Tuesday, April 06, 2004


December 3, 2001: 1,379 days until I retire. 119 days until my daughter Elizabeth has her first baby. And eight more days until me and my 15-year-old daughter Amy leave for Egypt.
All my life I've dreamed about going to Egypt. I've saved $20 a month for years in order to go. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was to become an archeologist. And as for Amy, she had just finished reading a book called The Egypt Game a total of 25 times. Eight more days. We're ready!
Or are we?
What will it mean to go into an Islamic country during Ramadan exactly four months after the World Trade Center was destroyed? "Go to Egypt? Now? In the middle of the bombing of Afghanistan? That's crazy! Don't do this to me, Mom," cried pregnant daughter Elizabeth. "I want my baby to have a grandmother." But Overseas Adventure Travel wouldn't refund our money and so off we are going. Wish us luck.

December 9, 2001: Shopping: Shoes. "Shopping -- shoes." Shopping/shoes. All the anxiety of trip preparation has focused on my feet! I've tried on 20 different pairs of shoes on three different occasions. I bought two pair. They were not right. I went through my closet four times. I tried on all of Amy's shoes. I've got nothing!
Instead of focusing on the fact that we're going into the Middle East when part of it is a war zone; that we're flying Egypt Air out of JFK; that I just did two weeks work in three days in order to leave my boss caught up at the office.... Shoe anxiety is easier to handle. And I'm not done packing either.
Rick Steves on TV last night recommended, "Have everything packed and ready two days before the trip." Moist towelettes? Po Chai pills? And Amy's famous maxim, "Never travel to a foreign country without gel." I'm always a nervous wreck, even before a trip across the bay to San Francisco. I make a lousy traveler. Why do I go? The alternative is to stay home.
"To reach any significant goal, you must leave your comfort zone," sez my Franklin Planner. I'm leaving it bigtime. And I'm a nervous wreck.

December 11, 2001: Went to the Tibet Café for dinner last night. Just like old times in Lhasa.
Got to the airport four hours early to be prepared for security contingencies. Ha! We coulda slept in. No one was at the airport. We were the only people in the check-in line, the only people going through the X-ray machine. The only people ordering greasy pizza at the snack bar.
Now it's "brain in a jar" time. Would it not be utterly cool to be able to stash one's brain in a jar and/or turn a switch to turn off thoughts for the next 20 hours of travel time? What did our cave-man ancestors do to keep from going ga-ga while waiting in their igloos for winter to go away?
"I'm bored," stated Amy, huddled in a cocoon of CD player and hand-held video games.
"Brain in a jar," I replied. Oh. That reminds me of the legal joke, "But Sir," asked the lawyer, "If you didn't check the corpse's pulse, didn't check his breathing, didn't check his heart, then how did you know he was dead?"
"Because his brain was in a jar on my desk, Sir!" replied the coroner. "Only lawyers can have no brains and still be alive."
At that point they called our flight. We got on board and waited like good little passengers for our movie and our meal. "This is American Airlines Flight 16 to New York. You have ten more minutes of cell time usage." Brain cells?
Then we survived How the Grinch Stole Christmas and airline food. Then we flew over New York City and I cried when I saw what Ground Zero looked like. "Amy," I said, "See Manhattan down there?"
"Oooh! I see the Statue of Liberty!"
"No, Amy. Focus. You see all those skyscrapers...there?"
"See that space that looks like a gigantic parking lot right in the middle of Manhattan? That's Ground Zero." Ground Zero was huge.
25 minutes later, we were at JFK Terminal Four with approximately 600 luggage-bearing Egyptians all wondering why the check-in line wasn't moving.
"It's a computer breakdown," said the man next to us and we waited two hours while discovering how nice Egyptians were. Amy played travel Sorry with an Egyptian-American seventh grade girl who was returning to Egypt with her family. "Don't ever wear shorts in Egypt," she warned Amy. "You will get hit on."
"No, I'm used to that. I'm from Berkeley," replied Amy.
"No, it's nothing like that. It's like nothing you've ever experienced. But other than that, Egypt is great!"
Then we boarded the plane and it was only 12 midnight -- and we had 11 hours left to go! Amy was holding up really well. Even me.
Did I mention that the American Airlines stewardess on the flight to New York went to South San Francisco High School? Just up the road from my high school? South City boys were cute and sexy and dangerous. Sort of the 1950s equivalent of Eminem. And did I mention that the stewardess gave us a free blanket from First Class when we left because it was New York City and I was worried that we would be cold? We weren't. But it was a wonderful gesture that endeared American Airlines to me forever.

