Wintering at Kemer Marina -- mid-Nov 2011 - mid-Apr 2012
22 March 2012
Photo: View of "Sherpa" docked at Kemer Marina, our home for the winter
By mid-November, it began to get a bit chilly, especially at night, and we were constantly being asked where we were going to "over-winter" the boat (a term new to us). We had naively assumed that we would just keep sailing. But, as it turns out, the Med ain't the Caribbean! Although winters are fairly mild along the southern coast of Turkey, winter storms with gale-force winds are not uncommon.
So... the boat has been docked here at Kemer Marina for almost the past five months. As the photo shows, the view from our boat is spectacular, with a backdrop that includes both palm trees and snow-capped mountains. Quite a few Europeans (Brits, Germans, Swiss, Scandinavians, Dutch, Italians, and French) and a very few Americans are living here aboard their boats, many of whom have been returning to this marina every winter for years. They're all experienced yachters (far more so than we), several have completed circumnavigations, and all are ready to share their sailing stories and proffer advice. Many of the sailors are retired engineers of one sort of another, but we also have a veterinarian, a diplomat, ex-military, school principal, and so on. Fortunately for us, the lingua franca here is English since all the Europeans, except for one lone couple from East Germany, are fluent English speakers.
From the time we arrived, everybody was very welcoming, and it took us no time to become involved in the many activities here -- including weekly hikes into the nearby mountains, tennis tournaments, line-dancing, game nights (usually featuring a rowdy domino game called Mexican Train), movie nights, and ping pong. To help everybody keep track of what's going on, there's a Kemer "net" for cruisers at 8:30 a.m., where we tune in to Channel 69 on our VHF radios and the net coordinator gives a weather report and lists the day's activities. We've also found a British couple who enjoys playing Scrabble (but we had to make a copy of our two-letter word list for them, as they thought we were cheating!).
The marina has a cozy "clubhouse" for the live-aboard community with a restaurant and bar, and a wood-burning fireplace where the cruisers gather each evening for a convivial happy hour. On cold or blustery days when everybody's been cooped up on their own boats all day, this get-together is particularly welcome. There's also a surprisingly well-stocked library, with books organized both by language and alphabetically by author!
The marina's office staff are most helpful -- they're always happy to make phone calls in Turkish on our behalf, reserve concert tickets, arrange transportation to town or the airport, send faxes, recommend a dentist, and so on. And despite how few Americans are here, the marina served up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with roast turkey and all the fixin's! That morning several of us trooped into the nearby wooded hillside to collect wild flowers, boughs of holly, and colorful leaves to make festive table decorations. No holiday of any nationality (or any birthday) goes uncelebrated!
The same weekend, an American couple who had sold their boat after living on it for 17 years and were moving back to San Diego threw a farewell party at their rented apartment. Their stated goal was to empty their liquor cabinet, so it was quite a party! Everybody brought food to share, and Art christened our oven by baking a yummy corn pudding.
Kemer itself is a small tourist town about midway along the southern coast of Turkey. In winter it's very quiet, but in summer it attracts hordes of sun-worshipping vacationers from across Europe and (in recent years) Russia. Shops geared to tourists tout prices in euros, sport multilingual signs, and shopkeepers speak at least a smattering of English, German, and Russian. There's a Club Med complex with a long sandy beach that is off-limits to nonguests, as well as an odd little nomad village on a promontory overlooking the marina, where a few people from a once-nomadic Turkoman tribe still live with their sheep, goats, and chickens, and serve tea to visitors. Another attraction is an aerial cable car ride to the top of snow-capped Mount Tahtali, the tallest peak in the area at 7,800 feet.
We can easily walk from the marina to trails in the nearby mountains, or bike or take a dolmus (local mini-bus) to numerous trailheads that are a bit further afield. One popular hike ends at a trout farm restaurant, which serves up delicious baked trout with a nice selection of mezes. Like most Turkish towns, Kemer has a large weekly market to which the local farmers bring their fresh fruits and vegetables, yogurt, cheese, eggs, nuts, spices, and honey. Shrimp and fresh fish (sardines, sea bass, tuna, and many types of fish that we don't recognize) are also available. On the perimeter of the market, merchants display a potpourri of inexpensive hardware (pots and pans, hand-carved wooden kitchen utensils, hand-forged tools, etc.).
