Monday, March 31, 2008

Reflections on the "Trip of a Lifetime"

I've been asked about our trip to Egypt and Jordan multiple times every day since our return and I often struggle with how to summarize it in a few pithy but evocative sentences. I'm not sure I'm doing it justice. Overall it was an unbelievable trip - many, many thousands of dollars and over 1,300 digital photos later, I can conclude that it was all well worth it.

As I've mentioned before, it was our first trip that was so full-service - we were treated with kid gloves at every stage, and all our needs were taken care of. I enjoyed having guides and drivers wherever we went - it made things go very smoothly, but I did feel somewhat constrained and limited. At a few sights, I felt that we didn't quite get the time to explore that I would have liked.

In hindsight, I would probably have just made a handful of changes. The first is to spend more time in Luxor. Cramming all the sights of Luxor into one, very long and hot day was not ideal. We should have spent one day on the East bank and then stayed an extra night in Luxor to spend another day in the temples of the West bank.

And we kept coming back to the same Four Seasons in Cairo - the hotel that was located in what was the middle of nowhere in tourist terms. On the last night back in Cairo, after our Upper Egypt segment, we should have moved to another hotel - perhaps the Mena House Oberoi, which even though it's probably even more isolated, would have yielded a phenomenal Pyramid view from the pool and another set of restaurants to try. We were frankly sick of every single restaurant at the Four Seasons in Cairo.

I would also have spent a night at one of the Dead Sea resorts in Jordan and perhaps split the Petra exploration over 2 days.

But other than that, it was as perfect a trip as I've ever been on!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Last day in Cairo

We arrived back in Cairo from Luxor around midday. Our original plan was to visit the Giza Zoo across the street or head to one of the large modern malls (City Stars in Heliopolis) to hang out. Alas, the 100 degree temps would have made the Zoo animals rather listless, and the traffic was bad enough that it would have taken a really long time to get across town to the mall.

So the girls went to the pool in the afternoon, made lots of new friends and had a blast.

I decided to try out the Cleopatra Bath in the Four Seasons Spa.

The spa was quite large with a women's locker area with jacuzzi, sauna and steam room, plus a women-only workout room. There's also a larger main workout room for both sexes. The first indication that I was not thinking in modest enough terms, was when the attendant handed me my pink paper bikini that I was to wear in the jacuzzi.

At the appointed time, my attendant escorted me to the treatment room where there was a large hydrotherapy bath in the middle, partially filled with water. I got into the tub, which was very comfortable - and she proceeded to pour several large jugs of milk into the tub as well. The jugs were very beautiful and ornate - Arabian style, made of brass. Then she poured various oils into the milk bath, and scattered rose petals from what seemed like many dozens of roses over the surface. Finally she threw in a few muslin bags, possibly filled with lemon and cucumber slices. The heat of the water, the burning incense and the various fragrances combined to send me into somewhat of a daze.

My feeling of being the centerpiece of an upcoming feast for some cannibalistic tribe only intensified when she started pouring hot oil into my hair and massaging it into my scalp and face. Then she grabbed huge handfuls of rose petals (this is why we needed so many!) and used them as a makeshift loofah for my skin. This was not altogether a pleasant sensation.

Finally after about 30 mins, I was "done". She helped me get out of the tub and dried me off - I stood like Cleopatra in the middle of the room, while she wandered all around drying me with a couple of towels. This was an odd feeling. Then she produced a new pink paper bikini, and told me to change out of my existing wet one. Not quite sure this had any useful effect, but since my brain wasn't quite functioning at full capacity, I complied.

Then I lay down on the massage table and she rubbed various oils on me with a short massage. As my treatment ended, she advised me to sit in the steam room for a few minutes and to let the oils soak in for at least an hour before showering.

Overall, this was an interesting treatment - not quite sure I'd do it again though. Perhaps the Nefertiti Facial next time...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Luxor in a day

Trying to see all the sites around Luxor in a day makes for a very long day. We left the boat at 7:30 am and headed to the East bank to visit the Valley of the Kings. Apparently all the other foreign tourists in Egypt decided to follow that exact same itinerary, so the Valley was rather packed.

