A couple of days ago we visited Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust; Jews, Roma (Gypsys), German citizens with mental disabilities, autism, or deformities and anyone else who did not fit their concept of the Aryan race. What we thought would take 2 hours ended up taking 4 hours. The memorial begins with documentation of the history and nature of anti-Semitism from the 5th/6th century by Christian institutions, though, it focuses mainly on the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party and its abhorrent consequences. Most disturbing was the lack of action of the allies during the war despite proof of the atrocities. It was considered a side issue to winning the war. Some of the last exhibits honored the partisan activities and The (non-Jewish) Righteous Among The Nations who took action at great personal risk to help save Jews. Cindy and I walked out feeling great angst and in tears.
We arrived safely in Jerusalem on Sunday (automatic-weapon-bearing-passengers not withstanding) and are staying at a B and B hosted by Shlomo, a retired computer professional. He’s quite the renaissance man; really into art –he volunteers at the Israel Museum– and music, and has been a most terrific host setting us up with a helpful neighborhood orientation, suggestions for restaurants and shopping, and maps with accompanying excellent directions to sites. The funny thing about his house is that the decor is a throw-back to the late 50’s or early 60’s with laminated table tops, vinyl seating and a cadre of appliances from the set of the Flintstones.
Shlomo’s house is a one floor building ensconced in shrubs, flowers and greenery and isn’t even noticeable from the small alleyway on which it resides. The neighborhood is very quiet with birds happily chirping away, people walking, biking, hanging out in the cafes and just doing their normal daily comings and goings. We’re very pleased with the location and the vibe of Jerusalem is really quite nice.
The Old City is divided into 4 quarters, the Jewish, the Christian, the Islamic, and the Armenian. It is considered the holiest of the holy of the 3 major monotheistic religions and the site of millennial and continuous struggles of its domination and use. But the one thing they clearly all agree on is that with so much street traffic this one heck of a place to sell their wares! And at such a discount!
We are always amused –well, annoyed too, sometimes– when people want to sell us stuff we couldn’t possibly carry around on such a long journey. As a general practice, we don’t buy souvenirs anyway.
One of the great suggestions by Shlomo was to go to the roof of the Austrian Hospice to check out the view. Just walk in through big wooden doors and go right on up. We would never have known about that if not for Shlomo. There are probably countless other gems around the world we hope to become privy to.
Cindy and I tried several gates at numerous times to access the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, used for thousands of years and the most contentious area of the Old City. We finally found out it is accessible only to Muslims until 1:30pm, at least the day we were there. When we finally got in it was very quiet, peaceful and relatively empty. The Dome of the Rock is stunning.
My sister asked me if I felt safe traveling through the middle-east, and I told her that aside from a few minor incidents, we felt relatively safe. No sooner had I sent off my response, when we experienced something that had me rethinking my answer.
We traveled to Jerusalem by bus yesterday and while we were waiting in the seaside resort town of Eilat, Israel for the bus to depart, Bill went off looking for a cash machine, leaving me to look after the bags. I noticed a man outside the bus depot with a few police men/women peering inside and pointing to a gentlemen inside the station. The next thing I know, a group of uniformed and plainclothes officers swarmed around the gentlemen and escorted him out of the station. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “gee, I hope he didn’t have luggage or anything because he went out empty-handed.” I also thought that if he was a suicide bomber, at least he would be outside the terminal. Well, two minutes later, the suspect and his escorts come back into the terminal and the guy points to his bag. They grab his bag and leave again. End of story — almost.
Bill comes back from trying to get cash and says, “you wouldn’t believe what happened!” and proceeds to tell me about his unsuccessful attempts to get cash and then says that the terminal was in lock down and he wasn’t able to get back inside. I’m sure he must have been worried with me being inside and him not being able to do anything on the outside, but shortly thereafter, they opened the terminal and we proceeded to try to board the bus.
We go to the correct platform as stated on our ticket, squeeze our way through the crowds along with everyone else, place our luggage in the hold of the bus and again wait on line to get on the bus pushing our way to the front of the line. Once there, we’re told it’s not the right bus. We push our way backwards, quickly grab our bags out of the hold, place them in the correct bus and again push our way on to the correct bus.
Finally, we were on our way to Jerusalem. I’m sitting at a window seat with Bill next to me and I look across the aisle to see a kid, no more than 19 years old, dressed in shorts and a muscle t-shirt, with a machine gun resting on his lap, with the barrel of the gun pointing at Bill. He was sound asleep with ear buds on listening to music.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off him for most of the trip, wondering if anyone was going to try to pull the strap off his shoulder and noticed the young girl sitting next to him (not traveling with him) swatting a fly that appeared close to the machine gun. The guy didn’t stir!