We've enjoyed watching first the figs, then the olives, next the pomegranates, and finally (in December) the grapefruits, lemons, and oranges ripening on the trees around town. Suddenly there's an abundant display of the newly ripened fruits at the Monday market -- and for unbelievably low prices! We're currently paying 1 lira, or about 60 cents, for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of ever-so-sweet seedless oranges. The only item of produce that disappoints us is the corn on the cob -- we've never found anything resembling sweet corn. Corn roasted over coals is a popular street food that is sold everywhere, but we find it inedible (like feed corn).
One reason, among many, for the popularity of Kemer Marina as a winter haven for live-aboards is its proximity (about 40 minutes by car) to Antalya, a much larger city with an international airport, more shopping options (even an orange-motif'ed Home Depot-type store), weekly symphony concerts (tickets cost 10 Turkish lira, or about $6), and a museum with a wonderful collection of statuary, including Roman sculpture and other artifacts excavated at nearby archaeological sites.
Antalya also has a picturesque Kaleici, or "old town" area, that is entered through Hadrian's Gate, a majestic arched gateway built in AD 130 to honor the visit of the Roman emperor Hadrian. There's a small, enclosed harbor filled with a jumble of colorful fishing boats and trip boats (alas, no room for private sailboats), as well as a labyrinth of pedestrian-only cobblestone streets with little restaurants, boutique hotels, and pensions -- many housed in converted Ottoman houses. We stayed overnight at one such hotel, the Otantik, the night before we were to fly back to the States the following morning, and were very pleased to be upgraded to the posh "deluxe suite" with a jacuzzi.
Meanwhile, although it does get chilly here in the winter months, especially once the sun goes down each evening, we've managed to stay quite comfortable on the boat, thanks to warm sleeping bags and a small electric heater. But we also discovered that our boat, which seemed like quite a perfect size while we were out sailing, suddenly became much smaller when we were cooped up in it in trying weather. In any case, we didn't actually spend the entire winter here. We traveled for a month in Egypt and Jordan (see separate blog postings), and flew back to the States in February for a three-week whirlwind visit with family and friends -- and to help celebrate my Mom's 95th birthday.
As I write this in mid-March, we've just had our first "picnic" lunch of the year in the cockpit. And hiking in the mountains this past Sunday, we saw purple irises along the trail, little white daisies dotting the meadows, and almond trees in full blossom -- none of which were in evidence the previous weekend.
Looking ahead, we're hoping that the weather will be favorable and that we'll be ready to set sail from here by the first of April. We plan to sail westward (revisiting the lovely "Turquoise Riviera" coastline that we sailed last fall) and then up the Aegean coast of Turkey -- perhaps as far as Istanbul and the Black Sea. That would put us in a good position to sail downwind through the Sporades and Dodecanese islands of Greece later in the summer.
Sailors' itineraries are always a bit fluid, but ours is especially so since we're waiting to see how Turkey's new visa regulations will be implemented. Until now, we've been able to renew our 90-day visas simply by taking a short ferry ride to a nearby Greek island and then returning to Turkey the same day. (While in Greece, many cruisers like to stock up on bacon, pork chops, and wine since these items are either hard to find or quite expensive in Muslim Turkey.) Under the new rules that took effect in February, we would have to wait 90 days before we could re-enter the country. We've heard that visa extensions (of up to 9 months) will be made available to boat owners who want to continue cruising for longer periods in Turkey. But so far nobody, even the immigration authorities here, seem to know what the procedure is for obtaining this extension.
Just as I was ready to post this article, something occurred that perfectly exemplifies why we love it here at Kemer Marina. Although the water is still a bit chilly (60 degrees, compared to 80+ degrees in August), Art was diving around the boat with a mask and snorkel, attempting to clean the prop and waterline of algae and accumulated gunk. As he was climbing up the boarding ladder to get back onto the boat, he coughed ... and lost his dentures in the drink!!! At first we weren't too concerned since where we're docked, the water is about 10' deep and we can usually see the sea bottom perfectly clearly. But of course this day the water was cloudy because the wind had stirred it up a bit. A Brit with a boat on our dock immediately offered the use of his "diving hookah," a low-tech Scuba-type apparatus for breathing underwater. It consists of a 12-volt generator and air pump with a long, flexible plastic hose and respirator. (Having tried it out, Art is now anxious to buy or make one!) Then a German on the next dock gave Art his wetsuit, which no longer fit him. For two days running, Art took short dives next to the boat looking in vain for his teeth. (Although he came out of the water shivering, at least his teeth weren't chattering - haha!) Finally on the third morning the water had cleared, and an Italian boater with a full-body wetsuit, including headgear, offered to swim over and take a look. On his first dive he spotted the missing dentures, and on his next dive brought them up - eureka! Art was soon looking like himself again, with a huge smile on his face. And within minutes, the entire marina erupted in spontaneous clapping and cheers. It's that kind of place.
