Malawi: December 18

When we crossed the border between Zambia and Malawi, two things immediately became obvious.  First, there are a whole lot more people in Malawi.  Second, there wasn’t any gas.  A petrol shortage had been going on for weeks due to a shortage of foreign currency--which we were happy to help remedy in a small way (at a very advantageous exchange rate.)   It also became immediately obvious that the above two factors were symptoms (causes?) of a country that was much more poor than any of the previous places we had visited.

Our first stop was Lilongwe where we were hosted by Jeff Robison (a former Columbia co-resident of Meg’s), his wife Shima, and their adorable two boys Darien and Kian.  We separated and spent the day in a world of two extremes.  Meg went with Jeff to the local hospital, spending the morning at the “Under 5 unit” (which is the closest thing the hospital has to a Pediatric Emergency Room), and the inpatient wards- where it was not uncommon for 4-6 patients to be sharing a bed.  The afternoon was spent at the University of Baylor funded HIV Clinic which while well-staffed and well-resourced, has a very heavy patient load (Malawi ranks 9th in HIV prevalence in the world.) Jed, on the other hand, spent the day eating cake (literally) at the British High Commission while discussing the efficacy of foreign aid.  We had just read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari,which explores aid in Africa, and our experiences in Lilongwe helped bring the issue to life as we think about our future work in Latin America. 

We left Lilongwe and headed up to Nkhata Bay, a small town on the northern part of Lake Malawi.  We found a direct bus, but unfortunately it was the local bus, which stopped (no exaggeration) every 1-2 minutes, thus taking 8 hours to complete a 250km journey.  On the basis of dollars per hour of travel it was a great value ($5) and it did allow us to get a real taste of the Malawian people and countryside (and we didn’t have to change buses!). When we finally arrived, we immediately jumped into the lake which made the trip worth it! 

Following, an amazing sunrise and morning swim we were ready to begin another long bus journey.  We got on the local bus (again) to the nearby town on Mzuzu (we hate repeating the same mistake); then hopped on a minibus which, despite being filled beyond capacity and having to sit with our knees to our chest, it took us to the border town of Karonga in a speedy 4 hours, making it the best bus trip in Malawi.

To continue our discussion of local cuisine, we certainly got a real taste of it in Nkhata Bay where we went to one of the two local “restaurants” (which looked more like a living room with some tables in it) in town.  Meg went for the safe beans and cima (the Malawian version of mealy pap, the cornmeal-based dish common throughout the region.)  Jed, on the other hand, asked what “chicken parts” were and was taken back to the kitchen so that he could see for himself.  While we ate the meal and did not get sick, we learned a very important lesson—never look in a Malawian “kitchen” before eating if you want to enjoy the meal properly (Meg will never forget the look on Jed’s face the entire time he was eating his chicken parts.) 

Zambia (December 14, 2009)

Well, it turns out it was harder getting to Zambia than we thought.  As we wrote below, we had made a reservation on the Nam-Zam Express bus that was to meet us in Grootfontein “at the gas station sometime between 8 and 9pm”  When the bus finally arrived a little past 10pm we were told two things:

1.  The bus was full (although our reservation had been made and we did in fact have a seat assignment though there were other people in those seats.) 

2.  There was a second bus coming and the first bus would wait until the second bus arrived.

So we waited and waited until 1:30am when the second bus (finally!) arrived.  (Turns out it had broken down shortly after the previous stop.) However, the second bus was also full.  At this point, we had been at the gas station for 6 hours (at least it was a Total Gas station—see Namibian entry.) Seeing the looks on our faces, the bus man then told us we could get on the first bus and just to find any seat—unfortunately, this meant sitting on the edge of the window right by the door (not so much a seat, but we could not spend any more time on the gas station.)  A very uncomfortable 600km later (made slightly better only by very soothing Zambian music and an elephant running out in front of the bus), we arrived at the Zambian border.  From there, it was an easy bus ride to Livingstone.

In Livingstone, we met Chris Bradford and Pallen Chiu and immediately headed off to Livingstone Island where we were told we would swim in a “natural pool” overlooking the falls.  (Meg pictured an infinity pool at the hotel.)  It is hard to truly describe the experience—first walking up to see the falls with a complete lack of barriers and then swimming out to a pool at the edge of the falls and then dangling headfirst over the edge of the falls! It was truly a unique experience.

 Then add on sunset over the Zambeezi river, a ramble through Victoria Falls National Park, and a bungee jump over the Victoria Falls bridge and you have a winning weekend. It was Meg’s first bungee jump ever- though she was a little nervous despite Jed’s cheerleading 

 But in the end she jumped off the bridge like a champ. Not bad considering it is the 3rd highest bungee jump in the world.

After the falls, we began a series of long bus journeys through Zambia, getting to see some of Lusaka (in the rain and a power outage) and some of Chipata. While not as empty as Namibia, Zambia isn’t crowded either, though one sees many more roadside huts (made of mud brick and straw). Zambia has a real and identifiable national cuisine, which was a tasty change from the more internationalized cuisine of South Africa and Namibia. 

