Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Jordan’s PETRA ~ The Rose-red city half as old as time

Created sometime before the birth of Christ. . .
106 A.D. annexed by the Romans . . .
1812 discovered by a Swiss explorer. . .
1985 named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. . .
2007 named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. . .
One of 28 places that Smithsonian Magazine recommends you see before you die.

Gulf of Aqaba to right of Sinai Peninsula
We’d been on Oceania’s Nautica for nearly a month when when reached the Gulf of Aqaba. We would spend two nights docked at the port city of the same name. . .we’d arrived at the Kingdom of Jordan

By that point in our cruise – 27 days after departing Bangkok, Thailand for Istanbul,Turkey  - there was no doubt in my mind that we were living our own version of Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights.

We’d reached the land of Bedouins and camels made famous by Thomas Edward Lawrence, British military officer whose work in the area was immortalized in the movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Later fictional hero Indiana Jones searched for the Holy Grail here in his Last Crusade movie. 

A Bedouin camp between Aqaba and Petra
We must have been inspired by both those intrepid explorers as we  decided to skip the ship’s tours – this time we were setting off on our own* to explore Petra and the Wadi Rum!

 Petra, the rose-red* city 

The Sig - Petra, Jordan
The route to Petra, traversed by foot, horse-back or carriage is through The Sig, a narrow slot canyon with rock formations as dazzling as the city itself. We opted to walk with our guide through the Sig. He kept our pace brisk, noting there was much to see in the few hours we had allotted to this stop.

An amazing route through The Sig - Petra, Jordan
Petra is the ancient city of the Nabataeans, a trade center on a major caravan route that linked Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a vibrant place some 2,000 years ago with 20,000 residents. Then in 106 A.D. it was annexed by Rome and in later centuries was hit by earthquakes and abandoned.  In 1812 it was discovered by a Swiss explorer.

"The Scout" and our Petra guide
In recent decades its stone structured has been inhabited by the Bedouins, those once-nomadic people of the desert.  Our guide, as a young Bedouin boy, lived in Petra with his family. He began selling postcards to tourists when he was five.  He spoke English well and said it was self-taught as he recognized the need to speak the language if he was going to succeed as a tour guide.

The Treasury - Petra, Jordan

Perhaps the most recognizable of all the carved-in-stone tombs and temples in Petra is the Treasury, or in Arabic, Khozneh. It was so named because it was believed to hold treasures but in fact was an amazing entry to a tomb.

Petra, Jordan
Petra’s main road seems to stretch endlessly past facades and entryways carved into rose and tan colored sandstone cliffs. Yet, some reports say only 15% of the city has been uncovered.
In Jordan, like Egypt, tourism has tanked as result of security concerns. As a result, it wasn’t over-run with tourists which made business slow for those offering camel rides and selling sand creations. The good news was we could watch this artist at work and get as close as we wanted.

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Scenes in Sand Artistry - Petra, Jordan
Those creations we watched being made of sand coupled with the remains of those sandstone creations from centuries ago  - like the one in the photo below - will long make up the memories we have of this remarkable destination.
Camels feet and that of a human are all that remain - Petra, Jordan
We could have spent the day exploring here – especially since this shutterbug found the camels to be totally charming – but by high noon the heat had intensified. We’d seen the area where Indiana Jones had been, it was time to move to the Wadi Rum and walk in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. . .

Camels are incredible creatures - Petra, Jordan
*Petra Footnotes:

P1010320* Touring ‘on our own’ as stated above, means we hired a private guide through, Memphis Tours, a company recommended by travelers on both TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic.

A large number of cruise passengers these days arrange their own tours in advance of sailing. We had numerous small groups setting off on their own at each of our ports of call, so for those thinking of how daring we must have been: we weren’t!

Our driver, who met us at and returned us to the ship in a spotlessly clean, modern vehicle, transported us to Petra and Wadi Rum and then turned us over to local guides.

[Our tour vs. the ship tour:  The cost of our tour may sound pricey at first at $670, for both of us, lunch included. However, a similar tour offered by the ship, also including lunch, would have cost $1,110. We had the flexibility to stop along the way when we wanted and we got to Petra before large numbers of tourists arrived. But in addition to cost and flexibility considerations, it is important to determine your own comfort level when choosing to go it alone or with a group tour.]

Petra is often referred to as the ‘rose-red’ city because of a stanza in the poem written by Englishman John William Burgon:


It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.

This poem won Burgon Oxford University's prestigious Newdigate Prize for Poetry in 1845. The last couplet has become one of the more famous in poetry. Burgon had never seen Petra. 

That’s it for this week – we’ll head next to the Wadi Rum. Safe travels to you and yours and hope to see you back here again~

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Nile River Valley ~Tombs, Temples and Tourists

At the end of that 3.5-hour bus ride from the port city of Safaga where our cruise ship was docked we found ourselves in Luxor, Egypt crossing the Nile River . . . surrounded by some of the Ancient World’s most famed sites.

