Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Egypt: A Journey as interesting as the Destination

Sometimes we’ve found the journey is every bit as interesting as the destination. That was certainly our experience during our introduction to Egypt . . .

Early morning arrivals had become the norm on that Magic Carpet Ride of a cruise we took from Bangkok through the Middle East to Istanbul last spring. As we approached Port Safaga, (Bur Safaga) an Egyptian port on the Red Sea, the early morning sun was illuminating the mountains surrounding it.

Port Safaga, Egypt
Mountains? In Egypt?  Those towering tan peaks were just the first of many things about Egypt that blew away many of my pre-conceived notions. Silly me, I thought Egypt was a flat, dry, sun-baked stretch of endless sand.

Port Safaga, Egypt

Unlike the working port where our Oceania Nautica would be docked next to local ferries for two days, Safaga, the resort town some 37 miles away, hosts snorkelers and divers drawn here from around the world for its stunning reefs and fish. In 1993 it was the site of the World Windsurfing Championships. Silly me, did I know that tourism promotions had billed the Red Sea here as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Underwater World”?

P1000995Cruise ships stop at this working Port Safaga because its location, about 230 kilometers or 143 miles, away from Luxor, the city built on the site of the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. It is the gateway to that treasure trove of antiquities.

Frankly we find these working ports, teeming with frieghters, commerce, ferries and everyday life far more interesting than the beautifully landscaped cruise ship ports. But we didn’t have a lot of time to watch port activities because. . .

. . .we’d opted to visit Luxor on one of the ship-sponsored ‘big bus’ tours. We were new to Egypt and weren’t quite ready then to explore it on our own, as we recently did on our visit to Cairo. It wasn’t so much security concerns - and there are security considerations when traveling in Egypt - it was more a question of acquainting ourselves with the country in a short amount of time.

 (BTW, thanks to the world’s geopolitical situation, it could be said their are security concerns in going to your own local grocery store these days, so it isn’t fair to single out Egypt.)

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Caravan loads and departs
Safety and security were taken seriously by ship’s staff. We were told we would travel in a caravan of buses, with an armed escort vehicle in the lead. And that the front two seats in each bus would be reserved for the armed escorts (actually, we didn’t have any in our bus, but others did report having them). In reality, our ‘caravan’ lasted until we hit the open road when the drivers took delight in passing each other and setting out on their own.

We didn’t have a sense of caravan on our return trip to the ship. However, the local tour guide assigned to our bus had us back aboard and out of Luxor by 6 p.m. because after that time vehicles weren’t allowed to leave the city and travel the route we were taking back to the ship.

The Journey to Luxor

So off we headed for Luxor on a near three-hour journey each direction; a journey that we quickly realized was as interesting as is the destination!

En route to Luxor
I have no idea what this sign says, but I can tell you that it was the first I saw as we left the city and I read it as, “Whoa! We aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!”

Vast long stretches of sand, helped keep my preconceived notions about the country alive, but still the topography was more varied than I had expected.

One of many guard stations in Egypt
Elevated check points stations randomly appearing along the route were reminders of heightened security. Armed officers were visible inside most and the height of the bus put us almost at eye level -  even this shutterbug wasn’t going to aim and shoot at them – I waited until I saw an empty window.

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Views from the bus - every day people. . . doing everyday things
The best part of this journey was the chance to see ordinary people going about their everyday lives.  Viewing this unscripted spontenity of life makes up some of our favorite travel experiences. As we came to towns we could see the families tending their small herds, and the workers creating roadways and lining canals. We pondered how hot the woman dressed from head to toe in black must be considering the temperature was in the high 90’s F.

On the way to Luxor

As we neared the Nile River, the life giving impact of is tributaries was evident in the greening of the landscape - trees and agricultural fields lined our route.  This portion of the trip by far was the most fun because we had such an unexpected welcome:

An enthusiastic welcome to Egypt
Children along side the road greeted our parade of buses as if they were carrying rock stars. Waves, shouts and smiles. . .

And another group of enthusiastic greeters. . .
. . .this group jumped, shouted and high-fived each other when they made eye contact with those of us on the bus. . .

We'd reached agricultural land en route to Luxor
Irrigated fields stretched for miles along our route, giving us a glimpse of this agricultural part of the country.