Namibia (December 9, 2009)

We ended up in Namibia a day early by accident (turns out that the town on the map on the South Africa side of the border isn’t all it appears to be- which was a sign of things to come….). Luckily, we stumbled upon a rafting camp on the Orange River (which constitutes the border) in time for a beautiful sunset.

We quickly discovered two things:

  1. Namibia is bigger than it seems, especially when driving 300 miles on dirt roads (though very good dirt roads to be fair),
  2.  As Meg said “there are no people here”. To put it in perspective, Namibia is slightly larger in size than the state of Texas with a population of on par with that of Houston alone.  (Nambia has 2 people per square kilometer; by comparison NYC has over 2000--no wonder we felt like we were alone the whole time.)

Both of these came into play when we got a flat tire in the middle of Fish River Canyon National Park with no one around.  Fortunately, we were well equipped…..

And for those of you who know the Herrllivann family at all know this was not a one person job

Fortunately our stop that night was in the lovely town of Keetsmanshoop which is known for having the most petrol stations per capita (and therefore lots of tire places as well.)  We set off the next morning to explore the dunes of Sosussvlei. Part of the bone-dry Namib desert, the dunes here are among the largest in the world. Spending (a slightly longer than anticipated) time walking through them one afternoon by ourselves (again, there is no one here), it really gave us the sense of what it would like to be stuck in a real desert in the old days. Thanks to the rental tent (surprisingly not as crappy as we first thought) we were able to experience the desert dunes at both sunset and sunrise. 

After a night in the German/Namibian town of Swakopmund (staying in 2 bed “fisherman’s shack” at the municipal rest camp), we did the 21st century version of desert exploration- on ATVs! 

But the true highlight of our trip to Swakopmund was our stop at the Total gas station. Outstanding service (we had at least 5 people addressing our vehicles various needs: gas, tires, windows, oil, etc.) coupled with good humor (the man taking the money referred to himself as “the minister of finance”) and an engaging manner made for our best visit ever to a gas station. In fact, “the minister of finance” upon seeing a photo in Jed’s wallet asked if that was a picture from our wedding (which, in fact, it was). He was very interesting studying the picture in great detail and asking who everyone was- however, in his honest manner he made two grave mistakes:

1.     He identified Meg’s sister-in-law Ali as best looking person in the picture

2.      When asked if Meg looked more beautiful now (in person) or in the picture, he answered that she definitely looked better in the picture

However, given his engaging manner and the multiple blessings he gave us for a happy life, we were able to forgive him his errors. (For those of you planning on visiting Swakopmund, it is the Total station on the corner of Nathaniel Maxuilili St and San Nujoma Ave:

Our next stop was Windhoek, which is a very pleasant capital city, though not known for its nightlife (about on par with Des Moines, Iowa) or historical sites (also on par with Des Moines).  The highlight there was our visit to the Zambian Embassy—we went there to explore transport options to Victoria Falls and left with much anticipation for the wonders of life in Zambia thanks to our new Zambian friends Tonnie and Kelvin (the “ambassadors”/bus ticket salespeople.)  Among their best recommendations were to try rat and fried caterpillars; they also emphatically stressed that Zambian corn was far superior to the Namibian variety. 

Given the bus to Victoria Falls didn’t leave for two days we decided to head to Northern Namibia and meet the “Nam-Zam Express” there.  We hopped on a mini-bus, which we discovered was also serving as a moving van for a Namibian family (we stopped approximately halfway at the new residence to unload the trailer.)  We got off in the town of Tsumeb which is described in the Lonely Planet as “Namibia’s loveliest town.”  While the town is perfectly nice and most Namibian “towns” usually consist of a couple of buildings at best (again, no people here), we quickly realized the guidebook author either had never been here or had a mistress in town (or some other reason for thinking the town so lovely).

With any luck we’ll be in Victoria Falls in day’s time- that is, if our new Zambian friends come through with our bus “reservation” (ie writing our first names down on a slip of paper and assuring us the bus would meet us in Grootfontein “at the gas station sometime between 8 and 9pm”)….

South Africa (December 3, 2009)

We left the Middle East somewhat reluctantly but were very excited to start exploring a whole new region.  We arrived in Johannesburg and spent a day at the African Leadership Academy, an amazing school founded by our friend Chris Bradford.  We not only got to brush up on our high school physics and leadership skills, we also met students from all over the continent with remarkable stories and aspirations. 

We then were treated to the “Bradford special tour” which included both a visit to the township of Soweto and the Voortrekker monument in Pretoria (a monument to the “Great Trek” of the Afrikaners.)   One an intentional monument to the Afrikaners escape from persecution by the British, the other an unintentional remnant of the Afrikaner subsequent persecution and discrimination of black South Africans.  While the two are obviously incomparable in severity and gravity, the contrast provided very interesting insight into some of the ironies of the history of South Africa (that continues today with the recent persecution of immigrants from other African nations.)