I pull out my camera hoping that the flash doesn’t go off and take the picture. The flash does goes off but he doesn’t wake up. I didn’t like the way the shot (no pun intended) came out so I took another one! Again he doesn’t stir!
We’ve been in Israel only a couple of days and noticed what looks like young civilians armed with these powerful weapons. We asked our host at the B&B we are staying at but don’t get a very clear answer. He said some people who live in settlements carry guns to protect themselves. Who’s going to mess with a person with a big, bad gun?
It’s a little unnerving to see all these weapons. You see them everywhere. Security guards at supermarkets have them. The guard at the hostel had one that looked like it was falling out of the holster. You see army people everywhere you go. It appears that peace won’t be coming anytime soon.
While in Petra we met a guy named Jim who is a professor from California on sabbatical. We ran into him a few times walking and talking either to or from, or at the historical sites. We got along very well and on Saturday we agreed to share cabs to get to the Jordan/Israel border and then into Eilat. He was headed for Egypt to visit many of the same sites we had, and decided to do the Egypt/Israel/Jordan crossing we’d done 4 days earlier, though in reverse. After crossing the Jordanian border an Israeli guard called a cab for us and when he arrived we agreed on a price of 35 Shekels ( $1 US= 3.69 Shekels or ILS) to our Hostel/Guest House and another 50 ILS to get Jim to the Israeli/Taba, Egypt border. Since we’d done the same trip days earlier, I knew the pricing was fair. Shortly after we got into the cab, Jim noticed the meter was off and asked the driver to turn it on. I thought, “Way to go, Jim!”, as I hadn’t noticed the meter was off and this is the way to avoid taxi rip-offs in many parts of the world. But when we got to out destination, the driver asked for 44 ILS as that was what the meter indicated we owed. As it turned out, since it was Shabbat, cabs cost an extra 25% and they also charge extra money per person as standard pricing. When picking us up, the cabbie had actually negotiated a fair price and we sabotaged ourselves by having him turn on the meter. We argued our case and in the end he agreed to turn the meter off and charge a total of the original 85 ILS to get Jim to the border. It was a “George Costanza moment” (a reference from the show, “Seinfeld”), as now we had to do the reverse of the instincts we’d gained from past experiences.
Cindy and I settled our belongings into the hostel/guest house and took the bus to the beach for some snorkeling. When we hit the beach it was another shocking moment. There were girls in bikinis, girls in thongs, one girl was topless, some little tykes were totally naked, and the men’s and woman’s bathrooms were just feet apart and barely even discernible from one another. We’d just spent three weeks in the Muslim world where women are always covered, sometimes totally so in burkhas, gloves and socks, or garbed in the most standard way by wearing head scarves and not showing bear arms and certainly not legs or even ankles. Also, they can’t be seen in public unescorted by other woman or as most often the case, escorted by their husbands. The woman who don’t wear any covering on their heads are definitely in the vast minority. The rules had changed and the world was indeed, upside down.
As soon as Cindy put her snorkel and masked face in the water she picked it up excited by the amazement of seeing so many fish at such a busy beach. And some of them were quite large; even larger than I usually see in the Caribbean while scuba diving. It was quite the travel day!
We stayed at the Nahkil Inn in Nuweiba 4 nights which is one town about an hour north of Dahab and about one hour south from the Egypt/Israel border in Taba. It’s a very nice, laid back resort and pretty much an oasis of sorts as the rest of the town and beach is dead. As we walked south on the beach we passed resort after resort that looks abandoned, run down and un-used for years. I found out that this once thriving resort community for Israelis was devastated after a bombing in 2004. It never recovered. I understand, though, Israelis once again have been going to Sharm El Sheik. While at the Nahkil, we chilled out by snorkeling and walking the beach every day. We got some well needed R and R from sightseeing and respite from touts and the rigors of
While there, we met a couple from Denver who are also traveling the globe. The Singers met the Bumps…. their blog is http://www.nevermindthebumpsintheroad.com . Nice name! They had started out 9 months ago and were headed in the opposite direction from us. We had fun trading war stories about the work it took to leave for our trips, mundane things like travel clothing and laundry, and tours vs independent travel. As they had more experience than us, it was nice to pick up some travel tips and recommendations.
It’s been taking a fair amount of time and effort to plan coming itineraries and hotels. Before we left the US, I had suggested we visit Petra, Jordan, but it wasn’t until Nuweiba that it came on to Cindy’s radar screen, and once it did, we decided to make it an “add on” country to visit. So the next challenge was how to get to Jordan. We had 3 choices, none of which looked very good. The first involved a notoriously unreliable ferry direct from Nuweiba to Aqaba, Jordan, the second was a round-trip-only (and expensive) high speed ferry from Taba, Egypt to Jordan (also requiring 24 hour notice and copies of our passports in advance), and the third involved crossing into Jordan via Israel. We chose the last which we considered the best of 3 bad options.
