A Travellerspoint blog

Roll On, Jordan

South From Amman on the King's Highway

semi-overcast 6 °C

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That magical first glimpse of Petra's "Treasury" building

Jan 8

We checked out of our Amman hotel today. We were practically the only guests. It was like the quieter parts of "The Shining."

The drive today was gorgeous, despite the mainly cloudy weather. At first, we saw more of those hardscrabble Jordan hills: not rock-covered, nor-tree covered, they are equal parts small rocks and small trees, like they're battling for supremacy. That stretches as far as you can see, and wherever it's just rocks, that's been plowed for farming. Susistence agriculture, I imagine.

Soon, we'd driven down into the Jordan Valley (yup, a couple more checkpoints) and saw the site where John baptized Jesus. You have to use your imagination for this one; it's pretty much just a spot in the Jordan River, but I did reach down and stick my hand in. It's just cool being in the Holy Land (we also saw the spot where Elijah ascended to heaven, and we looked across the river to Jericho), where every place name is instantly recognizable from the Bible.

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It doesn't look like much, but all the Christian denominations agree this is where John baptized Jesus

After that, we watched as the outside temperature gauge rose to 18 degrees celsius. We'd driven to the lowest place on Earth: the Dead Sea. And, it was warm enough for a swim! Not really, but how could we miss this chance? Luckily, the water was warmer than the air. We stayed in for quite a while, enjoying the famous buoyant effect. We even had a pamphlet to read for the obligatory photo-op.

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You don't have to be dead to float like this in the Dead Sea

Not quite being able to shower off the salt properly, we nonetheless rolled on, to our stop for the night: Madaba. But first we drove up from 400 metres below sea level and had some more great views. We even passed by Mount Nebo, where Moses was shown the Promised Land (then died, but he was 120 and didn't have a Ford Explorer).

Arriving in Madaba, we saw the incredible "Madaba Mosiac" on the floor of the St. George's Greek Orthodox Church there. It's a tile mosaic map showing all of the Biblical lands. It was made in the 6th century, and about a third of the two million pieces survives. It showed all sorts of places we've just been, like the Dead Sea, with boats in it, fish in the Jordan River, and the Nile Delta. Some places are enlarged and more detailed, like Jerusalem, where the tiling shows the walls of the city and even individualized buildings. All the place names are in Greek, so it's a good thing we had our guidebook. I've never seen anything else like it, considering it's 1500 years old. Madaba since then has maintained a tradition of mosaic-making, so the rest of the church is pretty amazing too.

It's a small town, so we found a recommended hotel pretty easily. But it is seriously off-season (it may have been 18 degrees by the Dead Sea, but it was around 6 degrees in Madaba at night), and the hotel's restaurant showed no signs of life. Driving back through town, we walked the main street, and still found nothing. But we chanced one more block and entered a courtyard restaurant complex called "Haret Jdoudna". Still deserted. We were just about to leave when a waiter beckoned us inside. To our delight, we found a wedge-shaped room, full of diners, warmed by a crackling fire. The food was fantastic too, perhaps the best meal we've had in the Middle East so far.

Jan 9

The King's Highway in Jordan, 2008, is newly-paved. But it's seen a lot of traffic long before there were cars: Moses led his people along this route, traders came to and from Petra at its Nabatean peak, pilgrims and Crusaders of the Christian variety, and pilgrims to Mecca, too, have longed followed a similar passage. Today it was our turn.

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A King's Highway switchback

Unfortunately, the twists, turns, switchbacks and elevation change didn't help Anica avoid feeling carsick. So we propped her up on a pillow in the front-seat and she seemed much better after that! Illegal in Canada, practical here.

We reached the city of Karak before noon, and promptly checked into a hotel right beside the Karak Castle. The Karak Rest House. James had stayed here on his last trip to Jordan. Hello Mister James! We now have a panoramic view of the deep Wadi Karak (a wadi is a dry river valley). The manager said he'd turn the heat on later for us.

After a picnic in Jenn's Dad's room, we went over to the castle. It was built in the 12th century by Crusaders, and laid siege to by Saladin in 1183. Parts of the castle, built after the Crusaders lost this area, are Mamluk ruins, anywhere from the 1300s to 1500s. The Mamluks also controlled Egypt during some of that period.

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Heading into Karak, with the castle looming over the town

Again, sometimes coming in the off-season just rocks. We had this castle, which is one of the top sites in Jordan, practically to ourselves. There was so much you could freely climb and explore. The tunnels underneath the castle were particularly atmospheric: one gallery was a row of stores, and another was a row of prison cells. Lit only by air shafts of light, and the occasional modern electric footlight, we walked each tunnel alone. Various stone windows, cut for arrow use, looked out over the valleys on three sides of the castle (it's at the point of the wedge-shaped hill where the town of Karak is built). After hours of climbing every staircase and ramp, we finally declared ourselves done and back across the drawbridge to our hotel. We are their only guests tonight.

Jan 10-12

"To Petra"

We drove from Karak to Wadi Musa (the modern town by the ancient city of Petra) in a little rain and a lot of fog. Early in the drive the fog had lifted enough for us to enjoy some of the incredible wadi views from this stretch of the King's Highway.

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Fog rolling in, as we make our way past the little hillside towns of the King's Highway

Rain was threatening to become a factor again when we reached the desolate Shobak Castle. Other than nearly colliding with a family car coming down from the castle, there was nobody else there. A couple of curator/tour guides were at the entrance, but it's free anyway. Shobak is another Crusader-built castle like Karak. We were really just there to stretch our legs, but James and I couldn't resist the long staircase down into the belly of the castle. Anica and Jenn came part way, and then we continued, with flashlights, down uneven steps. I counted 94 steps, before we doused the flashlights and looked ahead. No light at the end of the tunnel. We went back up.

The fog got worse as we neared Petra. At least, we assumed we were getting closer as we couldn't see the road signs. The fog was so bad we could only see about two dotted lines ahead down the centre of the road.

Finally, though, we made our way through a ghostly Wadi Musa, and successfully bargained for our desired price in hotel room. This place is well-heated!

In the morning, I soon came to the conclusion that Petra is my favourite place of sightseeing (so far!) in the world. After a few hours of trekking and exploring, I was already thinking: this tops them all.

On our first day we (without Jenn, who was experiencing the flu-like feeling I'd had a few days ago) started down "The Siq" in the morning. It's the long, twisty, narrow canyon that emerges at "The Treasury," the most-photographed place at Petra. Every time we turned a corner, we were thinking: "will this be it?" It was like creeping downstairs on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought.

Along the way, though, I started to understand just how many tombs there are. From the moment you enter the front gates, you see holes cut into the rock, and beautiful, classical structures carved out of it. There are hundreds.

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Also, all along The Siq, which is over a kilometre long, is an ancient, waist-high water-trough, which just serves to underscore the ingenuity of the Nabataeans, who built up Petra, starting from the 3rd century BCE. As you go, the rock gets more and more rose-pink.

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Anica in front of "The Treasury"

After spending some time admiring The Treasury, and climbing into a few cave-tombs, we set out for "The High Place of Sacrifice." It's well-named. There's an ancient staircase that took us up, and down a little, and then up, up (picture an Arizona-like landscape) to a plateau higher than anything else. We shared our snack food with some Arab men at the top. One of them looked around the vast landscape and proclaimed that "it's a miracle, this place." Then they danced, in a joyful chorus line!

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One of the views from the "High Place of Sacrifice, Petra

From this "high place," we could see back to the town of Wadi Musa, and forward to areas of Petra we hadn't yet seen. There were altars for animal sacrifice, and dugouts for washing up (washing off the blood?). Amazing spot, and I was really proud of Anica for her effort at getting up there. It was a little tortoise-and-hare, but unlike the hare, she finished the race, too, along with us tortoises.

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James on the edge!

We decided not to go back the same way, but find the path forward, down the other side of the High Place. It was an hour hike from there to the ancient city of Petra's centre. The Roman influence was more noticeable there, with the colonnaded street, and the free-standing temple (the Nabataeans built everything by carving into the rock, almost nothing is free-standing). The Romans, however, didn't do much with Petra after taking it over.

