a place which is on our itinerary, we will still be going there. Security has been stepped up and we are not expecting any further problems.
Our Imaginative Traveler tour has started now, so we have a tour leader and a so-called group. There is only one other person in our group, a rather strange woman from Oxford, England who perfectly fits the stereotype of the typical British spinster. She has never worked but has only been a student and she writes books that never get published. She is very intelligent, has an accent that is difficult to understand, and she mostly doesn't do anything with the rest of us, preferring to explore on her own. Our tour leader, Jan, is from the Czech Republic and he has been leading tours there so this is his first time to lead one in Turkey, thus he hardly knows any more than we do. But he is a pleasant and capable 31 year old and we are having fun with him. Of course, we have been a bit disappointed by this situation because the group socialization is something we always enjoy. We suspect that our group was supposed to be larger but lots of people have cancelled or changed to other tours due to the situation in the Middle East.
As a matter of fact, we are having a group experience here at Selçuk because another group is here at our hotel, having just come over from Greece, so we have been joining them on their activities. Last night we all went for a nice dinner in this pleasant small town, and enjoyed some Turkish mezes. These are small plates of appetizers and with everyone ordering different ones, lots of sharing went on. Today we had a very informative 4 hour tour of the ruins at Ephesus. They were absolutely packed with tour groups but enjoyable nonetheless because they are so spectacular. This town was first Greek and then taken over and made over by the Romans and there are lots of interesting sculptures, structures, roads, sewers, columns, etc. because excavations have been happening here since the 1860's. The most incredible part was an area called the Terrace Houses which is where the houses of some wealthy Romans have been partly excavated and restored. This reveals the way they lived and just seeing their intricate and beautiful mosaic floors, marble walls and fountains, and wall frescoes was worth the extra money we had to pay to get in to this part. That also meant fewer people went through there and that alone made it enjoyable. There is a huge 2 story marble facade called the Celsus Library which is stunning, and a huge amphitheater which seated 24000 people and was so well constructed that the acoustics are perfect and no microphones are needed to reach the people in the upper tiers.
Probably you are wondering what happened in between where we left off after Travelogue 1 and today. We had 2 more days in Istanbul and we used them to explore the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, the Dolmabaçhe Palace, and the Istkilal Caddessi, a very fashionable shopping street. Most impressive was the Dolmabaçhe Palace which was where the sultans and their families lived starting in 1856. Previously they had lived in the Topkapi Palace, but the royals were feeling like they needed a newer, more comfortable and more fashionable place so they built this one which is so extravagant that they nearly bankrupted the kingdom. It is very European in style and it reminded us a lot of the palace at Versailles. It has over 285 rooms with about 150 of them in the harem, which means only the sultan and his wives, children, concubines and servants used them. There is a staircase where all the supports were made of crystal, and in the largest reception hall the crystal chandelier is so huge that it weighs 4500 pounds.
Istkilal Caddessi is the very fashionable shopping street where many of the embassies and consulates are located because it is in the area that used to be reserved for foreigners. It is being renovated and many new stores are moving in as well as trendy restaurants. We visited the Peras Hotel which is where the people stayed who took the Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul in the 1800 and 1900's. It is old and elegant (and expensive).
Monday we left Istanbul on a tourist bus called Hassle Free Tours. A 5 hour drive found us in a small town near battlefields and memorials on the Gallipoli Peninsula. After a nice lunch, we had a tour of the battlefields where so many New Zealanders, Aussies, British and a few French fought and died in WWI. They were trying to take over the peninsula and eventually control the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus so the Allies could use it as a way to get to the Black Sea and supply the Russians especially during winter. They had already tried sending battleships up the Dardanelles but were badly affected by mines. They landed on April 25, 1915 and established a position on the Aegean side of the peninsula and then stayed 9 months without making anymore progress because the Turks had the high side of the hills and ridges. By the time they withdrew, the Allies had lost about 240 thousand men and so had the Turks. And for what?! Our bus was full of Aussies who still are very emotional about this and on Anzac Day, a national holiday in Australia, about 12000 Aussies come to Gallipoli for a ceremony.
Driving down to this place gave us a good chance to look at the Turkish countryside. It is mostly very dry and brown with the majority of the fields being sunflower fields. They are brown and dried out now and they are starting to harvest them. They produce a lot of sunflower seed oil here. The housing situation is that most people live in high rise buildings where they have an apartment or a flat, even in the small towns outside of Istanbul. The roads are pretty bumpy and rough and there are not many highways where there are more than one lane each way so buses can't make good time.
After our battlefield tour, we caught a ferry across the Dardanelles to Çanakkale, a small town on the other side where we spent the night. The next day we had a morning tour of the archeological site at Troy. In excavating it, they found that there have actually been about 9 towns there, built one on top of the other. This was quite a surprise in the 1800's when it happened because they always thought that Troy was just a place in Homer's legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey. There was a replica of the wooden horse and then the ruins, which were interesting because we had an excellent guide there who helped them come to life. Considering that these ruins are 5000 years old, it is kind of humbling.
After our tour, we caught the bus to Selçuk where we are now. It was a distance a little over 200 miles but it took 7 hours because of the road situation and all the traffic in Izmir, a very large city we had to drive through.
The weather is hot here and we are enjoying wearing shorts and sandals and hoping that we continue to have air conditioned hotel rooms such as we have here! Sending big hugs to you all.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Friday, September 01, 2006