December 12, 2001: 109 days until I become a grandmother? The Egypt Air flight was remarkably smooth and although we're all crammed in here like sardines and it was impossible to sleep more than 20 minutes at a time, we survived. Or at least we will survive. We land in Cairo in one-half hour!
All of our tour group is on board but I have only met the mother-daughter travelers from Tallahassee, Florida.
Amy managed to sleep several hours even though she couldn't take her contacts out. "Mother! Why didn't you tell me that we couldn't get at our luggage in New York," she lamented -- and stared straight ahead unblinking for the first four hours of the flight. Then she fell asleep and woke up without tears.
Ramadan etiquette: When they served breakfast at 4 pm Cairo time, it was daylight outside. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are not supposed to eat between sunrise and sunset. To eat or not to eat? All my Egyptian fellow-passengers dug right in. "Is it okay to eat?" I asked the passenger next to me.
"People who are traveling are exempt." We're traveling. Cool. The plane landed at 6 pm Cairo time.

8:30 pm Cairo time: We sat around the airport waiting for luggage. We sat around the tour bus waiting for people waiting for luggage. Has nobody here even heard of jet lag? Dinner! Hotel! Now! Please!
All the people on the tour seem really nice. Teachers, nurses....

December 12, 2001 (Thursday): The Cairo Museum of Antiquities. We actually saw the actual body and skin and bones and teeth and hair and everything of King Rameses II, one of the most legendary men to ever live. Guess what? He was bald. And he was very, very dead. It was a very "dust to dust" kind of thing.
There sure were a lot of antiquities stuffed haphazardly into this run-down museum. Well worth the trip. I recommend it. Our tour guide said, "Every museum in the world has a major Egyptian collection. And there are many, many private collections throughout the world as well -- plus the hundred thousand items in this museum." The Egyptians produced a lot of stuff.
Some say this was because, in ancient Egypt, everyone was an artist and everyone got to be creative.
Then we ate lunch and drove around in traffic for a while. Cairenes try to jam as many lanes of traffic into a two-lane street as they possibly can. All the cars drive very fast with only an inch or two separating every car. It's nerve-wracking.
We actually got to see the Nile. It's a bunch of football fields wide. As wide as the Mississippi? Hard to tell. As wide as the Yangtze? Almost. It's a lovely river.
Last night after dinner -- chicken fettuccine and chocolate mousse -- we walked across the street from our hotel in order to see a pyramid. We just crossed the street and there it was, sticking up from behind a fence.
"They're not as big as I thought they'd be," I told Amy. "I thought they'd be bigger."
This guy in a long dress -- lots of men wear long dresses in Egypt -- said he'd take us to the pyramids. He dragged me and Amy into a back alley from where the top of a pyramid showed up in the moonlight from behind a fence. The alleyway started to look kind of deserted.
Then suddenly two men bounded into the alley, riding a very large camel. This was too much for Amy. "I'm out of here." I gave the man a dollar, thanked him very much and ran. End of pyramid adventure.
Cairo -- yes we are still driving around in holiday traffic. The end of Ramadan is a major holiday in Egypt, sort of like Christmas is in the US. Everyone goes out shopping for it and Cairo looks like any other big city in China or Mexico or anywhere else third-worldish or without traffic restrictions or your more stringent types of building permits. Cairo traffic sucks. Why are we doing this? Driving and driving and driving? Amy fell asleep.
A lot of the buildings are made of brick. 50% of them appear to be unfinished. What does this mean? It means that I am jet-lagged and need to go back to the hotel for a rest.
Ah. Now we are going back to the hotel. I hate to say this but the pyramids just look sort of stupid and out-of-place peeking out from behind semi-finished, semi-highrise apartment houses. These dinky, out-of-context pyramids seem to piss me off. I guess it's because the painting of them that I have at home hanging on my bedroom wall shows them with palm trees and the beautiful Nile flowing by in front of them.