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The Great Temple, Petra

It became a lost city, lost to all except the Bedouins, who kept it secret. In the 5th century, there were a few Byzantine Christians who made churches out of the old tombs, and we saw these. There's no evidence, as far as I could see, of how the Crusaders made use of Petra. It wasn't until the 19th century that Europeans rediscovered Petra, as the forgotten, rose-red city. Artist David Roberts came here around 1840 and made his wonderful painting, realistic, but romanticized, too. They still sell his books and portfolios everywhere here, and I bought a collection of prints.

On our way out, we stopped for a closer look at the pink/red amphitheatre. This was #5 in Anica's collection of amphitheatres seen, although she didn't get to climb this one. As the day went on, we had seen increasingly colorful rock; much of it striped, with a distinctive yellow band, also blue, white, and all shades of red and brown. The yellow crumbles quickly into sand. Anica bought one of those illustrations in a sand-bottle, and had the guy drop her name into it in black lettering.

The second day, with Jenn (who was feeling better enough to say I can't miss this), we were even more ambitious. We had to walk in the same way; there's no other path from the front entrance. Then, we went up some steps to the Royal Tombs and had a little picnic.

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The Royal Tombs, Petra

(In fact, we'd been stocking up on groceries, and have made our own breakfast in Jenn's Dad's room each morning. He has a little gas element, and can boil water, and has a frying pan for eggs. We've saved a lot, and had some memorable meals, by using James' camping stuff. Don't tell the hotel management!).

The big trek of the day was to a spot known as "The Monastery." It's probably 500 steps up, plus some flat stretches of walking.

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Part of the ancient staircase up to "The Monastery, Petra

Once you pass "The Monastery" building itself, which has "two stories" that are more like ten (I could barely climb up in the big door to the chamber), there's a few more steps (and I paused in the exact place that David Roberts painted The Monastery) that take you to a scenic lookout.

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The Jordanian flag flies as you stand, cliffside and look out for miles, maybe even as far as Israel. It's an incredibly rewarding view for the effort, though vertigo-producing.

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You should paint this! The Monastery, Petra

It took 90 minutes to walk back, with any real stopping, to our hotel. By the time we made it, we were certainly exhausted, but felt we'd really seen and done a lot of Petra. We just had the energy to get take-out shawarma (for the second night in a row from Al-Arabi restaurant, but it's so good from this place!), and eat it back in our hotel room.

We've been fortunate enough to have seen the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids already on "our big world trip." I've enjoyed them all, these wold wonders, but none more than Petra.

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To your tombs, everyone!

Jan 13-14

(Rob)

Wadi Rum is the third of three "must-see" experiences in Jordan (also Petra, and a swim in the Dead Sea). The operative word here is "must." When we got in the car this morning, the outside temperature read -6. The plan was to go camping. Hmmmm. Still, "must see." Wadi Rum is beautiful. It's a huge open-ended valley and dry-river bed, with many scenic canyons to explore. We hired a guide, encouraged by seeing the daytime temperature climb above 10 degrees (Hmmmm vs. "must-see" still duking it out at this point).

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A "typical" Wadi Rum view!

When we left the pavement for the off-roading part of the drive, we were pretty much committed to camping overnight. We wouldn't be arriving at our designated Bedouin campsite until nearly dusk. It was time to enjoy the Wadi, and trust that our extra sleeping bags would do the trick. There were others camping, right? No?! Hmmmm....

Our Bedouin guide led James through various sandy trails to some of the highlight spots in the Wadi where we could get out of the vehicle and explore. First, we climbed as far as we could into a narrow crack of a canyon.

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How far can you climb into the canyon?

Then, we stopped at the foot of an enormous sand dune, and we climbed to the top, then ran down. James tried rolling down, but that just hurt. Anica was the only one of us to climb up a second time and run down again, screaming as loud as she could the whole way.

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Heading up the sand dune

At the base of another cliff, a couple of kilometres later, we stopped to examine some late Bronze Age drawings made on the rock. Lunch was a cookout/picnic in yet another towering, picturesque canyon. Anica played some more in the world's biggest sandbox, as James got a fire going. After lunch, we came to a natural stone arch that you could climb up to and across. It was about 40 feet up, but sure seemed higher from the top!

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Our guide got us to each of these landmarks by sitting in the backseat, and calling out to James as he came to forks in the sand tracks. "Yashar!" (left) "Alatoole!" (straight) "Yameen!" (right). I have no idea how these words are spelled, but that's how I heard them...

Before sunset, we made it to camp. There are about 20 such sites in Wadi Rum, all owned by the heads of various Bedouin families. They all know each other, but it's competitive, because they're from about five different tribes. Ours was sheltered nicely from the wind.

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Our Wadi Rum camp

In all directions, if you just walked up the rocks, there were increible views. There were about 40 beds set up in the long, striped tents. The sleeping arrangement reminded me of a homeless shelter, or perhaps army barracks. In our camp, the arrival of sunset confirmed that we were the only campers that night. Our guide was joined by a friend, who arrived by pick-up truck, to help with the cooking. They cook the food by heating it in the ground, covered over. We didn't see this process, beause we were climbing rocks, and playing soccer (before dark), then warming ourselves by the fire in the round tent after dark.

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Sunset at camp

Our hosts served chicken, rice, pita, and a vegetable dish, along with chay (tea). They had lutes that they strummed on, and I had a try, but it was very different from the guitar. So, there we were, part of the timeless Bedouin tableau of sitting by your fire, enjoying your lute music, and watching videos on your cell phones. (?) Yes, these are 21st century Bedouin. Dressed completely traditionally, in their early twenties, they love their cell phones. They showed us how, if you walk to the edge of the tent, and hold your phone up high, sometimes you can get a signal. I thought it was hilarious, and when James tried to use his bluetooth to transfer a Britney Spears video, I thought we were contributing to the decline of civilization, but...what's authentic, really? If you were re-creating a Bedouin camp in a North American theme-park, the customers would be upset to see the "actors" on their cellphones. But to these young men, it's part of the life.

As for getting through the night, we weren't that cold. Jenn was probably colder before she went to bed, and in general was feeling the cold more than any of us because she wasn't 100% healthy. I don't have the space here, though, to list all the layers of clothing and blanketing we used. Thank goodness we had our own sleeping bags, because with what they provided, we wouldn't have been warm enough. I'm sure it was below zero, because, after breakfast, when we drove away, it was still only two degrees on the temperature display. But we lived to tell the tale!

Jan 8

(Anica)

"Dead Sea Day"

Today we went to the Dead Sea and floted. It was very fun. First we went to Jesus Baptism Sight. It was neat, cool, and amazing. Then we went to the Dead Sea and floted. It was very salty, rocky, and fun! Then we went to a church with a mosiac floor map. It was colourfull, bright and fun. Then we had dinner at a place with a fireplace. It was very neat and warm after the 8oC whether! G.N.

Jan 9

(Anica)

"Karak's King Poppa, King Dad, King Queen and Princess Anica at the Castle"

Today we went down to Karak. When we arrived we cheked into a hotel called Karak Rest-House. Right by the Al Karak Castle. And great view. Then we very yummy lunch of Chili, feta chesse, fruit juice and snickers. Then we walked out to the castle. 20 second walk! And saw, and climbed on very steep, ruined, rocky castle. We went into 10 dark tunnels! Then we went back home, had dinner, G.N. :)

Jan 10-12

(Anica)

"Petra: The Pink City"

Today we drove to Petra. The drive to Petra was messed up in cloud like fog. When we got to Petra we got a 3-star hotel called Slk Road Hotel. Nice, warm, clean and good room. We went to a ver yummy and delicious and clean pizza place. Went home, had dinner. G.N.

Jan 11

(Anica)

Today we went to the ruined, pin, high, twisty and big Petra. Mum did not come (sick). We went up a (approxamntly) 900 step high sacrifice place. We took lots of pictures t the pink, tall and nice and pretty Treasery.