Man and beast

Moving the crop
Everyday scenes creating long lasting memories. . .

Waiting to cross the road. . .
How could Luxor’s antiquities possibly top these scenes? In our next post we’ll focus on what we found in Luxor. . .  That’s it for this week. Thanks for the time you’ve spent with us. Happy and safe travels to you and your family ~

Linking this week:

Mosaic Monday – 
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday – 
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Oh Man! It’s Oman!

“This wasn’t a strange place,
it was a new one.”
--Paolo Coehlo

So it could be said of the Middle East. 

The Middle East: headlines volley terrorism vs. tourism. To visit or not to visit? We chose to go. Our cruise ship's itinerary sliced through this fascinating part of the world making stops at such far-away places that some we had to look up on maps before our departure. . .

As the ship arrived in Salalah, Sultanate of Oman on the 20th day of our cruise aboard Oceania’s Nautica, the already intense sun was uncomfortably hot. It wasn’t yet 8 a.m.

Beyond the port, a sand-covered landscape stretched as far as we could see. With a pounding sun and outstretched vistas of sand – yes, we’d arrived in the Middle East. No doubt about it.

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Port of Salalah, Sultanate of Oman

But even Ol’ Man Sun wasn’t going to drive us from the railing as we eased into our berth tucked into the industrial port of this, the second largest city in the Sultanate.  We’d glided past enormous freighters and tied up next to a most interesting commercial ship.

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We were in the Middle East - no doubt about it
Âs the photo of our navigational map above shows, we’d arrived in the Sultanate of Oman, a country on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders the United Arab Emirates in the northwest, Saudi Arabia in the west, and Yemen (yes, the one that war planes have been bombing since right before our cruise began) in the southwest. Salala was very close to the border between the two countries.

YangontoSafaga2015 402We’d not done much research prior to the cruise about this port of call (other than to find it on a map) and many on the ship who’d sailed in the area before said they preferred the Sultanate’s capital city of Muscat to Salalah.

However, it was our portal - our introduction - to the Middle East portion of this 34-day cruise from Bangkok, Thailand to Istanbul, Turkey. It was a sun-baked memorable one.

I wrote earlier of heat along our route that ‘melted makeup’; the heat here wilted humans. So intense was the sun that it whitewashed the scenes – it felt as if you were looking at life-sized faded photographs. It hurt, literally hurt, the skin to stand or pause in the direct sun. As we explored the town, our steps were measured and slow, we’d drank bottles of water that we’d brought with us from the ship.

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A stark landscape greeted us in Salalah, Sultanate of Oman
While it may not have been a favorite stop, it will likely  be one of those places we remember for a long time as being such a stark, different world from the one we know.

“Except for those who travel to remote Middle East locales, the country has seldom been in the public eye other than for the use of its military bases by U.S. forces in recent years. American and British bombing raids were launched in 1991 from Oman against Iraq in the Gulf War. A decade later, U.S. forces stationed there were involved in raids against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden.”
                                                                                           -----from omansultanate.com/history.htm

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Bowls of frankincense for sale in the Salalah Souk
Along with another couple from the ship, we negotiated the price of a cab into the city and set off on our own to explore the town’s souk, (market area), where smoke from burning frankincense – sold, it seemed, by every vendor – blanketed us in an intoxicating  haze.

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Kummahs added color in the Souk
Vendors offered scarves, shoe repair, incense,  Khanjar knives, which look like curved daggers and are worn with ceremonial dress.   Islamic skull caps, kummahs, worn by men in Oman are distinctive for their colorful embroidery which made for colorful displays. 

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A cat in Salalah' Souk
The poor, bedraggled cat pictured above ventured out into one of the souk’s walkways as we approached. (Forlorn cats are drawn to us cat lovers – no matter where we are in the world.)  I had just taken this photo when one of the vendors kicked this forlorn little creature – more than once – to get it away.  I might add it took all the restraint I could muster not to cause a cultural clash right there and then!

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Our taxi driver at the Mosque in Salalah, Sultanate of Oman

Our taxi driver spoke only a few words of English – but enough to suggest an itinerary which included a visit to the mosque before it closed for afternoon prayer. It sounded good to the four of us.

