Monday, May 31, 2010

Wadi Rum - Desert Safari

In the south of Jordan lies a protected area of dramatic desert including huge sandstone mountains, sheer cliff faces and wide sandy valleys, called Wadi Rum.  The area is still home to Bedouin tribes and we would get to experience camping Bedouin-style that night.  We hoped in old 4WD safari vehicles and took off to follow in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. 

We cruised through the valleys stopping at various sites including the seven pillars of wisdom, Lawrence of Arabia’s spring, his house, sand dunes and a few canyons full of ancient rock carvings and inscriptions. The deep red colors of the sandstone and sand were amazing but quickly stained our feet to look like a bad dose of self-tanner!

During the safari one of the biggest highlights was a rock bridge with a somewhat scary climb. Oh and I know Natural Bridge in Kentucky will need a visit when we get home. Anyway we had to climb up a fairly slippery rock then creep around a ledge to the stairs up. Fun!

We stopped in the shade of a sandstone mountain to have a simple picnic lunch consisting of pitas, amazing Jordanian hummus, a tin of tuna, a jar of honey, little triangles of soft white cheese and a pot of diced peppers.  An odd mix, I know, but all amazingly good together!

To burn off lunch we faced another dune climb. The dune looked amazing, a towering rose colored sand ramp coming off the side of one of the mountains. Luckily it wasn’t near the task as the one in Egypt. The run down was fantastic and is such a great reward for the effort of climbing. At the bottom it hit me that we should go again, this time on a rug. Come to find out, sliding down in that manner is dangerous for boys and not worth the risk. We didn't have a rug anyway, oh well.

So with the sun heading to the horizon we made our way to a traditional Bedouin style camp. The tents were black and made of camel hair nestled under some extraordinary sandstone mountain cliffs that opened to a valley. They were arranged as 3 sides of a square with mats and seating in the middle. Out back was a toilet and a tent for the animals to keep them safe at night.

Earlier in the day I bought a traditional Jordanian headscarf, the red and white-checkered variety. One of our drivers was a sheik and used to be a bodyguard for a previous king. He was of course wearing the headscarf so he showed me how to wear it.  I went for the military style.

With sunset quickly approaching we headed to “sunset point” a few minutes walk from camp. Nothing too fancy, just an elevated position with a clear view of the horizon due west.

Dinner was in traditional style cooked in an underground earthen oven. The smoked chicken and veggie soup with rice was good and hearty, really hitting the spot after a long day of safari-ing - it's rough riding in the feel every bump.  Although, at this point, I was starting to get dodgy guts (our group's phrase to explain traveller's sickness), luckily for the first time, and Steph had to just tell me how good dinner was. After dinner we started setting up camp for the night and conversing with the drivers and guides.

Throughout the day one of the young drivers, Mohamed, took a liking to me and was constantly quizzing me about things to brush up on his English. I took him up on his offer to teach him English in return for some Arabic lessons. Being a total American I talked him through words like awesome and cool. The others had a good laugh and I think he really enjoyed it too. Then it turned technical when he found out what I do for a living. He wanted to know more about email and Facebook. Even in the dessert technology is taking over. What a nice guy. He ended up giving me his email address. In a weird twist of customary etiquette it is acceptable to talk about salary here. Steph can't wear shorts but he can ask how much I earn in a year. Too funny. I politely declined to answer his question.

Finally to end the day we slid into our sleeping bags under the stars. No tents for us. We braved the cool desert night and slept outside. I have never seen stars so bright. There isn't even a hint of light pollution and dozing under the billions of stars was a fitting end after exploring this extraordinary landscape.

Wadi Rum Photos

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Beachy Head - Eastbourne

The great British summer was finally starting to make an appearance so we decided to get out and enjoy the sunshine.  We headed to the south coast to Eastbourne, mainly because it was a quick trip on the train.  We slept in so needed travel time to be short.  Being on the coast, fish and chips had to be on the menu for lunch.  Near the pier we found a takeaway shop and "tucked" in for a great lunch on a park bench.

