Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai Photos by Neil Friedman.
In mainland Southeast Asia, adrenaline junkies and nature lovers will discover full-throttle water sport adventures. Without mandatory deposit fees equivalent to mortgage down payments, visitors trek, snorkel, raft and kayak in pristine waters. For those seeking beaches, grottos, and limestone landscapes, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have become prime destinations. In Southeast Asia, adventure begins where the tides meet the shore. Here are 6 Southeast Asia Water Adventures.
Kayaking in Southern Thailand’s Angthong National Marine Park
For Hollywood filmmakers, billionaires, and broke college students, the Gulf of Thailand remains a draw for many waterborne adventure seekers. Northwest of famous Koh Samui Island, Angthong National Marine Park is an archipelago of 42 limestone islands carved by tide and wind. While camping is allowed with a permit, many visitors arrange tours out of Koh Samui that include swimming island lagoons, trekking trough the mountain, and eating at a local village. During the day, explore small coves and sandy beaches. Snorkel with tropical fish and survey Koh Wua Talap, the largest island in the chain, or Koh Mae Koh that boasts a green-blue inland sea called, Talay Nai. Glide kayaks across the Koh Mae’s bay and relax to the delicate sound of your paddle dipping into gentle waters while high promontories loom like grey-green sea monsters.
Boating through Vietnam’s Halong Bay
With a UNESCO World Heritage seal of approval, Halong Bay sits on the northern ridge of a limestone chain that sweeps up from the Gulf of Thailand and Angthong National Marine Park. Here, the karsts cluster into a mystical array of gray stone, verdant brush, and boats with iconic colonial sails and rudders. Meaning “dragon descending”, Halong Bay includes 2000 islands and over 600 square miles of the Tonkin Gulf, offering visitors dozens of beaches, grottos, and caves to explore. With its high salinity, bathers can jump right from the ship into waters so buoyant there’s hardly any exertion necessary. Stretching across the water surface, visitors can drift all day among spiraling crags. Visit floating houses lashed together into small villages. Or tether broadside to local fisherman, selling giant prawns and squirming squid straight from their nets. After a day caving, pull into Cat Ba Island, a favorite retreat for Hanoians escaping the city.
Sailing through Daily Life on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
Six miles south of famous Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap continues to play a vital role in the life of local Cambodians. Fed by the Mekong River during the wet season, Tonle Sap remains a major waterway for commerce and transportation. Every day, ferries carry commuters and cargo across the lake on their way to and from Battambong. For US$5, travelers can gaze through a window of life on the lake, witnessing how families live in boathouses, cooking, reading, and raising children in narrow canals. Children attend floating schools on large boats with open windows and basketball courts enclosed by high fences. Families visit floating hospitals, teetering gently in the wake. Women buy fresh fish and produce from vendors rowing along peacefully.
White Water Rafting in Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos’ religious and cultural capital, Luang Prabang is a town known for Buddhist temples, daily markets, and a laidback pace of life. At sunrise, monks and novices traverse the UNESCO World Heritage streets. At sunset, fishing boats shift back and forth in the wake of speedboats heading to China. On one side of the town, the Mekong River skims along, a wide boulevard of fertile silt and dependable currents. On the other, Nom Khan River sweeps in from the east, offering visitors white water rafting and kayaking for any skill level. From town, tours can be arranged with door to riverside transport included. On their second day in Luang Prabang, travelers could find themselves clad in helmet and life vest, digging hard into rushing currents. Guides lead rafters through crashing white waters and ominous rocks creating whirlpools. In the reeds, Lao children play in the shallows, making the peace sign as they splash each other. Along the river, mountains as diverse as the wildlife press up against the shoreline. Stilted houses perch on slopes growing tea. Birds cut across black rock cliffs. And women plod up and down terraced vegetable patches.
Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
In the 1970’s, backpackers looked around for a convenient stopover during trips between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital. From this necessity, Vang Vieng burst onto the scene, offering accommodations, meals, and more recently, tubing. On the riverside, two companies rent out massive inner tubes and drop travelers off upstream for a day of lazing on the river, listening to birds, and losing all thought to mountain peaks. From these humble beginnings, the tubing trend has become the main activity in town. On the river, bars jut out from the tree line, pulsing with Bob Marley tunes and hawking cheap mixed drinks. Bars feature ziplines, mudslides, and tug-of-war pits to keep patrons docked at their shores. On the river, meet other travelers and become inspired by how many consecutive days they’ve tubed the river. Back in town, relax on triangular pillows, enjoy the mountain air, and recharge for another day on the river.
Swimming with Elephants in Pai, Thailand
Sitting on the highway route between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, the little town of Pai is a major stop along the traveler’s path in northern Thailand. Here, artists absorb nature’s inspiration and Thais retreat from the bustle of metropolitan life. While there’s plenty to do on foot and motorbike, a popular activity in Pai is elephant trekking. Hotel staff can make tour reservations. In the morning, a guide escorts you to the elephant camps. The world grows quiet on the outskirts of Pai. Elephants eat bananas and throw grass into the air. The elephant trainer called a mahout helps trekkers mount the pachyderms and settle onto a thick blanket. No saddles here, riders spend the day bareback in the sun as the elephants walk through the forest. At the river, elephants suck water up their trunks, spray a cold drink into their mouths, and save just enough to splash up at their riders. Once the mahout gives a command, the elephants shake. The riders hold on tight only to be flicked like flees off the elephant’s back. Up into the air and down into the river, the riders splash, getting their cold drink too.
Meeting the Artisans of Fez, Morocco was one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. Much has been written about the Fez, Medina – I’ve even written some of it. In a nutshell, the Fez Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest inhabited car-free urban area in the world, the best example of a living medieval Muslim city and a place where you can stay in some amazing hotels, guest houses, dars and riads.
The Artisans of Fez, Morocco
I was fortunate in being able to take part in something that hasn’t been so extensively written about. I joined my friend Jessica Stephens (aka ‘The Jess’) on a medina tour that was focused on not only observing but also interacting with, talking to and getting up close and personal with the artisans who do their work and make their home in the Fez medina.
The usual medina tour goes something like this (and it’s good, don’t get me wrong)
“Here is the medina, here is a potters shop, here is the Quarawine Mosque, here is an old funduq, here is an old medrassa, and here are the famous tanneries from five floors up, now we will go to my uncles rug shop…”
Depending on how much you’ve paid your guide, you will get various levels of sales, various levels of information, and various levels of bullshit (How do you know when a guide is lying? Their lips are moving!)
This tour was different. Jess and I met with her clients at a cafe in Bathha which sits on the edge of the Fez medina and is very tourist friendly. They were nice, interesting people from Seattle who have traveled all over the world and lived in Vietnam, India, Malaysia and probably a few other places. One way to tell if a tour is interesting at a glance is to look at who is going on it. This one was looking tops from the beginning.
Jess went over the details with a map and asked them about anything in particular they wanted to see. He wanted to see the tanning process up close and she wanted to just enjoy the architecture since she’s an architect. I particularly liked Jess’s warnings at the beginning 1) This isn’t a shopping tour so they shouldn’t buy a bunch of things on the way – the guide could take them back later if they desired 2) Don’t walk into an artisanal and just start snapping photos, instead talk with people, let them explain what they do and then – after all of that – take some photos if they want 3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact with people and 4) Watch out for the donkeys (okay, I added that last one myself)
Once the briefing was done we headed down to the not so tourist friendly (but still safe and cool) Bab Rcaif, where we met with the licensed Moroccan medina guide. Here’s a side note – Jess pays her extra not to take visitors to any of the shops that most guides get commission from when tourists buy things. That’s not only cool for the guests, it’s also cool for the guide because Jess tries to compensate her for the commissions. There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fair trade these days, but this is the real deal in action.
Our first stop was to the dyeing street inside the medina. This is an entire derb (small street or alleyway) dedicated to the art of dyeing clothing and material. We were able to stop and ask questions along the way from the dyers and they showed us the process of the vats, using wool and also aloe vera silk harvested from the mountains.
This old man was the shop steward in one of the dyeries…the map of lines on his face speaks of the travels of Ibn Battuta and more. Here’s something else nice, rather than the guide simply telling us everything – she allowed the artisans themselves to speak and then translated. This might seem like a small thing but it made a huge difference in terms of trust and authenticity.
From there we crossed over the river and went through the metal working and mirror shops. All along the way, Jess was giving the artisans, the workers and the kids copies of the photos she had snapped on previous expeditions. It’s something that brought smiles of delight to the old and young and made all of us welcome guests along the way.
The metal working area opened up into the Attarine Square – one of the oldest squares in the medina and our lovely guide told us about the history of the migrations from Tunisia and from Andalucia and how they set up on different sides of the river and had a fierce rivalry which caused Fez to become the shining light of the times – home of the first university (The Quarayine University) and also I learned something I hadn’t known – there are 365 mosques in the Fez medina and that is why it is the spiritual capital of Morocco ( of course the guide’s lips were moving as she said it, so you might want to count).
We paused to explore a bit of the square and see the famous library though since it is still a place where students study, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Still, magnificent…
Down another narrow winding passageway and we came across a fellow who works exclusively with bone and horn. He showed us how he heats the bone and horn make it flexible and then he is able to cut around it and create beautiful shapes that can be carved and polished.
Now we were heading to the area where a recent scandal shook the medina. I hadn’t been in town for more than a few days and already I’d heard about it from three different sources. Here is the scandal and the very unfair way it turned out:
A fashion magazine of some sort came and booked a tour with their models of the famous Fessi tanneries. When they got there, they apparently bribed someone to be allowed to go down in the thick of things despite the fact that they were using an illegal guide and technically aren’t supposed to go down there. Once down there, the models stood in the center and stripped nude! Now, this might not seem so scandalous but remember, this is a conservative Muslim country and these guys working there are among the conservative working class – it was shocking! As a result, the models and the photographers were escorted out but the manager of the tanneries and the guide were both jailed and charged 4000 dirham – which is a huge fine here. Anyway, we had proper permission and we all kept our clothes on.