Jan 12

(Anica)

Petra the 2nd time. Today Mum came to Petra. We did almost the same thing but with a 1000 step climb to the Monnastry. Went home, had dinner. G.N.

Posted by jennrob 07:02 Archived in Jordan Comments (5)

Amman For All Seasons

Jordan with James

semi-overcast 8 °C

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Anica at the Amman amphitheatre, the first of five we saw in Jordan.
(to our regular blog readers: Anica's purse was turned in, camera and all, before we left Luxor on Jan 31. Sorry we didn't include that in either of our diaries!)

Jan 4

Out of Egypt for just an hour, we were quickly plunged into the next leg of our trip: two weeks in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Securing visas on arrival was easy, and the immigration officer only looked at one of our passports. But with countless changes to our flight times, we weren't sure if James (Jenn's Dad) would be waiting for us in arrivals.

When we stepped out, he was nowhere in sight. But a young Arab man shyly asked us: "Is James your father?" This sounded like the password, so Jenn cleverly said "Yes." "He's just in the bathroom," Bashar (we soon were introduced) explained.

Jenn's Dad had driven 1600 kilometres across the desert in his Ford Explorer to meet us. He'd booked a hotel, met up with his co-worker's family in Amman, and brought us many of the necessities we'd be needing for colder weather. We didn't expect rain in Jordan, but we knew it would be colder, especially at night. James brought each of us a winter coat, hat, mittens, and scarf. Finally having a scarf, I got to practice my Bedouin look by draping and looping it over my shoulders in a dozen different ways! Somehow, we hope to experience some weather from each of the seasons: warm enough in the south to swim in the Dead Sea and snorkel in Aqaba. Today was as much like winter as we've felt since we left. Heck, since probably March's weather back in Canada.

It's exhilarating, though, to be right in the thick of something totally different from our tour of Egypt. This travel variety, sometimes without any rest between stops, and sometimes with a good long quiet stretch is what's keeping all three of us from feeling burnt-out.

After a brief stop at the hotel, which is a good fit (a budget two-bedroom suite, though unwelcoming, dimly-lit, and sporadically heated), we went right to the home of Hassem. Unfortunately, James' colleague had to go back to Riyadh yesterday, so once again it fell to the next generation to entertain us. They were certainly up to it! Welcomed into their apartment in Amman, Anica soon found her hair being braided by one Reema, one of the adult daughters. Rusha, another adult daughter, acted as hostess, and I was instructed to wobble my coffee cup back and forth when I'd had enough (Jordanian coffee is usually made with cardamon, and served in very small cups). We also had tea, all of us sitting in the "men's" half of the their living/dining area. The two sons (both in high-school) sat with us as well. I noticed around the corner that the "women's" area had the TV! But it's not strictly divided like a Saudi Arabian house would be.

Then we went out to dinner, which meant Rusha and Reema had put their head scarves on. We went to a traditional Arab restaurant, where the circular tables have a sunken, brass-plated area for the platters to be put. With Rusha's help, James and I decided to order "Manshef," a common traditional dish in Jordan. It's stuffed lamb, served over a bed of rice and tomatoes, with a yogurt-like sauce to pour over it.

The restaurant was extremely busy and smoky. Most of it was "hubble bubble" pipe-smokers, but generally in Jordan so far, it's the country with the most amount of public smoking. Even Rusha, who never smokes cigarettes, loves to have a hubbley-bubbley.

Jan 5

We didn't stay up late enough, nor sleep in late enough, to qualify as "being on a Jordanian schedule." Nevertheless, Rusha and Reema, along with their youngest aunt, piled into the back seat of the Ford Explorer for a full day of showing the four of us around Amman.

We started in the area known as Philadelphia, after the Ptolemy Philadelphius whom under most of it was built. Most striking was the Amphitheatre of 6,000 seats right in the middle of Amman. Because of the hilly streets, you get a great skyline view up to the Citadel on top of a plateau. It's probably the most photographed view in Amman. Anica liked it because we could climb all the way to the top of the steep stairs. And you could pose like a rock star on the "stage!"

I liked our greeting there, because we were greeted by a unique set of chai-wallahs (in India, or whatever they call tea-sellers here). These men roved about, with an apron and armour of teapots. In the pockets of the apron are sprigs of fresh mint. I don't usually have mint tea, but this was warm and wonderful. It was like a candy salad floating in the tea!

We took a quick look through two museums (keep tally, readers, because we're going to hit a grand total of five today) by the Amphitheatre, that had some of the "popular traditions" of dress, jewelry, etc. represented, we got in the car and drove up to the Citadel. By now the rain had picked up, joining forces with the temperature of not much more than zero.

The Citadel, despite the hardships, turned out to be amazing. There's a ruined temple of Hercules that was built 161- 80 BCE, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. From there, you can stand at a wonderful look-out point over most of old Amman. What caught my eye from there was the flagpole: it's the world's tallest freestanding flagpole, with a suitably huge Jordanian flag (although Rusha said today's flag was "the little one".).

Then we ducked into an unassuming museum building, glad for the shelter. It turned out to house unbelievable antiquities, like Dead Sea scrolls, the oldest known human-made statues (they're from at least 6,500 BCE). There are trepanned skulls from the city of Jericho, too, which of course caught Anica's fancy for gruesomeness.

Lunch was at another busy local restaurant, and then we had "knafa" at a street-corner stall. Most ate it standing up, and so did we. It was a delicious dessert. And, we probably never would have tried it if we weren't with our Jordanian hosts.

Off to the Children's Museum next! A beautiful, brand-new facility like a "science/discovery centre," which many cities have, but this one is really good. It brought out the kid in all of us, particularly the "blue-screen" studio where you pretend to give a weather forecast.

Next door is the Automotive Museum (and that makes five, right?). It's the collection of cars and motorcycles of the Jordanian Royal family over four generations. Wow! There's some rare cars there, like an electric car made in Detroit in 1907, a 1955 Aston-Martin (which Jenn and I both declared our personal favourite), Rolls-Royces, Cadillac convertible state cars, and some of the rally cars the King used. One of the notes said that "King Hussein won the first-ever rally held in Jordan." Well, duh! Who'd be brave enough to finish ahead of the king?

Jan 6

Jerash today, a huge site of Roman ruins. We made a scenic drive north from Amman, seeing more of the rolling countryside of Jordan. In the centre of modern Jerash is the Roman town. Being off-season, there were probably only a couple of dozen people in a space that's more than a kilometre in length, and half a kilometre across. We saw a re-creation show (think "Roman Times," a variation on Medieval Times) in the part of the Hippodrome left standing. They showed Legionnaire formations, chariot races, and gladiator fights. We gave the thumbs up for mercy at first, but then we turned bloodthirsty.

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Good form! "Roman Legionnaires" at the Jerash hippodrome show

The Forum is oval-shaped, and quite intact. It's a huge, paved area, and out of it leads for me what was the main attraction: the "cardo maximus," or main road. It's almost a kilometre long, and well-colonnaded. We walked along cobblestones that had ruts in them from Roman chariot wheels. We peered into the original Roman manholes. It's an impressive thoroughfare to this day, and it was easy to imagine how it looked in antiquity.

Once we got off the main road, there were many other areas to explore. We picked up bits of terracotta or carved stone (putting it right back where we got it, of course) because it was everywhere beneath our feet. With Anica, I played the game of "what's not from Roman times?"

Jerash also has a huge Temple of Artemis, which alone would be enough reason to visit, and a well-preserved Amphitheatre (where, bizarrely, Arab-costumed bagpipers demonstrated the acoustics). At the entrance to the site, we paused for a photo-op under Hadrian's Gate, so named because it was built for the Emperor Hadrian's stay in Jerash in 130 AD.

It's hard to imagine Roman ruins being any more extensive or evocative than what we saw today!

Jan 7

Well, despite how I concluded yesterday's entry, we were off to see the ruins of another Roman town, Umm Qays. I guess we're not "ruined" yet, because all four of us explored with gusto at this very different-looking site.

