Archive for April, 2008

On Safari

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

We’d never been on a safari trip before our time here in southern Africa.  Well, now we’ve been on several here, and have a far better idea of what is involved.  For our family, these explorations have been fabulous.


Botswana -- Jack's 401 The campsites are located in the middle of remote wildlife areas in Namibia and Botswana.  We flew to these places on small prop planes, landing on crude airstrips.  One “runway,” for example, was a dirt road for cars that doubles as an airplane landing strip.  The planes are small, holding six to twelve passengers, and without bathrooms.  The flights are typically an hour or two in length, over beautiful terrain. 

Botswana Jack's by G 400 I’m not quite sure how these places do it, but the food is incredible.  Breakfast is usually fruit, bread, cereal, and eggs cooked to order.  We had “pancakes” at one place, but learned that African “pancakes” are our version of crepes, and we needed to ask for “crumpets.”  Lunch is generally light — soup, sandwiches, some prepared meats or casseroles, and maybe a light dessert.  And dinners are fabulous, most often local meat of some sort (one of the local antelopes or cows), great vegetables, a terrific soup or salad, and desserts (generally pudding or cake).

The Days

Wake up time on safari is typically 5:30 to 6:00 a.m., and out exploring by no later than 7:00 a.m., returning in time for lunch.  Mid afternoon, when it’s hot and most animals are hunkered down, we did our home-schooling (most other guests took naps).  Then, around 4:00 p.m., we’d head back out for a couple of hours, and return for dinner. 

Namibia 118 When we’re out during the day exploring, we’re in a vehicle that’s kind of a combination of a jeep and van, with a driver and another spotter.  They are incredible at finding interesting things to look at in the wild.  We were very fortunate to have an outstanding guide (Trevor Carnaby) in Southern Africa, who not only knew all the animals and plants, but shared with us all sorts of interesting context.  We’d see lots of birds (some big, some small), reptiles, smaller mammals, and the bigger animals.  Hardly an hour went by without seeing something that the four of us found quite exciting.  We are a bit quirky as a family, though, since we can get very excited by the smallest of reptiles, amphibians, or insects.

Botswana -- Stanley's 128 We learned that the vast majority of people on a safari have very simple criteria for success.  If they see lions and elephants, they’re happy; if they don’t see both species, they feel they had a lousy safari, no matter how much else they saw.  Anyway, we had a few outings where we saw very little, but many where the sightings were spectacular.

Botswana -- Stanley's 087 The roads can be rough at time, but aren’t too bad.  We got out and hiked occasionally (almost not all is in parks with big game).  The biggest challenge when hiking is the high concentration of burrs in the grasses, a huge number of which find their way into socks and shoes.  We were wishing we had packed “gators” to protect our lower legs and ankles.  The vehicles are covered, so we were largely sheltered from the sun. 

Botswana -- Jack's 313 We’d occasionally pick up tracks of interesting animals and pursue them, often with success.  And the guides were great at picking up interesting sounds and knowing exactly what to do.  The vehicles all have radios, so if there’s a particularly interesting sighting, you may well hear about it from someone else, and make a beeline to see what’s going on.  But often it was the chance encounter with something remarkable (like the morning we encountered a Leopard sleeping in a tree, waking up, and coming down) that stood out.


The Nights

Namibia V by Gibson 359 Most nights we’d do a night safari of about an hour, with a jeep and searchlight, looking for nocturnal animals.  The “rules” were that the searchlight couldn’t focus on diurnal animals (animals active in the day), for fear of spooking them or damaging their eyesight.  But we’d see some great animals at night.  One night, for instance, we saw a porcupine (hard to see), and Aardwolf, and Brown Hyena.  Another night we parked and watched a Spotted Hyena, several Impalas fighting among themselves, a herd of Wildebeests, some African Elephants, and some exotic frogs — without ever leaving our location.  And just taking in the African Savanna at night, under a sky full of stars, was awesome.

Botswana -- Stanley's 441 The campsites range in level of accommodations from quite basic to fairly plush.  They generally have a small number (four to eight) two-person tent cabins, a central larger tent for eating and congregating, and a set of interconnecting paths.  Each individual tent can be isolated, and we weren’t allowed to leave the tent at night (the risk of wildlife attack is real).  Consequently, we slept with one adult and one child per tent.

Botswana Jack's by G 406 Tents had their own bathrooms, with flush toilets and showers of some sort.  At Skeleton Coast, they’d bring in a bucket of hot water at certain times of day, and you could drip out the hot water to take your shower!  Others have a fairly predictable, but limited, supply of hot water.   But the water can go from hot to cold in a moment’s notice (generally just after your hair is full of shampoo!).

These sites generally rely on a range of solar power and a small generator for electricity.  The tents either have very limited electrical power, or none at all.  The quality of lighting was poor enough that we generally couldn’t read after dark.

