Monday, March 31, 2008

March 30 Goodbye Third World ..Hello Europe

We leave Luxor bright + early to catch our plane to Rome. On the way to the airport we see our last donkey carts.
We arrive in Cairo for an 8 hour layover. You would think there would be something to do. We did not know security there would be tight as a drum. We can't even get into the departure concourse until 3 hours before flight time! Guess where all the shops, restaurants and bathrooms are. Our luggage is x-rayed 3 times before we board. Oh well this has been pretty much a lost day. We get to Rome on time. We knew it was going to be expensive but this is insane. The cab ride to go one mile was $30. Breakfast (if we ate in the hotel) would be $70. We luck out and find a great little restaurant around the corner where prices are within reason. Our hotel is in a beautiful section of Rome just outside the Borghese Park.. This is a picture of the gate to the park at night.
Ted Northrup

Sunday, March 30, 2008

March 29 Carnak Temple + cab ride

On Saturday we explored the Great Temple of Carnak. This was something I thought Johnny Carson invented. Turns out he took it from the Egyptians. This is the first temple we've been to that is large enough to get lost in. One section is larger than a cathedral with 138 columns 75 feet high and 6 feet in diameter. It is blazing hot today and we see one woman being dragged out after succumbing to the heat. The Temple is filled with bus after bus of European tourists

After Carnak, we went to a "Papyrus House" where they sell Egyptian artwork on papyrus. We bought some artwork and got to know the salesman pretty well. He asked us where we were going next and I told him McDonald's. OK. That's not very adventurous, but I wanted a milkshake in the worst way. He said he was going home and invited us to ride in a cab with him and he would drop us off at McDonalds. It turns out there are special cabs for the locals. They are a hybrid between a bus and a cab. They are a mini-van with four rows of seats that run a consistent route. People hop in and out thru the open sliding door and pass the driver a pound. (About a quarter) True to his word he dropped us off right in front of Micky D's and paid for our ride too.

One thing about Egypt is that it is still a cash oriented society. Our hotel wanted to be paid in cash. It took us about half an hour to find a machine that would cough up 1500 pounds. By that time we decided to forego the Felucca ride or the camel ride and just go back to the hotel for dinner.

Friday, March 28, 2008

March 28 - Valley of the Kings

The day starts early with a wake-up call at 5AM. We are planning to take a hot-air balloon at sunrise through the Valley of the Kings. This is the valley where many of the Pharoahs had their tombs. As we pulled up to the field upwind of the valley, we saw dozens of ballons ready for take-off. Some are 6 passenger baskets, others are 12 passenger baskets. Luckily, ours is just six. We are amazed as the pilot lifts off and times our travel just right to float right over a major temple. The sky is filled with antiquity and a couple of dozen balloons. Some comment is made about fear of heights and thinking it was a joke I make the statement "nobody with a fear of heights has any business in a balloon". How does that foot taste Ted? The lady in front of me is gripping the edge of the basket with white knuckles because she's afraid of heights! We make a very graceful landing in the desert a couple of miles downwind. Here's the ground crew helping Patrice out of the basket.

Our next stop is King Tut's tomb. Here's the thing, almost all these tombs are completely bare. the sarcaghagous and riches have all been moved to museums. (like the one we saw in Cairo) Still, the design of the tombs and the well preserved paintings and hieroghyphics are worth seeing. Here is our guide Mohammed.

After going most of the way around the world I think I can say that the Egyptians are better than anyone else in the world at parting Westerners from their money. They have really raised it from a technique to an art form. If you go to any of these sites without a guide you are mobbed by people selling their wares. If you DO have a guide, you are spared the constant barrage, but inevitably end up at "a nice clean place to use the bathroom and get a cool drink". It turns out to be a nice store of a friend of the guide. OK, we are not immune to needing the bathroom so guess who's bringing yet another souvenir home. Here is our host and master salesman, Akmed.

Our last stop today is the tomb of Queen Hatchepsut. (pronounced Hat Cheap Suit) She is one of the few female Pharoahs and Patrice is keen to see how she pulled it off. It's a long story, but it has something to do with marrying her half-brother.

Her tomb has been restored and is really interesting to explore.

March 27 to Luxor

We are thrilled that our second EgyptAir flight is on time and uneventful. We are met at the airport by a driver who's nickname is Shakespeare. He's never read any Shakespeare, but knows the quote, "two beers or not two beers, that is the question". He takes us to a little hotel (El Nakil) that is tucked away in a small village across the Nile from Luxor. It has a funky driveway between some old houses. This what greets us on the driveway.....

