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Our Mideast Trip -- March 1999


Picture Pages -- Mideast Trip

The Middle East - March 7-21, 1999

Part I - Israel, March 7-12

Note: Clickable pictures will take you to a larger view of that shot on one of the picture pages.

Our trip to the Middle East begins on Sunday, March 7, 1999, as we catch a 6 p.m. Lufthansa flight out of Dulles. That's the two of us plus two big suitcases plus two carry-ons (one filled entirely with baby clothing & other baby stuff) plus two big cardboard packages -- one containing a baby stroller along with miscellaneous items stuck here & there like parmesan cheese, peanut butter, beef jerky, grits & more baby stuff; the other with a new playpen & again the ends are stuffed with two 1-pound packages of Cheddar cheese plus a bunch of other stuff!

We are loaded for bear (actually, more like "loaded for baby!").

Touchdown at Tel Aviv is a little after 3 in the afternoon -- seven hours ahead of "Virginia time" -- & after checking passports, getting luggage & clearing Customs, we are met by Israel, Cindy & darling little Noah, our granddaughter!

We soon imitate her parents & call her "Sweetie" -- because she is one!!

* * *
I must point out that the granddaughter is probably the cutest, most adorable, well-mannered & happiest little girl that I have ever seen. And this is not just my opinion. Mary agrees with me one-hundred percent -- & this, in itself, is a rarity!

Our mountain of luggage is squeezed into a tiny Ford Fiesta rental car (a miracle of packing!) & we tool our way north & then east on a two-and-a-half hour drive to Tiberias. We open up all sorts of baby stuff -- some things from Rita, Leslie & others, but Mary also has been on a wild baby-buying spree! -- before Israel takes us over to his parents' house where we are staying. (The Nelson family is in Europe touring around. In checking their nice house, I find one sin -- the toilet paper is going the wrong way [under vs. proper over]; I fix, of course.) After an incredibly long day, bed beckons successfully.

Tuesday dawns bright & sunny & we take Noah for a walk in her new stroller & visit briefly with the family Cindy stayed with when she was a nanny in Tiberias. Beautiful view looking down over the city & across the Sea of Galilee to the Golan Heights.

That night we drive over to Nazareth to visit the new (& almost finished) home of Israel's sister Gail and her new husband Najed. Then we have a Middle Eastern feast at Mary's Well Restaurant in Nazareth to celebrate Mary's birthday. Six kinds of salad that we shared, including hummus with pine nuts, eggplant, tabichi, a yogurt/cucumber combination & tahini -- all eaten with pita bread, of course. Then there was a bulgur & meat appetizer followed by the main course --lamb shislik & French fries for Mary & me. Dessert was baklava. Delicious! I learned my first word in Arabic -- shu-kran; i.e., thank you -- which was to stand me in good stead the rest of the trip. Had I known that Arabic was the language in Egypt as well, I would have tried to learn some more. Cindy told me that this was the only Arabic word she knew, too, but she used it to advantage when she was matron of honor at the Greek Orthodox wedding of Gail & Najed. She just kept saying "shu-kran" to everyone & they all complimented her on her knowledge of the language!

* * *
Wednesday, the 10th, took Cindy, Noah, Mary & myself north to Na'ot Mordechai, a kibutz that has good prices for sandals. Israel was at work at Galtronics, a telephone antenna company that manufactures antennas for such firms at Motorola. Nokia, etc. (When we got back that evening, Israel took me on a very interesting tour of the place.)

Then Cindy asked directions -- she speaks enough Hebrew to get by -- & we ended up at little Israeli eatery in the next town up & had "shwarmas" or "shuarmas." This is Middle Eastern food -- lamb meat on a spit; kindof like a Greek gyro, only different, with all kinds of goodies that you can pile in and on your pita bread. The roasted eggplant was particularly good!

On the way back, we took a side trip to Safed, or Zefad, or S'fat -- I still am not sure of the spelling -- which is an old, old city that was the central point in James Michener's novel, "The Source."

* * *
Thursday dawned as yet another beautiful clear day. I pick some lemons and clementines from the trees in Cindy's yard to take to the people who will be putting us up that evening. After lunch, we're off to Jerusalem, retracing the route that Mary & I had taken with our tour group in '96.

Actually, we eat our way to Jerusalem! Cindy had packed all kinds of snacks -- Beazleys, Bombas, apples, granola bars, cake, juice, sodas, water & we stop for ice cream at the "alligator farm."

We leave the greenery of irrigation & pass through areas all rock & barren desert again. We see caves in the rock hillsides. Little bus shelters along the way are filled with Israeli soldiers, guns in place, waiting to hitch a ride.