December 14, 2001: "Now we are going to have dinner with an Egyptian family." And we did. "This is camel meat," said our guide Mahmoud. "It actually has a very low cholesterol count." Actually, it tasted like very rich/greasy beef.
The home where we visited was a vast apartment -- reminiscent of those grand old flats in New York City, overlooking Central Park. Each room was cavernous and there were a lot of them. "Within this building and neighborhood," our host told us, "we have created the atmosphere of a village. All of us are inter-related. In this building alone we have aunts, cousins, parents and grandparents. When we held a wedding celebration last month, 17,000 people were invited."
"17,000. We take our family obligations very seriously." And he did. A young man whose income came from the travel industry, he had a well-furnished home, a lovely wife and three small children -- plus various aunts in the kitchen preparing the dinner and various children of cousins etc. running in and out.
Amy roughhoused with the four-year-old son and I played cards with the smart and delightful seven-year-old niece, too young yet to cover her hair. She picked up the intricacies of the card game -- called "Egyptian Rat Screw" incidentally -- very quickly.
The food was delicious; a lot of Arabic food comes in bite-sized portions, meant to be eaten with one's fingers I presume. There were dolmas, canoli-like shells stuffed with beef and rice, pieces of meat pastry cut in triangles, various honey-based squares of this and that to be popped in one's mouth for dessert. It was a nice evening.
Everything on this trip so far has been nice enough, sure, but nothing all that different than other places I have seen; not that much different from the restaurants, museums, traffic, etc. of American cities. Even the antiquities museum was not all that much more super than the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, CA. Well, maybe better. But when I saw the King Tut traveling exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, it was awe-inspiring. The same stuff was just lying around the antiquities museum with no dramatic lighting, descriptions or stage management. It was hard to get excited. One sort of had the feeling that all these rare items were copies or imitations and that the real stuff was off on sale at Tiffany's.
Back at the Mena House Hotel, Mahmoud hit us with the bad news, "We have to get up at 3 am in order to fly to Aswan." Are you nuts? We're little old ladies here -- we need our sleep -- we still got major jet lag -- get over it.

December 15, 2001: Now it is 7:30 am and I am sitting in an Air Egypt plane looking down over desert and cloud masses, on my way to Aswan. I have no idea what we are going to do or see there. I am too tired to ask.
Why are there clouds? I thought it never rained in Egypt. Below the cloud cover, I can see brown and tan mountainous terrain, emphasized and highlighted with what appear to be rivers of sand snaking through all the cracks and crevices and canyons. It looks like what may have been a system of mountainous watersheds millions of years ago may have been replaced by sand. We're all too tired to care.
Then the cloud cover lifted and there was the Nile, looking just like the geography books said it would -- greenness cutting a swath through the desert -- and I realized that those mountains were mountains of sand and the gullies and "valleys" had been cut not by water but by wind. And that the Nile fought a valiant but hopeless battle to keep the sand back; from engulfing the strip of green that lined its banks for a mere mile or two on either side.
"Just look at that patch of green trying to fight back all that sand," I told Amy. "That's amazing!"
"You just keep telling yourself that," she replied. "Got any cough drops?"
Wow. How do they ever keep all that sand back? They certainly don't have this in the USA! At least not yet. At one time, I am told, there never used to be a Sahara Desert either.
As we near Aswan, the mountains and gullies disappear and it is all just horizon-to-horizon sand. That's a hecka lot of sand.

6 pm: And today was the day I was actually going to see some ruins. Ha! We were scheduled to go see the Colossi of Rameses II at Abu Simbel after we got off the plane from Aswan after waiting three more hours at the Aswan airport. What a waste of time. There had been a direct flight from Cairo that had left at a decent hour. Humph.
So around 1:30, we finally arrived at our hotel and I passed out cold in the lobby. Out. Cold. All my junk went flying in every direction. I couldn't even stand up afterwards and the two retired nurses in the group tried to give me artificial respiration.
So. What happened? Everyone else got to go off to the temple and I sat around yet another hotel room thinking that for all I have seen of Egypt in the last three or four days, I might as well have stayed home.
Then I got stomach flu. So. Tonight's tour is off as well? I don't think so!