Our driver, like the shop vendors we’d seen, wore long-sleeved, white, ankle-length collarless robes that buttoned at the neck, called dishdashas. With the sun’s intensity, I’d have traded my clinging  light-weight travel pants and top for one in a second!

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My travel look at the Mosque in Salalah, Sultanate of Oman

As it was I needed to add a layer, to enter the mosque. We removed our shoes and we women had to cover both our heads and our arms; all of us - men and women - had to have our ankles covered.

PicMonkey Collage
The Qu'ran shown by our taxi driver - Salalah, Sultanate of Oman

We marveled at the size and the beauty of the interior.  We remarked on a set of beautifully bound books - the Qu’ran, it turned out – at which we could look but not touch. We later learned from the Middle East lecturer aboard our ship that we were precluded from touching the book  because we may have been ‘unwashed’.  Our rather shy driver, showed us the volumes (he had washed, I guess) and encouraged by our questions about the text, proudly recited from memory the passage he held open to us. 

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Entry to Salalah's Museum - Sultanate of Oman
We’d booked a four-hour taxi tour which allowed us enough time for a stop at the city’s Museum which provided an excellent view into the areas history -  not to mention an introduction to the ‘frankincense tree’.

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Source of Frankincense 

Since childhood we’ve been told that  the gifts of the Magi to baby Jesus were gold, myrrh and frankincense. . .somehow, I’d never questioned what those gifts actually were.  Frankincense is derived from a French word meaning ‘pure incense’ and comes from the sap of the Boswellia tree, of which there are 20 varieties.

We headed back to the ship and not far from the port, our driver pointed to a road branching off the one on which we were traveling, and said, “Yemen”. 

No thanks, we laughingly responded.

Oman had been interesting enough.

Again we thank you for your time and interest in our travel tales.  Until we meet again, happy and safe travels to you and yours ~

Follow these links for more travel and lifestyle tales:
Travel Photo Thursday 
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Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Right Place at the Right Time–Egyptian Museum Cairo

Timing is everything when you travel. And those who travel know it.

Arriving on the one day each week a recommended restaurant is closed or on the day that an employees’ strike or a national holiday has closed a local attraction can be a major disappointment when you’ve got your sights set on that particular experience.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo
On the other hand, there is no joy like realizing that your timing was perfect, as was the case with our visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  We lucked out and visited during a rare period (Dec. 1, 2015  – Jan. 7, 2016) when cameras were allowed to be used inside. (No one is sure why the Antiquities Department loosened the rules; some say it was part of a nation-wide effort to increase tourism and others, more skeptical, say it might be a precurser to allowing cameras but charging a fee to use them.)

Whatever the case, this shutterbug was one happy gal! Without further adeiu let us take you through the Museum, housed in the same stately pink building since its opening in 1902 at the north side of Cairo’s Tahrir Square:

Interior looking towards Entry Door - Egyptian Museum - Cairo

The Museum itself is somewhat a relic. Some items are still displayed in the vitrines they were placed in when the Museum opened. Some have type-written (as in typewriter) information cards.

P1030501Some of the display halls were so dimly-lit they felt spooky; so dark you couldn’t see the displays or read information. It would have made a great setting for an Agatha Christie novel.

There are certainly splashier and more-modern Museum’s in the world, but the somewhat musty charm of this place only added to the feel of ‘antiquities’ and it seemed a perfect home for the some 100,000 objects housed in its 15,000 square meters of space.

Around 3100 BCE the kingdoms of Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the North merged into a single state

The Old Kingdom 2649 –2134 BCE
The Middle Kingdom 2040 – 1640 BCE
The New Kingdom 1550 – 1070 BCE

The grandeur, the size was stunning - Egyptian Museum, Cairo
At every turn there was some jaw-dropping display with an incomprehensibly old date.  We’d bet that even the most die-hard ‘not-interested-in-Museums’ of you out there would be blown away by a visit here. From the largest, like the statuary above, to the smallest, like this intricate necklace, there was something incredible to leave the viewer shaking his/her head. How did they create with such precision and detail so many thousands of years ago?