But once inside the hotel compound it's actually quite nice. Here's a picture outside our door.

After we get settled we grab the ferry across the Nile to Luxor. We are almost the only Westerners on it.

From the ferry it's an easy walk to the Luxor Temple. This temple was built for Rameses the Great. The columns tower 80 feet high. After exploring the temple we took the ferry back to our hotel
and saw all the feluccas taking tourists for a ride.

We had dinner on the terrace and saw this beautiful sunset.

Ted Northrup

Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 26 The Pyramids or Tales from the Crypt

This day may have been one of the most exciting and interesting days on our trip. One thing we did right was to arrange for a guide from our hotel. We really got the hook-up. Our "guide" was a retired archeologist who had actually done some of the research at one of the sights we visited. Her name is Salwa and she made for a great traveling companion the whole day. There were great discussions not only of events 4500 years ago but modern day events from the Arab perspective which was something I wanted to hear. She took us to 3 sights, Memphis, Sakkura and the Great Pyramids. More importantly, she took us to a great place for lunch but more about that later. Memphis was interesting because we saw the large statue of Ramses The Great while Salwa filled us in on interesting stories about Ramses family.

Along the road, Patrice took a lot of pictures of typical Egyptian farm life. The overwhelming part of the population are still farmers. She thought this guy looked particularly colorful.

Our next stop was Sakkura. It is the home of the oldest pyramids in Egypt. The best pictures here are actually short movie clips taken inside the tomb. We were surprised to learn that all the tombs, except Cheops, are actually below the pyramids. In Sakkura, you can actually go down, down inside the crypt. I really felt like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Tomb. The entrance was 3 feet wide and 4 feet high. It went down at a 45 degree slant so the floor actually had rungs that served as a sort of ladder. When inside theres a little guard in there that puts his fingers to his lips and then motions to give him your camera. He was really chapped when he found out all I had on me was 2 Egyptian pounds.
The other cool thing at Sakkura was seeing all the hieroglyphics that depicted everyday life. I was shocked that you can actually touch writing that is over 4000 years old. Of course it really helped to have Salwa along to point it out, but the meaning of the writing became very clear.

At the end of the day we visited the Great Pyramids. One of the things I didn't realize was how big the individual stones were that made these pyramids. When you look from a distance they all blend together. Each stone came up to my waist. You can go inside Cheops too, but its an extra $20 and I have had enough crypt crawling at this point. Finally, Salwa took us to this vantage point to get pictures. You really get a feeling of being in the desert when you are at this site. Unlike our deserts it is a very fine sand and it gets in everything.

But... what might be the high point of the day was actually lunch. Between Sakkura and Cheops, she took us to a garden restaurant that had a tame lion cub. There is nothing like holding a lion in your hands. This little kitty was heavy too. Thankfully, he is only 3 months old. his owner told us that by the time he is a year old, he will have to go to the zoo. I held him and petted him but never let myself forget that this is a lion. As you can see, Patrice was a little less apprehensive.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 26 Supp. Shakedown

There's a thin line between adventure and risk. We might have crossed it tonight. We arranged to visit a local Rotary Club in Cairo. Its' meeting place was suddenly changed to a restaurant in downtown Cairo. We gave the address to the cab driver who proceeded to take us to downtown Cairo.
He let us out on a busy street, We discovered that the restaurant had moved. We wandered up and down a few streets when a stranger came up and offered us his assistance. He said he knew where it was and was willing to walk us to it. After a block or two we smelled a rat, told him we were too late for the meeting and did a 180! Was he setting us up or trying to be nice? You be the judge.
Ted Northrup

March 25 - Mummy I want to come home

The weather was forecast hot today, so we decided this would be a good day to do the Egyptian Museum. This contains the largest collection of ancient Egyptian art and mummies in the world. King Tut taught me one thing... you can't take it with you. After a while you do get AEO (Ancient Egyptian Overload). The artifacts themselves are fascinating but th museum itself is kinda dingy. I could not take many pictures and the mummies themselves are kinda creepy.