Then over the hill, green as ever, Jericho rises from the plain. It's obvious how water transforms the desert into a verdant oasis, as we see palms & all kinds of row crops interspersed with patches of brown rock & soil where nothing grows. As we turn east -- and up -- toward Jerusalem, we see a wild (?!) camel at the side of the road, his mouth full of greenery. (Cindy later tells me that "I don't think there's such a thing as a wild camel....)

Awhile later, the "up" becomes more evident with ear popping as we go from a number of feet below sea level and eventually reach Jerusalem's elevation of 3,000-plus feet. We continue past a group of Bedouin tents on the left and a big flock of sheep and then -- over a rise -- Jerusalem!!!

We find a parking place near the Old City & begin a re- exploration. The Cardo -- a row of underground pillars & walkway dating from Roman times -- & then the Wailing Wall. Mary & Cindy go to the women's side; Israel & I & Noah (in her "male spy" blue outfit!) to the men's. I leave a note: "Peace & safety for Israel, pls Lord."

Then we wander thru the Muslim quarter of the City, looking for the shop of Shabban, Cindy's friend from when she was there in school in the spring of '93. We're looking for a place to eat & Shabban insists on leading us to a restuarant. The first place he's taking us is closed; so off -- on an almost run (Shabban is awfully fast in these narrow, crowded streets) -- until we end up five minutes later in a place specializing in roticerie chicken. That plus fries & pita bread plus hummus, tahina, a Turkish tomato/onion salad, cucumber & tomato & a cabbage salad sets the group back 105 shekkels --about $25!

The next morning, at the airport, worried about making the flight & meeting our Gate 1 tour guide in Cairo, I quickly grab a luggage cart, load up our suitcases & trundle on for the terminal, Israel, Cindy, Noah & Mary trailing. The departure signs are very confusing, but with some help from Israel, we figure it out. Thru security, then hugs & kisses all around & a last look at little Sweetie & thru the gate. I think Mary is a little teary as she precedes me up the stairs to the waiting area for our flight to Cairo.

* * *

Part II - Egypt, March 12-21

We touch down in Cairo. As we have our passport checked & head toward the luggage claim, my long-lasting fears (that no one would be there to meet us) dissolve as we see Ali, a big Egyptian in a green coat holding up a "Gate 1" sign! On the way to our hotel, the Pyramisa -- which is actually in Giza, the west bank of the Nile -- Ali explains a little about Cairo & the traffic.

With 17 million people, it's the second-largest city in the world, just behind Mexico city. As for the traffic, there are no rules! No speed limit, no tickets, the lines don't means anything! Green light means go, yellow light means go, red light means check it out & then go! Years ago I heard a lady call in on a radio talk show on WMAL to tell about her experience taking driving lessons in Egypt. She said she took a two-week course & the driver only uttered two words: "More horn!"

I thought Rome was bad; Cairo was far worse! In a word, horrendous!! And this was Friday, the Moslem holy day when traffic was -- supposedly -- light. Crossing the street was a hair-raising, life-threatening experience!

Ali checks us in & we're on our own till Monday morning when we join our group for the tour. So a little nearby "street exploration" on Friday morning, then Saturday, the 13th, saw us grab a cab for 10 pounds Egykptian (10LE -- about $3 US) & visit the Coptic Museum & associated Coptic churches.

We then decide to check out the Cairo Tower, so hail a cab. "How much?" I ask. "Twenty Pounds." "Fifteen." "No, twenty." Mary opens the door to get out. "O.K., fifteen," he says. Mary knows how to bargain.

We arive & the top of the Cairo Tower gives us a nice view of the city & the Nile.

* * *
Sunday, March 14, we join our group -- a compact bunch of only nine! Our guide is Ahmed -- "call me Al" -- who is an Egyptologist with a degree from Cornell & a PhD, has been to the States numerous time & has a "New York accent."

Our first tour stop after boarding the bus is the Mohammed Ali Mosque -- also known as the Alabaster Mosque --which was constructed between 751 and 1356 AD and is inside (really part of) The Citadel, the medieval fortress of Salah-El-Din (or Saladin), completed by the Arabs in the 12th century.

Next, after a ride past the "city of the dead,"Al leads us through the narrow alleys of the Khan El Khalili Bazaars. Back on the bus, he provides us with a quick lunch of falafel & pita bread. Like his New York accent, Al is quick: Both in his stride as well as the fact that stops for food or bathroom seem to be an afterthought. But he does emphasize the need for plenty of bottled water to prevent dehydration.