Partially, the appeal was the view. From the highest point of Umm Qays, which is at the extreme northern tip of Jordan, you look out over to the Sea of Gailee, and across a valley to the Golan Heights. In the distance are the mountains of Lebanon. It's a breathtaking view, but the frisson that the names produce heightens the enjoyment immensely.

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From Umm Qays, Jordan, looking north-west to Syria, Israel & the Sea of Gailee

For Biblical scholars, and pilgrims through the centuries, Umm Qays is better-known as Gedara, where Jesus performed the miracle of casting demons into pigs. I didn't notice any demon-swine descendants, though.

What we did see was the characteristic black basalt rock that the Romans built with. The Ottomans re-used a lot of it, as there's an 19th-century Ottoman village, already in ruins, where the same black basalt figures in every building. It gives the amphitheatre, the road, and many of the buildings quite a different appearance from Jerash yesterday. Anica and I took turns in the "stalls," or stores: "Hello olives! Yes?" I called out from the ancient stone cubicles.

We explored the baths, climbed over what's left of the fountains, and wandered way out into the fields. A highlight is a 5th-century Byzantine basilica, itself a ruin, built over a Roman crypt. You can see the crypt through the foundation of the church. It's a long way down, and very dark in the vaults!

As if further demonstration of the decline of Western civilization was needed, we had lunch by "tail-gating" out of the back of the Ford Explorer. It was actually very yummy, and somewhat comfortable (around 14 Celsius instead of yesterday's 3 degrees). There were more people playing soccer (sorry, football) in the parking lot than there were at the historical site, by the way.

We decided to take an alternate route back to Amman, for the scenery. Ha! First of all it got dark, secondly, that route involved a lot more check-points. Like a checkpoint every 200 mere. Some were in clear view of the last checkpoint, where the soldier could have seen us hand our passports over for checking. Although our Canadian passports were well-received, the Saudi license plate caused a little confusion. James knew the Arabic for "I work in Saudi Arabia," however. Perhaps some dangerous man climbed out of the Jordan Valley in between checkpoints, though! In all, we went through 10 checkpoints, and had our passports checked each time. Eight of those came in the first five kilometres of the drive back to Amman.

Jan 5

"A Roman Show and Museum"

(Anica)

Today we went to a Roman Thetare (or in the Roman times, known as a Roman Ampithetre). It was very nice, pretty, old and in ruins. After that we went and had a yummy lunch at the (recommended) Jerusalem Restaurant, of pita, lamb and french fries. Then we went to the Childrens museum and saw this pulley thing (with a seat where when you pulled on the rope and you would go up), this rowing machine with a skeleton that would move when you move, and there's to much more to say! We went to the Royal Autmobil mueseum, went home, had dinner. G.N. (Good Night) :)

Jan 6

"Jerash Day"

(Anica)

Today we went on a very long and exciting drive to Jerash. A Roman (ruined) city. Firt we saw a chariot show at this place called the Hippodrome. Very exicting! Then we saw some very old road, ruins, cathedrels, churchs, arcs, gates, thetres, plazas, homes and baths. Then we went on another exciting drive back, had dinner. G.N.

Jan 7

"Um Qays Day!"

(Anica)

Today we went to Um Qays, same thing as Jerash. We saw the old and ruined baths, markets, churh, colonaded courtyard, nymphaeum, and others. When me and Mom were playing I pushed her and she pushed me, I went whhheeew! BONK! She pushed me over! And I hurt my arm and leg! And on the way back there were at least 11 checkpoints all 150 metres away from each other! Went home, had dinner. G.N.

Lessons Learned - Rob

At just about the halfway point in a year of travelling, these thoughts have been taking shape in my mind. Lessons learned, as much about myself as about about the world. Lessons being learned, more accurately. We'll see how I feel after the second half of our travels wraps up.

1. Home really is where the heart is.

I haven't missed home, or really experienced homsickness to the degree that I know is possible. And we've been gone for more than five months now. So why not? Simple: Jenn and Anica are with me. We're together, and that makes every hotel room a home.

2. Don't take things for granted.

When you travel in the developing world, you see many, many people who have so very little. It makes you appreciate what you do have; it means you no longer take these things for granted. These sentiments are cliched, but I agree with them completely, except that "not taking things for granted" should not rule out complaining loudly at home when our rights and services are threatened. Canadians have an enormous tax burden, and, after travelling more widely, I see that it's worth it: the welfare of our citizens is safeguarded, our infrastructure is excellent, and we suffer a minimum of government corruption. If we start accepting less, we will get less, and only the extremely wealthy will ever enjoy a standard of living that Canadians once, to re-coin the phrase, took for granted.

3. They are "must-sees" for a reason.

There are many people, including a whole breed of travel writers, who will blithely advise you to skip certain world-famous sites, because they've become over-run with tourists. That's like Yogi Berra saying "nobody goes there any more; it's too busy." There's a reason people flock to these sites. This year, we've seen the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids. All of these places lived up to their reputations. They are still must-sees. You will always discover your own favourites lesser-known places. The people who tell you not to bother, Jenn likes to point out, have already been there. You deserve to see these places for yourself. So bring on the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

4. I am a teacher.

Despite not being overly homesick, I have thought a lot about teaching. I have even had many dreams about teaching, following the school calendar in my subconscious (back to school in September, report cards in November, holidays in December...). I don't miss the work, and I'm happy to do something different for a year, but this certainly confirms that "teacher" is a big part of how I define myself.

5. People are good.

When you're a tourist, 90% of the people you meet are trying to sell you something. That doesn't change just because you're travelling for longer than the typical two weeks. It just becomes more obvious. 9% of the people you encounter, however, are just friendly people, who welcome you to their city or country, who give you directions when you're lost, who tousle your daughter's hair just because they love kids, or who otherwise serve to reaffirm your faith in the goodness of human nature all around the world. It's only the remaining 1% who are actually trying to rip you off.

6. Wherever you go, Pringles was there first.

And Pizza Hut. And the Colonel, with his secret recipe. Westernization, in this consumer culture form, is far more widespread in Asia than I realized. In some ways, they do it better than us. Starbucks employees in China speak English well, and are eager for a chance to practice. In Singapore, we were welcomed across the threshold of a Ben and Jerry's by a uniformed employee gushing with pride. I don't know what the lesson is here; there are obvious advantages and disadvantages to the multi-national franchising of Western companies. Our only clear conclusion is: wherever you go, Pringles was there first.

7. English not Esperanto.

As English-as-first-language speakers, we are spoiled. It's embarassingly easy to travel around the world, and not learn anything of other languages. English is widely spoken, although spoken badly by millions. Often we're at a tremendous advantage in group conversation, where, say, a Swede is speaking with a Chinese person...in English, of course. We will get more out of that conversation than either one of them.

8. Thank God I'm a Country Boy.

I often describe myself as a city kid. I'm certainly not the outdoorsy type, and I love the big cities I've been to, such as Montreal, New York, London, and San Francisco. In Asia and India, however, the cities have not usually been highlights. Often, in the developing world, we've been glad to get out of the cities and into more rural settings. Why? Over-crowding, pollution, inadequate infrastructure, begging...they are intense reminders of the disparity that exists between rich and poor. In Malaysia, for example, I wouldn't trade a dozen Petronas Towers for one Pulau Pangor.

9. There's no subsitute for reading about it.

I've always been a big reader, although I haven't always had the travel bug. Reading's probably the one habit I could never break. In fact. both Jenn and I have gone out of our way to make sure we've always had "something to read" at all times on this trip. People who have travelled widely, even if they are avid readers, usually express the idea that there's "no subsitute for first-hand experience." That's true. But there's also no substitute for reading about a place. There's no way that, on any holiday, you could learn as much about a place as you could from a well-written, realistic novel. Of course, too, there's non-fiction: a few hours with a scholarly work of history will always give you more in-depth information than a tour guide. Reading and travel enrich and complement each other. Neither one can serve as a complete substitute for the other.