Even clothed, the tanneries were still amazingly interesting. I’d always wanted to get down into the pits and see the process and it was incredibly fascinating. The process goes a bit like this – skins are brought, thrown into the limestone pits (filled with pigeon shit and lime) and soaked for a few days. After this they are thrown onto a huge electric wheel that scapes them along the floor and gets the hair loose. Next a man scrapes the hair from the hides. After that, they are thrown in another pit with more chemical agents. Following that they move to the dying vats (the brown ones) and then they go to be dried, scraped and softened, and finally made into your shoes or bag.
I probably don’t need to say this, but the smell is something you can simply not imagine. It is awful throughout. The guys in the pits looked at us suspiciously as we wandered through, probably wondering if we would take our clothes off or at least ‘Why the hell do they want to come down here?” We walked through the entire process and then blissfully, left the tanneries to head to the carpet weaving area. The weavers rooms didn’t smell bad at all, but then, after the tannery, nothing really could!
The weaver spoke excellent English and gave an demonstration of how to make material. We found out that for silk and cloth, it is generally men who do the weaving but for rugs, that is up to the women (like the women weavers I met in the collective in Rbat al Khair a few months ago). The scarves and textiles were gorgeous and in a variety of colors but most striking was a deep cobalt blue. The dyes used to be all natural but these days (we had found out on the dyer street- most of them are chemical dyes).
After this we took a car from Rceif to the artisanal school commissioned by the King of Morocco. In the school we met a master zelij (mosaic tile) craftsman, teaching four apprentices his craft with a massive piece. We also had the chance to meet and talk with a Moroccan slipper maker and to see a number of the workshops where master artisans are teaching their craft to pupils. Among the skills being passed on are the making of the oud and Moroccan fiddles, stone work, glass, tile, ceramics, wood working, and much more.
Finally, withe the tour of the artisans of the Fes Medina complete, we all sat down for lunch and took a good rest. This was an awesome tour – I hope that more tours like this that 1) respect the local people 2) interact with the culture 3) create an appreciation for the arts and handicrafts of places – continue to show up.
It isn’t often I encounter a man so sweet from head to toe.
But what should I expect of one made of almond paste and sugar?
He’s one of 12 life-size figures on display in the Marzipan Salon, the upstairs museum inside the Café Niederegger, famous throughout Germany for its marzipan confections.
The particular object of my interest is the figure of Thomas Mann seated, appropriately, with book in hand. The 1929 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was born in Lübeck where his grandparents’ house served as the setting for his novel, “Buddenbrooks.”
The home still stands not far from the café and operates as a museum, as do museums devoted to two more Nobel laureates from Lübeck: Author Gunter Grass and former Chancellor Willy Brandt.
Lübeck reached prominence centuries before any of these three came along. Designated a free imperial city in 1226, it became the capital of the Hanseatic League, a powerful confederation of 200 city-states banded together against pirates and warring nations to protect their trade in the Baltic. Unlike sister Hanseatic city, Hamburg, some 40 miles away, many of Lübeck’s medieval buildings still stand, earning the old city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
St. Mary’s Church: Germany’s third largest church was built to show off the power of the Hanseatic League. Begun around 1200 in Romanesque style, builders changed their minds, switching to the Gothic style of the massive limestone cathedrals then being built in France.
But Lübeck had no limestone. When it was completed in 1350, St. Mary’s was the largest red-brick church on the continent and became a model for about 80 churches scattered through the Baltic region. Its middle nave remains the highest brickwork vault in the world.
Bombed by the British on the night before Palm Sunday in 1942, its roof burned and towers came down. Since restored, the bells that fell that night have been left embedded in the floor as a memorial to world peace.
Inside you’ll also see a huge astronomical clock and the world’s largest mechanical organ with 10,000 pipes, one more than 36 feet long. Outside the church, a bronze figure of a devil, with horns rubbed shiny by passers-by, should intrigue you.
Legend has it that when the church was being built the devil thought it was to be a wine cellar so he enthusiastically helped the builders. When he discovered a holy place instead, he fell into a rage, throwing boulders and creating all sorts of mayhem. City fathers appeased him by promising to construct a wine cellar next door in what is now the town hall.
Dining at the Schiffergesellschaft:
Saying it is a mouthful, for sure, but dining here is a pleasure for the mouth and a feast for the eyes.
Since 1535, this house built in Renaissance style with stepped gables has served as the meeting house of the skippers’ and sailmakers’ guild. Now leased as a restaurant, it serves traditional German fare, but be prepared to share a communal table unless you can snag a seat at individual tables along the wall.
Order the duck breast with apples and red cabbage or the wiener schnitzel with fried potatoes. While you wait for your meal, look around at the wooden beams, the huge chandelier, ship models, the long oak tables and benches ending in posts decorated with the coats of arms of captains who commandeered the Hanseatic League’s ships.
Members of the guild still meet here on Tuesdays for informal chitchat.
You can’t miss it; the turreted red brick fortified gate, now tipped slightly forward, sits as a landmark at the main entrance to the old town. Built in the 15th century with red brick, black glazed tiles and a terracotta frieze, it was meant to both intimidate visitors and repel intruders.
Inside you’ll find a museum devoted to the history of Lübeck with a scale model of the town in the Middle Ages and exhibits describing the Hanseatic League. The gate was once equipped with 30 cannon, none of which ever fired a shot. Check out the turret with fireplace where tar was heated to be poured down a pipe onto enemies below. One room devoted to medieval instruments of torture just might give your nightmares.
Panorama from St. Peter’s Tower: Built as a church in the 13th century and enlarged in the 16th century, this building now serves as a gallery and coffee shop.
What makes it special, though, is the view from the top of the tower. Walk up or pay a few euros to ride the elevator for a panorama of green-clad belfries, red-brick buildings and red-tile roofs. From this perspective you’ll see that the Altstadt, the old town, is built on an island, the better to protect it from invaders.
The Trave River and canal completely surround the medieval city.
Town Hall and Marketplace:
Lübeck’s Rathaus, one of the oldest town halls in Germany, was built as a hall for trading cloth.
Begun around 1230 with the erection of a large wall with three towers and two wind holes, it was added onto several times, including a sandstone front section put up in 1570. Lübeck’s Senate still convenes in the council chamber.
The Marketplace on the plaza in front of the town hall is a good place to sit on a nice day, enjoying a coffee or a beer and watching the world go by.
Marzipan at Café Niederegger:
Lübeck is so famous for its brand of marzipan that any confection of almonds and sugar marked “Lübecker Marzipan” is protected by law as an authentic product of this city. Several big companies ship it around the world.
The most well-known, though, is Niederegger founded in 1806. It operates a store, café and museum just a few steps from the Town Hall. Walk into the first floor stop and you’re greeted by a riot of confections, including 300 varieties of marzipan as well as pralines, nougats, cakes and other pastries, many beautifully wrapped.
Upstairs, the café serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and early supper. Whatever the time of day, be sure to order a steaming cup of fresh-brewed coffee and a slice of the house specialty: a nut torte.
Another flight of stairs (or elevator ride) leads to the museum with its 12 life-size figures, mostly notables from local history. You’ll also find Faberge-style eggs three feet tall and a model of a ship that took marzipan chefs 350 hours to create. A video explains how marzipan is made and exhibits in a hallway are devoted to the history of marzipan, which dates back to Persia in the 10th century. In Europe it was packaged in little boxes called mataban, from which the candy took its name. Knights carried the boxes of treats from the Middle East home during the Crusades.
You feel the rumble in the earth before you hear it. You see wisps of mist rise high into the sky as if a forest fire has commenced. As you draw closer your ears begin to pick up the roar, you feel it in your soul. The locals call it the Smoke that Thunders. You have arrived at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
The falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the boarders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Here the Zambezi river drops almost 400 feet across a 1 mile wide face into a remarkably small cut in the earth, making it the largest falls in the world. The attraction is part of two national park systems. Mosi-ao-Tunya (translated to the Smoke that Thunders) National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe.
I awoke before the sun, on my first day. Eager to capture the falls in good light from the Zimbabwe side, I hired a taxi to fetch me and get me to the entry prior to opening. The silence enveloped us as we sat in the dark, waiting. I began to question my safety. Alone, with a strange driver, holding over $15,000 in camera gear could prove to be a poor idea. Young men walking past, AK-47’s on their shoulders, interrupted the silence. They were on their way to relieve the night shift guarding the border and bridge to Zambia. I’m starting to imagine the headlines that the western press will print when they find my body later today. Undeterred I await the arrival of the park attendant to let me in.
The Zimbabwe side of the falls is far more developed than the Zambian side. However, with the political strife and humanitarian crimes being brought upon the population by Robert Mugabe, their leader (in no sense of the word), hotel occupancy is low. The Zambia side has record occupancy and capital investment in facilities is up. An argument could be made that the falls are just as beautiful from that the other side, but I want to photograph them coming straight at me. So I’ve come to Zimbabwe.
This is the second journey of my life to this region of the world. I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia 450 miles and a 12 hour drive north, in the mid-80’s. This was during the civil war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and during apartheid in South Africa. The ‘freedom’ fighter, Robert Mugabe lived in exile in my Lusaka neighborhood. Too bad he survived to release so much human tragedy upon his people. When I lived here the first time, we couldn’t come to the falls because of the war. Today, my first, I’ve come to photograph for my book, “Portraits of Our World”. The book is meant to build schools for the poor children in this region of Africa. The perceived risk sitting on this border today is worth it.
Perhaps the idea that this trip is allegedly risky is the point. I do not believe it is. The people of Zimbabwe are very warm and hospitable. They are often delighted to have you. The preponderance of the crime that occurs in this region is related to economics, motivated by the need to eat and feed one’s family. The Mugabe regime itself will not hassle you, as you bring hard currency and commerce. The hotels are at low capacity, meaning great rates. Now is a good time to visit.
The Vic Falls lookout area is not all that large. Big enough only to face the main body of the falls, it is easily walked carrying whatever gear you decide to bring. In reality you will be left surprised that there isn’t more too it. As you pay your small entry fee and move through the gates you are greeted with a spectacular rain forest made possible by the water spray of the falls. You will see mahogany trees, ferns, palms and various vines that you cannot see anywhere else in the area.