The day before, we were watching a show called Saturday Kitchen.  Its just your normal Saturday morning show but all about cooking and food.  Well one thing they put to the test was the idea that hearing sounds from the environment of the food your are eating adds to the enjoyment value.  So much so that one chef here in London serves a seashell stuffed with an Ipod that plays seashore sounds.  We put this to the test.  I'm not sure if I buy in completely but the fish tasted so much better on the coast, listening to the seagulls and surf.  London pubs just can't complete...

Lunch over, Beachy Head was calling.  We headed off on the 2 mile walk to the top of the cliffs to take it in.  It was WINDY!  The photos came out well so I hope you enjoy.

Beachy Head Photos

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Across the Red Sea into Jordan

The ferry from Nuweiba Egypt to Aqaba Jordan is renowned for being unpredictable. It is notoriously late and sea conditions can lead to a rough sail. Leading up to the ferry ride, one Arabic phrase we learned really sets the stage. “Inshallah”, meaning God willing or As God wills. In context you'd say, "We will take the ferry to Jordan at 2:30, Inshalah."

However, we did have an ace in the hole so to say. If we weren't staying at our beach camp we would have needed to show up 45 minutes before the ferry was "scheduled" to depart and possibly wait around for hours. The advantage was that we could see the ferry from the beach camp and were able to sit on the beach and relax until the ferry cruised by at its leisure. As expected it was late but finally it made an appearance so we jumped in to the van and raced it down to the port.

We were ushered into a big warehouse to wait until the ferry was ready for boarding. This was not a nice place so we were anxious for a swift departure. Sitting on wood slat park benches that have seen better days, we were treated with a storm of flies buzzing around the patch sunlight streaming through the windows. Random cats, stinky trash cans and dodgy people only added to the scene. Asking around it was quickly evident that no one knew when the ferry would actually depart, only that it would leave sometime that afternoon. As we've seen before in Africa, Inshallah rules supreme.

Fortunately, an hour later we set sail for Jordan. It was smooth sailing across the Red Sea, enough so that we took a good nap (although the Dramamine we took to ward off possible sea sickness might have induced the nap!). After an easy exit and rendezvous with our new Jordanian tour leader we dropped our bags and headed for a kebab dinner take away style.

For dessert we strolled down the street to a great local bakery. Throughout our time in Jordan we found the bakeries amazing. Extremely clean with fresh cooked bread and traditional sweets at all hours of the day, they were an easy source for an interesting snack. This particular shop gave us some well-timed samples that helped their bottom line because we all took away bags of yummy treats. Our favorite was a variation of baklava because it reminded us of coffee cake with its good nutty flavor and hint of cinnamon. Afterwards, the owner treated us to the Jordanian coffee ritual that has its own etiquette and goes like this:

The shop owner has a thermos of homemade coffee in one hand and a small cup, no handle, the perfect size one big gulp. He hands you the cup, fills it full of coffee then waits for you to drink it. When you go to hand the cup back you have two options. First, the normal response where you hand the cup straight back. If you do this you are unexpectedly rewarded with a refill because he doesn’t take the cup but just fills it back up. You are free to drink and repeat as many times as wish, although three rounds is customary. The second option is to shake the cup from side to side as you hand it back which means you don’t want any more. You politely reply “Shukran” – thank you, and he moves on to the next patron. One note for the germophobes out there, the cup is communal so everybody drinks from the same cup. Weird I know, but the coffee was great and the experience was even better.

After our enlightening (and delicious!) local experience we all headed to bed.

Tomorrow, Wadi Rum!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Egypt Photos

For those interested the photos for the Egypt portion of our trip are finally up. Since there are so many, I took my favorites and put them in a rundown set for easier viewing. Let me know what you think...

Egypt Rundown

Entire Collection

Now to focus on Jordan...then Turkey...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sawa Beach Camp

Ok, so imagine simple grass huts made out of bamboo and palm leaves, resting on soft, cream sand with the beautiful turquoise Red Sea at your doorstep.  The huts are complete with a front porch, hammock, rugs and a brightly colored mozzie net inside. Yeah…this was Sawa Beach Camp - our home for the next two nights..  We lucked out and got one of the "million star huts" that was at the seafront. That's the one in the picture, #4, awesome!