Botswana Jack's by G 052 The beds in our tents have been, for the most part, remarkably comfortable.  I’ve had several beds here that are among the most comfortable I’ve slept in over the past eight months (and that’s a LOT of beds!!).  We’d check under the covers each night before going to bed, to make sure a stray scorpion or other nasty creature hadn’t gotten under the sheets ahead of us.  And we’d keep our  bags closed, and would check shoes before putting them on, just to make sure there were no wildlife surprises.

Namibia 031 Our very first night on safari got off to an ominous start.  Our kids spend almost every waking hour hunting for lizards, toads, snakes, you name it.  So, after ten minutes after they went to bed in their tent, they came sprinting into our tent, scared to death by a large Wall Spider.  So much for our fearless wildlife hunters!  As fast as you can snap your fingers, we were switching sleeping arrangements (even thought the Wall Spider is harmless), and had one adult sleep with one child.

Of course, the one thing that can keep you up at night, or wake you up, is the sound of nearby wildlife.  Some nights we’d hear the roars of lions or hyenas.  One night Elizabeth and Sterling were woken up by an elephant pulling up plants and trees right outside their tent!

Other Interesting Issues

The camps are very conscious of guest safety.  There are places we can’t walk and times when we can’t walk without a guide.   When we’re out in a jeep exploring, we can’t leave the jeep without a guide first surveying the area (no matter how much a bathroom break is needed!).  Also, there was lots of discussion about the “do’s” and “don’t's” of chance encounters with wildlife.  Rule #1, #2, and #3 is — “DON’T RUN”!  If you run, most animals follow their natural instinct to chase you down and attack you.  So running, while having considerable appeal, is the worst thing you can do.  Best to stay still, raise your arms to look even bigger, and yell at the potential attacker.

A challenge of safari is the extreme temperature ranges you experience.  The days can be quite hot (close to 100 degrees), while it gets cold at night (maybe 40 degrees, but feels colder).  And it’s pretty darn cold in the morning when you go out, but warms up quite quickly. 

Electronics is a huge challenge when on safari.  I now know what the “out” is in the phrase “out of Africa.”  It’s out of internet contact!  I had some hope that the camps would have a satellite link, and offer some internet availability.  So far, no luck on that front.  Even charging batteries is a challenge, and it’s generally not possible to charge things in your room.  So it takes real organization and discipline (not my strong suits) to keep things charged at the charging location in the main tent area (which is limited in outlets, power, and often only available at certain times of day).  And in some locations, my only option was to give the cords and charging devices to someone else and hope they’d handle it the right way at some off-location site (hopes generally not realized).  Finally, I did bring a charger that plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter, and that’s been invaluable a few times here. 

Cell phone coverage is non-existent in most camps, and iffy even in the bigger cities.  Since we had internet access in Antarctica, I assumed (quite incorrectly) that there’s be some connectivity at these tent lodges.  Wrong!  This is the longest I’ve gone in ages without access to the internet or e-mail, and it definitely had its pluses.

 Almost everywhere we’ve stayed did most of our laundry, with the exception of underwear.  This laundry service was very helpful, meaning we could pack lightly and always have clean clothes.

We didn’t face any real issues with mosquitoes, although a visit during the rainy season would be worse.  We did have big challenges with dust, which in some places was just everywhere.  It really permeated our clothes, and was a big issue for our cameras.  We lost yet another camera in Southern Africa (three have failed us so far on the trip), and it was hard to keep dust out.

Net, Net

If you love wildlife and nature, then Southern Africa is an absolute joy.  The accommodations are still fairly basic, but perfectly great, and the sights are wonderful.  We heard that some tent lodges are becoming more upscale (adding spa services, pools, internet access, etc.), and it may be a matter of time before all get forced into giving up their rustic nature.  But we loved the lodges as they are, and hope they don’t change before we’re back again.

Walk on the Wild Side

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

We spent time in two of Jordan’s nature reserves — Dana Nature Reserve and Wadi Rum.  Both were spectacular, and furthered our affection for this great country.  I tell you, the wonders of this country are beyond what we ever expected.  This blog will cover Dana, and a later blog will cover Wadi Rum.

Dana, Jordan 283 Dana lies about an hour and one half south of Amman, and we stopped there en route to Petra.  Our original itinerary didn’t include Dana, but we leaped at the chance to hike in a park, and were glad we did.  The park is set up a little oddly, in that you park at the visitor center, and wait for a park ranger to accompany you on a shuttle bus down to the hiking departure area.  We definitely drew the short straw on the guide front, and got someone who didn’t seem to have a clue about what was up at the park.  So we knew we were on our own, sort of. 

Dana, Jordan 293 We ended up hiking with the park’s guide (clueless), our A&K guide (who was equally uninformed) and — for some reason — our driver, who seemed to field a steady stream of cell phone calls, and yak away in a very loud voice, either on the phone or to the other guides.  Subtle suggestions that we wanted a little peace and quiet in the park didn’t yield results, so we finally told them they either needed to be quiet or go back on their own.  When we arrived, the prior group was meeting their naturalist, who seemed on the ball, so it probably pays to try to line up the right naturalist in advance.