As you emerge on the other side your senses are inundated. The roar resonates at a bass level that you feel in your bones. Depending on the wind and time of year, you may not be able to readily see the falls because of the great mist it generates. The resulting, and always present, rainbow serves as the crowning jewel. Keep moving along the face and you will eventually find the perfect spot.
For the true adventurer you can hire a helicopter to fly up over the falls. We did this and were able to capture the most amazing images as you can see here. Don’t spend your entire time behind the camera. It is too easy to be caught up in capturing your surroundings and forget to actually enjoy the experience yourself.
There are a number of things you can do in the area to further enjoy the destination when you are done with the falls. White water rafting on the Zambezi is very popular. The river is very violent be forewarned. Don’t miss the chance to sample wild game meat. My favorite is the The Boma Restaurant, located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The $50 charge per person is worth it. Note that Zimbabwe no longer has it’s own currency. They rely on the US Dollar, South African Rand, Botswana Pula and the Euro instead.
In order to more fully appreciate my adventure I departed Zimbabwe via the bridge over the Zambezi to cross into Zambia. With loaded backpacks, together with my wife and children (11 and 12 at the time) we made the crossing. After stamping our passports upon departure, the border guard let us across the barrier.
We crossed the bridge, a one mile long no man’s land between the countries. We had a surreal feeling as we walked towards the Zambian side, their armed border guards looking on. We were readily welcomed, cleared through and on our way.
Traveling is a matter of pushing all your senses beyond the daily norm. New people and cultures, new food, new smells, even new fears. Sometimes the fears are unfounded which allows you to open your eyes a little wider and gather the courage to head off to another life changing destination that is mistakenly avoided by the masses. Sometimes your new reality simply serves to open your mind to the world you live in daily. Either way, a journey to Victoria Falls can be much more than simply visiting the Smoke that Thunders.
Carl Grooms is the editor of the island focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines. He produced his latest book, “Portraits of Our World” after a one year trip around the world. He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions. At last count Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, braved the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.
I love to trek – it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do. It’s one of the reasons I chose to live in Peru in the first place. In fact, I love it so much that I somehow decided to go on one of the most infamously difficult treks without properly preparing for it.
We were heading for the Inca ruins of Choquequirao: famed as the lesser-known “sister” to Machu Picchu. Ruins perched atop a distant and isolated mountain, said to be the last stronghold of the Inca.
To keep me company on the adventure I brought along two old friends, also trekking enthusiasts. We all knew it was going to be tough but had no real idea what we were getting into. I started getting a clue, however, when discussing it with my guide, Alfredo Fisher, along with another friend who intended to come with us. She has bad knees and had thought she could ride most of the way.
One look at Alfredo’s face told us that was not happening. Bless him, he can be overly optimistic but he doesn’t lie. He informed us that there were many areas of the trail that were too steep to ride on. With hindsight maybe he was lying: I’d say there are areas of the trail that were too steep to WALK on, let alone ride.
We set out by car from Cusco at around 5 in the morning and traveled a few hours through the hills to a town called Cachora from where we were to begin our trek. There, we met up with our horses that were to carry all the equipment and our bags, their handler (Don Julio) and our assistant cook. The cook had come with us from Cusco.
That first day we soon found out what Alfredo meant by steep. Before long we had left the smooth rolling fields behind us and entered the towering gorge of the Apurimac valley. An unspeakable distance below us thundered the river. Between us and the water stretched the thin line of our trail, following the near-sheer drop to the valley floor.
We negotiated the precipitous trail right into the fearsome heart of the valley. We descended such distances that the climate visibly changed around us, getting warmer and subtropical until the trees were dripping with ripe mangos and avocados. Just hours before we’d been shivering in the chilly, thin Andean air!
Part of the fun of trekking is the camaraderie at the end of each day’s hiking, enjoying a few drinks at camp after dinner. Not for us on day one of the Choquequirao trek: we ate dinner at the valley floor and took our weary legs to bed.
What goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and on the morning of our second day we looked back up the other side of the valley, trembling with the prospect of climbing all the way back to the top.
The trail followed a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks, each turn blending into the last. Legs burning, mid focused on making it to the next turn, I almost forgot to look up from time to time; whenever I did I was virtually bowled over by the site of the enormous valley and up ahead, peaking out of the clouds, our destination; the ruins of Choquequirao.
When we finally reached our camp for the second night, the view was simply breathtaking. Eating dinner with the sun setting behind the mountains and the ruins almost within our grasp, we soon remembered why we willingly put ourselves through such ordeals: the payoff is easily worth the pain.
Waking up the next morning to the panoramic view is one of the reasons I love these treks. The scenery is so dramatic it is almost impossible for a camera to do it justice.
An hour or so after leaving camp we reached the gates of Choquequirao. Although not built with the same Imperial grandeur as Machu Picchu, the site is still an amazing place, if only for its isolation and lack of visitors: we had the entire place to ourselves.
It can take days to explore the ruins in their entirety and archeologists reckon most of the ruins are still hidden. Experts believe the city was originally an administrative centre for the region. It has a bloody and dramatic history: these mountains provided the final stronghold for the beleaguered Inca as the Spanish chased them from their capital in Cusco. The gates of Choquequirao were among the last to fall before the once mighty Empire was vanquished once and for all.
We took our time exploring the ruins; partially through fascination, partially through trepidation of resuming our hike through the valley.
After lunch we began the hike back down the canyon, on a trail that turned out to be the most treacherous part of the trek. Coming across a series of steep stone steps, our porters were forced to unload the mules for fear of losing them to the canyon.
Almost crawling along the last stretch leading to the trailhead, my self esteem received a welcome boost when our cook caught up with me, only to declare that this was the first and last time he would ever work on the Choquequirao trail! I wasn’t alone, and even better: my pain was being shared by someone born and bred in the highlands, accustomed to hiking and working on the mountain trails!
Thanks to the grueling trek, Choquequirao remains an under-visited site, but is within easy reach of Cusco and makes an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail. Maureen travelled with Alfredo who can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively book in advance through a reputable Peru trips provider.
Most of my day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.
I should begin by making it clear that I’m not a Catholic. I believe in the God that makes it possible for me to worship with all of the people of the world, so when I found out that there was a famous pilgrimage in Bologna, Italy I determined to make the pilgrimmage since I was already in Bologna as a guest of Emilia-Romagna Tourism.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is a destination for pilgrims from all over the world and while I was in Bologna primarily to worship the food and architecture, I decided to make the trek to the magnificent sanctuary which sits atop the Guardia Hill and serves as the most prominent landmark in the beautiful city of Bologna.
Here is a complete list of Hotels in Bologna, Italy – because even pilgrims need a place to sleep! (Complete and up to date reviews and pricing)
Bologna is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is ‘the people’s umbrella’ which consists of more than 53 kilometers of covered walkways which developed from the medieval habit of extending the first floor of houses out over the sidewalk. The extensions were then supported with wooden beams and stone – and eventually, they became public space within the city. The result is that people in Bologna need not carry an umbrella even in the most violent downpour because they can get just about everywhere without stepping out from under the porticos. While there are many famous portico walks, the longest of them is the trek to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.
This amazingly long and uninterrupted portico stretches from Porto Saragozza where you will find the Museum of the Beata Virgine di San Luca. The towers and crenalated porticos which house the museum dates back to the 13th century but had famous design work done on it by the noted 19th century architect Giuseppe Mengoni.
From Porto Saragozza pilgrims remove their shoes and begin the 3,796 meter (about 2 1/2 miles) climb up the longest uninterrupted portico in the world. The portico has been in place since 1433 and each year the famous artifact, which is a Byzantine portrait of Madonna and Child, is carried in procession from the Sanctuary, down the hill, and then back up. The porticos were designed by Gian Giacomo Monti and later continued by Carlo Franceso Dotti and others. The section completed by Dotti is perhaps the most amazing in terms of architectural values as it utilizes a huge number of perspectives and vanishing points which enhance the feeling of awe as the pilgrims climb the steepest sections.
While I wasn’t there for the procession, there were still hundreds of pilgrims marching shoeless up the hill and stopping along the way to say prayers, make signs of the cross, and in some cases weep. There were Malaysian nuns, South American groups, American devotees, and Chinese catholics marching and chanting side by side.
The reason is that Byzantine portrait which is said to be the work of the famous evangelist St. Luke, author of the Gospel of St. Luke in the new testament. Interestingly, he is credited as being the first to paint icons of the Virgin and Child. The effigy is the patron saint of Bologna. Upon reaching the top, the Sanctuary opens up in a wonderous display of outdoor Baroque architecture that is both beautiful and adds to the sense of wonder before entering the sanctuary.
I arrived, with the pilgrims just before Mass was to begin. As I said, I’m not Catholic, but when I saw nuns tuning up guitars and felt the hushed electricity of the pilgrims as they began to sit, I decided to stay for Catholic Mass, which was a first for me. I can hardly imagine a more serene or exciting setting and while I didn’t understand the words, I felt the tears of the old Italian couple next to me and afterwards joined the true believers as they wound through the sanctuary to come for a closer look at the Madonna and Child.
The sanctuary itself was also re-designed and enlarged by Dotti and carries a very solemn and profound energy. I found it very interesting to be in Italy, looking at a painting brought from Constantinople (Istanbul) a thousand years before listening to prayers in a language that wasn’t my own after traversing 666 arches (how odd they should use that number) to reach it with hundreds of barefoot pilgrims.
I offered my prayers to God asking that my own wife and child be kept safe while I was away from them and stepped out to enjoy the beautiful walk back down into Bologna – I was fortunate in that on the day of my pilgrimage, the sun was shining brightly.
Ferrara, Italy is well off the beaten path of most visitor’s travel plans when they come to Italy – and that contributes to exactly why you should take the time to stop in this charming cobble-stoned Northern Italian town.
More than just having the chance to enjoy a medieval Gothic town including a rather beautiful duomo (cathedral) and plenty of delicious cuisine – the big draw to Ferrara is being able to explore the massive Castello Estense which sits, surrounded by a story book moat with drawbridge, right in the center of this charming little town.
Ferrara owes it’s charms to the architect Biaggio Rosetti and his patron, Ercole d’Este who was forward thinking enough to hire him and ask that he fuse the old and the new into Italy’s first modern town. Ferrara is a UNESCO world heritage city.