10. What you learn most about it is the art of travel itself.

More than the history, culture, people, or even the food, what you learn the most, and it all seems incidental until you're actually doing it, is the art of travel itself. It's never a science, because you'll always make mistakes, get lost, get frustrated, and lose things. But it's what you talk about at the end of the day. Every mistake is fodder for the stories you tell later. I guess that's another way of saying "it's the journey, not the destination."

Posted by jennrob 21:05 Archived in Jordan Comments (4)

Pharaohs and Feluccas

From Upper Egypt to the Red Sea Coast

sunny 22 °C

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Sunrise in Upper Egypt, Dec 27th

Dec 26-27 - "Aswan"

(Rob)

By 10:00 Boxing Day, we'd arrived in Aswan. It's a lovely city, whose main street runs along the Nile; our hotel is perched on a hill that overlooks it all. Like most of the people on our tour, we headed out for the main bazaar, a long pedestrian street of stalls running parallel to the Nile a couple of blocks inland. The haggling and the touts again seemed low-key/low-pressure. It might be us that's changed, but they're definitely not as pushy as some places in India or China. Here, too, they ask "what country?" and when we saw "Canada" nine times out of ten they say "Canada Dry!" Yet we haven't seen Canada Dry (ginger ale) for sale here anywhere. I told one guy he should say "hockey night in Canada!" when a customer tells him they're from Canada. Anyway, with a few words of Arabic, these Aswan hawkers graciously give up on hassling you.

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A stall in the relatively easy-going Aswan bazaar

The next morning came really early - a 3:00 AM wakeup call was set for those of us going on the optional excursion to Abu Simbel. Too early, and too gruelling for Anica (it was a six-hour round trip by bus), so Jenn stayed with her in Aswan. They went to the Nubian Museum, and relaxed poolside. Meanwhile, I saw the massive monuments by the shores of Lake Nasser. It's the man-made Lake, straddling the Sudanese border, which necessitated moving Abu Simbel out of harm's way.

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Rob at the foot of the Abu Simbel monuments

But the day was far from over! When we got back at 1 PM, everybody climbed onto a Felucca for a lunch-hour cruise of the Nile. Sprawled on cushiins, we ate koshary at the felucca meandered back and forth the Aswan stretch of the Nile. Then we stopped at a Nubian coffeehouse, and had a coffee that tasted strongly of the spices it contained, such as cloves. Meanwhile, the kids climbed up and down the huge sand dune behind the store. I climbed it once, and it had a great view of the Nile and Aswan across the river.

Dinner was on an island where there's a Nubian village of about 2,000 people. We ate at the home of "Omar," as our tour leader introduced him. It really was a home-made affair: dishes and bowls of food, such as chickenwings and kofta, spread out on carpets that covered a roof-top courtyard. Two meals today where I tried and failed, as always, to sit cross-legged! I'd need a few more Thai massages before I could achieve that. Meanwhile, the kids all had henna done on their hands and arms while we waited for dinner to be served.

Dec 28-30 - "Luxor"

(Rob)

Dec 28

Today we journed north (or downriver) through Upper Egypt, leaving Aswan and eventually arriving in Luxor. Along the way we stopped at two impressive temples, Kom Obo and Edfu. Kom Ombo was memorable for its mummified crocodiles, and also for its Greco-Roman appearance, the first we'd seen of that up close.

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Kom Obo temple

Edfu was huge, and very well-preserved. It wasn't finished until 55 BC. We walked through all its chapels, and looked along the relief carvings to find the evil god Seth, depicted as a hippo (or pig?) being vanquished. Anica enjoyed the way Jacki told the stories of the Egyptian gods on the bus before we visited Edfu.

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Anica at the Edfu temple entrance

The kids passed the time before that on the bus by using their Nintendo DS to chat, draw, and play multiplayer games.

Eventually we arrived at Luxor, at our hotel, The Winter Palace. Except it wasn't our hotel. We all traipsed through the lobby of this gorgeous old hotel, saying, wow, this is way nicer than our other hotels. To Jacki's embarrassment, we were in the wrong lobby! We were staying at the new wing of the Winter Palace. Also nice, but subtract a couple of stars. We did get the last laugh, however, because all the grounds and amenities are shared. We went right out to the pool that afternoon. The air temperature had peaked at 23, but the pool was 26, so we were able to enjoy a swim until the sun fell below the line of palm trees. Our rooms are all "Niile-View," which means we look out over the river and the hills behind that, where the ancient tombs are.

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Our view of the Nile in Luxor

Luxor is the home of the Valley of the Kings, but I have another honour to bestow upon it: worst city in the world for my allergies. There is smog, but what really makes it bad are all the horses. There are hundreds of "caleches" operated here. These horse-drawn carriages seem to fill the air with horsy allergens, triggering (no Roy Rogers pun intended) my asthma. So I'm dosed up here.

Dec 29

Jenn's developed a bad migraine today. She didn't make it much breakfast, which meant missing the enormous Karnak temple visit. Anica also lost her purse today (with her camera inside), and my allergy/asthma combo was acting up again, especially after our horse-and-carriage ride to the temple. So we all had our own reasons to be miserable.

Nonetheless (another Mrs. Lincoln moment), Anica and I found Karnak astounding. It has the tallest obelisks in Egypt, the tallest front gate, it's the largest overall temple complex, and it's the one all the pharoahs of the New Kingdom helped build in turn. There's a statue of King Tut and his wife, a man-made lake, a fallen obelisk, paint colours still visible on outdoor columns, and many more wonders spread over 65 acres. The Hippsotyle hall alone has 134 columns, each several feet around. Everywhere the motif of "two kingdoms" is seen: papyrus decor for Lower Egypt, and lilly for Upper Egypt.

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Karnak temple, as seen from the back of the complex

Later, for dinner, we went to "The Oasis Cafe" as a group, except for poor Jenn. It serves really good Western and Egyptian food in an colonial-era mansion, where the three dining rooms are each a different colour: red, green, gold. Anica got to talk Harry Potter with tour leader Jacki. We intend to bring Jenn back here tomorrow, it was so good; it even had the impossible-to-get bacon to go on the hamburgers!

Dec 30

Jenn was back in action today, though woozy, for our trip out to the Valley of the Kings. She opted not to take the 45-minute donkey ride to get there. The rest of us did, and enjoyed it immensely (although, all the adults were walking like bow-legged cowboys when they got off the donkeys). I rode with Anica, and on the way we passed through little villages, fields of sugarcane being cut, and children in their school uniforms heading off to school. Our donkey seemed to find his way by burying his nose in the butt of the donkey in front of us, which was somewhat disconcerting. Although we were given instructions on the Arabic commands to use, I don't think we had much influence over our donkey. Luckily, it was a calm animal.

The barren hills that form the Valley of the Kings got larger and larger, until we turned a corner and entered the actual valley. The ancient Egyptians chose this valley because a natural, pyramid-shaped rock structure looms over it. It's also on the West side of the Nile (i.e. where the sun sets, perfect for a city of the dead). We went in four tombs. Each had distinct hieroglyphics and paintings inside. Of course, the highlight was King Tut's tomb, despite being the smallest one we saw, because his mummy and sarcophagus are there.

We rode the donkeys to a restaurant for lunch, passing by the twin collosi of Memmon, all that remains of an ancient temple destroyed by earthquakes.

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Donkey-cam! This photo was taken from the back of a donkey during our ride through the Valley of the Kings

Dec 31-Jan 2 - "El Gouna"

Dec 31

New Year's Eve! Our tour leader Jacki said we drove "out of Egypt today, culturally." We are now at the Red Sea resort community of El Gouna, which has no history, and bears no resemblance to the Islamic culture of present-day Egypt. It could be anywhere in the world, really. Their brochure claims that , here, it's " a piece of the dream; a dream where the sun always shines, the water is true torquoise, where the children are always safely entertained and everyone wears a smile" How very Stepford-like! It's a pretty resort, however, built around a series of lagoons, just inland from the Red Sea. The community planning is probably an attempt to correct the ugly over-development of nearby Hurghada, the first resort-town in this area.