Amman by Gibson 218 Our hike got off with a big shock — Gibson turned over a rock, and turned up a Death-stalker Scorpion, among the most poisonous in the world.  Gibson got down low (probably way too low!) and took some extraordinary photos of the Death-stalker.  It sounds and even looks like a character from Star Wars, and we were thrilled to see it.  That said, we all recognized that we’d be camping out in a couple of nights in Wadi Rum, and hoped that this would be our last scorpion encounter!

Dana, Jordan 339 The rock formations in Dana were quite interesting, reminding me a bit of some of the great U.S. parks in Utah.  The colors were brilliant reds and oranges, with intricate patterns from erosion over the years.  Our trusty guide at one point informed us that, “These are rocks,” which definitely raised our understanding to a higher level.

Dana, Jordan 298 Mid-way through the hike, Sterling called out that she had sighted a Nubian Ibex, an endangered species.  This was quite a sighting, and we got great views down through the canyon for ten minutes or so.  at about minute nine, our guides figured out where it was, and agreed with identification.  They went on to say how lucky we were to see it, since they had been in the park many times and never seen an Ibex.  Big surprise there :-) .

We got some great Dana photos, which you can feel free to check out.

Baseball in Johannesburg!

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Baseball in J'burg 167 We had a wonderful time playing baseball with a group of about 50 young boys and girls in Johannesburg, South Africa.  The head of the program, Mohammed Basson “Ali”, pulled together a fabulous late afternoon of fun baseball for us, along with a great dinner afterwards.  They were incredible hosts, and we really had a great time with them on our first day in South Africa.

Baseball in J'burg 147 We’ve now played baseball in ten countries — Australia, China, Thailand, Bhutan, India, New Zealand, Peru, Argentina, and South Africa.  Tonight, I felt particularly emotional about our little baseball ambassadors program for our trip.  These kids are almost all from the very poorest parts of Johannesburg, and have so little.  Several of them live in an  Baseball in J'burg 175 AIDS center, having contracted AIDS from birth.  The children were so nice to us, enthusiastic about baseball and America, and thrilled to get a simple gift like a Red Sox baseball hat.  There was such joy at this little athletic field in Johannesburg tonight, from kids facing such great challenges, that it was baseball and ambassadorship at its very best.

Baseball in J'burg 021 In South Africa, baseball isn’t a popular sport.  They play a lot of football (our soccer), rugby, and some golf and tennis here, but baseball isn’t on the radar screen yet.  So the progress of this baseball program is impressive.  They now have about 100 kids involved at all levels, and participation is increasing rapidly.  They are located near Soweto and Westbury, two of the most economically challenged areas of Johannesburg, and they have very few resources for their program.  But they are doing a great job with these young players, all of whom seem really excited to be playing baseball.

Baseball in J'burg 004 They put together a special practice session for us, starting at 5:00 p.m.  The kids are all in school, which runs late in the afternoon, so 5:00 p.m. was the earliest that everyone could be there.  The kids first said their team Baseball Pledge, then they all did stretches, warm up throws, practice grounders, and then some scrimmaging.  Most of the practice was under the lights, and their field (Bill Jardine Stadium) is used primarily for rugby, so it lacks the things you’d normally find on a baseball field (backstop, bases, outfield fence). 

Baseball in J'burg 151 Few of the kids have their own equipment.  The program has gotten some help from the New York Yankees, who they said are helping a range of teams in South Africa.  The Yankees have donated equipment and hats, so they’ve really helped jumpstart this program.  They teams aren’t part of Little League yet, but will be joining a Little League here in the next few months, which they are very excited about.  It was great to see this program getting help from U.S. organizations, and we were thrilled to be part of helping them out.

Baseball in J'burg 037 I was impressed by the number of coaches there for the session, as well as the broad involvement of parents.  The head coach, Ashley (in photo on right), was on top of his baseball.  His favorite player is Manny Ramirez.  This coach will be coming to the United States for the first time in July to spend three weeks at a Cal Ripken camp for coaches, and is very excited about the trip.  He was helped out at the practice by a half dozen other coaches, as well as a number of women who do a great job there with the management of the league — not to mention preparing a great dinner for us.

Baseball in J'burg 114 Our baseball session was joined by a group of children from the Sparrow Village, a center for children in the Johannesburg area with AIDS.  This center has some 250 kids, and the issue of AIDS-impacted children here is quite serious.  It turns out that this center has a field and a baseball coach, but no equipment at all, so we’ll be helping them jumpstart a program at their facility.

Baseball in J'burg 022 On our first day in South Africa, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the country.  We had a very demanding day getting here, leaving on a 4:30 a.m. flight from Dubai, which meant getting up at 1:30 a.m. Dubai time (11:30 p.m. Johannesburg time).  But we were all wide awake for the baseball, and met some great people.  And just seeing all of these young children having a great time playing baseball was worth the challenges of the “commute.”