Upon arrival at the camp, we received welcome drinks – a fruit cocktail of fresh orange, honeydew and watermelon – it was a layered drink of fruit heaven! Those cocktails became a favorite during our stay.

The camp was great although not quite a 5 star camp.  Its only source of power was a generator that only ran about half of the day and night, but it did have the cleanest bathrooms and showers we had come across on the trip! They served a variety of food including fresh calamari and fish – which Josh indulged in. To top it off, they had snorkel rental and all you had to do was simply walk out from your hut in to the sea to find an amazing reef chock full of interesting fish and sea life. (I wasn’t too thrilled to run across the white eels in the shallows though!).

The benefit of the reef can also be the downfall…or at least mine… in that I fell on the coral/rocks that were right at the entrance/exit of the water. We were coming in from our snorkeling and I stepped on a particularly sharp slab of rock/coral. Because I was only standing in a couple feet of water I fell over and sliced a couple toes and got a coral imprint on my left hand and thigh – ouch! Nothing a little antiseptic creme and some band aids can’t fix!

We had two days to recover from the hectic pace of the trip thus far in this paradise.  In our typical style, we only took about half a day to relax in the sun then needed something else to do.  Scuba Diving! Josh had been scuba diving in Hawaii and I had tried it in a pool once so it was lucky for us they took un-certified beginners for an introductory lesson because the Red Sea is supposed to be amazing. The guide would control everything and just kind of pull us along.  Josh went first (we had the same guide, so we went one at a time). We got in the full gear complete with scuba suit and water booties.

When Josh was finished, I just met him in the water and they passed his oxygen tank to me and we were off. The guide gave us several hand gestures to indicate if we were ok, had a problem, to say “danger” (if you ran across a dangerous fish such as the lion fish or eels ) and also up and down. So, I said was ready to go and we went under in about 5 feet of water. After about 7 seconds I gestured that I needed to go up – it was so weird to breath under water and even though I had been snorkeling loads of times, this just felt strange to me.

After I composed myself, I said I was ready to go again and we went back under. I started leaning forward, head first, and just kept going…..and ended up flipping over in the water. We were just barely under the surface so we surfaced again and I asked why I flipped…the guide didn’t know. Oh well. We kept going and finally made a good descent. The underwater scene was surreal – Josh agrees. There were lots of fish and it was so peaceful.

Thanks to our new underwater camera, we were able to capture some of it in pictures. What good fun!

When we finally surfaced, after about a half hour, the guide told me that we forgot to take Josh’s weight belt when we made the equipment handover! That’s why I flipped in the water and also why I had a hard time sinking.  Oops!

For our last night in Egypt, we had a nice seafood dinner and then asked if we could build a fire to roast Marshmallows on for make shift s'mores ( Hobb Nobs with Chocolate ).  The owner just grabbed a spare bamboo chair, broke off a few pieces and lit it on fire in one of the fire pits.  Whatever works, I guess!

Staying at the beach camp was such a good change of pace.  Naps in the hammock, snorkeling at leisure, and beach volleyball made for a great two days.  Plus we could even see Saudi Arabia across the narrow Red Sea - that might be the closest we ever get to Saudi so it was intriguing to see it across the way. We truly enjoyed this relaxing break but had to enjoy it while it lasted because the ferry to Jordan (and all its horror stories of massive delays and sea sickness) was up next!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mt Sinai and St Catherine’s Monastry

After our "rest" day in Cairo, we went to bed to prepare for an epic bus ride the next day. A 7 hour journey across Egypt to the Sinai peninsula.

The drive across the open desert of Egypt was uneventful other than a few checkpoints and a stop to see the Suez Canal. However, we did learn the meaning of BFE. In some areas, there was absolutely nothing except desert for as far as you could see. One road and just unforgiving desert.