Our tickets allowed us to visit three tombs in the Valley (out of the 40-50 that are open - a total of 63 have been excavated). Plus we paid extra for the ticket that allows you to visit King Tut's tomb. The tombs were very different - some larger, some smaller - the drawings and colors inside the tombs were still beautiful. They have endured for 3000 years - let's hope that we don't manage to ruin anymore of it during our modern era. Unbelievably, they're still finding new tombs and new discoveries are taking place every year. Everywhere in Egypt, there are more layers and layers of old civilizations buried under the modern day.

Next we saw Queen Hatshepsut's temple - the only female Pharoah. The temple was vast and impressive, hewn out of the huge cliffs. Alas, her co-regent had been a little sore about her usurping his power for so many years that he had all images of her defaced after possibly having her murdered.

Nefertari's tomb in the Valley of the Queens is supposedly the most magnificient, with fresh colors and beautiful drawings. Sadly, it was closed to the general public a few years ago. We inquired about the amount of baksheesh needed to visit that tomb. Silly me, I was thinking we'd somehow get in for a couple hundred dollars - it was over $6,000, a little too rich for my blood. We will have to come with a special tour group to try and see this one in the future. Nonetheless we visited a couple of others there and enjoyed them because all the other tourists seemed to have decided to give the Valley a pass, rushing off after they'd seen the main Valley of the Kings.

After returning to the boat for a late lunch, we headed out to visit Karnak Temple. This is the temple with huge tall columns - I kept a lookout for falling boulders (used to great effect in both "Death on the Nile" and "The Spy Who Loved Me"). Happily, Jaws was not in sight anywhere. By the time we made it over to Luxor Temple and the famous alley of the Sphinxes, we were exhausted.

Too much to see in one (very hot) day.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Finally, a relaxing day...

Day 2 on the boat was a lot calmer. We had two short temple visits - one in the morning to Kom-Ombo and one in the afternoon to the Temple of Horus at Edfu, but lots of time to hang out during the day.

While the family played chess in the game area, I found a quiet seat on the deck and read a book while sipping a Diet Coke. Bliss!

We enjoyed Kom-Ombo, since the site, dedicated to Sobek (the crocodile god) and Horus, was within walking distance of the boat mooring. We did have to face a gauntlet of souvenir sellers before we could return to the boat. The girls marveled at how quickly the prices fell for many items when we showed no interest. Of course, I felt compelled to help support the local economy so we bought a few trinkets.

In the afternoon, it was a little drive to the big Temple of Horus at Edfu, but overall a manageable 90 minute excursion. The detail on all the hieroglyphic reliefs was amazing - we all found our favorite little creatures and started hunting for them wherever we went.

We're just starting to have a little temple fatigue - it's beginning to get harder to keep them straight...

We all got dressed up for Egyptian night on the boat - wearing galabeyas, the full length tunics worn by traditional Egyptians.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The long day continues...

After lunch on the boat, we head out again - by this time, the temperature has increased quite a bit. We first visit the Unfinished Obelisk, which was good exercise in terms of a climb but left us rather hot and sweaty. The girls start a pattern of waiting for us with Mohammed in the cafe (and eating ice-cream) while Sean and I wander around.

The obelisk is pretty cool - it was abandoned in the quarry because of huge cracks that couldn't be repaired, but is now a great learning tool for us to see how these large obelisks were created. The obelisk is outlined by punching deep holes with a harder stone, then wet wood is placed in these holes. Then the workers wait until the wood expands enough to connect all the holes and create a channel. This could take years. The obelisk is then moved on rollers to the Nile, where it's placed on a large raft connected to 16 boats, to balance out the weight. It's moved to its final location, pushed up a ramp in order to stand it up. After it's in place, then the carvers come in to cover the obelisk with hieroglyphics and pictures.