The Nile River at Luxor, Egypt

That visit to Luxor was one of the selling points of last spring's cruise - our Magic Carpet Ride - through the Middle East that departed Bangkok,Thailand and sailed to Istanbul, Turkey. Although, truth be told we didn’t know that much about Luxor before we’d boarded the ship, I can tell you now that a day was no where near long enough to explore the treasures of this extraordinary place.
Luxor came to importance nearly 4,000 mind-boggling years ago,during the Middle Kingdom period (2055 – 1650 BC) when the then Upper Kingdom and Lower Kingdoms were united into one. Luxor, or Thebes, as it was then known, became the capital. The city grew and the Arabs are said to have renamed it ‘Luxor’ or “City of Palaces” because of its palaces and huge edifices. It remained the seat of power from 2100 BC to 750 BC.
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Modern highrise hotels like this one line the Nile River in Luxor, Egypt
Today’s Luxor provides tourists a kaleidoscope of contrasting scenes. Modern tourist hotels along the Nile are only a few blocks from the remains of the temples of Karnak and Luxor. Cross the Nile and you’ll find yourself among so many west bank tombs and temples, it is difficult to keep them all straight.

Colossi of Memnon near Luxor, Egypt
P1010065Because of the distance cruise ship tours must travel from the port to Luxor, one day tours don’t even begin until a hot afternoon sun is blistering the Valley of the Kings.  Even with tourism's downturn, awed visitors snake into and out of the tombs at such a measured, slow pace that long lines form under an unforgiving sun.

Cameras are not allowed (in fact, confiscated if used). That is a good thing because otherwise with the crush of people in those tiny little tomb entryways, we’d still be standing there while shutterbugs took aim at the ornately decorated walls.

A trip to this area requires both stamina to stand in the sun waiting a turn inside and an ability to walk some distances in the  intense heat.

To appease the camera-totting among us, we had brief ‘photo stops’ at Hatshpsut Temple and the Colossi of Memnon –  I can tell you that the afternoon heat was so intense that only the shutterbugs hopped off the bus. Many opted to stay inside its air-conditioned comfort.

Memnon was the legendary African king who was slain by Achilles during the Trojan War. The Colossi are in front of the main entrance to an enormous funerary temple, the remains of which are being brought to light, according to our trusty Lonely Planet’s guidebook.
Again, while we found the ‘sites’ to be fascinating, it was some of the ‘sights’ along the way that really caught our imaginations. Scenes along the Nile, where dozens of river boats sat idle had us wondering if it was because they didn’t come to life until evening or because tourism is at a record-low thanks to security concerns in the country.

River boats docked along the Nile River in Luxor, Egypt
Another ‘sight’ we would not only have loved to explore, but to have stayed at is the famous Winter Palace Hotel, built in 1886. Agatha Christie wrote her 1937 novel, “Death on the Nile” while staying here. These historic hotels are among our favorites and one day we do hope to return to this one.
The Winter Palace Hotel - Luxor, Egypt
The Winter Palace is quite near the Luxor Temple, where we ended our day-long whirlwind tour of the area. You may recall from last week’s post that we had to leave the city before 6 p.m. as we’d not be allowed out after that time for security reasons. We had an hour to wander among the temple’s wonders, so here’s an small sample of what we saw. . .

Luxor Temple Egypt

We felt small and insignificant walking between these columns.

For that matter, everything was so large, that we felt small and insignificant.

One of the most amazing stretches of history in Luxor, to my way of thinking, was the avenue of sphinxes, a three-kilometer alleyway that connected Luxor and Karnak – the old street is lined on both sides with sphinxes, many of which are still being excavated.

The Scribe and The Scout at the avenue of the Sphinxes 
(Note for travel fashionistas: Forget fashion! It is simply too hot.  I am wearing the loose cotton top I had purchased at a roadside stand in Thailand where we’d had our first introduction to the area’s intense heat. Cruise ship fashion went by the wayside in lieu of cool and billowing clothes. Sunglasses and hats are essential for travel in the Middle East – a heavy duty sunscreen and lots of bottles of water are far more important than extra photo cards and batteries).

Avenue of the Sphinxes excavation continues between Luxor and Karnak, Egypt
The setting sun signaled it was time to begin our journey back to the ship.

Luxor Temple 
But adventures were only beginning because -- move over Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones – our next stop was Jordan and its famous Wadi Rum. . .a vast desert where we skipped the ship’s tour and did our own – we’ll tell you about that next week.

Hello to our new subscribers, thanks much for joining in the journey! Happy and safe travels to you all~
Linking up this week with:
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Photo Friday
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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.)

PicMonkey Collage
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.

PicMonkey Collage
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.

PicMonkey Collage
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’.

PicMonkey Collage
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 ~

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