For those who are interested in history or famous persons (or who enjoy watching the series The Borgias) the son of Ercole d’Este was Alfonso, the final husband of Lucretzia Borgia. Lucretzia is actually buried in Ferrara.
Castello Estense was built first in 1384 and then later modernized during the reigns of Ercole and Alfonso. Modernization continued until the 19th century – but because of the size and effectiveness of the initial design, the castle remains a wonderful example of Renaissance architecture with elements of the Gothic and Medeivil.
Within the castle, much is as you would expect, massive kitchens, dungeons, hidden twisted passages – but there are a few gems hidden away. For example, one doesn’t expect to find an orange grove on the roof of a tower – but here there is one.
The Ducal Chapel is equally surprising, not for it’s ornamentation, but rather for it’s lack of frescoes and decoration which is easily contrasted with the rich frescoes and ornamentation of the Chamber of Dawn just a bit further. The surprise here are the massive mirrors which haven’t been added so tourists can see the ceilings easier, they were a part of the original design! In fact, this room (and the two following) were known as The Mirror Suite. Slightly further on the nude Greek figures wrestling on the ceiling are the defining feature of the Hall of Games.
While there is much more, the truth is that exploring this castle needs to be done in leisure and in person for maximum enjoyment. Once you’ve done that, my suggestion is that you head out into Ferrara, hire a bicycle, and then dig into the local culinary specialty cappellacci di zucca which is a round pasta stuffed with pumpkin and served with al burro e salvia – or butter and sage.
One thing is for certain, you won’t be disappointed with a visit to Ferrara, Italy.
There are few places I’ve traveled where I feel so completely at ease as the Lombardy region of Italy. I’m not sure if it’s the quality of the air, the familiarity of the way people look, the food, or something all together different, but Lombardy certainly speaks to my soul.
While Milan and Bergamo are both wonderful places to explore Italian art and culture, there really isn’t much better than getting away from the cities and visiting Lake Como – one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and a crown jewel of Italian masterpieces. Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy.
Lake Como is shaped like a large inverted Y and has nine major towns and dozens of small villages along its shores. The easiest town to reach is Como since one can get a train from Milan, Bergamo, or elsewhere for next to nothing. The transfer station is at Monza, on the outskirts of Milan and from there you have a direct journey to San Giovanni train station in Como. Since the journey is only a few hours and incredibly cheap (6.25 Euro each way from Bergamo) this makes for an incredible daytrip. Another option is to come from Lugano, Switzerland through Chiasso.
To come from further abroad you can take overnight sleeper trains from Amsterdam via Duesseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt and Basel.
Of course if you want to stay (and trust me, you will want to stay) there are a great variety of Hotels and Hostels in Como and the surrounding towns that offer everything from luxury to simplicity.
Lago di Como sits at the base of the Alps and the top of the inverted Y sits amid gorgeaous alpine scenery. For those who are curious, Como is a border town with neighboring Switzerland.
Como was a popular destination as far back as the Roman era and has a considerable history even before that. Touristic sites include the beautiful lakeside mansions and the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio or Sacred Mount of Ossuccio which is part of a group of chapels leading to a monastery and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tremezzo, Griante, Menaggio, Nesso, Bellagio, Verrena, Bellano, Colico, Lecco, and Cernobio are the other towns that surround Lake Como. Perhaps you thought the Bellagio was only a casino in Las Vegas? It’s a beautiful little Italian town and like all the towns and cities around Lake Como it has gorgeous villas, lush botanical gardens, and incredible churches – but the big draw is the views of the lake and the Alps surrounding it.
Getting around Lake Como is easy. If you have a car, motorcycle or bicycle – the roads are just fine. Buses are cheap and frequent between the towns but the best way is to take the boats. Like Istanbul, this is a region that relies on ferries to move from one place to another.
A funicular runs up one of the mountains and offers spectacular views plus some incredible sites within the town itself.
If you are interested in more than historic sites, Lake Como offers a huge variety of outdoor activities from sailing, boating, hiking, camping, walking, strolling along the water, fishing, and even kite surfing or flying lessons!
Finally, for a reader and writer such as myself, Lake Como is a special treat (not to mention as a geek, I appreciate that I’m actually at Star War’s Naboo) but- in literature we have:
During my time in the Emiliga Romana region a few months ago, I was fortunate to be able to take part in a bird watching tour on the Po River. With more than 350 species of birds having been sighted in the Po River Region, this is a territory that at first glance looks unvaried, but is actually quite surprising richness.
Indeed, the agricultural landscapes vary much more than the human eye can see. Birds can profit from this, finding what they need to feed themselves and, in some cases, to breed.
This is one of the best places in the world to watch herons, kites, kestrals, and of course, flamingos. I didn’t have the fancy bird-watching camera that many of the other passengers on the boat had, but I still managed to catch some images that I hope show how nice the day was.
In particular, there was a large group of senior citizens from Belgium who are part of an RV camping club, these folks with tattoos and piercings on wrinkled old arms are exactly the type of old person I hope to someday be.
While it was exciting to see the Peregrine Falcon, a red-footed falcon and the lesser kestrels, the highlight for me was just being on the water and seeing this unique landscape filled with pink flamingos!
In addition, the French speaking tour guide pointed out some fish smuggling camps. An interesting note was that there are always two doors in the smuggler cabins so that when they see the patrols coming they can run out the back and escape in their long fishing boats.
A visit to Bologna, Italy is usually characterized by great food, exploring the wonderful architecture, perhaps doing the Portico walks, checking out the tall towers, and perhaps enjoying music, art, or cinema at Bologna’s many festivals.
Hidden in the midst of all of that, are several wonderful offbeat museums that are definitely worth your time. First of all, near the train station and slightly away from the center is a museum filled with works that just about no one thinks of when they go to Bologna – Modern Art.
The Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Bologna opened in 1975 in the spaces specially designed by artist and architect Leone Pancaldi; it was born in the atmosphere of intellectual fervor that pervaded the city at the beginning of the Sixties. Before GAM’s opening, more than a decade of events, exhibitions and competitions had taken place in hope of its construction, culminating in the opening activities joint under the title “A museum today.”
Inside you’ll find a wide array of rotating exhibits and a wonderful permanent collection that ranges through such an eclectic mix as tribute to New York break dancing videos to Toilet Seat art (which, by the way, the security seems a little uptight about – when I began lifting the lids to see the symbols painted under them, a very upset guard began yelling at me in Italian and then followed me the rest of the way through the museum – my contention is that there was art under the seats, so obviously the artist intended it to be seen!) Due to the close scrutiny, I was unable to take a photo of this wonderful toilet seat display. Shit!!
When I visited there was an immensely interesting Marcel Broodthaers temporary exhibit which highlighted his artistic path and how it developed over the course of an extraordinary career that lasted just 12 years, from 1964 to 1976. Titled, Marcel Broodthaers. L’espace de l’écriture, the exhibition was extraordinary.
Another Bologna Museum that I found to be well worth my time was the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca Della Musica (International Museum and Library of Music). While this was a small museum, for music lovers it is a must see. Tucked away inside the 16th century Palazzo Sanguinetti, this museum was designed to hold the musical objects of the city of Bologna, but quickly grew to become an international library for sheet music! With wonderful murals, a delightful old curator, and plenty of old instruments – you won’t be sorry if you pay a visit.
The frescoes alone are worth the price of admission as they are meticulously restored 18th century examples of Neo-Classical and Napoleanic art that are unlike just about anything else in the city.
Here is a blurb from the museum’s website:
The first and most important intent was to bring awareness to the greater public of the rich variety of musical heritage that the Comune di Bologna owns and has kept for a long time. Until now, much of this heritage remained confined in warehouses for various reasons – the first and foremost being the lack of adequate space – and was only brought out occasionally for temporary expositions.
The museum’s core musical collections were created by Franciscan Father, Giovanni Battista Martini in the 1700’s who was not only a great scholar and collector but also the teacher of Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. In addition to enriching his library day after day, gathering manuscripts and musical works of various kinds, Padre Martini collected portraits of musicians.
For me, the most fun was to see the instruments: lutes, flutes by Manfredo Settala from 1650, the pochette, various little violin, the ghironde, the serpentoni, the extraordinary series of horns and cornets from the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally, the tiorba, which is in the shape of a khitára.
So, as you can see – Bologna offers much more than just food and architecture. Here are a few more museums you may want to explore while you are in the heart of good living.
Legend has it that at the height off her career, Sophia Loren became fascinated with eels and asked that they be incorporated into one of her films. The most beautiful woman in the world, the greatest actress of her era – and she was asking to co-star with slimy electric tubes that have the capacity to creep most people out…what in the world was happening here? And what the heck was so special about eels?
Sophia Loren wasn’t the only one to wonder this. Sigmund Freud spent an entire summer slicing eels apart to find their sex organs – he didn’t succeed. In fact, to this day, the sexual life of eels remains a mystery and the place where it takes place, Mexico’s deep Sargasso Sea still holds the mysteries – but one thing is certain – such is the power of the eels urge to reproduce that it drives them from the far points on the globe – places like Iceland, Turkey, and the small Italian town of Comaccio which sits on a lagoon where the Po River meets the Adriatic Sea.
The lifecycle of the eels is, frankly, rather astounding. The females lay a couple of million eggs which hatch into little leaf-like things and then drift across the Atlantic before growing into tiny ‘glass eels’ – these then continue to the place where their genes come from where they grow for several years before heading back across the Atlantic to the big eel orgy at the bottom of the Sargasso Sea.
But there is more to the eel than that – they are one of the few creatures in the world that can effortlessly move from salt water to fresh water, they produce an electric current which they use to hunt their prey, they are fairly long lived with lifespans of up to 85 years but they die after spawning. They are also very tasty and around the world they are said to offer some incredible benefits to those who eat them. For example, drinking wine that has been infused with eel skin is said to cure alcoholism, eating the heads (or any other parts) is said to create massive sexual desire and health, and more.
But, back to Sophia Loren. While she didn’t talk about the eels in her memoirs, what we do know is that in 1954 she played a worker in an eel factory in the film La Donna del Fiume – or the Woman of the River. The film was set in Comaccio and shows Sophia at the height of her beauty proudly displaying her armpit hair and a can of pickled eels.