Baseball in J'burg 202 Baseball in J'burg 159

You just have to go and check out our pictures from Baseball in Johannesburg!  There are so many kids that you’ll just want to give a big hug to.

The Really Big D — Dubai!

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Dubai 006 We had one of our most fascinating country visits as we spent five days in Dubai, a large city and one of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates.  We could tell as soon as we landed in the Dubai Airport that this wasn’t a normal place.  It was the most astounding collision of ancient Arab traditions and the twenty-first century.  The airport itself is sparkling, modern, full of shopping locations, and people of all cultures.  Just seeing the wide range of clothing (from shorts and tank tops to traditonal and often gorgeous Arabic robes) was spell-binding.  I could have spent a full day just at the airport and never been bored.

Dubai 062 After a bit of a challenge checking into our hotel, we got on with our exploration of Dubai.  The place to start is the skyline, which now includes the world’s tallest building, Birj Dubai, which is a few months from completion.  It tops the building we saw earlier in the trip in Kuala Lumpur, and is already 630  meters high, visible from up to 60 miles away.  But that’s hardly Dubai’s only construction project.  Depending on the person you talk to, Dubai has some 24-33% of all of the world’s construction cranes, in an area smaller than Delaware!  There are still some remaining structures from the old Dubai, but for the most part, this is a modern Oz of a city, all constructed in the past ten years.

Dubai 019 And the construction isn’t just on “Dubai” proper.  They are developing these offshore complexes that include newly formed land in some particular shape (palm trees, the universe), shopping areas, villas, and condominiums.  The scope of these projects is vast.  The smallest “palm” is a $60 billion development project.  A newer one (a bigger palm in shape) will have enough housing for 1.3 million people, the current size of Dubai!  It’s just absolutely staggering.  And we’re not talking “low cost housing”; these are plush luxury units, and to date all seem to be getting bought by someone.

While in Dubai, we had dinner with a great family (Jihad Fakhreddine, his wife Carla, and son Jamaal), who are long-time friends of our relatives Jim and Caroline in Seattle.  They are truly citizens of the world, having lived for 15 years in Silicon Valley, five years in Switzerland, and have been in Dubai now for three years.  Jamaal, age 14, speaks several languages, including English, Spanish, German, and Arabic.  Jihad is running a medical technology company here, and the entire family were incredibly nice, sharing lots of insight and context on this interesting part of the world. 

We learned so much about their lives, their school, Dubai, and the world, and really appreciate their hospitality.  I can hardly summarize a three hour dinner in a paragraph or two, but we learned that Dubai is largely ex-pats (80%), English is the dominant language, real estate is expensive and getting more expensive (to rent a decent house can cost $20,000 (U.S. dollars) per month!), and schools are expensive (in some cases, $20,000-$30,000 per year even for first graders).  

Our families spent a fair amount of time talking about U.S. politics.  I don’t know whether I’m excited or depressed when I meet people living thousands of miles from the U.S. that are more informed about our country and its politics than 99+% of U.S. citizens.  Maybe we should have a set of foreigners elect our next President :-) !  But their views on our current foreign policy, immigration policy, and the relative merits of the candidates were highly informed and spot on.

Dubai 008 Other things we did in Dubai, all really fun, included a local calligraphy demonstration, a meeting with someone who explained Dubai customs and culture, a quick look at the world’s largest indoor skiing center (we didn’t try it, but you can see it on the right), a great half day for the kids at Wild Wadi (an incredibly well done water park), shopping (many people spell Dubai “Do Buy”), a desert safari, and time in the pool or the Arabian Sea. 

Dubai 022 The mystery to me was, and to a large extent still is, what drives the Dubai economy.  By now, I’m sure you’ve concluded that Dubai must be the source of some big oil gushers.  Not true.  Only 6% of Dubai’s GDP comes from oil and gas.  Only one of the seven Emirates (Abu Dhabi) is a big oil producer.  They share much of that revenue with the other six emirates, but Dubai’s money is coming more from its development projects, and its role as a gateway for the Western world to the Middle East. 

Dubai 154 Dubai has an interesting form of government, at least if you’re Sheikh Mohammed.  The Sheikh controls, and to a large extent owns, all of Dubai (in photo on right is one of his private residences).  That’s hard to comprehend, given how much Dubai is worth.  But he seems to make all the decisions, owns all or part of the important companies (construction, airline, hotels, you name it), and cuts others a slice of ownership if and when he sees fit.  Years back, he made Dubai a tax-free zone, and is drawing to his country lots and lots of business activity from all over the world.  He is a BIG RISK TAKER, and now amount of money put up for a project seems too much.  And, in just a decade, he seems to have transformed a fairly barren desert region on the Arabian Sea into a bustling center of commerce that is rivaling Singapore in the Far East.