Then we head to a boat that takes us to the Temple of Philae. This temple was also moved, stone by stone, from another lower-lying island after the construction of the High Dam and is dedicated to Isis. It's late afternoon by now, and the breeze is starting to pick up. The temple reliefs are beautiful, but it's colors were greatly damaged over the years as it was repeatedly inundated before being moved.

As our long day draws to a close, we head back to the boat to dress for dinner.

Sun Boat IV

Sun Boat IV is an A&K boat (one of 3 that are currently in service, they're also building a 4th) and moors at their private dock in Aswan. It's the largest of the 3 boats with 40 cabins. For our 3 night cruise, there are 76 passengers and 70 crew/staff. It's a very good ratio!

Unfortunately, the boat has no connecting cabins, so the girls are across the hall and one door down from us. The cabins are quite nice, with small bathrooms and a miniscule shower (as to be expected). The floor-to-ceiling windows yield beautiful river views, but don't open so we can't get the fresh air.

This is less of a problem than anticipated as we've flown south just in time for a major heat wave. Our time in Upper Egypt is blessed with 100+ degree weather every day. We all wilt fast...

Three flights; 3 cities = one long day!

We were awakened at the ungodly hour of 4 am to be shuttled to our A&K charter flight which was leaving at 6:30am for Upper Egypt. We first flew to Aswan, where our luggage was discharged to the boat and a few passengers got off. Then the plane took off for Abu Simbel (in southern Egypt, not far from the Sudanese border) where we made a visit to the Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor next door that he built in honor of his queen Nefertari.

Abu Simbel was truly amazing - in no small part because these two massive temples were disassembled, moved and put back together again, since their original site would have been under Lake Nasser, created by the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.

Ramses II ruled for 70 years during a very prosperous time, so he had a lot of time to build many monuments to himself. Many very large monuments - we ended up seeing him everywhere ;)

Then we get back in the plane and fly back to Aswan where we stop to take a look at the High Dam before boarding our boat, Sun Boat IV, just in time for a late lunch.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Back to Cairo

After a nice couple of days in Alexandria, where the kids thoroughly enjoyed the infinity edge pool, we headed back to Cairo for one night before heading down to Upper Egypt for our Nile cruise. Once again, we had a tourist police escort who sat in the front seat of the van - and once again, I didn't really get a very clear explanation of why he was there. Perhaps he just needed a ride back to Cairo?!

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

One of the reasons we wanted to visit Alexandria was to see the new library, completed a few years ago and dedicated to the memory of the Great Library in Alexandria set up by Ptolemy I. The new library is housed in an impressive building but only had about 500,000 volumes currently, with a capacity to grow to over 2 million volumes in the future. We also learned that it's home to one of the few Internet Archives in the world and the first one outside the US!

It was a big day for field trips to the library and there were many different school-aged children there, many of whom were from smaller towns and who were very curious about Amara and Narisa. We ended up chatting with quite a few of them, although they seemed to run through a standard set of questions with all foreigners ("What's your name? Where you from? How old are you?").

We also visited Fort Qaitbey, which stands on the site of the famed Lighthouse of Pharos, another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, destroyed by an earthquake centuries ago. In the spirit of recycling, many of the old lighthouse's granite blocks were reused in the fort, and can be identified among the rest of the limestone blocks.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Mediterranean Break

Alexandria is beautiful and has a very different feel from Cairo - much more Mediterranean. The Four Seasons San Stefano here is less than a year old and is a gorgeous hotel. Much of the decor uses my favorite color combinations of blue and yellow, and the breakfast room was the prettiest I've ever seen, overlooking the Mediterranean.

When we went out for dinner the first night, we had a tourist police escort who sat in the front seat of the van. We're still not quite sure why he was assigned to us, and the girls were quite confused. But he proved to be really useful in stopping traffic when we had to cross a busy 6 lane road. Please don't underestimate how important this was - you take your life into your hands when you try to cross roads here!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Made in Thailand" as a status symbol

We had a 3-hour drive from Cairo to Alexandria today and had some interesting conversations with our guide, Mohammed. He mentioned that Thailand is what Egypt aspires to be – moving away from a more agrarian society to develop local industries and local manufacturing. That Thailand is considered a land of opportunity for Egyptians. He told us that Thai goods are coveted here – that “Made in Thailand” is considered just under “Made in Japan” and well over anything “Made in China”. It’s quite an unexpected viewpoint!