As to Comaccio itself, this beautiful Italian town is worth more than a short visit. The best way to see Comaccio is by bicycle – don’t be surprised when you find yourself wondering if you’ve accidentally wandered into Venice. The city is composed of thirteen different islets which are surrounded by canals, ponds, and the Po River Delta. All the this is connected together by a series of beautiful bike paths, hiking trails, and even a couple of great Italian Gelato shops. Bikes are available from the tourism authority.
Comacchio is one of those wonderful gems that you don’t find much about in the guidebooks, you don’t see a lot of travel writers writing about, and as a result – a holiday in Italy becomes much more affordable, less crowded, and interesting when you go there.
The city is located in the Emilia-Romagna region and is roughly half way between Venice and Bologna. In fact, in it’s history, the city was once a main rival for the salt trade with Venice and has shifted from independent to subject city of Ferrara and Venice both. Today, the salt ponds still exist and the city has a couple of tourist draws – bird watching in the Po River Delta has become a big business and visitors flock there (sorry for the pun) all summer to see flamingos, cormorants, falcons, and more in a beautifully preserved estuary environment.
In addition, you can visit the eel canning factory and museum. While it may not sound all that interesting, in truth, it is and you will find out more about the eels, their migration, their importance to Comacchio, and see the every interesting specialized tools the local population used to farm and harvest them. In addition, you can eat them and drink some very nice local wine here as well. Plus, they have a theater that shows the Lady of the River in a constant cycle.
There is much to do in Comacchio – from shipwrecks recovered from the lagoons to the massive nature reserve to strolling through this UNESCO world heritage city center – you won’t get bored. If you do, you can head to some of the nearby beaches, ride horses, or take a boat ride through the canals in a Gondola for much less than you have to pay in Venice.
The eel pickling museum has 12 working fireplaces where from October to December you can eat the eels just the way the locals always have. Heads removed and roasted on spits. Maybe you can figure out the secret of the eels, but one thing for sure, you will find them delicious.
If you want to eat fresh eels in Comacchio, you will have to get them in autumn or winter but the pickled variety are available year round. If you want them to costar with you in a film – La Donna del Fiume is due for a remake – right Hollywood?
The three pictures in this post are some of my favorites though I took hundreds. These pictures from top to bottom are more interesting though – read on to find out why.
When you are in Rome, whether it’s for a day or a week, one thing you have to do is visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. If the ticket price of 15 Euros sounds a little high, let me assure you, it’s not. What you will see inside is worth every penny and more.
I’d like to introduce you to some of the wonders that I came across as I wandered through this incredible collection of the world’s most wonderful art.
As in much classical art, there was an abundance of angry dudes and sexy nudes – and there was a bunch of art too.
1) Despite the angry security guards saying ‘No Picture, No Video’, nearly everyone was taking photos in the Sistine Chapel. That included me. When I showed this picture to my wife she was disgusted “Aggghhh, how obscene to think you could depict God in a painting. You can be sure that painter is in hell.” Not exactly what I was thinking as I looked at one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces.
Coming in, you find a staircase and as you wind your way up it, you will notice that there are more than a few canoes and canoe paddles from the many places that Catholic missionaries have landed, converted, and conquered. For some reason these struck me in a bad way…although it was a magnificent collection of canoes. Moving on…
2) When I first saw these saints painted in the niches, I thought they were real people. A photo can’t capture just how three-dimensional some off these paintings are…astounding.
If you are only going to visit one museum in Rome, certainly it should be the Vatican Museum. Add in a trip to the Colosseum, and a stop in Vatican City and you’ve followed the Vagobond itinerary to see Rome in a day. It wasn’t built in a day, but I feel like these three stops and the transport between them give you a good chance to get a feel for the what was once the capital of the Roman Empire and is still a masterpiece of a city.
The price of the Vatican museums might seem kind of steep at 15 Euros but when you consider that it includes some of the most famous art the world has ever produced and the celebrated Cistine Chapel, suddenly it starts to seem more reasonable. Museo Vaticani is a must see.
3) I’m not a religious man and I’m nowhere near Catholic, but this painting spoke to my soul. Note the hanging bodies, the monk, pleading and the people in the background seemingly just having a chat…this was real life. It lives on.
Florence. Perhaps no other city in the world evokes as many cultural, artistic, and architectural visions as the capital of Tuscany in Italy. Home of the Renaissance, this city filled with museums, palaces, and churches holds a huge number of the world’s cultural treasures. Perhaps, the most important of Florence’s sites are the Baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Cathedral, but the San Lorenzo library is certainly the finest example of Michelangelo’s architectural gift and should not be missed.
Those who are on last minute holidays or seeking the Italian Renaissance, need only look upon the palaces, buildings and squares of Florence for each of them are masterpieces. Many of them built by the most admired artists of all time. In Florence, when you want to see the work of Michelangelo or Brunelleschi – there is no need to go indoors to a museum.
1) Piazza della Signoria is an L shaped plaza in the heart of Florence that serves as the historical and cultural center of the city. While unremarkable in terms of design itself, it is the surroundings and the history of this piazza that make it a must visit location. Surrounding the piazza you will find The Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzao Vecchio, the replica of Michelangelo’s David, statues by Donatello, Cellini and others and as if that isn’t enough, the Piazza marks the place where both return of the Medici family was and the famous Bonfire of the Vanities took place. The radical priest, Girolamo Savonarola who burned the books and treasures of the Florentine elite was later himself burned in the square – the exact spot is marked.
2) Palazzo Vecchio which literally means “Old Palace” is still the focus of the piazza. It was built in 1302 asthe seat of Florentine government and is still used for the same purpose. As such, only portions of it are open to the public. This was the original palace of the Medici family. The clasic blocky castle-like architecture is not centered on the tower for a reason, it was actually built around a tower which is far older and served as the substructure of the current tower. This is a Romanesque building with many Gothic elements. Inside is a treasure trove of courtyards, salons, and more than a few priceless artistic works.
3)Ponte Vecchio is a wonderful closed spandrel bridge which crosses the Arno at its narrowest point and is believed to have been first built in Roman times but is first mentioned in the year 996. The bridge still has shops along side it and a hidden walkway along the top so that the Medici didn’t have to expose themselves to the public when crossing. It was originally constructed in wood but wasdestroyed by a flood in 1333 and rebuilt of stone in 1345. Culturally interesting is that right on the bridge is the place where the concept of bankruptcy was born. The statue of Cellini in the center is surrounded by a small fence festooned with padlocks. Lovers will lock the padlocks and throw the key in the river to bind them together forever. A sign surrounded by locks forbids the practice. Urban legend says that the tradition was started by a padlock shop owner on one side of the bridge. Smart move.
4) Torre della Pagliazza is also called the Byzantine Tower and the Straw tower. This is regarded as the oldest building in Florence (7th century) though there are several other candidates that might fit that description better, but none of them quite so wonderful as Pagliazza Tower. The tower today has been incorporated into the very nice Hotel Brunellesci but was once accommodation of a different sort – a female prison. This is the origin of the name “Straw tower” – female prisoners were given a bit of straw, a luxury denied to male prisoners.
5) The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St John) is also said to be the oldest building in Florence though it was built in the 10th century and so is not. Still, it is old and the stories of it being the oldest are based on the fact that it sits atop earlier structures – one even rumoured to have been a Roman temple to Mars. It is particularly famed for its three sets of wondrous bronze doors which have only recently been put back in place after extensive restoration and preservation work was done on them. The three sets were made by Pisano, Ghiberti including the famed East doors called by Michelangelo “The Gates of Paradise”. The Bapistery is built in a Florentine Romanesque style that served as inspiration for the later Renaissance styles to emerge in Florence.
6)The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore also simply called the Duomo of Florence was built from 1296 when the first stone was laid.The dome created by Brunelleschi with its exquisite facing of polychrome marble panels and the cathedral itself designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who also designed Palazzo Vecchio). The dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed (completed in 1496) and the cathedral remains one of the largest in the world. The competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi was fierce to see who would get the commission for the dome – when it was awarded to both jointly, Brunelleschi feigned sickness until Ghiberti bowed out thus leaving full credit to Brunelleschi. The drama between the two is the stuff of great film and literature. The dome itself is made of more than 4 million bricks and pre-saged the mathematics that were later used to define it. Brunelleschi’s innovations served as inspiration to a young apprentice who worked on the dome’s lanern – Leonardo Davinci.
7) The Basilica of San Lorenzo Library is in the center of Florence’s straw market district and is where most of the Medici family are buried. This building is also claimed to be the oldest in Florence and has a pretty good claim since the church was consecrated in the year 393. The building was designed by Brunelleschi and contains Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. The entire complex serves as an important bridge between the old architecture (pre-renaissance) and the new architecture which followed it.
In Central Anatolia lies a land that looks like it comes from The Lord of the Rings- Cappadocia. Even the name has the ring of a fairy tale Kingdom.
“I, Sir Vago of the Kingdom of Cappadocia, do ride forth to seek out new lands and great fortunes.” – or something like that, though Cappadocia was never a kingdom of its own and in fact was a place of troglodyte refuge for Christian outcasts and societal misfits.
The landscape of massive stone chimneys (wistfully called fairy chimneys) and dream like rock formations are the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. From the 4th to the 11th Century a community of Christian refugees carved an unbelievable number of churches from the stones. Houses were also carved and the traditional livelihood was agriculture until the 1980’s when a tourist boom started.
A new friend we met in Goreme, Cemil, has lived there since that time and he remembers when there were only three hotels in Goreme. Now there are hundreds and when we arrived, they were almost all full. No need to tell you what the number one industry is now. Many people come to Goreme just so they can enjoy Cappadocia Balloon Tours. There is nothing quite like floating over the fairy chimneys as the sun comes up.
Goreme is a magical place and filled with charm. An interesting fact is that in Goreme, it used to be that if a man didn’t own a pigeon house, he wouldn’t be able to get married. These days there must not be many marriages, though more likely is that that particular tradition was tossed aside with agriculture when tourism became so lucrative.