Dubai 163 Dubai is clearly currently benefiting from a real estate bubble of uncertain duration.  As more and more $1-50 million residences are built, they seem to be gobbled up by very rich people who spend almost no time in them.  One such buyer is, in the words of one of our guides, “Baaarrrrrrraadddd Beeeerrrrriiitttt.”  “Who, we said?  After several repetitions, we figured out that this person is Brad Pitt.)  Many of these purchases have to be pure real estate speculation, and we all know how that ultimately ends.   But almost everything developed in Dubai seems to be to a standard of excellence, and the place is emerging as a global center of commerce faster than you can start your Rolls Royce or Ferrari :-) .

Dubai 013 We stayed at a hotel owned by . . .  Sheikh Mohammed.  We didn’t stay or even visit Dubai’s seven-star hotel, the world’s only seven star place.  Guests are delivered to the hotel either in a gold-plated Rolls Royce, or by helicopter landing on the saucer shape at the top of this structure.   But if you have a spare $5,000 you want to get rid of in a hurry, book one night at this hotel, and you’ll soon be parted from your money. 

Dubai 104 As we left Dubai, our airport experience said a lot about the area.  Our flight was scheduled to depart at 4:40 a.m. (meaning a 2:00 a.m. hotel pick-up — Ugh!!), and the airport operates 24 hours a day.  As we walked to our gate, we passed through some of the best shopping areas in the world.  We had tried unsuccessfully to buy a very specialized camera battery, but found and purchased it at 3:20 a.m. in the Dubai airport!  The airport is modern and efficient, the planes the latest and best, and the staff highly professional and courteous. 

Dubai 024 I never like to use the word unique, which is misunderstood and overused.  But Dubai is unique.  The climate is dry and scorching hot in the summer.  The ocean is nice enough, but not something you’d call uniquely beautiful.  The air quality is lousy due to all the construction.  There’s little culture at night.  Yet it’s a bustling, world-class city, attracting all sorts of new people and new money.  The people seem quite happy with the Sheikh’s rule.  There’s no unemployment and almost no crime (we learned that if a tourist is caught making an obscene gesture, they are likely to spend three years in jail!).   If I were doing a Ph.D. in Economics (again!), I might well focus on the hyper-rapid development of the Dubai economy.  And for any of you traveling in this part of the world, make Dubai a place you visit.

Feel free to check out our Dubai photos, which aren’t the most beautiful of the trip, but give you a feel for modern Dubai.

Down and Dirty on the Dead Sea

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Jordan Gibson 020 We concluded our time in Jordan with a couple of relaxing days on the Dead Sea.  There’s not a lot to do here, other than float in the Dead Sea, cover yourself in mud, and have fun.  We probably could have spent more time investigating some of the historical artifacts and significance of this region, but “hanging out” won out.  But that made for a great two days.

Jordan Gibson 025 The Dead Sea is seven times saltier than normal seawater.  You can’t sink in the Dead Sea, no matter how hard you try.  But don’t get any seawater in your eyes or mouth, or you’re in big trouble.  One ritual of Dead Sea visitors is to cake themselves in resident mud, let it bake in the sun, and then jump into the Dead Sea to wash off the mud.  We couldn’t pass on this activity, although none of us experienced a magical transformation in skin properties.  And this process did have added educational benefits, as the barrage of mud gave each of us a chance to relate to what any politician running against the Clintons must feel like.

Wadi Rum 297 So much for Jordan, one of the real surprises of our trip.  We don’t have many Dead Sea photos, but feel free to check them out.

A Million Star Hotel

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Wadi Rum 185 We explored the desert of Wadi Rum, camping in a “million star hotel” there.  Million stars?  Well, at night, in the desert of Jordan, you really could see a million stars overhead.  “Wadi” means river valley or gulch, and “Rum” means high or elevated.  It lies in the south of Jordan, covers some 400 sq. miles, and is largely the territory of the Bedouins, the native nomadic tribe of the Middle East.  The movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here, and must have won an Academy Award for Cinematography!

Wadi Rum 167 We arrived mid afternoon to Wadi Rum, and roamed all over the place in a four-wheel drive jeep.  The main thing to take in was the geology, since this area isn’t big on wildlife.  But the geology was stunning.  When you think of “desert,” you think of sand.  But Wadi Rum is far more than sand, since the rock structures are so interesting.  They rise straight out of the sand, have surfaces that can be sheer or intricate, and have color that changes with the angle of the sun.

Wadi Rum 175 That night, we camped at a Bedouin campsite.  With the scorpion we found in Dana in mind, we were thrilled ( :-) ) to see that our tent was wide open at the bottom, and our beds were sitting on the ground.  The good news is that there were very few sheets where a scorpion could hide — like one per bed!  And the layer of protective sand thoughtfully coating every sheet surface seemed perfect to ward off stray insects :-)

Wadi Rum 200 While our campsite and food were quite basic, the experience was anything but.  We loved being in this desert, and were able to explore lots of local nooks and crannies.  But the feeling of being out in the wilderness, miles from anything, with the clear, starry sky overhead was fabulous. 

I just love Jordan!  Feel free to check out our pictures of Wadi Rum.

Pa-Wow Petra!