Then to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which has some 100,000 pieces on display plus another 150,000 pieces "in waiting." We view all of King Tut's finery -- which we had seen some thirty years before when it was on tour in Washington -- plus many other ancient Egyptian artifacts.

Next to Giza, on the west bank of the Nile, & 12 km. to the pyramids! The big one, the Pyramid of Cheops (479 ft. in height, its base covering an area of 13 acres); the Pyramidof Khefren (470 ft.); and the little one, the Pyramid of Mykerinous (217 ft.). Which are curiously not as impressive as we had expected them to be. I don't know whether it was that we didn't get close enough -- tho we did sit on the huge bottom stones of the littlest one -- or what, but both Mary & I agreed it didn't give us the same sense of grandeur as when we climed the Great Wall in China.

Nonetheless, we bargained with the vendors, took pictures of three of our group who took a camel ride & got our obligatory shots of the three great pyramids.

On to the Sphinx, another marvel of the ancient world. Some 66 feet tall & 240 feet long, this is said to have been created when one of the Pharoahs couldn't see the pyramids & rather than knock down the sandstone mountain that was blocking his view, he carved it into the Sphinx!

* * *

Monday brings a 4 a.m. wakeup call as we head for the airport & a flight to Luxor over the "sakkara" or sahara, the Arabic word for desert.

At the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, Al gives us a short course in Ancient Egyptian history.

Click here for a timeline that outlines major events during the past five thousand years in Egypt.

* * *

Karnak Luxor

After the Temple of Karnak, we take a short bus ride to visit the Temple of Luxor, another impressive place. This was built by Ramses II in 1290 BC.

Then we board the 99-passenger "Champollion 2," a nice cruise ship named forJean Francois Champollion (1790-1832), the man who deciphered the hieroglyphics, for a delicious lunch: Penne pasta for an appetizer, slaw-type salad with two Greek olives, breast of chicken, green beans, scalloped/fried potatoes with onions and a fruit dish of banana, orange & watermelon for dessert.

A pleasant afternoon at leisure as we take our ease on the top deck of the boat. The brillian sun beats down out of a cloudless Egyptian sky. But there is a nice breeze & it is very pleasant sitting in the canopied shade on the boat's upper deck. To the east is our "sister" hotel with its turquoise blue swimming pool surrounded by a lush garden -- lots of shaped bushes, & palm & banana trees. We watch a slightly plump girl in a black bathing suit take advantage of the small pool on our boat's sunroof. To the west, a strip of green with palm trees and then a ridge of rugged brown mountains -- Sakkara! the desert.

I relax with a cool beer & learn some Arabic words from our friendly waiter Khalid. "Af-ran" means please; "mah-hub" you're welcome. And fine is "quyees" (as in "why-eeze").

Very peaceful. We watch a large ship steam up river as the feluccas sail back and forth. Three come down river & one folds its sails as it heads for docking. Another cruise ship comes up & I count ten feluccas down river.

That evening Mary & I take in the sound and light show at the Temple of Karnak & then, as we eat supper, the boat gets under way up river toward Esna, where we will see the Valleys of the Kings and Queens -- burial places of the ancient Egyptians.

Our first stop is a brief look at the two very impressive and huge statues -- the Colossi of Memmon, two Pharoahs of the 18th dynasty. Then to the Valley of the Kings -- dating to 1567 BC -- picked because of its seclusion, its limestone rock formation, and because it was away from the flood waters and humidity of the Nile.

We visit the Tomb of Merenptah, 4th King of the 19th Dynasty plus Ramses III & Ramses IX of the 20th Dynasty. The tombs are deep, extensive & interesting, but you can't take flash pictures inside.

Next we check out the Valley of the Queens & after that the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, one of the few female Pharoahs, who ruled from 1502-1487 BC. This temple was the place where the terrorists gunned down some 83 tourists in November '97. I found out that there are 74 tombs in the Valley of the Queens, 62 in Valley of the Kings & 450 in the Valley of the Nobles.

It is hot, but it is a dry heat, but nonetheless the morning re-emphasizes some of Mary's rules:

1. She is not good on hills.
2. Bread is her weakness.
3. She suffers neither fools nor the the hot sun well.
4. "I'm not a sauce person."

I'm sure there are others.

Back to the boat for lunch. Soon we are on the sun deck, awaiting departure, surrounded by people chattering in different languages. (We Americans -- nine strong -- are definitely in the minority.) Then we are underway, sailing up the beautiful Nile, Spanish to our right, Italian -- no, maybe it's French -- to our front. At any rate, we all wave -- and our boat sounds its horn -- as we meet another cruise ship coming down river.

The afternoon is peaceful as the palm-tree-covered shores pass by. Miss buxom black bathing suit is back at the pool briefly.