Next, we traveled up north to Kruger National Park where we enjoyed our first safari experience.  The experience was truly magical.  We stayed in a remote lodge where baby baboons and impalas greeted us on the walkways in the morning.  During each game drive we were treated to a taste of the “Big Five”—including watching a herd of elephants give themselves mud baths, watching a female lioness walk right behind the jeep, and tracking a leopard in the bush for several minutes.  Other highlights included rounding out the Big Five (with the Water Buffalo and Rhino), baby giraffes, a pack of wild dogs by the roadside, and a bush walk during which we learned about the different floral and fauna (including several trees that have apparent have medicinal properties for certain personal problems; Jed took careful notes, while Meg corrected the proportions- doctors…)  And even though we were warned that the classic American “mistake” is to get really excited by a Zebra (which are considered quite common in Africa), we couldn’t help taking several pictures--their faces are beautiful up close.

Next it was on to Cape Town where we had the pleasure of enjoying the city from a breathtaking seaside apartment in Clifton.  We quickly fell in love with the city and all that it has to offer.  We managed to hit the highlights—climbing Table Mountain (turns out it is a pretty hard climb), boating out to Robben Island, wandering in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, driving to the Cape of Good Hope, and the exploring the City Bowl.  The excitement of the upcoming World Cup filled the air (as did dust from all of the construction) and the city felt very much alive and vibrant.  We also met up with Sue Valentine (a friend of Jed’s father) who told us about runs the Children's Radio Foundation, which supports amazing radio programs by and for children (check it out at  She also took us on a tour of the Cape Town Children’s Hospital (the only separate Children’s hospital in Sub-Saharan Africa,) which was a definite highlight for Meg.  Jed’s highlight may have been the free dinner we got because he correctly answered a question about Egypt mythology; turns out the report he did in the 8th grade on the sun goddess Nut (and the recent refresher in Egypt) paid off!

(Dusk in Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background) 

The only disappointing part of Cape Town was discovering (after the fact) that the Cape of Good Hope is in fact NOT the southern most point in Africa.  However since we (like all the other tourists there) took the picture, we feel we have to insert it here.  Maybe someday we’ll make it to Cape Agulhas.

Finally we headed out to wine country to learn about (and taste of course) the various South African wines. One of the highlights was trying various types of the Pinotage grape variety. Stellenbosch, and the other wineland towns, certainly rival those of California for beauty, culinary delights, and excellent vineyards!

Overall, South Africa is both an emotionally stimulating and draining country.  We were wowed by the great natural, cultural, and human resources of the country, but also troubled by the contemporary effects of (recent) history. We continually had to remind ourselves that much of the momentous moments in the country’s history happened during our lifetimes. Like parts of the middle east (Israel, for example), our visit to South Africa really brought history to life and gave today’s headlines more perspective . 

Egypt (November 22, 2009)

Egypt (both continentally and for our trip) was divided into two parts. In the Sinai we enjoyed some relaxing and judeo-christian sites, while the remainder of our time in Egypt was dedicated to hardcore ancient Egyptian site seeing. We’ve divided our blog entry along slightly different lines to appeal to our different audiences (we’ve done some demographic research on our readers): culture and history. Those more generally interested in the amusing side of our cultural experiences can skip the first section below about our visits to the historical sites in Egypt.


 The Sinai provided nice closure on our exploration of religious sites and cultures that Israel embodies: visiting the oldest monastery in the world (St. Catherine’s monastery, which was actually rather a snooze) and climbing Mt. Sinai at sunset, which was very cool (literally and figuratively). 

After the Sinai, we met up with Jed’s father for a week of vacation from our honeymoon (no travel logistics!) in Cairo. The pyramids were outstanding, just as we’d dreamed of them and amusingly surrounded by the suburbs on two sides (nothing like driving down the street and seeing a pyramid behind the gas station.)

While the pyramids and the Sphinx are certainly in the category of “so popular it is a tourist cliché”, they are justifiably fabulous sites. It is hard not to be wowed by the view of the sun setting behind the Sphinx and the pyramids. However, equally memorable were the much less talked about inside of pharaohs’ tombs--the detail and coloring of the carvings were exquisite. It was breathtaking to see such ancient things in such good shape that they could have been painted yesterday. Especially of note were the 3,000 year-old carvings with perfect details in Sakarra and vibrant colors in the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Meg did question at multiple times whether the building of such structures was an efficient use of the Egyptian’s time and resources (especially given there were things like famine and drought to worry about.) However, she still was able to very much appreciate the magnitude and beauty of the sites

Following Cairo, we took a wonderful cruise down the Nile (well, up really since the Nile flows south to north), stopping along the way at various towns and temples. One of the highlights was watching the rhythms of life on the Nile, many of which are unchanged over thousands of years. It brought history books to life to see the boundaries between the fertile green of the Nile irrigated and the surrounding barren desert, which seems to go on until the horizon.

 While temples start to look the same after a while, a couple were of particular interest. In Luxor and Karnak, we liked the enormous columns of a nearly modern scale with papyrus bud and flower tops, a good contrast to the classical columns of Roman and Greek temples elsewhere on our trip. In the Abu Simbel the giant rock-carved temple exterior rivaled Petra while the vast interior of rooms filled with carvings surpassed the (basically non-existent) interiors in Petra.