Our next stop was the Khan El Khanlili, the ancient market that is supposed to typify old Cairo. There were hundreds, maybe a thousand stalls there. Vendors were there hawking all kinds of wares; cloth, copies of Egyptian antiquities, and as usual everything is negotiable. We bought a small Egyptian cat there. The market also contained Cairo's oldest coffee house, El Fishay. We had some strong Egyptian tea there and saw men smoking their "hubbly bubbly" water pipes. On top of the burning tobacco they put little white rocks. I did not ask what they were.

The last shot is of the Egyptian Museum at sunset.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March 24 Dubai Creek

Since this is a travel day we thought a boat cruise on Dubai Creek would be just right. The "Creek" is a wide river that splits Dubai in two. This is a picture of our wooden dhow that took us on that cruise. OK. They did pimp it out a little with glass windows, a/c, and cushioned seats, but it is still the same kind of wooden boat they use up and down the creek.

One thing about Dubai is that conventional logic goes out the window. Look at the unusual shapes of these buildings. Like Las Vegas, the more outrageous the better. Only the normal return on investment equations go out the window when the royal family is funding it.

The last picture is of Old Dubai. After all, this did start out as a fishing village before the oil money started pouring in. We have seen so many guest workers from all over the world. Dubai reminds us of a 21st century goldrush mentality. Pakistan's, Phillipino's and Palestinians all coming here to work and send some money home.

At the end of the day we reluctlantly said farewell to Dubai and waited for our flight to Cairo..... And waited ...and waited. 4 hours later we were on our way. EgyptAir has not made a good impression on us. Still, considering the first 10 flights were all on time, our average is still good.

Ted Northrup


Monday, March 24, 2008

March 23 Dubai

What a contrast going from Jaipur to Dubai. This place is hot and not just the temperature. They are building man made islands in the shape of a map of the world. Each small island is going for over $30 million bucks.

Half this city seems like it is under construction and the other half seems like it was just completed. Here's a picture of the world's tallest building. 161 stories and growing. It's is still under construction.

The ruling Sheik likes outrageous projects that call attention to his city. This picture of ski Dubai is one of them.

Another one is this building called Burg Al Arab. It is designed to look like a sail and it actually built on a man-made island just off shore. There's building just in shaped like a wave. We had "high tea" there. "High" also describes the price.

But, all this radical building must be working. They had 15 million tourists last year and expect that number to double in the coming years. Still, I wish every American who puts $4/gal gas in their SUV could see what the oil money is building OUTSIDE OUR COUNTRY

Ted Northrup


Sunday, March 23, 2008

March 22 Holi Festival

We are awakened by the sounds of drums. In a ritual similiar to caroling, friends (ladies mostly) are going house with drums to wish their neighbors a "Happy Holi".

But the biggest ritual of all is color; Cyan, Magenta, Yellow. These are the primary colors of Holi. Friends put on old clothes and throw powdered paint at each other. Here are some friends we met at the hotel after participating in Holi.

We did get some some cheap clothes to participate. But we stayed in the hotel because we wouldn't have had time to clean up before we had to check out.

We arrived in Dubai at night and took a cab to the Marriott. The reception desk gives us a free upgrade.... Says he thinks we'll like our room. Turns out to be a suite half the size of our house! This trip has been one long series of contrasts.
Ted Northrup

Saturday, March 22, 2008

March 21 The Elephant Festival and the beginning of Holi

This was the event we had been waiting for, the Jaipur Elephant festival. They had about 40 elephants in all manner of costume along with camels and horses, all highly decorated. They paraded around the stadium for all to see and had a contest for the best decoration. Elephants here are highly prized and symbolize luck. Luckily, we arrived early enough to get a good seat in a shady spot. Temperature was about 95 degrees. (but it's a "dry" heat!)
There were dancers and bands there too. They had a tug-a-war with 1 elephant vs 36 guys. The elephant wins. After that our driver took us to see the Water Palace. Along the way we saw more elephants that had been in the festival and this camel.