September 1, 2006

Middle East Travelogue 1

Dear Friends and Family,

Here we are in Istanbul having a wonderful time,
although we are still suffering from jet lag so
perhaps this message will be short and confusing. Our
flight over on Monday was uneventful, and we were
somewhat surprised at how easy things went at the
airport. We had stayed overnight near SFO at a hotel
because we had to be at the airport by 5AM. It amazed
us that there were so many people there in line
already. Our flight to New York was 5 hours long, we
had about an hour at JFK, and then we had a 9 hour
flight here. We arrived at about 10 on AUG. 29 and
our tour company had a guy there to meet us and a van
to take us to our hotel. It was so pleasant and easy.

There was sunshine and nice temperatures, which we
couldn't enjoy because we hadn't been able to sleep on
the plane so we spent the afternoon napping. Late
that afternoion we walked around the neighborhood a
bit, then went to the Hotel Arcadia terrace on the
roof which has a splendid view overlooking the three
major sights in this area and also the Bosphorus. The
sights are the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, and
the Blue Mosque. To celebrate arriving and also my
birthday, we had a drink of the local beer called Efes
Pilsen and took a few pictures just before sunset.
Then we walked to a local restaurant for a typical
turkish dinner, which was delicious.

Our hotel is near the major tourist sights but
still in an older neighborhood where mostly locals
live. Can't get over how many cats are around
everywhere! It comforts Elaine because then there
probably aren't many mice here. So far we have only
seen one dog. There are also lots of little local
eateries, small snack shops, small grocery shops, and
many internet places. These are very reasonable -
about 1 Turkish Lira per hour which is equal to 70
cents. Our hotel room is pretty good,
with lots of room, a so-so air conditioner, and a TV
with lots of channels but only 2 in English - CNN and

Wednesday was another sunny and beautiful day so
we decided to take a cruise on the Bosphorus. The
ferry goes to a small town not far from the Black Sea.
We climbed up the hill above the town so we could
enjoy the great views over the Bosphorus and could see
the Black Sea in the other direction. The Bosphorus
is the waterway which connects the Black Sea to the
Sea of Marmara and Istanbul is spread out along both
sides of it, so there is an Asian side and a European
side. This is why they say that Istanbul is where
East meets west. The ferry ride was pleasant and we
enjoyed being on the water as it was a rather warm
day. Istanbul has about 14 million people, so it is
nice that they are so spread out over this area.