A Week in Jordan -- Jan 2012
13 March 2012
Photo: Art afloat in the Red Sea
To get to Jordan, we took a minibus from Daha, a low-key snorkeling and diving paradise and one-time hippy hangout on the eastern coast of Egypt's Sinai peninsula where we'd spent a very relaxed week doing a whole lot of nothing. We drove up the western side of the Gulf of Aqaba to Taba at the top of the gulf. From there, we had to cross the southernmost point of Israel at Eilat. Immigration formalities took forever as we ended up in line behind two busloads of Nigerian and Japanese visitors, and then our luggage was pulled aside for inspection. In the process we got our passports stamped with an Israeli visa, which means we can't go to most Arab countries, including Lebanon, unless we get new passports.
Once in Israel, it was just a short taxi ride to the Jordanian border (during which the Palestinian taxi driver refused to use his meter, insisting that the 5-mile ride cost a flat rate of $50!). By contrast, the Jordanian border crossing was easy, then we took another taxi to nearby Aqaba to pick up our Thrifty rental car. Fortunately the taxi organizer at the border knew that we should pick up the car in town and not at the airport (despite what our online voucher said).
We noticed immediately that Jordan appeared to be quite prosperous, with lots of fancy cars on the city streets. Jordan also has a very high (over 90%) literacy rate. Its government is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Abdullah II. Although Jordan is considered to be one of the most westernized of all Arab states, many men and women, especially in the rural areas, dress very modestly in traditional Arab clothing: the men in long-sleeved, ankle-length robes and head scarf (usually red/white or black/white checkered) with a rope band to hold it in place, while the women wear an abaya, a cloak worn over their other clothing, and hijab, a headscarf tied under the chin so that not a strand of hair shows.
We ended up staying the first night in Aqaba, and driving the next day the short distance to Wadi Rum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, en route to Petra. Wadi Rum ("wadi" means "valley") is a spectacular moonscape-like valley in the desert with dramatic rock outcroppings. Apart from its haunting beauty, this area has become a tourist magnet since the movie "Lawrence of Arabia" was shot on location here (where T.E. Lawrence based his operations). Local Bedouin tribesmen offer guided daytrips, trekking and climbing expeditions, and overnight safaris by jeep, horse, or camel. But since we were eager to get to Petra, we planned to spend only a few hours here.
At the visitor center, we watched a short movie with panoramic photographs of the area that explained the geology and history of the region, which has been inhabited since prehistoric times. From the visitor center we hiked to the nearby Seven Pillars of Wisdom (named after Lawrence of Arabia's book of that name), one of the few treks that didn't require a guide. After tromping through loose sand at the base of this huge rock formation, we decided we'd try to climb over it rather than walk all the way around it. This turned out to be quite an adventure since we were never quite sure whether we'd end up atop a sheer precipice and have to retrace our steps (and climb back up all the boulders and rock faces that we'd just descended with considerable difficulty). Fortunately, after a couple of hours we found our way out and were able to exit the "seven pillars" amongst a small cluster of Bedouin tents, camels, and goats - once again within sight of the visitor center.
From Wadi Rum we drove the 30 or so miles to the ancient city of Petra, which has recently been voted one of the "new" Seven Wonders of the World, a well-deserved designation. We spent two days there ambling and hiking around and exploring the magnificent sights. What's so incredible is both the natural beauty of the huge many-hued rock outcroppings (pink, purple, orange, blue, green!) and the siqs (natural fissures in the earth creating long, deep, narrow canyons), combined with the grand structures - streets, houses, temples, Treasury, theatre, palace, baths, and hundreds of tombs -- carved into the rocks by the Nabataeans between 200 BC and 200 AD. Petra is absolutely stunning, and should be added to your list of "places to visit before I die," if it's not already there!