While visiting the modern capital of Cairo, we took a quick trip to the capital of ancient Egypt: Memphis! And what would a trip to Memphis be without a marriage proposal. In a recreation of the dramatic proposal at Graceland, Jed proposed again, this time in the presence of a slightly different king (less style but possibly more soul). Even with the first time under her belt, it still took a couple of tries for Meg to say yes (perhaps less surprise and more consideration this time around?). 

On our first night in Cairo, we experienced the vibrancy of the City as we were driving through the streets as everyone celebrated Egypt’s victory of over Algeria with a last minute goal to force a playoff for a World Cup birth (which Egypt later lost causing a minor diplomatic crisis in the region as the Egyptian Ambassador was recalled from Algiers). It was like no other celebration, we’ve ever seen (and Jed has been several Yankees victory parades) though next time we might not try to take a cab through it- as there were several scary moments when a mob was rocking the car back and forth (Meg thinks it is pretty outrageous, and self-centered, that Jed compares the Yankees with the Egyptian national soccer team trying to qualify for the World Cup).

At every major tourist site in the country there are metal detectors but in many cases they weren’t on and in the places that they were on all the tourists were just waived through as the machines beeped away. It was later explained to us that “they only turn them on after there is an incident”- perhaps symptomatic of the Egyptian problem solving approach (we’ll wait for the problem then we will solve it, no need to worry about trying to prevent a problem that may never come)? Yet there was a large police presence all over the country, with tight controls and frequent check points; many of the officials at these checkpoints were not in uniform (aside from the gun tucked in their back pocket).  A general rule we formulated is that when border officials aren’t wearing uniforms that isn’t an encouraging sign about bureaucratic mechanisms of the country (though, to be fair we didn’t have any problems of this nature in Egypt).

 Finally, a note on traffic and translations. While much is made of the traffic in Cairo; it is true that crossing the street can often be a fun challenge (a man standing on a traffic median with us suggested that closing your eyes while crossing was the best strategy), but the volume of traffic itself isn’t much different than Midtown Manhattan and the (lack of) observance of traffic rules very similar to any major Latin American capital. As for the English translation, it was amusing in both spelling (too many examples to give) and phraseology (the High Dam at Aswan as “The Egyptian challenge against the silent nature”). The more we travel, the more Jed thinks he should open an English translation consulting business (perhaps paid on a commission based on the number of errors prevented). 

Regional Food and Drink: The Middle East

A few notes on the Mid-East cuisine; otherwise known as the great hummus contest and food more generally. There are many claims in the region about the best hummus or the best falafel. Having visited many “the best” in the region, we thought that while Israeli hummus was outstanding, and Lebanese a little disappointing, that Syria’s was consistently excellent. While shwarma (called a variation of kebap in other countries) was probably most available in Jordan or Syria, that in Israel and Palestine they really have the complete package of meat, toppings, and a bread down to a nearly unbeatable science. And for felafel (the “national dish” of several countries in the region), while Lebanon and Syria had some very tasty options, the best stand alone felafel balls were probably in a back alley in Amman- though Egypt’s variation, using fava  beans instead of chickpeas, probably had the best overall flavor. Egypt also had more original dishes than most other countries though with varying success (fatta was a tasty change of pace, while kushari was more controversial). 

In terms of drinks, we’ll start with the non-alcoholic variety.  The coffee was a bit of a let down—Turkish coffee (served in all middle eastern countries) was too bitter and “filtered coffee” just not good.  We both developed a deeper appreciation of tea, however, which is served at all times, in all places.  The highlight of the juices was pomegranate juice and the (best ever) fresh mint lemonade.

Alcoholic drinks proved to be much more difficult to find in the Middle East.  Beer and wine is sold at very few stores and restaurants, save the tourist areas.  Even there, it was not usually listed on the menu (we think both so as not to blatantly advertise it and so that prices could be somewhat arbitrary.  We had low expectations of the wine going in and were pleasantly surprised (although not overwhelmed.)  Lebanon probably had the best wine, all similar to French wine of course.  Egyptian wine was also quite drinkable, although the white much more so than the red.  (Jed’s father discovered the Omar Khayam white wine that he quite enjoyed.)  Beer was also in general slightly below average in quality though (with the exception of Luxor beer in Egypt) it was mainly drinkable. The highlight was Taybeh beer, which is the middle east only microbrew, located just north of Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories. Alamaza in Lebanon was also an outstanding pilsner and Stella (not Artois) in Egypt was good though with a slightly skunky aftertaste (think Rolling Rock). In all, there were few libation highlights in the region.

Israel; November 11, 2009

We enjoyed Israel- after the initial shock about the prices (a box of cookies cost as much as an entire dinner in Jordan! Though to be fair they were truly outstanding cookies, if you come across Tim Tam cookies anywhere buy them immediately; they are even kosher!). We spent a very interesting and fun week in Israel. Hiking in the desert, swimming in the Dead Sea, seeing the West Bank, exploring Jerusalem, and relaxing in Tel Aviv.

We started our time with an outstanding hike in the Negev desert in Ein Avdat National Park- a real desert hike it had fantastic views in a lunar-like landscape. Then it was on to the Dead Sea for a swim, where Meg initially had a little bit of trouble floating....