We also found out that newspapers were a common form of currency across these desert roads. At each checkpoint our driver would pass a newspaper to the guard who would then instantly wave us through and dive into the paper.  Since news sometimes travels at a snails pace in this part of the world, a current newspaper is highly valuable and can go along way to grease the wheels so to say. Some things in life are as simple as that. Oh, and there was nothing else in the newspapers, we asked about that too!  That is a photo of one of the checkpoints close to the Suez canal, notice the boat up top.

After the long drive, we arrived at our hotel and dove straight into a hearty lunch buffet in preparation for our climb of Mt. Sinai. Food – good; hotel room – not so good! The room was nice enough but we saw about a half dozen mosquitoes on the wall of the bathroom when we went in so we knew we’d have a fight on our hands!

After lunch and some digestion time, we all headed out for a late afternoon climb of Mt. Sinai. There was an option to take a camel up 75% of the way, but after feeling like I was about 12 feet in the air on the wobbly camel at the pyramids I wasn’t very interested in taking a camel up a high and winding mountain path! However, about 30 minutes later I was really wishing I had! There is no other way to say it than that 2.5-hour hike up Mt. Sinai sucked. Yeah, and there were 750 steps at the end that really pushed you to your limit (the bottom of the steps was where the camel-riders got dropped off, so at least they had a little pain in getting to the top!). But, I am glad to say that I made it…a bit slowly, but I made it!

Josh was just bouncing up the steps. Ugh. Oh well, not all of us are athletes! Haha!

The view at the top was great; it was overcast but you could still see the vastness of the area.  Sinai is a rough countryside - just a vast rugged part of the world.  We took a great group shot and then had a little fun of our own trying to get a jumping shot on top of Mt. Sinai. I was thinking about just jumping up off the ground but Josh had other ideas… the series of photos tells it best!

Smooth move!

After the photos, happily without injury, we headed back down.  We were hoping to get down the steps before nightfall.  Luckily we brought head torches for just this occasion that took some of the guess work out of going down.  It was easier than going up that's for sure.

We got back to our hotel, had the buffet dinner, then killed about 12 mozzies (hope the neighbors weren’t bothered by Josh slapping his sandals against the walls!) and called it a night. Needless to say, we slept pretty well. I lathered up in mozzie repellent and slept like a baby. Josh didn’t lather up quite as well and heard a few buzzes around his head all night. Fortunately, we survived the mozzies about the best of the group. Most everyone else hadn’t seen them on entry like we had so they didn’t expect them.

The next morning at breakfast we learned a few new things about mosquitoes from our Aussie friends. First, you don’t say mosquito, you say “mozzie”. They have slang for everything, but you have to admit "mozzie" is easier to say! Also, to defend against the midnight mozzie attack it’s best to turn on a fan or air conditioning. They have weak little wings and any wind will usually deter them. Dang, that would have been handy knowledge last night!

After our informative breakfast, we were back on the site seeing trail to St. Catherine’s monastery - home to the infamous burning bush that spoke to Moses. The monastery is only open for visitors on a few specific days so when it’s open it’s packed. Once inside there it was, the burning bush still alive in all its glory. Not what I expected but fairly awe-inspiring. Also inside the monastery was a museum that had some amazing religious pieces including a letter from the prophet Mohammad to St. Katherine. Finally, on our way out, we made a quick stop at the skull room. What is a skull room, you might ask? Apparently, they ran out grave site land, so after people died, they were buried until decomposed then were dug up. All the bones were then put in this room. So, there was a cage of skulls and cages of other random bones. Interesting but weird.

In the heat of the day, we departed from Mt. Sinai and made our way to paradise – Sawa Beach Camp!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Back to Cairo

Fresh off the overnight train we had a free day to relax, err, explore! This gave us an opportunity to see some more of Cairo; the largest city in Egypt and Africa, of some 17 million people, has some good sites buried in all that chaotic traffic and pollution, other than the pyramids of course.  Speaking of the chaotic traffic, have I mentioned that crossing the street is a wild adventure here?  They somehow make 4 lanes of traffic out of 3 lanes of road and to cross the street you have to find a gap and just go.  As long as you don't hesitate they will dodge you.  No worries, right?!  After we got the hang of it, we all said that we had learned to "walk like an Egyptian"!