Dana Nature Reserve
From Petra we drove north up the ancient King's Highway to the vast Dana Nature Reserve, recently featured in the Washington Post travel section (click here for a nice write-up accompanied by beautiful photographs) http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/dana-biosphere-reserve-in-jordan-is-an-eco-tourism-oasis-in-the-desert/2011/12/27/gIQACzonJR_story.html. Rather than stay at the institutional-looking guest house run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), we opted to spend the night at the nearby Bedouin-owned Dana Tower Hotel, situated on the edge of a sandstone cliff overlooking the red rock valley far below. Here we paid the equivalent in Jordanian dinars of just a few dollars for a room bedecked with a medley of Bedouin-style fabrics and heated with a quirky kerosene stove. There were four other guests the night we were there, including a Swiss couple vacationing with their son, a medical school student who was about to start an internship at a teaching hospital in Mississippi; they had just come from Wadi Rum, where they had spent the night at a Bedouin encampment, and said it was the coldest night of their lives. We hiked into the canyon for a couple of hours the afternoon we arrived, joined by the other guest, a German backpacker.
Because snow was being forecast for the following day, we abandoned our plan to do an all-day hike through the majestic Wadi Dana canyon, after which we would have spent the night at an RSCN lodge at the bottom of the 14-km trail. Instead, we decided to head to the Dead Sea (which would, hopefully, be warmer) via the town of Madaba.
Our travel guide, Lonely Planet Jordan, suggests that it's rather rude to drive past people standing along the highway without offering them a ride since distances between towns are considerable, and public transportation minimal. Over the course of several days, we stopped and picked up a number of Jordanian men. Generally the conversation didn't get much past "hello" and "thank you" and "stop." But this day a man, dressed like all the others in traditional robe, invited us to his home for tea, so we had the privilege of experiencing Jordanian hospitality and meeting his wife (a physician who spoke English fairly well) and their three kids, who were home from school and watching cartoons on TV.
From Dana we drove north on the King's Highway through the vast Wadi Mujib, known as the Grand Canyon of Jordan. The road winds its way into the deep canyon with switchback after switchback, across the dam at the bottom, and finally back up the other side. We stopped for the night in the town of Madaba, known for its mosaics and for having one of the largest Christian populations in Jordan. Here we visited St. George's Church, a Greek Orthodox church that houses a mosaic map of Palestine crafted in AD 560, which depicts all the major Biblical sites of the Middle East (including places we'd recently visited, such as Mt. Sinai in Egypt). It's the oldest map of Palestine in existence, and although much of it has been destroyed it once contained more than two million pieces! We also visited the nearby archaeological park with more remarkable mosaics.
My favorite meal of the entire trip was here in Madaba, at Haret Jdoudna, a restaurant recommended by the friendly owner of the family-run Black Iris Hotel where we stayed. The restaurant was in a beautifully restored old house, where we were seated near a roaring wood-burning fireplace that was ever-so-welcome on a chilly evening. But I'm sure it would be lovely to have a meal here while seated in the shaded courtyard in summer as well. Great food and romantic atmosphere!
The Dead Sea
The next day we drove the 15 or so miles to the Dead Sea, again on steep, serpentine roads alongside cliffs offering beautiful views of the valley below, and passing scattered Bedouin villages of tattered tents and camels. We'd envisioned a day lolling on the beach and floating for hours in the uber-salty sea, but the day turned out to be cloudy and cool.
So we drove along the Dead Sea Highway past luxurious resort spa-hotels, then high up into the hills to the Dead Sea Museum and Panorama Restaurant with its dramatic vista and cliff walk overlooking the sea and across to Judea. The small museum, which is another RSCN undertaking, explains the history, ecology, geology, and biology (flora and fauna) of the region. Here we learned that the Dead Sea, actually a freshwater lake, is the lowest place on earth, roughly 1,300 feet below sea level, and is called the Dead Sea because marine life can't survive in such salty water (it's 10 times saltier than the Mediterranean and three times saltier than Utah's Great Salt Lake). One exhibit shows the dramatic shrinkage of the Dead Sea in recent years as water is increasingly being diverted from the Jordan River, its major feeder. With the water level dropping about 3 feet per year, it asks the seemingly absurd question of whether the Dead Sea will die.