Trying to understand all sides of the historical Israeli-Palesinian debate is a challenge so aside from some reading (Strangers in the House for a Palestinian point of view, A Peace to End All Peace for a historical perspective, etc.) we also wanted to see the situation on the ground so we spent the night in Bethlehem and took a day trip to Ramallah. Having just spent the past few weeks in the Middle East, Ramallah felt like any other Arab city (minus the checkpoints, wall, and barbed wire fences of course).  However, in contrast to nearby Jerusalem, it felt very different.  The visits and other experiences, including standing above Bethlehem with our Israeli guide discussing the building of the wall (and its purpose/role) really highlighted the complexities of the conflict (and the fact that there really is no easy solution.)

Lunch in Ramallah

In Jerusalem, we toured the big historical sights. Even though it wasn’t necessarily our initial motivation, it was very interesting seeing the stories from the bible come to life. From touring the old City of David, to visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, seeing the Western Wall, and walking on Temple Mount around the Dome of the Rock, it was very educational. Above all, it highlighted both the commonalities and distinctions of different religions.  While we often like to go places where there aren’t other tourists, it is amazing to see so many different people (religion, nationality, etc) side-by-side in such a small city being affected by varying degrees to the various sites.

After the intensity of Jerusalem, it was a pleasure to move on to relative tranquility of Tel Aviv. Walking the boardwalk, sitting on the beach, visiting the old city of Jaffa- Tel Aviv was just a very pleasant place to relax and (if they could get some better public transport) probably a very good place to live. Much of this was probably due to being hosted by a truly wonderful family, who went out of their way to show us their Tel Aviv and welcomed as into their own home. Thanks Eial and Yael Diskin!

Jordan (11/5/09)

After some good wandering in the Damascus Old City (the old market there is definitely worth a visit for those of you looking for a trip idea) and another (less successful and interesting) walk around Amman (trying to find the world’s tallest freestanding flagpole), we spent a fantastic few days in Petra and the Wadi Rum desert.

 While we saw all the famous and beautiful sites in Petra (you’ll have to wait until the end of this entry for the prototypical picture of us in front of the Treasury, from Indiana Jones fame), the hike we took in the early morning before crowds arrived was especially memorable. Hiking up the rough sandstone ledges that surround the rock-carved temples of Petra proper, led to striking views of the surrounding sandstone rock formations and cliffs. Reaching the top for a view of the valley, filled with temples and increasingly with tourists, the gusting and sand-sweeping wind really gives a sense of how this place came to formed over thousands of years and why the Nabateans chose this location for their holy city.


From Petra we moved on to Wadi Rum which, for those of you that haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia, is a truly magnificent desert, home not only to scores of historical tales, but mountains, rock landscapes, and even the occasional tulip bulb.  We took a 4WD jeep tour during which we drove through miles of breathtaking scenery making frequent stops in which our Bedouin guide would point at a sand dune, a rock formation, or a several meter high natural rock bridge and would say simply “climb.”  We happily obliged.  From the miles and miles of sand (both a brilliant red and natural white) to the rose red cliffs, from the unforgettable colors of the sunset to the shadows cast by the equally unforgettable bright full moon, repeatedly throughout the day we turned to each other and talked about how we would never forget it. We ended the day at a Bedouin camp with a traditional meal, enjoying traditional music on the lute by our guide, and sharing stories with the (very few) other travelers staying at the camp. Waking up the next morning we quickly scrambled up a rock formation to get one last view before we sadly had to depart for Aqaba. 

Upon arrival in Aqaba we briefly debated heading straight to the border to cross into Israel but instead decided to enjoy one more night in Jordan.  We spent the day walking around the seaside town and enjoying the view a short distance across the Red Sea to Israel and Egypt.  More than that, though, we enjoyed again hearing over and over again “you are very welcome” from the Jordanian people.  

Side Note: Amman to Petra: Getting a fair price (but was it really worth it?)

I decided this experience was memorable enough (and provided such good insight into Jed Herrmann’s mind) that it warranted a separate entry.  A few days ago we woke up in Amman and took a taxi to the bus station to seek transportation to Petra.  When we got out of the taxi (in the pouring rain) a man standing nearby pointed us to a bus and said “Petra, 2.5 Jordanian Dinars per person.”  (For reference, 1JD is equivalent to $1.40)  We walked over to the minibus where the man told us it was indeed going to Petra and would cost us 5JD per person.  Jed announced to the man, (and everyone else nearby as he used his typical outraged loud voice) “that is preposterous; we will find another way.”  Leaving me with the bags (and a lot of attention from the male vendors at the bus station), he set off to find alternative means of transport.  He discovered that the minibus was unfortunately the only way to Petra, but did find someone who confirmed the government-regulated price was 2.5JD per person and advised him to talk to the police as he was being overcharged.  With the help of the local, a policeman accompanied Jed to the minibus where a long argument in Arabic ensued, filled with  a great deal of yelling and gesturing.  Finally the ticket collector of the minibus agreed to charge only 2.5JD for each of us.  Jed finally walked over to find me and announced, “well, I got the right price, but I am not sure it was worth it.”  The satisfied look on his face, however, told me otherwise.  We walked back to the minibus—Jed, proud while I, slightly embarrassed—only to be told we would be charged an extra 0.5JD each for our “big luggage.”  I (normally the one more reluctant to spend money) felt this was a small price to pay, but Jed was now on a mission.  At this point the minibus was filled with both tourists and locals, but Jed stood his ground.  After again much yelling, angry gesturing, snatching of money, and as a final angry gesture, the driver opening the window in front of where I was sitting letting in the cold air and pouring rain, Jed succeeded in only paying 5JD total.  I spent the entire bus ride trying to avoid eye contact with the other passengers and staring warily at the driver hoping his anger would subside.  (Jed was obviously unaffected given that when we arrived in Petra, he asked me if we should ask the driver he if he could drop us off directly at our hotel.)  Even now, as I write this and ask him if it were worth it, he responds:  “We saved 5JD, dude…that’s seven bucks.”