So on Tuesday we took a cab to the border at Taba, Egypt, walked across going through immigration and customs in Egypt, exchanged Egyptian Pounds (EL) for Israeli shekels, entered Israel going through security, immigration and customs, grabbed a waiting public bus to the central bus station where we also bought our tickets to Jerusalem for Sunday. Then we took a cab to the border of Jordan–just ahead of a large tour group!–, exchanged some more EL for Jordanian Dinars (JD) and paid the exit fee to leave Israel. After that, we walked across to Jordan, went through security, immigration, and customs again, and then negotiated a taxi ride with a “taxi coordinator” (translation: the guy who speaks the best English to fleece, er…negotiate with the tourists) to Wadi Rum via Aqaba, including a stop at an ATM to pick up more JD. It went smooth as a baby’s bum and turned out to be a winning move!
As the cab left Aqaba it was plain to see that Jordan was very different than Egypt. Many of the cars looked new or late model, the roads were in very good condition and the houses all looked in good shape. Clearly, Jordan is a wealthier country. There seems to be a healthy nationalistic pride, and most of all, the people appear more relaxed and confident. There is a different vibe; people feel safer here. Jordan would also turn out to be relatively expensive.
The physical landscape started similar to the South Sinai in that the roads were flanked by jagged, lifeless mountains with geologic striations of red, green and black. Soon, the mountains became more distant, separated by long expanses of desert flats. And as we approached Wadi Rum, the mountains softened and the colors began to turn into pastel reds, browns and grays. The car turned off the main road and eventually we came to a visitor center gate. We were at Wadi Rum, also known as “Valley of the Moon”, and would be staying at a Bedouin camp in tents for two nights.
Wadi Rum’s scenery was nothing short of spectacular, dotted with mountains with sheer cliffs rising 1000-1500 feet (my guesstimate) from flat desert plain. It was used for several movie locales including “Lawrence of Arabia” (we saw the remnants of T.E. Lawrence’s actual house) and “Prometheus”, as an alien planet.
“Sticker shock” is a good phrase to describe what went from a web advertised price of $30 per night to $205 after including a 3 hour jeep tour one day and a guided hike the next. To be fair, it included meals and the second day was quite full since we toured some other sites in Wadi Rum by jeep through the desert. In the end, it was quite a unique and rewarding experience and I’m sure we will remember it as such. But jeez, we slept in tents! Ok, I promised Cindy I wouldn’t kvetch too much about this.
On the second day our guide, Ala, took us up Mt. Um Adaami, the highest mountain in Jordan peaking out at 1840 meters with views of Wadi Rum and only a kilometer or so from the border of Saudi Arabia. We learned a lot about Bedouin culture and Ala cooked us up one hell of a lunch afterwards.
On Thursday the 23rd we took the bus out of Wadi Rum to Petra; another amazing place and a UNESCO world heritage site known mostly for its rock-cut architecture. It was settled around the 4th century BC by the Nabateans.
As we’ve kept our itinerary general and are making things up as we go, this may not be the first post with that title. After all, we started this trip with one flight and just 4 nights reservations in Cairo.
We decided to stay in Luxor an additional night because I developed a cold and had planned on scuba diving in Hurghada, our next destination. So we took our time with the last two sites splitting them up one day each and got on the bus for a 5 hour ride to Hurghada on Tuesday the 14th. I would spend the next day doing my first dives in the Red Sea, while Cindy could enjoy the pool, and we would take the ferry to Sharm El Sheik on Thursday. There we would take a bus or car to Dahab.
As I was finishing pulling our luggage out of the belly of the bus amongst the usual arrival chaos, I found Cindy already engaged in a hot negotiation with a taxi driver arranging a ride to the Movenpick Hotel, Hurghada (there are two Movenpicks in the area). Of course, we have no idea how much it should cost or how far it is from the bus stop. Here’s how it went:
Cindy: We’re going to the Movenpick, Hurghada. How much?
Taxi: How much will you pay?
Cindy: No, you tell me how much it costs first.
Taxi: How much you pay?
Cindy: No, you tell me.
Taxi: 40 (EL).
Cindy: No, 10.
Cindy: No, 20.
Cindy: No, 20.
Taxi: OK. Let’s go. I was so proud of Cindy!