Just before sunset, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, so we hightailed our way back down to the sea, intent on at least taking a dip before dark. At the one public beach along the coast, we hurried into our swimwear and made our way gingerly over the deposits of white salt crystals that cake the shore like snowdrifts. Compared to the chilly air, the water felt warm. We still can't truthfully say that we swam in the Dead Sea, but we did float on our backs (we'd been warned not to put our faces in the water) and discovered that it's quite literally true that you couldn't sink even if you tried! Just tasting the water, it's so salty it burns your tongue!
The day before our flight back to Turkey, we drove the short distance to Amman, the capital of Jordan, then spent ages trying to find the place where we were supposed to return the rental car. There was no address and the Thrifty map was unclear. After several phone calls to Thrifty by strangers on the street who called on our behalf and got directions for us, we were still unable to find "the street with all the car rental agencies." I finally got so frustrated driving around and around the same streets that I refused to go on and instead pulled up to the doorway of the grand Four Seasons Hotel. I must have looked mighty frazzled because the uniformed doorman immediately took pity, invited us to make ourselves comfortable in the hotel lobby, and called Thrifty and told them to come get their car!
Amman was the only place on our entire trip that we were turned away from a hotel because it was fully booked. We were surprised because January is the coldest month of the year and not at all the height of the tourist season here. Moreover Jordan, like the rest of the Middle East, is suffering from a dramatic downturn in tourism. The hotel clerk explained that they had many Libyan families as guests because Libyans who had been wounded in the "Arab Spring" conflict that ousted Gadaffi were now being sent at government expense for treatment at foreign hospitals, including a hospital near this hotel.
The next morning we flew back to Antalya, Turkey (this time taking the normal route, through Istanbul, not via Cyprus). I somewhat regretted our decision not to visit Israel but after a month of traveling in the Mideast we were tired of being tourists and very ready to get back to the boat. Jerusalem will have to wait 'til next time. And we'd love to return to Jordan as well, but next time perhaps in the spring or fall.
Three Weeks in Post-Revolution Egypt -- Jan 2012
13 March 2012
Photo: Fez makers in Cairo souq.
Alexi, our youngest daughter, wanted to meet up with us for Christmas, but it had to be "somewhere warm." Except perhaps for the ongoing violence being perpetrated by the Egyptian army against protesters in Tahrir Square, Egypt seemed like a good place to meet up with Alexi and her boyfriend Jason. Art and I would get to Cairo a week ahead of them, and we worked out a rough itinerary (Cairo, Luxor, Sharm el Sheikh) for the 10 days we'd spend with them, and then left unplanned our remaining time in Egypt.
So what was Post-revolution Cairo like? We spent a lot of time wandering the chaotic and noisy streets and souks (markets), but having never visited here before, we had no real basis for judging to what extent things were "business as usual." Pedestrians, honking cars, trucks, motorcycles, and carts pulled by donkeys, horses, and bicyclists all share the traffic-choked roadways. Adding to the cacophony, street venders blast their music at top volume. Traffic lights no longer work so police with black berets attempt to direct traffic at key intersections. At night a large percentage of cars are driven without their lights being turned on. And although drivers absolutely never yield the right of way, pedestrians somehow make their way effortlessly across many lanes of traffic, while we darted across always in somebody's shadow, while offering up a quick prayer for safety.
Not surprisingly, the number of tourists in Egypt was waaay down due to ongoing security concerns, which actually made it a wonderful time to be there (no crowds at even the most popular tourist attractions!). Restaurants, taxis, and accommodations were all remarkably inexpensive. When Alexi arrived the day before Christmas, she was loaded down with gifts, including travel guides to Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, as well as various things we'd ordered from the States since items shipped to Turkey are often delayed indefinitely at the border and may never get delivered.
In Egypt, we immediately noticed that both men and women keep their arms and legs modestly covered (no short-sleeved shirts and certainly no shorts -- even in summer, we're told). In the areas of Cairo where we spent most of our time, virtually all of the women (tourists excepted, of which there weren't many) wore headscarves that completely covered their hair; a very small minority wore the burqa (a black gown and veil that covers the entire face with only a narrow slit for the eyes). Most of the men wore western-style clothes, with a smaller number wearing the traditional robes and headdress common to many Arab countries.