Rebuttal (Meg says I need to make clear that I’m writing this in response to the above story):

  The essential facts of the above are true: they did try to charge us 5 JD per person for the bus ride to Petra; the government-regulated price is 2.5 JD per person; it was raining.

 However, much of the above constitutes artistic license (read not the truth) by my (lovely) wife:

1.     I declared we wouldn’t pay 5JD per person (which in the end we didn’t so this was a correct statement and told Meg that we should look into other options (for reference we hadn’t taken an actual bus in the past week as we had taken the often cheaper and readily available service taxis, so exploring bus alternatives had worked in the past and was a strategy that Lonely Planet recommended for this journey).

2.     I didn’t actually want to involve the police in the price negotiation; I only wanted to use them as a negotiating tool. However, the police official marched over to the bus immediately.

3.     Much of the yelling between the bus driver and the policeman was about related to the fact that he had quoted us a rate of 5JD total for the two of us, but that is was fair that we should pay a charge for our large baggage (which wasn’t any bigger than the many cardboard boxes of crap that was being loaded into the back of the bus)

4.     I did not have a satisfied look on my face when I told Meg that we had gotten the right price, though I did say that it probably wasn’t worth it to get that price

5.     We did pay the right price of 5JD total

6.     We did save “only” $7 but that amounts to 50% of the cost (a sizeable percentage by any measure, especially in a country like Jordan)

7.     While Meg is complaining; we got there fine, paid the proper price and it was a nice trip.

"Syria or Lebanon?" (10/31/2009)

That was the question our cab driver asked us as he stopped in the middle of the highway where the road split off towards Lebanon. We had just visited Crac de Chavalier fort and were planning on catching a bus from Homs to Damascus.  However, while admiring the view from the fort, we realized we were actually looking at Lebanon just a short distance away (proving the once again the signifigance of the fort’s location on the highest mountain in the region and why those that held the castle in the Crusades controlled all of upper Syria and Lebanon). We decided it made more sense to enthusiastically reply “Lebanon!”  A few short hours later (border crossings unfortunately are not quick) we found ourselves in Beirut.  While enjoying a beer during happy hour, we felt we could be in any European city (or New York City, for that matter.)  Except, of course, the hummus wouldn’t have been as good anywhere else!

The next morning in the rain, we rented a car and drove through the Bekaa valley, stopping for lunch in the town of Zahle where while Meg was enjoying her Dunkin Donuts coffee (she couldn’t pass up the very unexpected opportunity) and Jed was receiving change for lunch in US Dollars, we again remarked on the fact that Lebanon felt far less foreign than we imagined.  We have spent the past 48 hours trying to squeeze in all of Lebanon—a visit to the Ksara winery, a quick view of the ruins of Baalbek, a drive over the mountains to the lovely town of Bcharre, a hike in the Qadisha valley, sorting through fish fossils in the town of Byblos, and a driving/walking tour of Beirut today.  Compared with other countries we have visited, Lebanon has far less tourist infrastructure- eg virtually no signs to anywhere that aren’t in Arabic. While this is most likely due to far fewer tourists, given the variety of scenery and sites—from big city to the beach from the mountains to the vineyards—it seems that it is a country that should have many more tourists and is well worth visiting.

Welcome to Syria! (10/29/09)

After a day in transit, we entered an extremely friendly Syria. The first sign of the mass-friendliness was that the immigration officer at the border offered us coffee, while we were filling out forms in triplicate and getting copies of documents made (and we already had our visa!). Other examples of Syrians hospitable nature were dozens of hardy “welcome to Syria” greetings everywhere we went; a free bag of Syrian candy (unclear if the boy at the cash register didn’t know to work the scale or they just wanted to give away their candy to the foreigners, we’re taking it to the latter); and the young man at the bus station who wanted to practice his English and told us that “everywhere in America is nice”, we gently corrected him on that account…

Other Syrian highlights included the food (the mix of hummus, falafel, tasty salads, pita bread, and chickpeas is essentially Meg’s dream meal); the old souq and citadel in Aleppo, the centuries old water mills in Hama, and the excellent historic fort of Crac de Chavalier outside of Homs and only a few miles from the Lebanese border (hence the title of our Lebanon entry)…

Cappadocia, Turkey (10/27/09)

After nearly missing the bus to the airport due to some confusion about daily light savings time (missing by arriving an hour early that is), we were on our way to Cappadocia on an early morning flight. Turns out that the clocks had turned back an hour but we hadn’t realized (perhaps a good comment on spending a day in a city with no where to be at a particular time, though it does explain why breakfast at the hotel went later than what we thought was its allotted time). Thanks to TurkCell for updating the time on its cell phone network, otherwise it would have be a much longer morning (and that’s saying something since we took a 4am bus as it was).   We fortunately arrived at the airport at the proper time and took a very nice $32 flight on Pegasus Air (the only caveat to the remarkable fare being that you have to buy a seat as well; however, if you are smart, you convince your husband it is okay to sit apart for an hour and buy two middle seats at $2 a piece, saving $6 in the process!)