6 pm: We went to the Rameses II temple sound-and-light show. "I loved it!" said Amy. They projected a narrative of Rameses' life onto the face of the Abu Simbel temple itself and also onto the temple of his (favorite) wife Nefertari. The dramatic music, the enhances lighting and the projected scenes all upgraded the majesty of the original colossi.
"Rameses built these colossi out in the middle of nowhere for a very good reason -- to alert marauding tribesmen up from Africa just exactly who they were dealing with." Don't mess with the dude!
But I hadn't forgotten the "Pharaoh's Revenge". I already knew not to mess with the dude. I just wanted to make it to the nearest restroom!
Amy has been supremely helpful on this trip. She has helped people on and off the buses, airplanes, monuments, etc. and on Sunday she will help people on and off camels and feluccas. Good job, Amy.
We stayed in a wonderful hotel today. Each room has a dome which resembled a Nubian house -- I guess. And I was wrong about the sand erosion. Mahmoud said, "No, it was caused by water." So I could be wrong about Nubian houses too. But the hotel was located on an especially blue and clear part of Lake Nasser. And a mosquito just bit me!
Yikes, there's another one! On the face, on the neck, on the hands. So much for sleep. After all that jet-lag, I just couldn't get to sleep. So I read. Then I listened to Amy breathe. Then I got up and took a walk along the shores of Lake Nassar.

December 15, 2001: Omelettes for breakfast. Then a hotel employee dropped me off at the Rameses II colossi. There was nobody there! Not even a caretaker. Not even a couple of German tourists! I had the grand temples of Abu Simbel all to myself! I took pictures of myself standing in front of the stone reliefs. Think stone here. Think mountains of stone, dressed to impress.
Inside the temple, carved in the rock, it was -- what? Cavelike? No. It was inspiring. It was like someone wanted to make something very, very special and hopefully something that would last. Is 4,000 years long enough? Sure. Even Rameses' body, back in the Cairo Museum, lasted 4,000 years and it was only made of flesh and blood.
Will I make it through the next plane ride and all the way to evening and bedtime? Will I be able to sleep tonight or am I doomed to go without sleep forever? Is that the Pharaoh's Curse? PS, I'm over my stomach curse.
I was glad I made the extra effort to go out to the colossi today. It finally put me in touch with ancient Egypt. And the nice people at the Seti Hotel made modern Egypt memorable too. I could see living here in a little house on the Nile. It's not that much different than Mexico. Except that speaking Arabic is a bitch.

1 pm: A 17-minute plane ride to Aswan. I looked on the map. "Abu Simbel is down here at the end of the world," I told Amy. It's 3/4 inch from the border of Sudan." I hadn't realized how far south we had been. No wonder Rameses built his colossi all the way down there. He was marking his territory.
At Aswan, we visited the High Dam. Compared to the Hoover Dam, it wasn't very high at all. But it was thick as hell. "There is enough stone filler in this dam to build 17 pyramids," said Mahmoud. There was a four-lane highway across the top of the dam and a rest stop too. We stopped. "Ooooh," said Amy. "Look at the little puppies! Aren't they cute?" They were cute. They were also skin and bones. We went over to the little refreshment stand and asked the guy, "Got any dog food?"
"No dog food."
"But look -- they got Halls Menthol-lyptus!" said Amy, who had developed a wheezing cough and heavy sniffles. We bought Cherry-flavored Halls right there in the middle of the High Aswan Dam. We also bought Nabisco wafers -- the waffle-y kind with the layers that I used to eat when I was a kid -- and Amy split them equally between herself and the two puppies.
At Aswan, we took a ferry to a posh hotel located on an island in the middle of the Nile. Oh, and before that we ate lunch at what our itinerary called "The Old Cataract Hotel," where Agatha Christie wrote many of her mysteries while her husband was working in Egypt. But we just went to a restaurant next door to the hotel instead.
The meal consisted of four different types of humus and home-made "pita" bread to dip into the humus. The bread was made in stone ovens and was all puffy and warm and much more culinarily interesting than the flat bland stuff we buy in the stores. We also had rice -- Egyptians make wonderful rice. Better even than Chinese restaurants -- and eggplant casserole and chicken; grilled and pressed. For dessert we had five different kinds of baklava.
Then we went to this hotel on an island accessible only by boat. But it was modern and luxurious with the American-quality rooms. We slept for two hours. Then a cannon was fired, the sun set and Ramadan officially ended. Everyone in the city cheered and honked horns and patted themselves on the back for surviving yet another year of fasting. And it had been hard for them. Mahmoud had been forced to sit and watch us eat for the past five days.
"There are five pillars to Islam," he told us. "One: The God we all worship -- Christian, Muslim and Jew -- is all the same God; Jehovah from the Old Testament. Second, we give alms to those in need. Third, we pray five times a day. Fourth, we fast during the month of Ramadan. And fifth, we -- oh God, what was number five? I am writing this at 3:45 am so I'm not the sharpest tack in the box. I'm still not sleeping very well. Jihad! Right. No, not Jihad. Jihad doesn’t mean blow stuff up. It means more like conversion by example. Now I remember. It was Haj -- pilgrimage. Every man and woman is required to tour Mecca once in their lifetime. Me! I'll go! Add it to the list. Ankor Watt, the Potola in Tibet, Manchu Picchu, Ayers Rock, the Pyramids, Mecca. Certain places in the world are sacred. I want to see them all. I want some of that sacredness to rub off on me so that I can become a better person.
After Ramadan was over, all the Muslims went shopping. We did too. We took the ferry to the bazaar and wandered happily down a narrow street for ten or twelve blocks, watching the ordinary people shop for the grand feast that ends Ramadan -- sort of like our Christmas dinner/Easter parade outfit combined. Everyone was buying new clothes and going to the barber and the butcher. We went to a spice shop and I purchased saffron and curry.
I also bought two very ugly toy camels, a fez for Joe, a scarf and a bust of Nefertiti. "How much did you pay for the fez," asked Mahmoud.
"$15! You were robbed! That hat is worth about $3! What were you thinking! You got gypped!"
"But I bargained him down from $30," I replied defensively. And I had fun doing it too. And I bought the Nefertiti from a nice young man who was persistent that I buy something so I said, "Here is two dollars. Pick me out your favorite thing." And he handed me the little wooden queen. But I surely got taken by the ugly camels. $3 each! Hand-sewn vinyl.
Then we went to an internet café and for ten pounds Egyptian money, I got to let everyone at home know that I was safe, having a good time and was the only one interested in an ugly camel.