Tahrir Square. The night before we arrived in Cairo, there was yet another demonstration at Tahrir Square that turned violent when the army started shooting at protesters. A woman wearing an abaya, a cloak-type covering worn by many conservative Muslims, was attacked by soldiers who threw her to the ground and started tearing off her clothes. The unidentified woman, who soon became internationally known as the "blue bra woman," was rescued but in response a "million woman" protest march was planned for the following Friday. Although we walked through Tahrir Square several times (a few tents were set up, and young people were always milling around), we were turned away and not allowed to enter the square when people were gathering (and being frisked) for a demonstration the following Friday after the noontime call to prayer.
The Egyptian Museum. Although the Egyptian Museum, just a block off Tahrir Square, had been broken into and vandalized during the Revolution, it had reopened by the time we visited. Established in 1835, it houses tens of thousands of antiquities dating from around 3100 BC through the end of the Pharaonic era some 3,000 years later. Art, of course, has rarely encountered a museum he didn't love, and this was no exception. He spent 2-1/2 days there, and still wasn't sated. I spent one day there, and one of the highlights was seeing the fabulous collection of artifacts from King Tut's tomb (some of which I'd seen years ago when a traveling exhibit of King Tut treasures came to the Smithsonian). Of course the Royal Mummy Room is not to be missed, but did you know that the ancient Egyptians mummified not only their rulers but also royal pets as well as other animals (bulls, baboons, crocodiles, and raptors) that were viewed as incarnations of gods?
Coptic Cairo and "Yankee Doodle." When Art chose to spend a second full day at the Egyptian Museum, I took the Metro to Coptic Cairo, an enclosed compound that is the center of the city's Christian community. Metro has cars set aside for women (although women can ride in the other cars as well), and the train platform demarcates the Ladies end. A single ride costs 1 Egyptian pound, or about 15 cents. I found the Metro very easy to navigate since it's signed in English as well as Arabic (unlike most of the street signs).
In the months since the revolution (and especially since our visit), there has been an upsurge in attacks on Christian churches and, as I write this at the beginning of April 2012, the Coptic Christians have just withdrawn from the talks on Egypt's new constitution, saying their participation is pointless with the Islamists controlling the assembly.
In any case, the Coptic Cairo neighborhood provided a welcome break from the chaos of central Cairo. There are several celebrated Greek Orthodox churches here, a synagogue dating to the 9th century, as well as the first mosque built in Egypt (in the 7th century). While there, I met Ahmed, a young man tending a tourist shop. Mostly the shopkeepers try to get the attention of passersby by calling out "Hello, welcome to Cairo. Where are you from?" But this guy asked me what "Yankee Doodle Dandy" means. He said that every time he says it, people laugh but he didn't know why. Since it always got a good reaction, he wanted me to write it out for him so he could make a big sign and hang it outside his shop. I didn't have a good answer for him but sang him a few lines of the familiar tune: "Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony. Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni." (Later I looked up the origin of this ditty, and although it is now sung as a patriotic song, it dates back to the Revolutionary War when British troops sang it in derision of the ragtag American army; according to Wikipedia, "doodle" meant simpleton, and Macaroni was a popular type of wig, so the implication was that the Yankees thought that simply by sticking a feather in their caps, they were the height of fashion.)
Ahmed told me that it was his 18th birthday, and begged me to allow him to make me a small gift of tea. (This is a very Egyptian thing, wanting to give a gift which then obligates the recipient to return the favor, which meant buying a little something from his shop.) He's now of an age to vote and get a driver's license and in two years, when he's 20, he'll have to serve in the army. I asked him what he thought about the army shooting civilian protesters, and he said that soldiers have to do what they're told to do. He'd do the same, even though in his heart he'd know that it wasn't right, since not obeying orders would get him shot or jailed.
The Pyramids and the Sphinx
While still in Cairo, we spent two days at the pyramids, going first to the Step Pyramid (the world's oldest pyramid, built in 2650 BC) in the midst of the vast Saqqara burial site, and the nearby Bent and Red pyramids -- an hour's drive outside the city in the desert. By comparison, the Pyramids of Giza, the only one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World to survive, are within sight of Cairo, which makes for a very odd juxtaposition. The interiors of some of the pyramids are open, and it's quite an experience to first climb up, up, up to the entrance, then down a long, claustrophobic passageway to the interior chambers.
The Sphinx, on the same site as the Giza pyramids, is big although not as big as we had imagined. Nevertheless, it remains one of the great mysteries of the ancient world: who built it, why, and even when are all the subject of ongoing speculation. In recent years, some scholars have suggested that it may predate the pyramids by thousands of years. (Since it's carved out of limestone, carbon dating doesn't provide an answer.)