Having mastered the "walk", the first stop for the day was Coptic Cairo, the hold up for the Christians of olden times. This area is full of biblical history and as a result, loads of churches. We specifically wanted to see the Hanging Church that dates back to the 3rd century AD and is built on top of an old fortress (hence why it's called the hanging church). The walkway to the church had some neat mosaics leading to two tall bell towers and a staircase entrance. Inside we found an array of fantastic woodcarvings and a quaint dimly lit sanctuary.

After admiring the church we were off to wonder through the narrow streets to find the Ben Ezra Synagogue where baby Moses was supposedly found floating in the reeds. Interestingly, we had to pass through security to get into the synagogue, although we don't think the metal detector was plugged in! It has 2 floors, the lower one for men and the upper for women, all decorated with a geometric design and floral patterns. Out back was Moses’ well - that picture, taken through a gate, was as close as we could get. 

Staying with the religious theme, we left Coptic Cairo and headed to Islamic Cairo to visit the Al-Azhar Mosque. To save some time we opted for a couple taxis, which is always an adventure! After our driver woke up his son who was snoozing in the passenger seat, we hopped in and had a fairly uneventful 2 taxi race to the mosque.

Entering the mosque, we all had to ditch the shoes and Steph was made to cover up. They provided a robe, for lack of a better word, that was a full body maroon flower pattern outfit complete with a white-trimmed hood. Tremendous!  The girls looked liked strange elves or something.  Oh, the things we do to see the sites... but normally they are worth it and this was no exception.

The mosque is very beautiful and is considered one of the more exquisite in Egypt. After entrusting the mosque guard with our shoes we headed into the expansive main courtyard... it's an amazing square of glistening white marble surrounded by dozens of ancient white columns. A little unsure of proper mosque etiquette, we just stood and admired the square.  The serenity of it was evident - some local guys were there for prayer and some were just having a nap on the carpeted areas in the shade! Looking up we were rewarded with a close up view of the 5 minarets we had been admiring from other parts of Cairo. The mosque is also home to the second oldest university in the world, specializing in Islamic studies.

Next up was the nearby Khan El-Khalili bazaar to do some shopping. It was a busy stretch of shops and we quickly found that they did not barter with you as much as other countries. We would get chased down in Istanbul if we walked away...but here, they let you walk away! Even though we had less bartering power, we ended up getting a silver pyramid charm for Steph's bracelet and picking up a brass Aladdin lamp - 3 wishes, please!

After bazaaring, our free time in Cairo was almost up because we had to get to the Pyramids Sound and Light show! We tried to grab a taxi but two “broken meters” later we headed off to the metro, a good fifteen minute walk away through some busy street markets. Luckily, we ran into enough people that understood “Metro” to get us in the right place. There were a lot of unexpected turns to get there but it was a good adventure through a very local part of Cairo.

As I just mentioned we had tickets to the Pyramids Sound and Light show. I know, I know, the lights shows are supposed to be notoriously cheesy, but we only had seen the pyramids for a couple hours and wanted one last chance to enjoy them without all of the hustle and bustle that was so overwhelming during that first day. No - for the last time, I don’t want to ride your camel!

Anyway, the show was unbelievably cheesy but seeing the pyramids all lit up at night made up for it in a big way. The show was intended to take you through the history of the pyramids while lighting them up in different colors. During the show the voices said some interesting things such as a child’s voice saying, “I have learned my lesson because you beat me” or comparing the pyramids to Westminster Abbey or saying "the greatest architectural feat in history - the straight line" - what? It all gave us a good laugh as we admired the pyramids and sphinx.  They did have some good parts as well including the green lights that projected the path inside the pyramid to the tomb.

All in all, it was worth it just to see the pyramids again. What an amazing site they are!