Virtually everything in Goreme is directed at tourists from the hot air balloons to the travel companies, tour companies, restaurants, and tourist shops. Unlike other tourism hot spots though, the prices seem reasonable and the people don’t seem so hungry for the hunt.
It’s one of the things that really makes me sick about tourist places is that the people who work in tourism tend to forget that the clients or customers are real people, instead they become prey. It’s the same for criminals, people become prey and they are something to be hunted. I went through it myself as a tout and as a stock broker, if people simply become a means to an ends, life becomes much less magical and satisfying. While we did encounter quite a few people who were on the hunt in Goreme, it was less than r Fez and the hunt itself was less in your face than either place as well.
We had a very nice breakfast with our friend Cemil at the Blue Moon Hotel before heading out to the Goreme Open Air Museum. this is an astounding place, though no more so than Goreme itself. The big draw at the Open Air Museum are the rock cut Byzantine churches and the painting and frescoes they contain. Admission was 15 lira each.
Flash photos weren’t allowed and several guides told us not to take photos at all which was a bit extreme(they say the flash destroys the color of the old paintings). And in fact, everyone was doing it.
The rock cut churches had interesting pews and tables carved in them, graves which had been robbed or excavated in the floors, and of course the paintings. This was a monastic community and then became a pilgrimage site for Christians in the 17th Century.
Hanane was not overly impressed with the paintings, in particular the Red Ochre made very little impression on her. “I could get up there and paint the same thing right now. They’re fake.” By this point, we were laughing each time she called something fake but I still think she was partly serious. Once again we opted to skip the extra fee, this time 8 lira each to see the frescoes in the Karanlik Kilise. I feel no regrets over that. I really hate to pay an entrance fee only to be faced with another entrance fee.
We exited feeling that we had both seen enough churches. While we didn’t have the time this visit to go to the underground cities, it was a nice thing to whet our appetite with the rural charms and comedic tourist hunting that takes place there. As examples of how the hunt is conducted in Goreme you can look at the names of the Pensions. Flintstones Pension, Bedrock Cave Hostel, Ufuk Pension, Shoestring Cave Pension and more. We were recommended to try the Peri Cave Hotel, though as I wrote previously, we were very fortunate to be staying in the Moonlight Cave Suites.
We strolled through the Rose Valley and then went back to Goreme village where we had a bad dinner, at Cappadocia Pide Salonu. Not recommended. Awful.
From there we hiked up to the highest point in Goreme and watched the sun go down and the lights of the fairy chimneys flicker on in Goreme. A bottle of wine would have made it perfect.
From there it was back to our cave to enjoy the hot tub, king size bed, and overall luxury of the Moonlight Cave Suites. Warning – don’t scroll down or you will see more of me than you want to.
The hustle in Egypt is relentless and from my perspective anyway, downright shameful. Don’t get me wrong, I call both Morocco and Turkey home, so I understand the hustle from the carpet vendors in the Grand Bazaar asking three times the price they want because the guidebooks say tourists should ask for half price to the Moroccan haggler that will overcharge you by 1000% just because he can. I don’t dig that stuff, but they at least have something in common that I can respect. Once you agree on a price, that’s the price. Not so in Egypt.
Granted, my experience is limited to airport hustlers and taxi touts but within a short time, I noticed something that offended me far more deeply than being over charged. Egyptians continue to try to gouge you for higher prices even after you have agreed on a price. The price goes up when you pull out your wallet, if you pay in advance they then tack on extras like the ‘airport ticket’, and even if you shake on it – they will tell you a higher price immediately and try to wheedle it from you. That, to me is offensive. The violation of the agreement.
I can live with Egyptians (and Moroccans and Southern Italians, Greeks, and other North Africans) violating my ideas of what the que (line) should be and why it should be respected. Frankly, I think it is a reason why their societies are less successful than say those of Turks, Northern Italians, Brits, Germans, or Americans. So, I hate my idea of the line being violated, but I loathe the idea of the handshake being nulled. The most classic example of a deal done. When an American shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and tells me something – and then it changes – I honestly feel a desire to maim and hurt them. With the Egyptians, I just feel an intense sadness because the handshake isn’t even worthy of a lie. The agreement of a price, isn’t even an agreement.Certainly, a society where agreeing on a negotiated price holds no weight – isn’t a society I want to be in for even a day more – no matter how cool the Pyramids might be.
The Oasis Hotel in Heliopolis
The name certainly sounds nice, but like the agreement on price, the name holds no meaning at this particular establishment. I’m certain that I’ve stayed in worse hotels. The hard part is remembering where and when that was. The one positive thing I can say is that I didn’t get bit by any bugs – but, I did have to sleep in a room that smelled like it had been fumigated hours before I arrived. I woke up coughing Raid fumes at 3 am. In fact, I woke up a lot. This wasn’t due to anything buy my own paranoia.
The door had been kicked in so didn’t close securely and the security bolt had been ripped off but replaced with just one undersized screw so that didn’t make me feel any better. The windows didn’t bolt or secure and the one chair in the room was too small to fit under the doorknob and the clothes bar from the closet wasn’t long enough to make the windows close.
The bathroom appeared to have not been cleaned in years – if it had been, it was only a bad cleaning. In terms of the room itself, it was a 1980’s TV and an air-conditioning unit that continually dripped water on the carpet (and had been doing so for years) while rattling and banging. The noise from the street was too much to sleep with the window open and besides, I had odd security fears since I am traveling with cash and jewelry I bought for my wife in Turkey – not something I usually do, but I expected a short layover with a controlled environment – not this madness.
The sheets had about a hundred holes in them and the shower curtain was covered in mold. This is a 3-star, they assured me at the airport before I foolishly handed over my $50 without seeing the room. Not something I would normally do, but I needed to be back at the airport to catch a connecting flight. And there I was – sleeping on a massive mattress covered with holes and waking every thirty minutes as doors slammed and lights flashed across the windows. At 6:30 – I was fully awake feeling cleaner without a shower, besides no towels. Breakfast was unrecognizable meat cooked with onions and some sort of awful beans. I like middle eastern food. I’ve had delicious Egyptian food, I’ve had breakfast all over the world – but this, I don’t know what this was except awful.
This sucks. I never wanted to visit Egypt like this. I wanted to have wonder and excitement, not frustration, disappointment and complete and total uncertainty. This is my fault – I pressed the buy button. I took the single leg of the flight. I blew it.
Even the coffee I got in the airport was a hustle. 21 Egyptain pounds it said on the board and when I gave the barrista 21 EGP, he told me, “No” you have to pay the tax and rang it up as 26 EGP. I told him “If you have to pay a 25% tax on a cup of coffee, it’s time for another revolution” and he didn’t smile but said “This is the airport, there is a service charge.” This after making me wait ten minutes, go back to the counter and ask for my cup of brewed coffee. I’m not at all in love with this place. Huge no smoking signs and three people smoking under them. They told me to wait until 8 AM for standby but then made me wait until 8:30 AM and then said “There’s no space, this is a full flight” but they knew that at 6:30 AM when they told me to wait until 8 AM.
The driver last night was on the phone with someone and kept saying “No money” and it was quite surely in reference to me since I was paying as cheaply as possible. He asked for a $1 million dollar tip. He got nothing. Nor did the hotel. Nor did the barrista, except he took it in the service charge. It’s amazingly difficult to get out of Cairo and I just want to confirm when and if so that I can make plans – take a tour, go somewhere else, figure something else out – anything. It’s this limbo situation in a hustler touristic hell that is unbearable. Maybe all of Egypt is like this, I hope not, but so far, this is what all of Egypt is like to me…ugly.
The wifi in the airport is the sort that doesn’t work on my netbook or my phone or my kindle. It comes up as limited connection. So I can’t plan anything here either. The hijabi ladies at the reservations center told me to wait for one hour to see if I can confirm a flight for tomorrow or the next day. It’s going to cost me something like $400 but it will be first class – hahaha. Shit. I can at least afford it, but I’d rather use that for something else since I’ve already paid for one ticket.
But shit, I’m in Egypt. No matter what they tell me, I’m going to sort things out after that. I’m going to find a hotel, get a decent room, use the internet, visit the Cairo Museum, see the Pyramids, visit Luxor, buy my wife a Nefertitti necklace like Granddaddy used to get for Ganny and move onwards. Dammit, I just want to go home and see my daughter. I’m trapped in tourism hell.
My head hurts – the bad AC, the bug spray, the lousy sleep, the lumpy mattress, and constant feeling that I might be robbed or molested by bedbugs in the Roach Oasis. I found my Raybans though – that’s a good thing. Maybe these ladies will find a solution for me. Maybe this can all be turned around. I hope so.
Awful ideas come a thousand at a time to me. For $400, I can fly to Tunis and then onward to Casablanca. At least I think so. Or maybe I could figure out a way to go to Libya. Maybe I can discover a way to traverse all of North Africa in a shitty yellow cab.
Quite frankly, it is tourism that has ruined the world. Capitalism first, then tourism. People should just stay home. I should just stay home. I don’t even think that’s possible for me – especially since I don’t have a home. Where is my home?
Big Bear? Nope. Bellingham? Maybe, sort of, but not really. Myrtle Creek? Nope. Portland? Not really. Honolulu? Might be the best bet, but I’m a mainland Haole so it can never truly be mine. Seattle/Tacoma – Not at all despite being born there. Sefrou? I hope not. Istanbul? I like it, but I’m not even Turkish. Redding? Jesus – almost worse, no definitely worse than Sefrou. But at the end of the day, home is where my hat is hanging and it’s hanging in Sefrou with my wife and daughter – so for the moment. Sefrou is home. I want to go home – I don’t care about the hat, I care about my girls.
I should develop some sort of plan.
1) Talk with the reservations girls and see if they can help me
Find someplace with internet or rent a nice hotel room
Arrange some kind of tour, since I’m here
If necessary – find an alternate flight home or just pay the necessary total
Go home and never leave on a solo trip again unless my way home is already secured
And it turns out that the girls at the reservations office in Terminal 1 were able to help me. They got me a flight two days later for a $38 change fee. I used the internet and found a nice, cheap hotel near Tahirer Square – Invitation Hotel for $38 for two days including breakfast and a night cruise dinner on the Nile, an all day Pyramid Tour, and a private car back to the airport the morning I leave for about $72 more. So, $150 more and I have a very nice Egypt trip. Yes, I would have paid $200 at any time in my life to see the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.