After Jason arrived from the States the day after Christmas, we spent a day at Giza and then the four of us took an overnight sleeper train to Luxor. Unfortunately in the process of unloading our luggage from the taxi at the train station, Art left his backpack in the trunk of the cab, only realizing it as the cab sped off into the night. Since we were unable to determine if there was a "lost and found" for items left in Cairo cabs, we were glad that nothing too important (just his electric shaver, electric toothbrush, pj's, and so on) was lost. He was most saddened, I think, to have lost the giant-size Hershey's Chocolate Kiss that Alexi gave him for Christmas, an annual gift tradition that started when she was just a toddler.
Upon arriving in Luxor at 6:30 a.m., we thought we'd negotiated a taxi fare to our hotel, but when the driver realized we were going to the West Bank, he refused to take us. It turns out that traveling between the East Bank and West Bank entails either a fairly long taxi ride or a very short boat ride across the Nile. Once across the river by taxi-boat, it was a short walk to the small family-run Amon Hotel that I had selected based on its description in Lonely Planet ("utterly charming" and "popular with archaeologists"). Sure enough, it was a lovely spot with a rooftop terrace and a courtyard awash in flowering plants where breakfast is served and managed by a gracious gentleman in traditional Arab garb.
The East Bank. We spent our first day in Luxor on the East Bank visiting the remains of the vast Karnak Temple complex, where we hired a guide to help us better understand what we were seeing: towering obelisks, pylons, colonnades, temples, courtyards, etc. -- parts of which date back to almost 2000 BC. Its main structure, the Temple of Amun, is reputed to be the largest religious building ever built.
At dusk we took a boat ride on the Nile (not on a felucca, a traditional wooden Egyptian sailboat, since there wasn't any wind to speak of) and enjoyed a lovely sunset. Later that evening we visited the dramatically lit Luxor Temple (dating back to the 14th century BC) and the recently restored Avenue of Sphinxes that once linked the Karnak and Luxor temple sites. So far some 650 sphinxes have been excavated, about half of the total number that once lined this impressive avenue.
The West Bank. The following day we turned our attention to the West Bank, renting bikes from our pension and riding a few miles through the lush countryside to the Valley of the Kings. This is a vast necropolis (burial ground) with elaborately furnished, but once-hidden tombs cut deep into the hills. At the Visitor Center, you purchase a ticket that gives you access to any three of the 20 or so royal tombs, each quite different, that are open to visitors. At each tomb, a corridor leads to the burial chamber, where the mummy was placed in a stone sarcophagus along with the belongings that the deceased would need in the afterlife. Even though most of the statuary and mummies have been stolen or, in more recent years, carted off to museums "for safe-keeping," the carved hieroglyphs and elaborately painted walls and ceilings that remain still give a sense of the tombs' original splendor.
We were told that in more normal times, we would have to wait in long lines to enter each tomb, but with so few tourists in Egypt we encountered no waits, either here or anywhere else. By the time we'd visited our allotment of three royal tombs and followed a path to the top of a promontory providing a panoramic view of the town of Luxor and the Nile River far below, we'd all seen enough tombs for the time being, so we didn't investigate the Valley of the Queens or the Tombs of the Nobles, all of which are located in the rocky hillsides of the West Bank.
One of the more annoying aspects of being a tourist in Egypt is the constant demand for baksheesh. For example, we're in a tomb and an older man in traditional Arab garb sidles up to one of us and, unasked, points something out, then hangs around expectantly, waiting for payment. Or the policeman on a decked-out camel at Giza says (in English), "Come and take a photo." They're very insistent, and if you don't come up with a large enough tip for the service you didn't want, they'll keep pestering you until you give them more. Once Art got so peeved, he said, "Fine, if it's such a pittance, just give it back!"
Scuba diving at Sharm el Sheikh
From Luxor we took a short flight to Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. This peninsula sits at the top of the Red Sea, flanked on the west by the Gulf of Suez and on the east by the Gulf of Aqaba. Sharm and a nearby underwater national park, are reputed to have some of the best diving sites in the world. Three of us (not including Art) spent two days Scuba diving among gorgeous coral reefs with an abundance of exotic, colorful fishes. Alexi was certified a couple of years ago (and just needed a quick refresher course), but Jason had never dived and I hadn't dived in years, so we two were "tea-bagged" (meaning the instructor literally held our hands the entire time we were underwater, which was a bit weird).