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Petra 062 Imagine going on a hike in one of the most beautiful geological spots in the world.  Imagine seeing some of the most exquisite archeological remains of a rather astounding village, with stunning temples carved right into the face of mountains.  And imagine one of the world’s most pleasant climates.  Well, take them all together and you have one of the world’s great wonders — Petra!

Petra 204 Petra is often referred to as one of the wonders of the world, and with good reason.  We were just blown away by what we saw here.  The beauty of the temples and monasteries, all carved out of sandstone cliffs and mountains is impossible to describe in words, so I’m hoping my pictures carry the load.  There is structure after structure that just takes your breath away.  Petra’s prime was from the second Century B.C. through about 600 A.D.  It was discovered again by the Western world in 1812 by a Swiss explorer.  The history of this amazing site is worth checking out.

Petra 078 Our guide told us that just 2% of the structures of archeological merit have been excavated at Petra.  I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that estimate, but it did have the sense of a vast town, and had been covered with sand some 20+ feet over the years.  We saw many partially excavated buildings where the top of the door frame was well below today’s level of the earth. 

Petra 007 Many of the houses in Petra seemed like the Flintstone’s Bedrock, a place right out of history.  We made that comment among ourselves, and later saw a vendor selling all sorts of things, with their little area featuring a Fred Flintstone banner.  So we’re not all that creative in our observations . . .

Petra 044 Much of the excitement of Petra lies in the approach.  You enter the site and have a decent walk through the canyon before you get to the most astounding structures.  The walk is through a gorgeous canyon, with a fairly narrow valley walled off by vertical cliffs of a height I’d estimate to vary between 100-300 feet high.  What’s so interesting geologically is that, from time to time, the rock had sheared off, leaving an exposed face that was essentially a plane.  The Horites, a tribe of cave-dwellers living in the region, used these exposed planes as the start point for the buildings they literally carved into the face of it.

Petra 138 After about an hour of hiking, we got our first glimpse through the canyon of just how spectacular Petra can be.  As you come into a small clearing, the first major temple opens up in front of you, and it’s really quite magnificent.  After spending a half hour or so taking it in, we then continued hiking further, eventually reaching an impressive monastery at the top of a long and winding hike.  The kids and Elizabeth took the easy way up (donkeys) and I walked it.

We’ve been to many amazing places on our trip, but Petra is as spectacular as any place we’ve seen.  Our great stay in Jordan just got that much more engaging.  Feel free to check out our Petra photos.

The Quiet House

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Jordan is often described as a quiet house in a very noisy neighborhood. Its neighbors are Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south, and Israel to the west. Sound like a tough neighborhood?!?!

Jerash 044 We had a relaxing and generally interesting time in Amman, Jordan, highlighted by our visit to nearby Jerash. We ended up spending five days in Amman; if our only goal was to see the most important local sites, we could have condensed our stay into a couple of days. But it was a great time for us as a family to enjoy the capital of Jordan on a relaxed basis.

Jerash is the location of one of the oldest surviving ruins of a Greco-Roman city. The location was inhabited as far back as the Bronze Age (3200 to 1200 B.C.), but was at its peak in the first Century A.D. The Persian invasion in 614 A.D., though, put an end to Jerash’s better days.

Jerash 098 We walked around the ruins, and could see what an entire village used to look like. It has two performing amphitheaters (still in use to this day!), the Greco-Roman version of a shopping mall, and various areas for living space and worship. Jordan is slowly restoring the the ruins, and it’s the location of a summer music festival each year. They also have somewhat tacky daily performances in the Jerash’s old coliseum, featuring Roman soldiers, gladiators, and chariots.

Jerash 117 Our walk through the ruins had an unexpected highlight when we spotted a Red Whip Snake among the ruins at the Temple of Artemis. The poor snake tried to hide under a big concrete block, but we were able to flush it out. A local vendor came to our rescue and caught the snake, and we were able to visit a bit with this harmless reptile. Take a look at our video of this snake upon release, and you’ll see why we’re glad to have caught up with him.

Jerash 162 We also explored some of Amman, including the desert castles of Qusair Amra. It was about an hour and a quarter from downtown Amman, but only marginally interesting. Our experience that day was colored by the unjustified arrest of Elizabeth, Sterling, and Gibson (left behind bars in their stark jail cell!), who were put behind bars for unruly behaviour. Fortunately, I was able to post bail and get them back on the touring road! On a different day, we went to Mount Nebo, where Moses died, and to the spot on the Jordan River, where historians think St. John baptized Jesus.

Jerash 141 We spent a half day with a local K-12 school in Amman, the Mashrek International School. This private school is just eight years old, and was started by a Jordanian family. We met many of the students and teachers, and the school was just humming with energy. Classes are taught in both English and Arabic, so all students are bilingual. We were quite impressed with how much progress this family could make in less than a decade with their school. Tuition, for those who track these things, ranges from $2,500 to $5,000 per year, depending on the grade.

