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.