This necklace's detail was stunning - Egyptian Museum - Cairo
One of the most remarkable things about our visit was how empty the Museum was - a sad commentary on the impact of terrorism and political upheavals in recent years. Again, as I wrote about the Pyramids, there were no crowds during our visit. We often had entire display rooms to ourselves.

Sphinxes - Egyptian Museum - Cairo
These grey-granite sphinxes were created for Pharaoh Amenemhat III (1855 – 1808 BC) and one couldn’t help but be struck by the intricate carving and design done so long before computers - for that matter, before paper and pencils.

Sanab - Egyptian Museum - Cairo
One of my favorite displays was of Senab, and Egyptian dwarf, chief of all the Palace dwarfs, who was charged with the care of the Palace wardrobe.  With his wife, Senetites, at his side, his two children stand where his legs should be had he been of normal height.

Another who doesn’t get a lot of acclaim – at least not like King Tut – was the one identified as:

"House of the Toilet" Egyptian Museum - Cairo
While researching this after our visit, I found little information about that particular position but did learn that the English had a “Groom of the Stool” who was considered the ‘most intimate of an English monarch’s courtiers’.

Moving on. . .to the New Kingdom. . .

Royal Bed - Egyptian Museum Cairo
How’s this for a bed frame?  Still not quite sure how they got in and out of it.

Chariot - the real deal Egyptian Museum - Cairo
Thoughts of Charlton Heston and Ben Hur came to mind when we got to the chariot displays – only these weren’t movie props, these were the real thing!

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Oh the gold jewelry. . .Egyptian Museum - Cairo 
The jewelry room was astounding – the workmanship and details simply amazing. The photos above from the left, show a head crown, a ring and a collection of gold bracelets.

Death Mask - King Tut Egyptian Museum Cairo
And then we arrived at perhaps the most famous of the displays: Tutankhamun (King Tut) Galleries, with some 1,700 items filling much of the first floor. King Tut was the young New Kingdom Pharaoh who ruled from 1336BC to 1327BC.  The items on display were buried in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

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Casket and body armor King Tut - Egyptian Museum - Cairo 
While mercifully King Tut’s remains are still in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings, pretty much everything else is on display from his death mask, to the caskets to the body armor in which he was buried.

Several of you have asked if we visited the new state-of-the art museum for which construction began in 2002. There is no ‘new’ museum yet. It was begun during the time the former-now-disposed President Hosini Mubarak led the country. The Grand Egyptian Museum was to be on the Giza Plateau, about two kilometers from the Pyramids and Sphinx. Since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution ousted Mubarak the fate of that project so closely tied to the former president has been uncertain. 

New paint job just completed in this hallway - Egyptian Museum - Cairo

As Lonely Planet guidebook advises, “In the meantime, enjoy the fresh paint job here in the Downtown Egyptian Museum – that’s likely the only real improvement in antiquities exhibits that tourists will see for awhile.”

Thanks again for taking a walk through history with us today.  We know your time is valuable and appreciate that you spend a part of it with us.  Happy and safe travels to you and yours ~

Linking with:
Mosaic Monday – 
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday – 
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Wanders Among Cairo’s Ancient Wonders ~

"I bear witness of the will of Cheops, my father: to defy time, forever. I saw Anthony and Cleopatra pass. Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon paused at my feet. I saw ambitious dreams of conquerors whirling like dead leaves. As my motto, I chose an Arab saying: 'The world fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.'

From the book "Wonders of the Pyramids: The Sound and Light of Giza," introduced by Zahi Hawass. American University in Cairo Press (AUC Press, 2010)
Great Sphinx - Giza, Egypt
Sometimes we’ve been let down by a tourist destination; usually the kind where we’ve believed the hype and expected more than what we found. We wondered if our outing to Giza, the Cairo suburb where the Pyramids and Sphinx are located, would be one of those experiences.  Smog could obscure our views and suburbia has surrounded these centuries old desert delights, guidebooks warned.

Sphinx with suburbia as a neighbor - Giza, Egypt
On the flip side, sometimes we end up in such amazing places that we need to pause and allow ourselves to absorb the place; a mental ‘pinch’ you give yourself to make sure you aren’t dreaming – the kind of moment in which you give thanks for being fortunate enough to be at that particular place on earth.