The Egyptian Museum
Overwhelming is an overwhelmingly understated word when it comes to the Egyptian Museum. Over 130,000 artifacts dating from Egypt’s massive history. Yes the King Tut mask is magnificent. Yes the mummies are creepy and cool. And yes, it is an amazing journey through a history that most of us are at least passingly familiar with. I spent an afternoon just bopping and bouncing from room to room and letting whatever caught my attention catch my attention.
A statue of a pharaoh with an incubus on one side and an Anubis (I think) on the other. Perhaps it was two gods – one with jackal head and one with falcon head.
The household items and furniture. A beautiful folding chair with a leather back and a detailed design of the symbol of eternity (a man sitting cross legged with arms outstretched) embossed upon it. The still comfortable looking couches and neck rests – I want to try one.
King Tut’s knife with the golden sheath and handle.
A funerary box with a ‘family’ of tiny blue sarcophagi mummy boxes arranged peeking over like Moroccans on a rooftop.
An incredibly fine marble statue of a Roman or Greek.
The mummified animals. The massive crocodiles were wondrous but the dog and monkey arranged staring at one another really blew my mind.
The burned out shell of the former governments ‘Democratic’ headquarters next door and the completely stripped out Museum shop. The lack of uniformed guards inside but the eyes of the very watchful men in each of the rooms who are assigned security duty.
These, no doubt, are the men who, when fires were burning as the coup/revolution took place – took the truncheons and guns of the police they had been fighting and lined up around the museum – reportedly saying “This is our history and if it disappears, we will never get it back.” They were unable to stop the first looters who stole a reported (but probably more) 50-100 items but they kept the bulk of the collections (and the most important pieces) safe for 12 hours until the army sent troops to take over. All of that was part of what blew my mind. The burned out cars in the parking lot next door, the eyes and lack of uniforms of the guards, and the real story behind the history.
Also overwhelming was the massive hugeness of the collections and the arrangement though without placards, audio tours, or a guide – I found myself enjoying it and able to simply wander and let my eyes fix on a treasure and then discover it. I see wonderful things.
This had the potential to become yet another layer of hell and upon setting foot on the massive boat, I almost immediately felt regret at booking this dinner cruise – especially since I was on my own and everyone else on the cruise was in large groups. One wedding group, a couple of birthday groups, some traveler groups – but no one else on their own.
The big boat and the mediocre buffet along with the tacky dining room, the unsmiling waiters, and what certainly promised to be unremarkable dance had me sitting on the edge of a table for eight with a party of four on the other end unable to look out the window and feeling slightly creepy as the karaoke began in the saloon. So, I ate my meal – the most remarkable piece of which was a pickle salad with small red peppers – and then I went up on the main open deck and decided to skip the entertainment. After all, I can see whirling dervishes, a dancing dwarf (yes they had one and I’m a bit sorry I missed that ) and belly dancers (okay, I admit it, I also regret missing them because they might have been sexy, but then they may have been old and wrinkly too with flabby elderly bellies – somehow I doubt that, but it makes me feel better) anywhere but I can only see the Nile and Cairo in Cairo on the Nile.
I don’t regret my decision to go to the upper deck because night on the Nile was both magical, real, and surreal. Small party boats with blaring speakers and a profusion of neon lights zipped by with guests sitting on them. Egyptian sail boats (I want to know how they are rigged) and windsurfers tacked by us at amazing speeds. The lights of the city, the skyscrapers, but mostly – it was my new friend Ibrahim, an Egyptian artist who sells souvenirs on the boat (though I must admit, he didn’t sell any that I saw – not even to me.) It was extremely enjoyable to feel the wind from the Nile and talk to this guy about life in Egypt, his home near Giza, the revolution, and his art. His art is pouring colored sand into bottles and then using wire to make pictures with it, building ships in bottles, and creating sand paintings of Nefertiti and other Egyptian scenes. His work was beautiful but the themes were so kitschy that I couldn’t even bring myself to ask about the prices. Maybe it was the bright colors or maybe it was something else – but I simply didn’t really want his work, even though I almost convinced myself that I did. The one thing I considered buying was a sand painting of Nefertiti – okay, I admit it, I regret not buying it.
As we left the boat, I saw the dwarf in his costume and a couple of guys showing each other pictures of the belly dancers – I have the memory of cruising on the Nile and making a new friend. No regrets.
I don’t know how mind blowing the pyramids must have been before there was tourist infrastructure and aggressive touts, but judging by how astounding they still are today they must have completely blown the fucking minds of every person who came upon them. I know they blew my mind.
My driver picked me up at 8 am and we drove out towards Giza but continued on to Saqqara, home of the oldest of all the pyramids, the famous step pyramid which the Egyptian government (or someone) seems to be in the act of rebuilding. This pyramid is considered to be the one that started the whole trend. Nearly 7000 years old, it was built for King Djosar by the great Egyptian architect Imhotep. Surrounding the pyramid are many complexes of buildings which it seems no Egyptologists have firmly labeled yet. In other words, nobody knows – except for perhaps the touts who will be more than likely to tell you the definitive answer.
Despite my driver’s warnings about the aggressive touts – I found them to be much less hassle than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the medinas in Fez or Marrakesh – of course, there were only about ten touts there and I was the only tourist that I saw – I was dressed in black like the foremen of the construction and I spoke enough Arabic I think they all thought I was an engineer working there. Now is the time to come to Egypt if you want to experience the Pyramids, Luxor, or other amazing ancient places without crowds. The touts though, are tricky – several asked for my ticket and then said come with me – which sounded official but was actually just a way to give me a tour and grab a tip or fee – but I already know that trick and took my ticket back and walked away ignoring them. In fact, I may have ignored some real security as I walked past the construction fence and into the areas marked closed. It was just me on the ground and all the slaves, eh, workers doing whatever they were doing to the pyramids above. Just me and a 7000 year old pyramid – leather bags full of pot shards, an open door that led down into where-ever it led – the tomb? The burial chamber? I don’t know. It was dark and I didn’t have a light. I didn’t really want to fall into a 500 foot shaft and have some future archaeologist find me and say “Hey, what’s this guy doing here?” as he picks apart my bones. But, I touched the pyramid. In fact, I pissed on it. I marked it as my territory.
The step pyramid is only one part of a vast burial complex that served the city of Memphis (not Tennessee). There are several more pyramids in various states of disrepair in the area. Our next stop was a series of old kingdom tombs where the touts were slightly more aggressive and annoying. I attribute this to a busload of Mexican tourists who arrived at the same time as I did.The touts began directing people where to go, closing doors to parts of the complex, and enforcing the no picture and no camera rules – until they would get a tourist alone and then they would say “You want me to take your picture in here? It’s okay.” Frankly, this offended me more than the touting – the rule is there to protect these treasures and preserve the feeling of specialness inside the monuments – I therefore declined, as did most of the Mexicans. I saw one of the touts manage to get a couple of bucks from one old woman, but mostly, they were just annoying. The police ignore it and I’ve heard, they sometimes even participate.In post Arab-Spring Egypt, tourism is way down and the economy isn’t doing so hot either. People have to make a buck and support their families, that’s not always so pleasant for those of us who are fortunate enough to be visiting.
In fact, though, it’s less pleasant for the Egyptians. As we drove to Saqqara, we passed dozens of Carpet Schools. I asked my driver and he said that in this region, people are very poor and can’t afford to send their children to school. The children have to work at an early age. Families send them to ‘Carpet School’ where they work 9-12 hour days weaving rugs. As the driver explained “You and I can’t do that work for that long because it will destroy our eyesight and give us arthritis.” My heart broke as I realized what he was telling me – these ‘Carpet Schools’ are child sweat shops to make Egyptian rugs.
From Saqqara, we drove to Giza. My driver wanted to stop at a perfume factory but I told him I wasn’t interested. He wanted to go to the Papyrus Museum (another factory) but again I wasn’t interested. Suddenly, he was less interested. He told me the price to get in the pyramids, explained how big the complex was, told me about horse and camel rentals but wouldn’t tell me the total price. He was a nice guy, my driver. An old guy with a funny habit of saying “Do you understand?” where most people say “You know?” I don’t know how much he makes for the tour without the commission, but it must be disappointing when a cheapskate like me comes along.
The horse renter gave me his spiel and offered me a special discounted price of 280 EGP for a 1-2 hour horse ride around the complex. That’s about $45 – and it was about 100 EGP more than I paid for the tour I was told was all in. I told my driver never mind. My enjoyment was gone. I didn’t care about the pyramids anymore. Take me back to the hotel. I was done. We ended up at 160 EGP which is about $25 US and include $10 for the entry ticket. I’m so glad I did that.
My Bedouin guide, Alex, kept all the touts away from us and we took the long ride around the plateau so that I was able to truly experience the majesty of the pyramids at Giza and the feeling of what it is like to be alone in the desert with the Great Pyramids – on a horse. I’ve never specifically wondered what it would be like to ride an Arabian horse across the Giza Plateau and be alone with the Pyramids – but now I know.
As we rode up to the Sphinx, I saw the seats from the Sound and Light Show of the Pyramids – the seats don’t appear to have changed since the movie Moonraker where James Bond fights with ‘Jaws’ at the pyramids. Inside the temple of the Sphinx, there were no more than ten people. Jaws wasn’t there. The touts tried the ticket trick again, and failed again, and Alex waited outside with the horses. I asked the Sphinx a question and the answer was a riddle.
We rode back into Giza town like cowboy movie heroes on funny saddles with funny stirrups. My driver offered to take me to a few more locations to buy souvenirs, but I told him to just take me back to the hotel. We were supposed to see the famous Red Pyramid, but honestly, I’d already seen everything I needed to.
I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be very cheap to buy souvenirs and a small gold necklace for my wife in Egypt. I suppose my mistake was easy enough – with tourism down, the cost of hotels and tourist activities are lower than ever in Egypt. I made the assumption that this would also include tourist items and that the domestic economy would be such that buying some luxury items would also be cheaper. I think it was a fair assumption and it might even be true in some areas, but certainly it wasn’t true anywhere I went in Cairo.