For New Year's Eve, the Bedouin-owned Sharks Bay Umbi Diving Village where we stayed put on an elaborate rooftop buffet in a faux Bedouin tent with entertainment that included a belly dancer, cobra snake charmer, fire-ring performer, etc.
After Alexi and Jason flew home on New Year's Day (yep, back to work), Art and I took a short bus ride to Dahab, hyped as a former "hippie" hangout just an hour's drive up the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula. We spent several days just hanging out there, reclining on colorful pillows spread across the floor in Bedouin-style beach-front restaurants, drinking mango smoothies, and looking out across the sparkling waters of the narrow Gulf of Aqaba to the arid mountains of Saudi Arabia. I spent one afternoon snorkeling right off the beach in Dahab, where again the coral and other marine life were breathtakingly beautiful.
The Blue Hole. Another day we rode bikes to the legendary Blue Hole, known as the "world's most dangerous dive site." It's an underwater cave with a long tunnel connecting the Blue Hole and open water at a depth of more than 150 feet. On the rock wall overlooking this popular diving spot are memorial plaques with the names and ages of some of the many intrepid young divers who have lost their way (and their lives) here. From here we walked along a cliff path to a small, sad-looking Bedouin village where we were served tea in dirty cups and local women tried to interest us in buying some of their rather unappealing jewelry and scarves.
While in Dahab, I read William Golding's An Egyptian Journal, which I had picked up at the huge open-air used book market in Cairo. It's a charming and sometimes cranky account of his 500-mile boat trip up the Nile River from Cairo to Aswan in 1984 at the age of 72. Not at all by design, but because I've been mostly reading what I happen to find at the book exchanges at marinas or restaurants in towns along the Turkish coast, I've also recently read two William Golding novels: The Spire (a story set in the 14th century England) and Close Quarters (a nautically themed story set in the early 19th century). Previously, I knew of Golding only as the author of Lord of the Flies, but now I realize that he was a prolific (and quite marvellous) writer!
St. Catherine's Monastery and Mt. Sinai.Another day we booked a trip from Dahab to St. Catherine's Monastery, reputed to be the oldest Christian monastery in the world. On the minibus ride there, Art heard an American accent and asked the guy where he was from. It turns out he had lived in Mount Pleasant, the same neighborhood in Washington DC where Art has owned a house for many years (small world!), and he was now spending five years trekking around the world.
Since St. Catherine's is a much-touted tourist attraction, we were surprised to find that only one very ornate chapel and a small museum are open to the public. In a courtyard at the monastery, our guide pointed out the "burning bush" (or a descendant thereof, I should think) from which God spoke to Moses.
Following our short visit to the monastery, our young Bedouin guide hurried us up Mt. Sinai where Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike believe that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. To the disappointment of the many Bedouin camel drivers, only a couple of people in our group chose to ride camels since the climb up the mountain isn't at all difficult.
Traditionally pilgrims and tourists like to climb Mt. Sinai (known locally as Moses Mountain) in the wee hours of the morning or spend the night near the top of the mountain so as to enjoy the spectacular view of the sun rising over the surrounding peaks. But that wasn't such an attractive option in January. Our outing was billed as a sunset trip, but we reached the peak long before dusk. Since it was cold and the wind was howling, we were quite happy to descend from the summit after taking some photos and drinking a cup of hot tea. I very much wanted to take the more challenging path down, the 3,750 Steps of Repentance cut into the mountainside by a monk as a form of penance, but our little tour group had to stay together so that wasn't to be.
Since our trip to St. Catherine's, we've read of at least three incidents where tourists have been kidnapped by armed Bedouins while traveling to or from St. Catherine's. I believe that all were released unharmed, but it does give one pause.
After a week in Dahab, we decided it was time to move on to Jordan, the next country on our itinerary. We left without doing several things that tourists in Egypt are "supposed" to do: namely, dine on stuffed pigeon, smoke sheesh, and ride a camel -- which surely gives us three excellent excuses for returning to Egypt. And next time we'll be sure to spend more time on the Nile River -- I'd love to sail from Aswan to Luxor on a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailing vessel.