In my few days here, Cairo reminds me of Bangkok in the 1970s when I was growing up there. I think Egypt is probably 20-30 years behind Thailand in economic development.

"I make very good price for you"

One of the elements of having a guide is the requisite stop at various shopping venues where, after a short display to see how the craft is made, you’re given a sales pitch for whatever the handicraft is. The sales pitch is usually low key and since we’re with A&K, we definitely see the classier shops (also the more expensive ones!). In Jordan, we visited a mosaic factory and saw how they assembled the 28 natural colors of local stone into decorative and functional mosaics. We also watched a gentleman whose been making sand art for 29 years create some very detailed masterpieces, and kindly personalized a couple of items for the girls.

Here in Egypt, we stopped at a carpet factory and saw various ways carpets could be made. The girls tried their hands at knotting some carpet. And the silk carpets were quite beautiful that I succumbed to a small piece representing the Tree of Love that we will hang in the house.

We also stopped at the jewelry store to get personalized cartouches made for the girls. Amara decided it was not for her, but Mei was thrilled. We placed the order and the cartouche will be delivered in a few days to our hotel. And of course, I couldn’t resist a rather costly bracelet for myself. A belated birthday present! Or perhaps a Mother's Day present, since that holiday is celebrated on March 21 in Egypt.

All of these purchases required a bit of negotiation – I like negotiating for the most part. It’s a way of life here, as in Thailand. However, I’ve definitely become much softer – I know that I could have done better if I had tried a little harder.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Climbing up the Great Pyramid

We finally went to see the Great Pyramids on the Giza Plateau today. It was quite smoggy so we weren't able to see them from our hotel this morning. Mei was worried they had disappeared.

Luckily, they were still there when we arrived after a quick stop at the famous Mena House Oberoi hotel for lunch. The Pyramids were huge and very impressive especially when contrasted to the Step Pyramid of Zoser at Sakkara (the very first pyramid, built some 200 years earlier), which we saw earlier in the day. We paid the extra fee to enter the Great Pyramid, which was a little creepy but a good workout. We climbed quite high inside the pyramid to reach the King's Chamber. The kids were good sports about it.

The Sphinx was a lot smaller than expected. And the crowds were huge. But Wonton (the Panda) had a good time.

Welcome to Egypt!

Our Cairo stay is at the Four Seasons First Residence - the decor is marginally more localized than the FS Amman, and the staff is extremely nice and friendly. We're on the 9th floor, where we can still hear the traffic on the congested street outside, and from our balcony, we have a great view of the Giza Zoo, and on a clear day, the Pyramids off in the distance.

Unfortunately, there really isn't anything within walking distance apart from a few restaurants moored on the Nile next to us.

Thankfully, we have tour coordinator Sherif, driver Mohammed and uber-guide Mohammad ("best guide in Egypt!") to shepherd us around and ensure that we do not blunder into anything unexpected (yes, that in and of itself, is a shame).

Our first day is an action-packed itinerary of visiting the Citadel, the Egyptian Museum and the Khan el Khalili market. With a stop at the Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop for a late lunch.

The Museum was clearly the highlight of the day. The collection was amazing, including some beautiful sculptures that were an unbelievable 4,000+ years old. Of course, the Tutankhamen collection was wonderful - it's strange to see something in front of you that you've spent all your life seeing in pictures. After my mild obsession with Egyptology as a teen, I felt a special connection with his wife, so looked for her figure in all the artifacts. The throne was my favorite piece.

The Royal Mummy room was a little creepy but enjoyable, nonetheless. The Animal Mummy room was fascinating - a 30 foot mummified crocodile is not a common sight. Plus who would have expected mummified fish?!