Yesterday we awoke to overcast skies and wind, so
we congratulated ourselves on doing the boating
excursion the day before. Beakfast at our hotel is
always bread with an assortment of jams, soft cheese,
goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, peeled and sliced
cucumbers, melon, juice, tea and coffee. After
eating, we walked over to the former sultan's palace
which is now a museum called Topkapi. We wanted to
get there early because our books say that it is
difficult to get a tour of the harem if you go later.
We got the first tour at 10AM and although it looked
opulent for the time, it also seemed like it would be
very cold and uncomfortable because there was so much
tile everywhere. With the sultan's family,
concubines, servants, etc. there were about 1200
people living there! Both of us thought the Treasury,
where they displayed the jeweled swords, pendants,
cups, etc. was much more interesting.

It was raining as we left the palace, but the Hagia
Sophia was nearby so we went there next. This is an
immense former church and former mosque which is now a
museum. Justinian built it in 537 and it was
the largest church in the world, had amazing
architecture because of its huge dome, and had
absolutely stunning golden mosaics with Christian
themes. When the Moslems took over in 1453 they
turned it into a mosque and plastered over the
mosaics. Now they have been uncovering and restoring
them since it has been a museum since 1935. There are
huge scaffolds set up in the main dome area which
somewhat ruin the effect of the huge area under the
main dome. It is a bit sobering to walk up the ramp
to the upper gallery and realize that people have been
walking on those same stones for over 1500 years!
There are even depressions in the marble where the
sultans guards used to stand just inside the Imperial

Next we went to the Blue Mosque just down the
street. This is still a working mosque so we had to
remove our shoes and cover our heads to enter. It has
some wonderful blue tilework and an interesting carpet
on the floor with little spaces marked out for each
worshiper to kneel on. Just the fact that we could
enter was unusual after being in Morocco last May
because there is only one Mosque in the whole country
that allows non-Muslims to enter there, but here it
seems that there are less restrictive policies. This
mosque is almost as large as the Hagia Sophia and has
4 or 5 minarets outside. Most of the other smaller
mosques here have only one minaret.

For dinner last night we went to a local place
which was like a small cafeteria where they had some
pretty nice choices of Turkish dishes and the cost was
10 lira for both of us (7 USD). One of the guys there
spoke English and explained all the choices to us. So
far we have encountered friendliness from everyone,
even when we speak to them and they realize that we
are Americans. Often they are just chatting us up in
order to try to sell us a carpet or some jewelry,
although we have had some nice conversations with guys
who did not have a hidden agenda. One thing that kind
of puts us off is that it is always men everywhere,
usually sitting in outdoor cafes drinking tea,
smoking, and playing cards, or eating in the
restaurants. Rarely do you see a man and woman
together. At some of the tourist sights, there are
Muslim women and they are in groups of women, not with

Today we went to the Basilica Cistern, which is
one of the largest of the many cisterns that are here
under the city. Apparently this one was built by the
Romans because there are over 300 columns supporting
the very high roof and 2 of them have medusa heads
carved in marble blocks at their bases that are
thought to have come from other Roman buildings. The
cistern is full of water and even has fish swimming in
it, some of them are very large carp. This supplied
water to the populace in ancient times.

After that we walked through the large covered
market and visited the Egyptian Spice Market. Both of
these areas have quite a large variety of shops and
are very organized and clean. This market reminded us
a lot of some of the markets in Morocco.

This city seems very clean as the street sweeper
comes by our hotel everyday at 6:30AM! In nearly
every block there are stands or carts selling
wonderfully colorful fruits and veggies. There are
also many, many bakeries and pastry shops selling lots
of varieties of breads and other doughy treats. There
are small stores everywhere and we use these to buy
drinking water because here you can't drink the tap

So far we are enjoying our time here very much and
haven't felt uncomfortable or threatened in the least.
So don't worry about us at all! We will be exploring
on our own for another few days and then Sunday we
will meet our tour group. Until the next report, we
are sending big hugs and hoping that all is going well
for you there.

Love, Mary & Elaine