The latter is how we found ourselves on the morning we toured the Egyptian Pyramids and Sphinx. They didn’t disappoint! As imagined scenes we’d carried with us through the years came to life, we tried to comprehend the scope of  history to which we were bearing witness. Our brains were numbed by the size and the grandeur of these wonders from the Ancient World.

Wandering among Ancient Wonders - Giza, Egypt
The Sphinx (which means ‘strangler’) with the body of a lion and the head of a person, simply knocked our socks off - as proven by the number of photos of us we let the guide take of us with the Sphinx as a backdrop. 

But we almost needed a photo like the one above to assure us we hadn’t dreamt it all.  Yes, we really were standing at this amazing structure believed to have been built for the Egyptian Pharaoh Khafre during his reign, 2520-2494BC. (The date alone is mind-boggling!)

The Great Sphinx and Pyramid - Giza, Egypt
Egyptians built sphinxes, usually with the head sporting the likeness of a Pharaoh or god, to guard tombs and temples.  This one, the Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the oldest and largest statues in the world; its head believed to be the likeness of the Pharaoh Khafra. It faces to the east (sunrise) and guards the pyramid tombs to its rear.

At 241 feet long, 20 feet wide and 66 feet high, it is enormous. The eyes alone are 6 feet tall, the ears three feet and the nose - before it was knocked off - is believed to have been five feet long.

(About that missing nose:  for decades Napoleon and his men got the blame for the ‘nose job’ but other stories say it was Turkish soldiers and yet others say it was chiseled off by someone who considered the Sphinx as evil.)

Undated photo - source and attribution not available
I found this un-dated photo of the Sphinx covered with sand (source and attribution not available). which shows how erosion and weather have affected it in the last 4,500 years.  The Sphinx once had a beard which served to help support the head. A portion the beard is in the British Museum in London.  Beard or not – the Sphinx should be on your ‘must see’ list.

Sadly, pollution and rising ground water are now joining that blowing sand as threats to the Sphinx, which is said to have been carved from bedrock in an ancient causeway, and repair work is on-going.
The Giza Plateau

The Plateau is home to the Great Sphinx and the famous Pyramids, Wonders of the Ancient World.  What we hadn’t realized before our visit was the vast number of cemeteries and tombs – far less grand in size and design that are tucked into the hill along the causeways and that border the Pyramids.

Camel ride vendor rides among tombs - Giza Plateau, Egypt

Standing in the shadow of the first of the three Pyramids on a warm late December morning it was easy to understand why they are considered such wonders.  You can’t help but wonder how in the world they were ever built back in a time without computer-assisted-drafting and modern-day construction equipment.

Size as compared to modern day vehicles and buildings - Giza, Egypt
We’ve all seen photos of the Pyramids but until you are there, looking at their towering height and substantial girth and the size of the stones used to create them, you can’t quite get the feel of  just how enormous they are and the feat of their construction. Each stone weighs several tons and the number of them used in construction is mind-blowing: 2.3 million in the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) alone!

Humans carved and placed these stones - Giza, Egypt
I am not a fan of small places so we opted not to crawl/walk through the Pyramids. It can be done at an additional cost (not included in the entry ticket).  We opted to climb a bit of the stairway to the entrance – I am five feet tall to give you an idea of the size of stones put into place by the hands of human workers.

Camel ride, anyone? Giza Plateau, Egypt
You can also hire camels to get you from one viewing area to another, but we chose to be driven by our guide. The ‘crush’ of souvenir and camel ride touts didn’t materialize; we may have been approached by a few but they quickly left us alone when we indicated no interest in their products.  Tourism has tanked and those who make a living from those visitors are suffering.

Mystical, magical and somewhat smog-obscured Pyramids - Giza, Egypt
You could visit the Pyramids on your own, using public transportation or taxis to get there. We opted for a half-day private tour and selected a company, Ramasside Tours, that had been highly recommended by Tripadvisor users. We’d used the same company for our airport to hotel transfer and again for a transfer when it came time to leave Cairo. Our guide was knowlegeable and the driver had nerves of steel.

We hope you’ll join us next week when we head off to explore the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo. Thanks for the time you spent with us today. Happy and safe  travels to you and yours ~

Linking up today:
Mosaic Monday – 
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday – 
Photo Friday Weekend Travel Inspiration


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