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