Our El Gouna hotel is called the Arena Inn, and has an infinity pool perched over the lagoon. There's also a little playground, much to Anica's delight. She and some of the kids started playing there as soon as we arrived.

Down the street there's a shopping arcade, with many quaint restaurants and boutiques. We had a light lunch at a Lebanese-food restaurant, which was very good.

Soon it was party time. Through our hotel, the whole group went out to a ball at a huge banquet centre. It was cheesy, but fun, especially since everyone in our tour group gets along so well. We had two tables: 10 kids, 10 adults, plus Jacki floating between both tables. Jacki gave all the kids a special gift: t-shirts, each in their favourite colour, with their name spelled out in hieroglyphs on the front, and on the back "Pharoahs and Feluccas, Egypt 2007-2008, Tour Leader - Jacki." There were party favours on the table, there was an Elvis/Las Vegas theme to the evening (including a pretty unconvincing Elvis impersonator), a dance-floor (which the kids made more use of than the adults), and a huge buffet of quite good quality.

When we counted down to midnight, all five families did their best Cinderella impression and made a hasty retreat on the first shuttle back to the hotel. It was actually quite funny that we all had the same idea in mind.

It's hard to believe it's 2008. From July 29th of 2007, we've been away from home. So sometimes my mind plays tricks on me and I think that time isn't passing back home, that it's still the beginning of August!

Jan 1

A typically quiet New Year's Day. Anica and Tim, however, had seen this Go-Kart track just down the street, and before I knew it, everybody had decided to go go-karting! You never know what the day might bring, I guess.

Since Anica (and it was the same with two other kids) wasn't tall enough to reach the pedals, she sat on my lap and steered, while I worked the gas and brake. That meant she wore a helmet, and I didn't. No seat belt either. So we didn't go too fast!

My cold/asthma's not getting better, despite leaving the horses of Luxor behind, so I took a nap in the afternoon, while Anica wrote her diary and read Harry Potter and Jenn used the wireless.

The whole group went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant tonight. It was very good, but it took forever for them to serve the food.

Jan 2-4

My first sick day of the trip! After a horrible night's feverish sleep, I've stayed at the hotel and missed out on the Red Sea snorkelling trip. I'd been looking forward to it literally for months, but with my asthma still giving me trouble, too, I couldn't fathom (no pun intended) the thought of a full day's snorkelling and boating. I hope Jenn and Anica are having a good time! This will be Anica's first time snorkelling.

  • **

When they got back later, I was almost glad I missed the trip. Especially since the fever vanished, and I'm getting the asthma under control. Apparently it was so cold on the boat that most of the adults didn't go in the water, because they were using their beach towels as blankets! But the Red Sea was warm, and Anica got to experience snorkelling. She had no trouble with the breathing, and, wearing a life jacket, along with flippers, explored the reef for quite a while. Anica made this the drawing on her trip evaluation form where it said "draw the most memorable moment on your tour."

Most of the last full day was the bus ride back to Cairo. Again I was struck by the "armed convoy" aspect of our travel. When we make a rest-stop, soldiers with machine guns fan out to form a perimeter, their backs to us, peering out at the desert. Meanwhile, we lazily stretch our legs, the children run around, and we pay one Egyptian pound to use the toilets. It's surreal.

  • **

We're the first family to leave the tour, with a taxi waiting to take us to the Cairo airport at 9:00 AM, January 4th. Everyone gathers for a group photo, and there are hugs goodbye.

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Parting Shot: our tour group while in Egypt gather by the pool at our Cairo hotel

It's been a great group of families to travel with. Two of the families were going to be moving on to an Imaginative Traveller tour in Kenya, but that's been cancelled as of yesterday due to the unrest there. Now they're scrambling to get on the Thailand tour starting tomorrow.

As we head to the airport, our friendly taxi-driver pulls over and treats us to fresh sugarcane drinks. A lovely gesture, although they're made with regular tap water. We decline for Anica, but drink ours down. Luckily, our stomaches proved strong enough. And they were delicious! The driver asked Anica if she was married! "My son is six," he said. "I will give you a hundred camels!" he joked. Anica said, "No!" See, she's learned to haggle. Hold out for three hundred is my fatherly advice.

Dec 26

(Anica)

Today we got the Basma Hotel in Aswan. A very nice 3-star hotel (acrodding to us) with a pool and fairly nice rooms. Then we alked down to a bazzar where everybody hassled you (the funny thing we thought when they said come into my shop, no hassle, aren't they already hassling?) We bought 2 bracelets, 1 necklace, choco bar and coke, took a horse-and-carigge home, had dinner. G.N.

Dec 27

(Anica)

"Abu Simbel or Nubia Museum?"

Today Dad got up at 3:00 to go to Abu Simbel. Me and Mom went to the Nubia Museum. A beautfiull musem with lots of shoes, descriptions and models. After the musem, I played with Mom, read a book.

Then when Dad came, we went on a Felluca (a sort of sail boat in Egypt) and had a lovely lunch of Koshary, bread and bananas. Koshary is a meal of chick peas, lentils, fried onions, tomato sauce, and pasta. Then we got off at this Nubian coffe shop (for Dad at lest, snicker snicker) and so the kids could go up the 100 feet high sand dune to the top(!) When you walked up it was so hard. But when you ran down, o-my-gosh, you couldn't stop yourself from running so fast!!! We went to the Nubian village, and had a lovely dinner of Chicken wings (out of sight!) and lots more food!! Went home G.N.

Dec 28

(Anica)

Went on a five-hour drive encluding sighseeing. Kom Ombo temple and Edfu temple. When we got to Luxor we went in the heated pool! g.n.

Dec 29

(Anica)

Today we went to the Karnak Temple at noon. On the way, Jacki said here's the jellawrey shop we're going into. At the shop, (little) Jacqui bought a bracelet with her name on it, and I bought a book. Then we rode a horse-and-carrige to the Temple. Here is some history from my book: The temple complex of Karnak is the largest of its kind in Egypt. Virtually every pharoah from the Middle Kingdom down to the time of the Romans (approx. 2134 to 31 BC) cotributed to the building work. It consits of a large number of individual temples, such as the Great Temple of Amun, the Temple of the God Khons and the Teple of the Goddess Mut. THERE IS TO MUCH MORE TO SAY! Then we went home and I said, where's my purse?! I HAD LOST IT!!! And, it had my camera (!), my sungllases, my hat and ten Egyptian pounds! Went to dinner, went home, G.N.

Dec 30

(Anica)

New Year's is in one day!

Today we got up still no sign of my purse (sigh). We meet the group and Jacki and started walking over to the boat dock. We found our donkeys and got on them. Almost half an hour later I said (because our donkey kept on sniffing Doug's donkey) let call him Donny Bumsniffer (hee hee). When we got to the Valley of the Kings, Mom was already there (she took the van). The first tomb we saw was Ramses the 9th. No sarcopaguus! Next we saw one deticated to Ramses III. Sarcophagus. But, no mummy. Then we went to the tomb of King Tutankaman. SARCOPHAGUS AND MUMMY!!! Then we got back on a donkey, had lunch, went home, had dinner. G.N.

Dec 31

(Anica)

Today when we got to El Gouna, all we did was rest, watch TV, sleep and eat before going to the New Year's Eve party. We stayed up all night dancing, singing, and playing with balloons and stuff. When it was New Year's they let down all the balloons! G.N. P.s. Jacki gave us t-shirts for presents.

Jan 1

"Go Cart and Thai Food Day"

(Anica)

Today after breakfast we went Go-Carting! Very fun. Then we went home and had dinner at the White Elephant Thai restaurant. G.N.

Jan 2

"Snorkling"

(Anica)

Today we went snorkeling! Only some people. We saw many fish and coral. Dad diden't come (sick). After that we went home and met Dad and had a yummy dinner at Nathan's of chicken nuggets, burgers and fries. Then we and Jacqui went on pictochat (a chatting thing on Nintendo). G.N.