We arrived in Cappadocia expecting to see the beautiful landscape, fairy chimneys, and rock formations.  We saw all of that, of course, but thanks to our cousins Lynn and Taylor Keith, we saw much, much more!  They are currently in the midst of a one month tour of Europe and fortunately, their trip took them to Cappadocia at the same time as us. As a wedding present, they very generously treated us to a night at the Museum Hotel, a memorable cave hotel in Neveshir.  We met them in time for a lovely breakfast overlooking the landscape and then set off with a private guide to tour the area.  The highlights included:

-- an underground city that was 8 stories deep and complete with living rooms, a winery, kitchen, water well/ventilation shaft, and, of course, lots of spear holes to fend off the attacking army.  (Further evidence supporting our above “notes on ancient civilizations” entry.)

--a pottery studio where Taylor proved he should keep his day job

--a carpet making factory where we all discovered a love and appreciation of carpets we didn’t know we had. 

But of course, the absolute highlight was spending time with Lynn and Taylor, whose generosity was only exceeded by their excellent company and entertaining stories of their travels.  We can’t thank them enough.

Istanbul, Turkey (10/25/09)

Sitting in our hotel room on the last night of our stay in Istanbul, listening to the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque just outside our window, and eating our dinner of various Turkish sweets, we think about how magical our days in Istanbul have been. From visiting the places we had known about for a long time (like the Aya Sofya that Jed studied in high school and college art history class) or those that we didn’t know about until we walked we stumbled across it (a brunch outside on the shore of the Bosphorus), these days have been filled with many discoveries. From history lessons to art lessons, Istanbul is the keystone that holds up much of world civilization and many things now make much more sense. For example, we now better understand the history of Islam and its spread; a lesson that we continue to bear fruit as we move south into the heart of the Middle East. Also one gets the sense that Istanbul is a city that has seen it all and now takes everything in relative stride; wandering down the Broadway of the city, the crowds take even a political protest in stride moving to the side as they pass and then continuing with their shopping or eating. There is even this sense of calm among the vendors, who do very little hassling to try to sell their wares.

 Aside from the wonderful sense that one gets from this city, some specific highlights:

-       Wandering the Topkapi Place (home of sultans for centuries) and its collection of jewels and historical items (Mohammed’s sword for a start).

-       Seeing a thousand year old Christian murals side-by-side with Islamic art in the Aya Sofya (and eating corn in the square outside

-       A real Turkish bath with scrubbing, soaping, massaging and all

-       Being accused of not really being American when trying to bargain in the Spice Bazaar- since “Americans don’t bargain.” For all you non-hagglers out there you are giving us a bad reputation.

-       Visiting the well preserved 1400-year old underground cistern that supplied water for the ancient rulers

Notes on Ancient Civilizations

As a side note, over the past few days in Greece and Ephesus, we have learned a great deal about the accomplishments of ancient civilizations and have been astonished by their level of advancement. From running water, central heat and toilets to glassware, metal instruments, multistory buildings and very detailed art work, they seem to have figured developed many so-called modern conveniences nearly two thousand years ago. It leads one to wonder what humans actually accomplished between ancient Greece and the latter half of the 18th century- were we just dwindling our thumbs?   And, while we have  obviously made huge technologic advances over the past hundred year (including the Kindle, which Jed has now commandeered interestingly enough) we lament the loss of the statue as a  form—it would be pretty cool to have statues of people in your living room, rather than photographs. Let us know if you'd like to make a statue of us your first one.

Ephesus, Turkey (10/22/09)

After an overnight ferry to Samos (which, while a Greek island, is only a few short miles from the Turkish coast) and an early morning boat trip to Kusadasi, it was welcome to Turkey (which began with a 45 minute wait as the customs official came from his “other job” to the port to relieve us of $20- after the “port official” had already successfully identified the foreigners, us and some Kiwis, to extract the “port entry fee.”)

After successfully completing immigration into Kusadasi, we inquired about how much it would cost to take a taxi to Ephesus.  The taxi driver quoted a high price and then, very nicely, told us it would be better for us to take the bus.  He even then directed us to the bus station without our asking.  Later than night, we stopped at a restaurant to buy bottled water because the supermarket was out of water.  We realized the water was three times the price; when Jed told the man it was expensive, he agreed and directed us to another supermarket nearby (again, without our asking.)  We quickly realized how remarkably nice and helpful the Turkish people are (maybe even more so than any other country we have been to; throughout our stay, we would continue to witness examples of this.) 