We also got together one night for dinner with friends once-removed. Good friends of ours in Boston, Hendon and Kate Pingeon, introduced us to Hendon’s brother, Robert, who lives in Jordan with his wife, Emily Lodge. They were fascinating to meet, and we had a great time at their house. Bob is a consultant doing lots of work in Iraq, primarily Kurdistan. And Emily is an author, with a lifetime of experience in political circles. Her grandfather ran for Vice President of the U.S. in 1960! And her father ran for Senate in Massachusetts. They were very kind to host us for an evening, and really made our visit to Amman special. And it was my first home-cooked meal since Christmas Day!

While in Amman, I read Queen Noor’s book, A Leap of Faith, which was a great book to take in during our stay in Jordan. The queen is a woman, born in the U.S. but of Arabic descent, who met King Hussein when she was 26, and shortly thereafter became his bride and, in the process, the queen of Jordan. She is quite articulate in describing the history of conflict in the Middle East from Jordan’s perspective, and the role the U.S. has played. And she does a great job of discussing modern life here. She makes a case that much of what we see and hear in the U.S. is colored heavily by the U.S. press, and doesn’t accurately reflect the issues and history here. A Leap of Faith was a great book for this part of our trip.

Feel free to check out our Amman and Jerash photos.

Dear Egypt

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

Dear Egypt:

We just spent two weeks touring your country.  What are you thinking?  You have such an astounding history, much of it still more or less intact.  And you treat it so dreadfully.  Egypt, here are a few suggestions:

1.  Your country has 84 million people with an unemployment rate estimated in the 30-40 percent range.  Put some of these people to work cleaning up the trash all around your pyramids, tombs, museums, and city sidewalks.  After two weeks in Egypt, we’re convinced that the word in Egyptian for “trash can” is “any public space, especially one of great historical significance.”

2.  Get the corruption out of your police force.  Everywhere we went, there were “tourist police.”  As best we can tell, they spend their entire day standing around, smoking cigarettes, and trying to extract money from tourists.  We saw some egregious tourist actions at sites we visited, and the tourist police did nothing to stop it, probably because the perpetrator slipped them a five pound note ($1 U.S.).  BTW, is it out of the question that these “tourist police” might actually keep the place looking halfway presentable?

3.  Change the way you staff these sites.  Everywhere we went, we were met at Egypt’s historic sites by chain-smoking scuzzy-looking guys whose job was to take tickets.  These guys were of no help whatsoever.  They seemed to thrive on polluting tight, closed-in spaces with volumes of cigarette smoke.  Occasionally, they’d grab your camera and make the oh-so-familiar Egyptian hand motion of rubbing their fingers against their thumb — meaning “give me money.”  Egypt, you can do soooo much better than that!

4.  Your sites really are fragile.  If you let millions of tourists a year climb all over them, chip away at rocks, rub their hands all over 3,000 year old carvings, well . . .  THEY AREN’T GOING TO LAST!   And if things like your great pyramids are located in a city with horrendous air pollution, that won’t help.  Make sure these great monuments last another 3,000 years!  Your future depends on it.

5.  The rest of the tourism infrastructure in Egypt is also in need of help.  For instance, your restaurants generally have surly waitstaff, mediocre food, and two sections — smoking, and heavy smoking.  You have to be starving to death before eating in an Egyptian restaurant begins to have any appeal.  

Egypt, you have no oil.  Only 4% of your land is inhabitable.  You have meager natural resources.  But you have the world’s greatest man-made treasures.  Ancient Egypt was an amazing civilization.  Modern Egypt needs to keep pace.  If you have any hope of lifting your country up, you need to treasure your treasures, not treat them as the country’s garbage dump.


Our Family

Down the Nile!

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Nile River 023 Our best several days in Egypt came as we explored the Nile Valley and all of the ruins along its path.  We covered many astounding sites, and found ourselves constantly amazed at what this civilization had accomplished over three thousand years ago.   To put things into perspective, the Egyptian temples were largely built 2,500 to 3,500 years ago.  Other things we’ve seen on this trip include the Great Wall (5th to 16th Century B.C.), Machu Picchu (1450 A.D.), and Angkor Wat (12th Century A.D.).  So the Egyptians were really way ahead of their time.

Nile River 029 We left Cairo before daybreak, taking an early (6:30 a.m.) small plane south to the site of Abu Simbel, site of the temple of Ramses II.  This place is incredibly remote, and positively jaw-dropping.  It’s a site that was nearly destroyed as Egypt constructed the Aswan dam, but a massive (well, by Egypt standards massive — $40 million) fund-raising effort was able to entirely re-locate the ruins, and preserve them for future generations.  So you land at a remote airport (few people actually stay here) and take a short drive to see . . .  the most amazing tomb entrance Nile River 044 imaginable.  I can’t describe it adequately in words, but a few pictures help.  The face of the temple is dominated by four enormous (almost 20 meters tall) statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II.  They surround the entrance to a tomb, and its interior is also stunning.  There’s a second tomb at the site which, in its own right an amazing accomplishment, built in honor of Ramses II’s favorite queen, Queen Nefetari.