Posted by jennrob 05:31 Archived in Egypt Comments (3)

Two Kinds of Tours

Our Days in the Cairo Area

sunny 18 °C

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Dec 22-25

"Cairo"

(Rob)

Getting to Cairo from Mumbai, about seven hours total flying, was a grueling 24 hour process. The main feature of this trip was a nine-hour layover in Abu Dhabi from midnight until morning. It's not that big or interesting an airport, but it was open all night. More importantly, a comfortable lounge in the transit hotel was open (for a fee of $46 U.S.). So we got free buffet, drinks and wireless internet and couches for sleeping. By the time we had a real night's sleep in Cairo, I'd had nine meals. Jenn and Anica said no to a few of these opportunities, like on the plane, which turned out to be wise. Anica got airsick just before we landed, from a combination of turbulence and being queasy from being overtired.

Our first impressions of Cairo were: it's so clean, it's so spacious, it's so pretty! Well, we had just spent two months in India. There's nothing we saw in India like the grand, spotlessly litter-free bouvelards that lead from Cairo's airport. And, when we did see more of the hectic jumble of Cairo and Giza, it still seemed so different from India that we felt reinvigorated and ready to explore this unique nation and its cultures.

There's nothing better than being shown around by the local residents, and, for our first two days in Cairo, that's exactly what happened. It was the tour-before-the-tour, as we met the son and daughter of Jenn's Dad's co-worker (got that?), who live in Cairo. Jenn's Dad works in Saudi Arabia, and although we'd never met Taha, let alone his children, they graciously arranged to meet us...and treat us! Salma and Kareem took us for dinner on our first night at an Egyptian restaurant along the popular strip called "El Mohandeseen."

We had, among the other kebabs and spreads, our first-ever pigeon. It was stuffed with rice and served whole (except the head), with crispy skin. After a lot of food, we walked it off a little along Mohandeseen before stopping at an extremely popular hangout that served fresh fruit drinks (kind of like a smoothy with fresh fruit on top). We also sampled some of the bulk nuts and seeds for sale (and got a few paper flutes full of these to take away). We were simply not allowed to pay for a cent of this ourselves. Before helping us get a taxi (much cheaper than the hotel's car), we saw the apartment block where Salma and Kareem live and which their grandfather began building when he first came to Cairo.

The next morning (my birthday, incidentally) we met Salma outside the Coptic Museum. She chose it as one of the most interesting sites to see that we wouldn't get to on our Imaginative Traveller tour. Good choice! The museum itself is beautiful, with painted carved wooden ceilings, stained glass, Islamic-style wooden screen windows, and palmed-treed courtyards. The early Coptic Christian finds show how the Ankh was linked to the Cross, and Isis was likened to Mary. There's a painted niche that, surprisingly, shows Mary breast-feeding Jesus (who of course looks like a tiny adult). Most amazing to me was the collection of books from the Nag Hammadi library. Found in the 20th century, they include Gnostic gospels, and a Gospel of Thomas from the 4th or 5th century. The leather covers are even intact.

The Coptic Museum part of a larger complex, closed to most traffic, where we got to see six churches and one synagogue. One church is called "The Hanging Church" because its foundation is a Roman-era Tower, cut away at one end. There's also a monastery dedicated to St. George, St. Sergius Church, St. Barbara Church, and a nunnery.

From this district, we got on the subway with Salma. The Cairo Metro sets aside the first two cars for women only, and the rest are mixed. We got on the mixed so I wouldn't be alone. We went for lunch and had kushary, a delicious dish of pasta, beans, chick peas, and dried onions, which you then mix up all together in a bowl and pour tomato sauce over. There's also a spicier red sauce, which Jenn and I used. For dessert, we went to a corner place that served "sopia," a coconut pudding sprinkled with cinnamon. That was more of a hit for Anica than the kushary. Both places were extremely popular, and we were the only tourists there.

Finally, Salma took us on a walk through a traditional Cairo neighborhood in the Islamic quarter (judging from all the mosques), and we went in one. I had to go in on the men's side, so I wandered through the mosque alone, in my sock-feet of course.

On December 24th, our tour began. The previous evening we had met everyone. There are lots of kids Anica's age, which is nice. There are three families from Australia, and one family from England, and us, totalling twenty people. Our tour leader, Jackie, is Canadian, and her husband is Egyptian, also a tour leader with Imaginative Traveller. So, in a sense, Jackie has local knowledge, like Manu did in India.

The first stop was the Citadel, and the Mosque of Mohammad Ali (not the boxer, but the 19th century Egyptian nationalist), which is modelled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

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The Mosque of Mohammad Ali, The Citadel, Cairo

Also, from the top of the Citadel there is a great panoramic view of Cairo. I was a little surprised at how the local guide, Aladdin, gave everyone a long lecture about Islam, as we sat on the carpeted but still cold floor of the Mosque. Actually I was a little surprised that we all could just go in together, males and females, and that the only visitors seemed to be tourists, because that's completely different from the mosque we visited yesterday.

Next we went to the Egyptian Museum, after a forgettable falafel sandwich lunch in a touristy market area. The contents of the Egyptian Museum are embarassingly good. It would be even more mind-blowing if it weren't so amateurishly displayed. Almost all the King Tut objects are there, for instance, only the identical pieces are loaned out to other museums. We saw the famous golden death mask, the four shrines that fit inside each other like Russian dolls to hold Tut's sarcophagus, and many, many other objects. The real highlight, however is the Mummies room. This holds only royal mummies, and you can get up really close to them (right across the glass, which has no alarm or perimeter). I was nose to nose with Ramses II, the great pharoah who ruled Egypt for 67 years, for example. Another favourite of mine was the Narmer Palette, on the first floor, which illustrates how Narmer (King Menes, the first dynasty) unified Upper and Lower Egypt. Here is recorded history on display from 3100 BC (more than 5,000 years ago)!

Christmas Day was even better. Importantly, Santa Claus found Anica in Egypt and filled her stocking, and left a couple of gifts as well. Although it was less than other years, Anica was thrilled, because Santa knows we've been travelling light, so he brought more than she had even hoped for.

Then, it was off to the Great Pyramids of Giza. We'd seen them, driving by, several times. Mere glimpses really. As we got closer and closer, their enormity is revealed. It's not the height, but the fact that each stone block is taller than a person, and weighs at least two tons. All 12 million blocks. And for me, as a historian, it's their age. Built more than 4,500 years ago, the only wonder of the ancient world still standing. At the base of the biggest pyramid is one of the white marble slabs that was once the facing stone for all three pyramids. They must have been dazzlingly white in ancient times. Leaning back against that block also showed us how steep the angle really is. You can still climb up a little bit of the pyramid, but for our tour group, a special treat was climbing down into one of the three little pyramids.

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Anica, back in daylight, after a trip down into one of the queen's pyramids at Giza

From a panoramic viewpoint some distance south of the pyramids, we had a camel ride to the other side, close to the Sphinx. The Sphinx, too, was impressive. Everybody says it's small, but that shows a poor understanding of this enormous figure carved directly from the quarry. Having this great experience, everybody soon forgot it was Christmas morning. The visit was very enjoyable, too, because the crowds were small, and the hawkers were very low-key, not interrupting us hardly at all.

In the afternoon, after a group lunch out, and a visit to a papyrus institute, Anica got to play with the other kids at the hotel's playground for a couple of hours. She was already making friends with a nine year old girl named Jacqui, and they were sitting together on the bus, but this free time to play really helped the kids get to know each other. This first hotel, the Oasis Hotel, has been excellent, despite being in the middle of nowhere (just like a real oasis!), and despite the fact that the weather's too cold for swimming (it's peaked at about 16 during the day, but it's closer to zero at night - this is the first time in five months we've needed to layer our clothing).