* * *

Up at 7 a.m. on Wednesday the 17th to see the Temple of Horus at Edfu, supposedly the hottest place in Egypt, but it's not too bad this morning. This is another huge and impressive temple, this one rebuilt by Alexander the Great in 257 BC. Horus is the falcon god & Mary & I have our picture taken in front of a statue at the front of the temple.

Our trip to & from the temple was by horse & carriage. As we return from the temple visit to find our carriage to ride back to the boat, I'm walking in the middle of the street, looking for our driver.

All of a sudden, I hear something coming behind me. I don't know which way to move. Thinking it is a bicycle & will go around me if I gave it a choice, I stop. That was when the grey horse ran into me!

Slobbered on the back of my left shoulder with his nose, Mary told me later.

* * *

Back at the boat, I'm talking to Miriam & I guess we're listening to the Italians, because she asks, "Do you understand Italian?"

"Not really," I reply; "just a few words like 'dove e' -- where is...."

"Me, too," she says, "like 'porque.' But the Italians -- they don't listen; they just talk to each other!"

"Tell me about it," I respond; "I married one!"

* * *

Underway again up the Nile. Palm trees and banana plantations on both sides. I see two feluccas loaded with rocks. Fishermen in a rowboat slap the water with theiir oars to drive fish into the net they have just spread out. I watch a tractor drag a dead cow to the edge of the water. Three men unhook the cow from the tractor & then complete the job of disposal as they pull the animal into the Nile.

Lunch is a barbeque, served topside. Grilled chicken & beef sausage, some very good rice plus tehina, hummus, various kinds of black & green olives, and fried pepper & onion. Dessert is bananas & watermelon. The bananas are small, but Jerry explains that they are Williams bananas -- "the very best."

I change into my suit and take a couple of quick dips in the topside pool. How about that? "Swimming on the Nile!" The water is brisk, but the air is so dry & the sun so hot you dry in no time.

We reach Kom Ombo at about 5 p.m., just time for a quick trip to view the temple there -- built for Horus the falcon god and Sobek the crocodile god. I get a picture of another beautiful Egyptian sunset.

That evening is a Galibaya Party on the boat!

Now the galibaya is the Egyptian robe. I had not planned on buying one, but Mary with the help of Irene (the best bargainer in our group) had purchased one for seven dollars. An Egyptian dress for her plus the "turban/kerchief" purchased earlier to add to my galibaya & we were outfitted! Along with most of the rest! Dinner was a very festive affair as Dorothy -- dubbed our "Nubian Queen" by her friend Phyllis -- was the hit of the party, turning every eye in her red outfit with scarf across her lower face.

Dinner was a fine buffet with several kinds of bean appetizers, eggplant & tomato, pita bread & tahini, fish, meat, a pepper & onion mix, zucchini stuffed with rice plus felafel -- fava beans covered with bulgar. A variety of six different baklava-type desserts topped off the meal.

Thursday, March 18 -- we have arrived and are docked at Aswan, just adjacent to the Isis Island Hotel, a huge and beautiful place that we will move to tomorrow morning. After breakfast, we head out for a felucca ride! The weather is beautiful & we have a gentle breeze as the nine of us plus our guide Al & two young men manning the sail & tiller set off on a short trip down the Nile. We check out the mausoleum of the Agha Khan set high on a hill midst the brown desert. Then a magnificent (if a bit gaudy) pink edifice -- which turns out to be Club Med!

As the breeze fails & the two boatmen man the oars, I take a turn at the tiller! We go past Elephantine Isle -- so named because of the shape of the rocks -- & over to Aswan, where we disembark & take a brief visit to the "unfinished obelisk" -- a huge thing left still in the granite hillside because the ancient Egyptians had found a flaw (a crack) while they were working to extract it from the rock.

Next a ride to the Aswan Dam, an engineering marvel started in 1960 & finished in 1971 by the Egyptians & Russians at a cost of $400 million. The dam is 2.2 miles long, 1 mile thick at the base & 120 feet wide at the top, where there's a four-lane road. The dam generators supply one-third of Egypt's power.

The dam, which created the 310-mile-long Lake Nasser, entirely changed the Nile ecology. By contolling the flow of water, Egypt is now about to get four crops per year instead of just one. With a population growing at 1 million people per year, this was a necessity.

Building the dam also meant that eighteen temples -- including two at Abu Simbel, some distance to the south -- were flooded & had to be torn down, moved & reassembled. While at the dam, we spot a load of camels being trucked from Sudan. These look less "worn" than the poor beasts we saw by the pyramids.