I quickly determined that buying any sort of souvenirs near the pyramids was a huge mistake as the prices began at around $20 and I was pretty sure these were $1 items. My next stop was a small mall near Tahirir Square where I found a gold merchant who told me that gold was at a premium in Egypt because no one was certain about the currency. There went that idea, but I figured I might try at the airport and maybe I could actually find something unique in the airport shops or the duty free. Yeah, right – at the airport, a stuffed camel doll made in China was $20 with no room for negotiation. That was my other quest – something special for my daughter – a baby. I couldn’t bring myself to pay $20 for a toy that would be $3 in the USA, $5 in Turkey, $7 in Morocco, or less than $1 in China. As to the gold in the airport – a small pair of scarab earrings that must have weighed just a gram each were $276. With gold at $50 a gram or thereabouts – I couldn’t do it. Especially when he told me that they sold by the piece, offered no guarantee, and would not provide me with a weight or certification.
I’d been to a few of the souvenir shops around Tahirir Square and found that the prices were approximately 300-1000% of the price they should be. In addition, the gift shops at the Egyptian Museum, gift shops at the Pyramids, and elsewhere were poorly stocked. Cheap ‘papyrus’ scrolls and Chinese made junk souvenirs with ancient Egyptian themes seemed to be the things that were in abundance. None of which I was looking for. I visited a hijab shop, thinking that perhaps I could get my wife a fancy Egyptian hijab, but fashion, especially Islamic is so foreign to me that I couldn’t really find my way to purchase a hijab, besides which, I don’t really want to encourage her to wear a hijab anyway. Toy stores and kids stuff – I didn’t find anything. I thought about getting them fancy Egyptian djellabas but the truth is, to me, they looked just like Moroccan Djellabas. My wife doesn’t like perfumes – so that was out. Moroccans don’t really seem to appreciate souvenirs, so I skipped that. I thought I might buy a kilo of fancy Egyptian dates – but the dates were all fresh. I bought a bag and put them in my checked bag hoping customs wouldn’t take them from me. Still, I needed something. Egyptian glass seems beautiful and delicate so I bought four delicate little glass bottles for Hanane and a brass scarab for me. I actually would have loved to find a fancy reproduction of King Tut’s tomb knife for me but never saw anything like that. For my wife, I was looking for a necklace my grandmother used to wear – a gold disk with a bust of Nefertiti on it on a delicate gold chain. No luck.
Finally, I arrived at the airport with just the glass and the scarab. I still needed something so I purchased some expensive food products at duty free. $35 for some fancy dates, some sesame crackers, and some jasmine honey. More than I would pay for them in the USA, I’m fairly certain – but you can’t go home without presents and souvenirs of some kind. I’m still hopeful they might sell something decent on the plane….
The Invitation Hotel
I feel very fortunate to have found the Invitation Hotel. Wonderful location right near Tahirir Square, a great friendly staff, and best of all – a clean room, with nice sheets, satellite TV, internet, and air conditioning.
The manager when I arrived was friendly, helpful, and honest. There was no hustle with her. She smelled like my grandmother which I’ve managed to figure out is a smell of Gigi perfume and stale cigarette smoke. For me, it’s quite a nice smell when blended onto a woman with finely sculpted eyebrows and a friendly attitude. She helped me set up my tours, took payment, got me a cold drink and helped me with many things.
Overall, the hotel was a great place for the two days I was here and the price was perfect. About $25 per night. The night/morning guy was a hefty Egyptian with a pleasant demeanor but that unfathomable attitude of hating you while he smiles. He was a lazy dude. In the morning, I had confirmed that breakfast was at 8 am repeatedly, but at 8 when I woke up, he told me, “I’ll get it in 15-20 minutes.” Since I had pickup at 8:30, that wasn’t going to work. I asked him to get me some coffee right away and do his best to get breakfast – he flounced away in that huffy fat guy in his 20s kind of way. We had a bit of conversation but it was hard to take anything he said seriously, mainly because he was a spitting image of my former boss, Spencer at the ill-fated TechPlanet in dot com Seattle circa 2000. How in the world had Spencer ever been made my boss?
The hotel itself was good with some minor annoyances. The bathroom in my room was being redone and they opted to continue the work while I was out – when I returned it was still being worked on. I had to use the toilet, but had to wait twenty minutes. After the pyramid tour, I returned thirsty and asked for a bottle of water. The girl at reception told me she would bring it to my room. 30 minutes later, I was still waiting. It was only when I got in the elevator that I found the 8-year-old boy they had sent to fetch it returning with it.
To be fair, there is a mineral water shortage in Cairo. It can be hard to get and the prices have gone sky high, though the guy who charged me 20 EGP for a small bottle at the museum was a robber.
And then, the tour recommendations – I don’t recommend a dinner/dance cruise to any solo travelers – that was a mistake even if it was nice to be on the deck above looking at the Nile and Cairo. The pyramid tour didn’t include ticket prices, a guide, or water/lunch. It was budget, but I could have done better outside of the hotel.
Fly the Hajji Skies
As usually happens when I catch any flight to Morocco, and I can only assume as happens whenever you mix Moroccans and airplanes – chaos ensued. Add to that, the fact that most of the passengers were pilgrims returning from the Hajj (the sacred trip to Mecca that all Muslims are to conduct – if possible- at least one time in their lives) and hilarity quickly becomes a part of the equation. The hilarity is a result of the fact that most of these pilgrims are old, taking the one trip of their lifetime, and all very proud and happy that they have fulfilled their life’s mission. The waiting room at the airport rang with the calls of Ya Hajj and Ya Hajja (loosely translated as “Hey honored person who has completed your sacred duty (both male and female)). Once you have completed the Hajj, you are called Hajj or Hajja. It is a great honor and you can see it as these old Moroccans call each other Hajj, yell out the name to call their friends and loved ones, and every other oldster who is now a Hajj or Hajja turns to look.
Still, these are Moroccans and so regardless of respect, Hajj or not, when it comes time to form a queue and move forward, they press into a tight wedge shape and everyone begins shoving. I stood back out of respect for their age and their new status, but the other Moroccans I saw let the dynamic of the line push them forward. The Moroccan line is a living and pulsing thing of awfulness and if I didn’t need to sometimes get somewhere, I would refuse to take part. But, I need to get in the wedges to get a taxi, to buy food, to get government work done, and more. So, I am forced to be a wedgii as well. “Ya Wedgii” I managed to hold back until the second bus and then I was among the last to get on the plane, but this was a mistake because my seat was all the way in the rear.
Most Moroccans don’t know much about assigned seatings or the protocols that go with bag stowage, first class, economy class, or anything else that is fairly standard knowledge in the orderly western travel world. So, there was complete and total chaos as all the Hajj and Hajja tried to stow their pilgrim baggage anywhere they could, got told to go to their assigned seats, and made a muck of things. The young Lebanese guy in the seat next to me laughed himself silly. So did I. The poor flight crew came out of the cockpit and tried to order things, but it was next to impossible until one guy, possibly the Captain – started yelling and screaming about things. I’m glad it’s not just me that loses his patience with this stuff.
Finally they had all been seated and stowed their bags and then the constant trips to the bathroom began. The flight was, after all, delayed and these are old people with most likely weak bladders and swollen prostates. I decided to wait until the tide ebbed – but it was a near constant stream (haha). Finally I took my turn and was very glad I didn’t have to make #2 because I forgot that Moroccans (especially the old and the untraveled, don’t do well with no bucket to wash with.) The western toilet is a strange phenomenon to these folks and they soon had the spotless EgyptAir toilet looking like a toilet on a Moroccan train. The sink was filled with water of almost certain washing the bum provenience, water was all over the floor, the seat, and everywhere. Later I began to see old folks trekking into the bathroom with empty water bottles to use to wash. This is life – and it’s actually pretty funny from a outsider perspective.
They are sweet, nice people. The girl next to me has sweet, dreamy eyes behind a flowered scarf that covers all but her eyes. She is traveling with her husband and the henna on her hands plus their youth makes me think they are perhaps on their honeymoon. I’m fairly certain her husband is not Moroccan, but she may be. In any event, I try not to look at her out of respect for her veil and her husband, but it’s a bit hard.
Elsewhere on the plane, the flight crew is struggling to deal with the demands of the Hajj and Hajja but failing pretty badly. There was one European woman who ended up carrying her and her husband’s meal trays back for them. I can imagine that for anyone unfamiliar with the chaos of Moroccan travel, it must be completely insane and probably unbearable. Many of the old people smell like slightly stale pee. I suppose that’s normal for just about any old people. Of course, there is more chaos to come when we arrive in Morocco but I think I can outpace them to the immigration, but I may be stuck behind them in customs.
Cairo Burger King Doesn’t Do It Your Way
While it’s normal for travel hubs to be more expensive than the surrounding areas – I truly hate this practice. Why is it that I have to pay $10 for a $5 meal just because I am trapped behind security? Ah – wait…it’s because I’m trapped. Captive.
A chubby bald Brit with fake headphones (okay they were real but he wasn’t listening to anything just wearing them to avoid having to talk to people – I bet he read that in a guidebook somewhere) was in front of me and a bunch of Moroccans and other Arabs kept crowding to the front. I was a bit stuck because I couldn’t really just shove past him but as long as I was behind him, I was never going to get anywhere. Finally, after yet another group jumped in front of him – he left in disgust cussing under his breath. With relief, I shoved my way to the front and was the next served.
I ordered a Whopper meal, regular size. The cost was 41 EGP. He added something and the price went to 46 EGP – “What’s that?” I asked. “The tax” he told me and pointed to the sign. It said 10% will be added. Apparently they round up. Next he added 8 EGP more bringing it to 54 EGP. “What’s that?” I asked, more curious than angry. “Super size” he said. “I don’t want supersize” I told him. “Now we only have supersize” he replied “Nothing else.” “Can I have Barbecue Sauce?” I asked “3 EGP” he told me. “That’s okay, I told him, I don’t want it.” By getting a 41 EGP meal I thought I was saving a bit from the 60 EGP for breakfast at the next place – but actually, I should have gotten what I wanted to begin with – though it might have cost me 75-80 EGP with the tax, service and whatever other extras they might add on.