December 16, 2001: 4 am. The messuin just made his call -- one hour later than in Ramadan. I guess the faithful are being allowed to sleep in.
Amy is wheezing and blowing her nose and sucking on cough drops in the bed next to me. And reading The Hobbit. We have to get up at 6 am to go ride a camel to a Coptic monastery. "Maybe we should go back to sleep," said Amy.

6 am: Pack, breakfast, camels. Nobody should have to ride a camel against their will! It's cruel and unusual punishment.
We got in a boat and went to Lord Kitchener's botanical garden island. Lots of green, lots of stray cats, lots of ghosts of English officers and ladies in nineteenth century costumes promenading up and down the paths between the palms and ferns and coffee trees. Er, coffee bushes. Lots of greenery. Then we sailed to the north bank of the Nile and were suddenly in desert again. My camel's name was Mona Lisa. There was Mickey Mouse, Superman, etc. They all bawled like those creatures in the Star Wars movies. They all had bad teeth. They all shook every bone in your body when they walked. And getting on and off wasn't too fun either.
"Nuh-uh. You ain't getting me on one of them," stated Amy.
"I'll give you ten Egyptian pounds if you do it."
"Hell no."
"15 Egyptian pounds."
"You must be crazy. Them animals is mean. And they have bad breath too."
"15 Egyptian pound and a dollar. Last offer."
"Not me! Unh-uh. No way."
"Okay. You turned down my last offer. Now you gotta do it for free." Amy and I compromised. She rode a donkey. 15 camel riders looking like Lawrence of Arabia at the siege of Acaba plus Amy on a donkey. Cute.
So we rode out and up into the desert stronghold of the St. Simeon Monastery ruins. And I didn't get bit by a camel or nothing. The monastery was a fortress-like edifice about the size of a small stone mountain; with a view of hills and dunes in every direction. The high walls were of brick. The monastery was formidable, meant to repel the most dangerous barbarian, the longest siege.
Inside the crumbling walls and blue-sky-roofed main basilica, there was the cross-like layout common to all older churches; naves and all. On the walls of the basilica were dimly limned paintings of the apostles -- probably painted by monks from a linage whose predecessors knew Jesus himself. The place had a quiet and holy feeling. I kissed my fingers and touched them to a wall, a Christian gesture of reverence.