We spent the afternoon touring Ephesus, the best persevered ancient city.  While the entire “city” was impressive, the highlights were definitely the library and the 25,000 seat stadium.  

After spending the evening in the wonderful town of Selcuk (where we were introduced to Turkish pizza (pide) and watched the entire town (well, unfortunately only the men) come out to gather around the TVs at the bars and restaurants to watch a local soccer game,) we took an overnight express bus (which meant it only made 3 stops!) to Istanbul.

Greek Islands (10/20/09)

Checking in is hard to do:

It all seemed too easy.  We bought our ferry ticket to Santorini in Athens, found a very cheap hotel on-line the night before, took the Metro to the port, and enjoyed a very lovely 8 hour ferry ride to Santorini.  After a picturesque arrival, we rented a car at a very cheap rate and drove to the town of Oia, Santorini with no issue.  Unfortunately, as we said, it all seemed too easy.  They don’t use street addresses on the island, so finding the hotel proved to be a difficult task.  After asking several people directions and getting pointed in every different possible direction, we found the hotel.  However, to make it even more difficult, it turns out that you check in at a different place than the actual hotel.  Meg took off to find that place, guided by a woman who spoke no English.  When she hadn’t returned 30 minutes later, Jed became convinced she had been abducted by the bike shop nearby (unclear why he thought that store.)  As he stood outside yelling Meg’s name loudly, Meg finally succeeded in checking in!

With that adventure out of the way, we quickly realized why people say the Greek Islands are so wonderful.  The sunset in Santorini more than lived up to its reputation; the town of Oia was incredibly quaint and, except for the woman sitting next to us at dinner who thought it was a good idea to feed stray cats sardines at her table, the night was like a picture on a postcard.  We spent the next day walking and driving around the island, with the highlight being a picnic lunch of gyros and greek pastries overlooking the Red Beach. 

We left that afternoon for Naxos, another beautiful island.  Upon arrival we dealt with our first logistical snafu—the ferry we wanted to take to get us to Turkey doesn’t run the night we wanted to take it.  Alas, we are “stuck here” for longer than expected, but easily will fill the days wandering around the old town, exploring the island’s villages, statues, and wineries, and all, in all, soaking in the amazing Greek Island beauty.  Checking out will also prove to be difficult.

Athens, Greece (10/18/09)

“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel- to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, peoples, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time…” (Legendary Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis)

Two lessons about Athens:

1.     If you go to the Athens Hilton for cocktails be prepared to take off your shorts

2.     There is no roof on the Parthenon, or anywhere nearby, so take note if it is raining

We spent a lovely, though not weather-wise as it rained for a day and a half (see lesson two above), few days in Athens taking in the sites. The only plus side of the rains was that the tourist hordes at the sites were reduced. Between the Acropolis, the Agora, and various temples we got a good handle on the historic sites. The new Acropolis museum was fantastic both architecturally and in terms of its (very manageable in a couple of hours) content. While the exterior of concrete and small angular windows seems odd from the outside, once inside it all makes sense with wonderful views of the Acropolis as the background for the exhibits.

To lesson number one: We met a friend of a friend, Sophia, for a drink. She suggested the Hilton roof top bar, which had a lovely view of the sun setting behind Athens- the ring of mountains surrounding Athens along with the punctuations of hills within the downtown (of which the Acropolis is but one) make for a lovely dusk. While the view was nice, apparently it couldn’t be enjoyed in shorts so Jed was barred entrance to the terrace. After some negotiation (in Greek by Sophia) Jed was able to exchange his (inappropriate shorts) for a pair of Hilton provided pants (which were actually very comfortable in the end).

 Finally, our time on the Greek mainland was rounded out by a day trip to the mountains of Delphi, along with a lunch in Itia, which  is surrounded by the a large and majestic grove of olive trees (described by Greek writer George Seferis thusly: “It is nice to… enter among the olive trees under the silver leaves of the plain of Criseos, enumerating, as you pass by, the wrinkes on the dense gathering of trunks”). Special thanks to our very hospitable Athens hosts Nicole and Barnaby for putting us up at their flat (with a view of the Acropolis from the roof!) in the historic center of Athens, Plaka. 

Brussels, Belgium; 10/15/09

 An overnight flight on Jet Airways (highly recommended) brought us to Brussels for the day- a cold day, that is. Trying to find the bus from the airport to downtown, we learned that we have different definitions of what it means to “figure out” information on a particular city. That aside, we had a lovely day walking around the historic center of Brussels including a tasty lunch of mussels. Then back on the bus for the flight to Athens.

The Journey Begins (10/12/09)

After years of dreaming and months of planning, we're finally getting ready to leave NYC for our around-the-world honeymoon. While we don't actually leave for two days, figuratively our journey has already begun. Since our wedding, we've equated the beginning of our trip with Meg completing her Pediatric Boards and us running the Minneapolis marathon together. We've worked the past months planning for the trip, training for the marathon and studying for the boards (well, really just Meg on that one). With the marathon done last weekend (we handily beat our goal of 4 hours) and Meg taking her boards today, we're off and running. Greece here we come....