No sooner do we get in the cab when he informed us there is no Movenpick, Hurghada. I pulled out our notes which confirmed there was one, and provided him the number. He continues driving and calls the hotel while still insisting it is not in Hurghada. We counter his argument and at one point I told him to pull over. I even took his phone to talk to the hotel but couldn’t hear or understand the clerk. Shortly, he sounds like he knows where it is and starts driving again. Sure enough, in about 5-10 minutes we are pulling up the the Movenpick Hurghada. At that juncture, he tells us the fare he quoted was in US $, not Egyptian Pounds (a multiple of 7!). Cindy let’s him know that is not what we agreed upon and that it was EL not $. I had decided I wouldn’t say anything and just give him the agreed price once we got out. As soon as we entered the hotel I asked for change of a 50 EL note and gave him 20. He made his case (whatever it was) to the hotel staff and someone pulled out a 10 EL note and gave it to him. I insisted on reimbursing the staff for the extra money but they just would not take it. We found all the hotels in Egypt to have great service no matter the price but this hotel was perhaps the best of the best.
When we checked in, the price turned out to be $65 instead of the $75 quoted and agreed upon through internet booking. We were pretty happy but it didn’t last long. We quickly found out that the Hurghada/Sharm El Sheik ferry hadn’t been operating for almost a year. Their schedule is still posted online and it seemed incredible. We were faced with 10-11 hours of bus or road travel and had to consider biting the proverbial bullet and flying to Sharm instead. On top of that, the diving company hadn’t gotten back to me with confirmation so that was still up in the air. Another long bus ride and an uncertain route — since we had to cross the Gulf of Suez– was not at all appealing, so Cindy went online to search flights. We could fly on Thursday for $150 each, or, if we left the next day and skip the Hurghada dives, the fare would be $75 each! It was a no-brainer. Since we had trouble with booking through the web portal, we took the hotel car to the Egypt Air office and bought our tickets.
That evening we had dinner at the hotel and were subjected to the most unruly behavior of kids I’ve ever seen. The parents watched and laughed amongst themselves as their children played musical chairs in the restaurant. One child, about 4-5 years old, came over from the hotel’s adjoining restaurant to flick the light switch on and off. The head waiter was so exasperated. He told us he went through that every night. So, if you think American parents are indulgent, keep your eye on the Russians’–at least while they’re on vacation.
The flight to Sharm El Sheik was 20 minutes and we even flew business class. We were told we could catch a cab to Dahab for about 200-250 EL ($28-$35) but to flag the cab outside the airport grounds to get that price. Sure enough, the taxis at the airport doors wanted 450. As we were walking towards the airport exit, a cabbie flagged us inquiring where we were going. We told him and agreed on 250 confirming the price was in EL, two people, 2 bags, etc…Since it was a mini-van he wanted to switch to a smaller car. No problem…until we got to his buddy’s cab on a side street, put the bags in the trunk and said he wanted 300. I said, “Take the bags out of the car now!”. He replied, “OK, 250” but to please give Iyeed (pron. eye-eed) a good tip.
The drive through the Sinai was spectacular, passing huge jagged, lifeless peaks with colorful hues and striations of green, red, brown and grey. In about an hour, Iyeed got us to our hotel, The Bedouin Lodge.
Dahab is probably the only town in Egypt with a deserved reputation of being referred to as “bohemian”. It’s not unusual to find Egyptian woman without head-scarves and some even wearing bikinis. There is yoga, massages, aromatherapy and hair-salons galore. Alcohol is served in bars and I hear you can easily score hashish if you are so inclined and willing to take the risk. We were not. The movie, “Midnight Express” came to our minds.
On Thursday, I went on my first two dives in the Red Sea and was treated to seeing an octopus, two crocodile fish, two rays, a pipe fish, a large box fish, a giant parrot fish and a 5 foot sea turtle! Much of the coral was like none I’d ever seen. The diversity and colors were striking and I wish I had underwater pics to post.
We spent two nights in Dahab and probably would have stayed longer if our hotel was a bit nicer. It was very inexpensive ($26/night) but not well kept. Even so, the people there were friendly, warm and consistent with the atmosphere of the town, laid back.
We had spent some time in Luxor purging our bags of extra weight and volume, but still each needed a pair of flip-flops and decided we would get them in Dahab. Passing through the local bazaar, we stopped past one store and casually asked how much. He was a super-cheery guy and asked for an outrageous 250 EL. I told him he was very funny and started calling him, “Mr. 250”. After we agreed on 40 EL, he said he wanted 50. Sheesh! These guys really are characters. It was another post-negotiation flip-flop. And this time, I was actually buying flip-flops! After the obligatory threat to walk away, he caved on the 40. I bought mine there for the same price.
I always knew that an Anke represented the Key of Life. On our tour I learned it is also a graphic representation of Egypt. The vertical line represents the Nile river, the oblong circle at the top represents the Nile delta and the horizontal line represents the East bank of the Nile (for the living) and West Bank of the Nile (for the dead). Hieroglyphs endured throughout the Egyptian civilation for thousands of years.