The market was a cacophony of crazy vendors using all possible tactics to get your attention - "How can I take your money, Sir?", "Lady, Lady", "Konichiwa" (I get that a lot). I especially liked the pita bread delivery boys who balanced their large supply of bread on their heads.

Can't get away from fast food

We arrived quite early at Amman Airport for our flight to Cairo - the A&K representation took care of check-in and lots of other little airport necessities while we stood around looking useless. After we cleared security, we went looking for some lunch. After walking around a few times, we determined that our options consisted of:
  1. Starbucks
  2. Cinnabon (not one but TWO outlets)
  3. Pizza Hut
  4. Popeye's
  5. World News Cafe (pastries and coffees)
It was a little sad. We ended up having Popeye's Fried Chicken.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Royal Suite!

The first good omen was that we were upgraded to the Royal Suite at the Movenpick Petra Hotel – this hotel had much more local flavor with fancy Moorish fountains in the lobby and an ornate chandelier in the sitting room of our suite. Sadly, the same could not be said of their dinner buffet, where the most Arabic item we found was hummus and some accompanying pita bread.

No matter, since our visit to Petra exceeded all expectations. We met Hamdi in the lobby at 8:30 am – well actually 8:45 since we, of course, ran late. This is the huge benefit of not being with a tour group! We entered the site and took over an hour to walk the Siq (the 1,200 m canyon entrance path into Petra) with Hamdi pointing out many interesting sights.

The first view of the Treasury as you come down the dark Siq was priceless. It was rather crowded, which was the only downside to our day. We ended up walking all around, and had lunch at the Bedouin buffet, which finally gave us a taste of Jordanian food. After lunch, the girls and I rode donkeys up to the Monastery, which was an upward climb of 800 steps. Sean walked alongside, taking pictures and trying to ensure that we didn’t hurt ourselves.

We ended up spending 8 hours in Petra – our main regret was that we didn’t get a carriage to take us out of the Siq. The way home seemed a whole lot longer and we finally returned back to the hotel – bedraggled and exhausted. We promptly retreated to the lobby lounge where we indulged in ice cream sundaes and french fries. What a day!

Why is the Dead Sea dead?

We headed out of Amman on the King’s Highway with our guide, Hamdi and our driver, Nabil. We made a couple of stops on our way to Petra, but at the last minute, I added a stop at the Dead Sea. After many phone calls to set this all up for us (really not quite sure why it was so complicated!), we ended up at the Amman Beach Resort on the shores of the Dead Sea. We weren’t terribly prepared so I ended up unpacking most of the luggage in the back of the van to locate all our swim things!

The Dead Sea ended up being well worth the stop – next time, I will plan on a stay at one of the nice Dead Sea resorts like the Kempinski. As you may know, the Dead Sea is so named because there are no living creatures in it, due to the high level of salt. We were warned to not get the water into our mouths and especially the eyes – you need to rinse out your eyes immediately if you get the seawater in them.

The sensation of being able to float in the water was very strange – like floating on an invisible floatie. We found all sorts of ways to float, and the kids loved the weird buoyancy. It was certainly the highlight of the day.

We're on our way!

After a lovely and uneventful flight over the Atlantic, we ended up with an overly long layover of 6 hours in Frankfurt. The girls had been looking forward to the tomato soup in the lounge but alas, they were serving beef consomme instead. Thank goodness for the gummy bears.

We landed in Amman at the ungodly hour of 2:30 am and were met by the Abercrombie & Kent representative who ushered us quickly through the process of obtaining a visa, getting through customs and picking up our luggage. Which was probably a good thing since we were all in a bit of a daze.

We stayed at the Four Seasons in Amman for less than 7 hours, although I’m pretty sure we didn’t get a break in the daily rate. I may have to rethink my Four Seasons strategy – the hotel room could have been in any city in the world. Very nice, very luxurious, but no local flavor to speak of. Thankfully, we found the “Foul” at the breakfast buffet (some sort of broad bean stew that’s a common Jordanian breakfast food, with lots of condiments.)