At this point, it was beginning to sink in just how advanced the Egyptian civilization was.  They had a written language, advanced engineering and math, great organization skills, and real science expertise.  It’s somewhat silly to compare some of these ruins to modern construction projects, but you sure wish the Egyptians of 3500 B.C. had been running Boston’s Big Dig project :-)

Nile River 078 We then took a quick flight to Aswan, where we saw Aswan’s High Dam, which is 1,500 feet long, and has transformed Egypt.  Prior to the construction of this dam, the Nile would flood periodically, or go through drought years.  Egypt was very challenged agriculturally, and a more stable river line has helped food production.  Also, the dam generates a significant amount of the oil-poor country’s electricity requirements.

Nile River 100 In Aswan, we took a short boat ride to the Temple of Philae on the island of Agilika.  This site was also recently relocated to avoid flooding from the dam.  Those darn dams!  This temple was dedicated to Isis, and is decorated with the image of her alter-ego, Hathor.  We also saw the granite quarries in Aswan, including the very sizable unfinished obelisk, which has a length of some 39 meters (??), but abandoned in situ due to cracking.

Nile River 233 We boarded a boat, the Sun Boat IV run by Abercrombie and Kent, and prepared to head down the Nile.  Gibson and I tried to get in some last-minute baseball catch on the sidewalk by the boarding point for the boat.  Ever alert, the Egyptian military realized that our game of toss represented a serious threat to Egypt’s nation-state, and rushed out to stop us (I wish I were kidding, but I’m not).  A bunch of soldiers with nothing to do with their time stepped in and kept Egypt safe from the threat of a thrown baseball!

Nile River 239 The boat surprised us in being both wireless-less and smoke-full.  The A&K boat on our Antarctica trip offered decent wireless access on board, but the Sun Boat didn’t seem too aware of this technological breakthrough.  But they did manage to put ashtrays everywhere on the ship, making sure you couldn’t do much of anything on deck without inhaling some of that great Egyptian tobacco smoke.  At least the boat didn’t offer wall to wall hookahs, and didn’t have ashtrays in the swimming pool.

Nile River 205 On our first full day on the boat, we made two stops at temples as we worked out way north on the river.  The first was the Kom Ombo Temple, returned to the boat for lunch, and that afternoon took in the Edfu Temple.  These temples seemed somewhat interesting at the time, but have long since blurred into a sea of ruins that prevent me from recalling anything specific about either.  We also bought for the kids some Egyptian wear for a dinner on the boat that night.  Sterling looked fabulous in her outfit, and is already contemplating using it for next October’s Halloween costume.

Nile River 260 We slept like logs on the boat each night, and spent the next day docked at Luxor, known to the ancient Egyptians as “Thebes.”  Luxor, along with Abu Simbel and the pyramids around Cairo, were the “can’t miss” locations of our Egypt stay.  The highlights of Luxor include the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple or Luxor, and  the Temple of Karnak.  We also went to the Temple of the Nobles (very missable), Hatshepsut Temple (moderately interesting),  the Colossi of Memnon (brief but interesting), and blew off Dendara and Abydos.  And there was even an “Egyptian Night” on the boat, where many of the passengers attempted to look like Egyptians of yore. 

Nile River 287 The Valley of the Kings is a location not too far from Luxor where some sixty-four tombs have been discovered, including the tomb of Tutankhamun.  The tomb of King Tut was discoved by Howard Carter in 1922, and it was largely (some say entirely) in tact.  To walk through this tomb, after seeing so many of its contents on display in Cairo, was really powerful.  What really made me think was the trace of history from thousands of years B.C., to less than 100 years ago when this tomb was first discovered by modern man, to today when you can walk through the tomb.  And work continues to this day on the site, as new tombs lay scattered throughout the area awaiting discovery.  Amazing!

Nile River 313 We couldn’t take pictures inside the tombs, but they shared many common characteristics.  We’d generally go down a long corridor, with pictures and hieroglyphics carved on the walls, and often the ceilings.   Some were quite elaborate and beautiful, others more crude.  Some were simply carvings, others were painted and, in some cases, vivid colors survive to this day.  Further into the tomb, the walkway would level out into an inner sanctum with higher ceilings, more drawings, and some smaller side rooms. 

Nile River 334 The Temple at Luxor was one of my favorite places in Egypt.  It was hard to take in the magnitude of the structure, and what must have been required to build it so long ago.  It was built by Amenophis III, Tutankhamon, Haremhab, and Ramses II during their respective reigns, and includes spectacular columns, statues, and inner sanctums.  Luxor is also the site of the Temple of Karnak, a huge complex that took 2,000 years to construct.  It was originally connected to the Temple at Luxor by an alleyway lined with sphinxes, which must have been quite a site.

By now, we were fully “templed” out, and spent an afternoon reading and hanging out at our hotel in Luxor, preparing to depart for our next country, Jordan.

You can check out our photos of what we saw along the Nile.