The actual Holi festival begins at dark today. We are told it is the most important holiday in the Hindu religion. So we see lots of preparation on our way back to the hotel. Our driver takes some of the back streets so we can get a better idea of what is going on. On just about every block, people (ladies mostly) are preparing bonfires. They are building them right in the middle of the street!
Then as we approached our hotel, they start lighting them. The one below was right in our path. The ride back to the hotel was a sort of Disney adventure ride, but for real! We passed by the fire below at a distance of 2 feet. Glad the driver went quickly. We could feel the heat of the flames through the glass. We told him we were concerned about the condition of the car and he let us know that it did not belong to him, it belonged to the hotel.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Hawa Mahal

On our first full day in Jaipur, we wanted to explore the old city, inside the pink walls. We told this auto-rickshaw driver where to let us off. Instead he took us zig-zagging through town to a "handicraft" store where he gets about a 15 percent commission! This is a common scam we read about and couldn't believe how easily we had fallen victim to it. Here is Patrice doling out the exact cab-fare.
We made him take us back to the hotel and later took a different rickshaw to the old city. This time we showed him the exact spot on the map and that worked.

We visited the Hawa Mahal, "Palace of Winds". It's five stories with latticed windows. It was built by a Maharaja so that his harem, forbidden to appear in public, could see festivals and other happenings in the street below! We walked around the colorful bazaars in that area.

In the afternoon, we took some things to the post office to mail home. We didn't think anything about India could surprise us anymore but we were wrong.! They measured our 2 packages, ripped pieces of cloth, took out a needle and thread, and hand-stitched the cloth into a slipcover to snugly wrap each package. Then the ends were stitched shut - amazing!

We saw a puppet show in the hotel's garden in the evening. We really like the Madhuban Hotel and the owner Mrs. Dicky Singh.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wed. Mar 19th The Road to Jaipur

We left Bharatpur at about noon for the 4 hour drive to Jaipur. India is building a new highway but as you'll see from the pictures we shared it with some interesting and unexpected travelers.

Of course this area is famous for its camels and we were not disappointed. We just never thought we would be passing so many in the wrong lane. We saw a little of everything being carried on someone's head; from straw to gravel for road construction.

This new highway can also be used for herding sheep; not a few hundred, a few thousand.

We also saw lots of kids (both types) along the highway; from kids in an overgrown tuk-tuk used as a school bus to the kind of kids you herd.

After 4 l o n g hours, we arrived in Jaipur. They call it the Pink City because the walls to the old part of the city are painted pink. Here is one of many gates to the city.

Here is our hotel, the Madhuban. After settling in, we took a taxi up into the hills to see Chowki Jani. Here we had authentic Indian food, saw people getting camel and elephant rides and did some shopping. We even got dots on our foreheads so no one would know we were Americans.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tuesday 18th Delhi to Agra & the Taj Mahal

We rise early and catch the 7 o'clock train called the Taj Express to Agra. There's very little English spoken here (except for some of the European back-packers) so it's a real adventure getting on the right train. Pervez's pre-arrangements and our excellent driver Kuldeep really save the day and get us on the right train.

The train to Agra is smooth, fast and punctual; definitely the way to go. In Agra we are met by a new driver and surprised to learn that we also have a guide. Mr Lala is an expert on the Taj Mahal and has lived in Agra all his 60-some years. It is Spring here and by Agra standards just a temperate day. But.. it's 97 *@#% degrees! We drink a lot of water and press on even though our car's A/C barely works. I don't think our driver understands "needs Freon".

The Taj Mahal is incredible. Surely the pictures we took do not do it justice. The highly crystalized white marble and the way it is sited so that it only has blue sky for a background are some of the secrets of its beauty. Unlike some of the temples in Delhi, this one is truly pristine. There is no graffiti inside and the grounds are immaculately kept. You can tell India treats this as its crown jewel. Mr Lala points out the way the marble is inlaid with semi-precious stones. He even uses a flashlight to demonstrate how translucent they are inside the Taj. Even the writing shown in this picture is done with inlaid onyx.

OK, here is the time to give a little background. The guide was definitely not part of the plan and yes he was kind of foisted on us by our driver. As an American, your first reaction is to send him packing because this must be some kind of rip-off. In our case, it turned out not to be true. His fee for the day was 500 rupees (about $12) and worth every penny. For example, we would not have known that the minarets surrounding the Taj actually lean away from it. It's easy to see if you look at, but not at all clear if you did not know. He also knew all the good "Kodak Moment" picture spots so we were able to get some great shots. Obviously, he took this one.

Our last stop about an hour outside Agra on the way to Jaipur is The Bagh. This is a 22 acre walled resort that is truly a haven of peace and quiet set in an old orchard. There are no horns beeping here. The last picture is taken outside our room. This place is supposed to be a bird reserve but at this point all we've seen is a pair of full grown turkeys and their turklets(?) More about that on the next blog... It is time for breakfast.