Christmas night, it was dinner on the train. Not exactly a Christmas dinner feast! In fact, since the cabins are for two people, I bunked with Wayne, the dad in another family of three. We were on our way overnight to Aswan, a thousand kilometres south of Cairo. I ranked the Egyptian train as nicer than India and Vietnam, but not as nice as China. Our Egyptian train, however, is a special train for tourists. We have armed guards. We will also travel in convoys of buses as we make our way north, also with armed escorts. Egypt takes no chances with its tourists.

"Pyramid Time!!!"

(Anica)

Dec 22

We arrived in or at Cairo Internatinal Airport from Abu Dhabi at about 12:00. And we were very surprised when our driver from Imaginative Traveller meet us before Custems! So when we got to the Oasis hotel (a very nice 4 star hotel) we checked in, saw the playground (!) and swimming pool and finally arrived at our room. A beautifull room with two separate beds (they were going to add an extra one), tv, preatty nice washroom and a desk. We spent most of the day playing and resting before going out to see Salma and Kareem. We had a lovely Egyptian dinner which encluded Chicken cream soup for Mommy and Daddy and tomato soup for Salma and Kareem, Pita and 5 different kinds of sauces, pigeon stuffed with lightly seasoned rice and french fries and all diffrent types of kebab meat. Then they took us to a drink place and bought us sdink that had mango, strawberry and bana juice. g.n.

Dec 23

We got a taxi to the Coptic musem were we met Salma, and saw lots of Egyptian stuf, then went to 7 churches, 1 Islamic, 1 Jewish, all the rest Christen. Then she took us to lunch where we had a dish with pasta, chickpea, lentils, rice and dried onion. Then we went t this sweet place where we had cocunut pudding. Then went inside a mousqe, said goodbye to Salma, took a taxi back and had dinner, mett out tour leader Jackie. G.N.

"Christmas and Camel"

Dec. 24

We had just arrived at a citadel in Cairo and we already had to take out shoes off. We had a very long talk with our local tour guide Aladdin about the religen, Islam. I also knew the story about Abraham! After that we took a little drive to a bazzar, where we tried to find an ATM, but no luck! So for lunch we had fallafel sandwhices with Aladdin, a girl named Jacqui, Tim, Lockie, Melanie, Phil, Wayne, Alce, Rachel and Rhiannon. When we were having lunch this man walked over to Alice, shaked her hand and kissed it!? Then we went to the Egyptian museum, drove home, had dinner. G.N.

Dec. 25

C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S-!-!-!

Today we got up and saw presants! What I got for Christmas was in my stocking: airplane, English dictionary, 2 strawberry shortcake figures, chocolates, a big bag of mixed candy, scrabble cards, and a Polly Pockets car. And the big present was a BARBIE FASHION FEVER! which came with clothes, jelarey and shoes. From Mommy and Daddy, Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince, a digital watch (!), a mouse, etc. P.S. Santa also gave me a duck too.

We arrived at the entrance to the Giza Pyramids at about 10:00 and Jackie got us tickets and entered! First, me, little Jacqui, Lockie and Tim climbed up some of the rocks on the pyramid, before the Tourist Police came along.

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Not busted yet! Anica and some of the kids scamper up the north face of the Great Pyramid

Then we went into one of the little Queen's Pyramids, where you had to go down really steep steps. Then we went on a CAMEL!!! (very fun)! Then we went to see the Cat-King-Tut-like Sphinx (neat-o-rama). Then we had a yummy lunch of pita and sauces, falafel, chicken, french fries and pudding. Then we went to the papyrus institute, went home, played, had dinner (on the train)! G.N.

Posted by jennrob 22:25 Archived in Egypt Comments (5)

Mumbai: Last Stop in India

Conclusions after two months?

sunny 32 °C

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Anica looks out over the bay from the Marine Drive boardwalk, near Nariman Point

Dec 18-21

(Rob)

Mumbai was our last stop in India, and we were anxious to get some errands done (buy warmer clothes and Christmas shop for Anica) and then move on smoothly to Egypt, so we weren't expecting to get much out of time there. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Mumbai did not inspire us to wish we had more time in it. Mostly, it's filthly. Nowhere else we've been in India, not even Agra or Delhi, has the dirt and the poverty so evident. From right outside the airport, Mumbai has pockets of squatters' shantytowns wherever there's space available. Some look semi-permanent, while others are just a spot on a sidewalk. Two whole families lived on the sidealk across from our hotel, the boy (perhaps three) had no pants. And they weren't beggars; they just didn't have employment enough to afford somewhere to live.

Some children, and adults, sell Santa hats this time of year. There was an article in a local newspaper explaining how they have no idea who Santa Claus is, just that they will be able to sell these hats in December. One child was asked why he wasn't in school. He said, "if I'm sitting in school, who will earn for me?"

It's surprising, then, that the hotels don't hide the newspapers from their foreign guests, considering what stories get printed. We got not one, but three newspapers delivered for free to our door each morning. We read about the goats in Mumbai (and we'd seen them, in a city of eight million people, there are few good places to stable a cow or goat) that were brought to the city to be ritually slaughtered for the Muslim feast, but then got so sick, they weren't healthy enough to be killed. So the vet hospitals are filled with goat!.

And there was the story about a rapidly-growing city near Mumbai that now has 33, 000 millionaire residents. A staggering 15% of the population of that town are millionaires! That's where they're hiding, we thought. There is wealth in Mumbai itself, too: a non-descript Nariman Point's penthouse recently fetched a record price of over 30 million dollars.

At the same time, however, the largest shopping mall in India, Crossroads, has just shut down. That made our Christmas shopping more difficult. But we found some good areas to do our shopping, with department stores and bazaars.

Yes, the hotel. This was another trip back in time to the 1950s. There was an elevator operator, for instance. The "Chateau Windsor," near the Churchgate Railway station, was actually a pretty good place to stay, but seemed so overpriced at $90 a night. That's Mumbai, I guess, compared to the prices we'd enjoyed in Kerala. In the neighborhood of Churchgate, there was a nice grocery store, a bakery (called Gaylord's), a pizzeria (called Pizzeria), and a couple of English-language bookstores (an "Oxford", and "The Strand"). So we did find some familiar big-city conveniences, but not an abundance of them.

Just down the street there was a huge, Art-Deco movie-bouse called The Eros. We managed to see "Jab Me Met" (the title is an example of Hinglish) on the last night of its seven-week run in this cavernous theatre. It was understandable enough and quite entertaining, our second-favourite Bollywood film on this trip (Om Shanti Om is still #1!). Also, on the day we left, we killed time by seeing "Bee Movie" in a shopping mall's multiplex. I think it just opened this week here. "Bee Movie" had an interval (intermission) even though it was far shorter than the typical three-hour Bollywood movie. At both films, we all stood for the Indian national anthem. Our waiter today said he'd interviewed with Farimont to work in Canada..."somewhere that starts with s," he said. For us, it's not home to Canada yet (nope, not even halfway done yet), but on to Egypt.

Dec 18

(Anica)

Title: "Eeeeew! Indian cities! Grrrooosss! Beggars, hockers, what else? Even just after five hours, we wanted to go to Cairo"

We had just arrived at Mumbai International airport when we were flying from Kovalam in India! (Because for some - weird - reason Air India wants you at International departures in Kovalam and Mumbai international for landing!) So we got an ordinary taxi (for them at least) and said "Windsor hotel, please?" "Yes." But what could happen next? So when we were about there I said Mommy we just passed a Pizzeria and according to these (guidebook) pages that's on the street our hotel's on! And..before we knew it we were in Colaba! But when we finally got to our hotel (45 minutes later) and got out and walked away our driver was probably thinking (by the look on his face) "why didn't I get a tip?" So we checked in and walked down to our room since reciption was on the fifth floor and our room on 2nd floor. Beatiful room, one bed, sitting area, tv, desk, fridge, hot water, and clean! (too). So we went to the Pizzeria and had a lovely lunch of garlic cheese bread for me and pizza for Mommy and Daddy, walked around, looked in shops, had dinner, Good Night.

Posted by jennrob 08:08 Archived in India Comments (5)

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