Then a nice ride in a small boat to the Temple of Philae -- pronounced "fillet" as in fillet of sole or fillet mignon. (And that's the way I thought it was spelled till I saw a sign!) This temple was located in the smaller lake north of the Aswan dam & was moved from one kidney-shaped island to another, starting in 1973, because otherwise it would have been completely underwater. Our guide Al was involved in the project & said it took seven years and cost $30 million in a joint UNESCO-U.S.- Egyptian project to move 40,000 blocks of stone from the half- underwater original site to the new one. Each stone had to be registered, a task that itself took three and a half years!

Later, as we leave the gangplank leading from our boat to the shore, an egret perching on the rope railway suddenly zooms down and catches a fish in the water right in front of us!!

* * *

Friday after breakfast we soon we get ensconced in the Isis Island Hotel -- a very nice room -- & we are "on our own" for the day. So we take the free boat to Aswan -- a ten-minute ride after a ten-minute wait -- & shortly thereafter find the spice market. They all want to sell you something!! I bargain & finally buy some saffron threads for 20LE; Mary buys two bags of salt-roasted peanuts for the asking price of 10LE -- 5LE each -- no bargaining; she must not be feeling well!

Back by boat ride to the hotel -- an interesting trip because just before we leave we see trucks being put on a larger barge that also goes to Isis Island; but our boat is faster so we arrive first & see the trucks' arrival -- particularly noteworthy because the little one loaded with vegetables can't make the hill on the first try! But with some helpful pushes, it makes it the second time around!!

## After lunch, a nap for Mary while I change into my suit and try the hotel pool. Beautiful, peaceful & very refreshing -- especially with a Stella export beer & some sand-roasted peanuts that come with it!

The magenta bougainvillea & other flowers around the hotel are spectacular. There's a locust tree with pods; another tree has red, hanging flowers. All kinds of birds are flying around. We see a brown, wooden boat being rowed across the river with some "greenery" in the back. Alfalfa for the cows?

Mary sums it up: "It's pleasant here."

We decide to take a stroll and explore some more of the hotel grounds. It is filled with flowers along the paths: Sweet peas, bougainvillea, hollyhocks, bachelor buttons, salvia, daisys, marigolds, carnations, zinnias, lilys of the valley, geraniums and petunias -- plus palm and banana trees.

Further on we find a miniature zoo that I had missed the day before: A little horned deer (which Mary feeds some green leaves), rabbits, tropical birds (including a red pheasant with a white head & a bird with head & neck feathers like a Pharoahs' headdress that I call "a Pharoah bird"), goats, geese, two pelicans & a peacock -- each group in its own little pen. Very interesting.

Later, we hook up with Irene & Jerry Andriole, whose son's Egyptian friend in Cairo had recommended a restaurant in Aswan to them. A short free boat ride & 10LE cab trip & we're at the restaurant. The food is excellent! We have soup, beans, potatoes, tahini/hummus, a tomato-pepper-onion salad, yogurt & cucumber plus pita bread -- just for the appetizer!! Then comes our lamb kebob/chop (Jerry has pigeon!) plus rice & potato chips. Dessert is a pudding with raisins & coconut. All for about $13 per couple -- including the gratuity!

The next morning we join the Andrioles plus Hal & Miriam Schreiner for breakfast & then repeat our meandering tour around the hotel grounds, showing the others the "mini zoo" we had found. We spend the rest of the morning relaxing by the pool, exchanging stories & remininces of people & places we had visited. Jerry told us about "the last Masseroti" -- stolen from him in Philly & ending up in Brazil.

The wind picks up & we see a sandstorm off to the west. To our east across the Nile, Aswan is hazy through the dust brought with the wind.

But our early afternoon flight gets off on schedule & we arrive in Cairo at about 4 p.m., there met by a familiar face -- Ali in his green Gate 1 jacket. We check into the Heliopolis Sheraton, a very elegant hotel near the airport with a number of fine shops & restaurants.

Morning dawns abysmally early -- at 3:45 a.m. -- in order to get us to the airport by 4:35 a.m., two hours before our scheduled liftoff on Lufthansa. After switching planes at Frankfurt, we are on the home leg of our journey, served by a stewardess who I think is a near dead ringer for (a somewhat younger) Debbie Elder, who I used to work with at APHIS before retirement. I manage to snap a picture to provide some proof for my contention.

A late arrival at Dulles & it is raining, but we finally manage to catch a cab & get home at 7 p.m. local time (2 a.m. Cairo time) -- Dorothy was right, there's no place like home! Another loooong day!

To sum it up: Wonderful trip, cruise on the Nile was the high point (except, of course, for seeing Sweetie).

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