Category: backpacking

Remembering Egypt – Part II

Continuing preface: My initial intent with this series was to document my first visit to Egypt 25 years ago in order to compare with my upcoming assignment in Egypt scheduled for February. Obviously, since I posted Part I last week, circumstances have changed dramatically! My purpose is not to cover or coat-tail the current events, but I cannot ignore them either as I publish these posts. When I began publishing this series last week, a colleague of mine had been in Egypt with a group, and they were safe on the Nile in southern Egypt as of Friday. I have just learned this Monday morning that they have been safely exited and are now in London, so I can put my focus back on digitizing my journal here. If you haven’t already, check out Part I of Remembering Egypt.

REMEMBERING EGYPT (journal series, Part II)

Day 3

Ugh, This morning was full of running around getting things done. Worth a mention was the visit to the train station to ask about tickets. From the moment we walked in we were stared at – Marie’s bare shoulders, my light hair – we stood out like sore thumbs.

As we entered the station, there were men putting down large red carpets in the corner of the room in preparation for prayers. Only the men could pray publicly. If the women wanted to pray, they must not be seen (our guide tells us). I remember even in the mosque yesterday that there was a special area in the back of the room for women to pray without being seen; and even so it was only recently that they were allowed to enter the mosque at all!

There weren’t many women to be seen at the train station. When we went to get in line, our guide (still the taxi driver from yesterday) told us that we must wait by the wall because women were not allowed to wait in line. He was going to do it for us. I didn’t like the whole situation and I kept nagging Marie that we should have just gone to the travel agency suggested by the paper I got before leaving London months earlier. But we were already there and our guide did as he promised. Who knows how much we may be getting ripped off in the process but oh well. Fear and trust don’t mix well, so I opted for trust.

So off we went from there to the Pyramids. On the way through the city the front tire blew out on our little taxi – a minor inconvenience and we just had to go with the flow, ultimately taking another taxi.

At the Pyramids we found our “friends” (they always greet us and add “my friend” to every sentence when they’re speaking to us), and they were waiting to take us by horseback to Sukkara. I couldn’t go more than 2 meters without the guide changing my horse! By the end of the day I’d been on all four horses. Despite these problems, the journey was incredible!

We first rode on a path alongside the banks of the Nile river. There were stray dogs at several crossroads who would growl and looked extremely vicious. I was scared enough that I really appreciated being up on a horse! We went by small farms and villages. We passed by so many military posts. I was so curious as to what they did there. Eventually we cut across down a side street and into the desert.

We rode along the edge of the desert for quite some way, me with the guide who was keeping close watch on my horse. It was so neat to watch the rolling hills of sand sweep by as we galloped through. I lagged behind but finally got the feel of rhythm with my horse as we reached the end. We checked out the step pyramid and rested a bit.
Lo and behold there was our original taxi driver waiting for us with a brand new tire and all set to drive us back to Cairo.

We drove back on Sakkara Road (I think?) along the river through rural farmlands. We stopped at a busy corner to have some drinks, and the locals were quite intrigued with us. Children were working – pulling oxen or riding donkeys with loads of farm harvests. One small girl wearing pink was smiling in curiosity as she’d never seen foreigners before. After a lengthy communication ordeal, we took a picture with permission and encouragement from her father. We thanked her by buying her an ice cream, and her father beamed. She was too cute! But the women covered head to toe in black were downright frightened of us, disappearing anywhere we went.

We got back to the train station in plenty of time, and observed people on the platforms as they observed us. I wondered what it must be like for them, living in poverty, to see us boarding a First Class train to take us overnight to Aswan. For them, the journey would cost one pound and take 4-5 days on a dirt-floored train with no windows or doors, that stops at every village for anyone to get on with any of their animals. They look at us but show no expression. They must hate us, I wouldn’t blame them. They only watch and wonder about our lives as we do them. I was intrigued by three men in particular – they stared at Marie but said nothing. Their eyes said so much though. After they’d had their fill of watching us, they looked away, up to they sky, as if they were reflecting, or praying even. What was going on in their minds? What were they thinking? Where were they going? I took one last look at them then boarded the train, stepping out of the filth and dirt into a world of clean luxury. I stepped into a different world, and these three men were soon far from my thoughts.

Day 4

The train ride was excellent. After dinner, Marie and I went to our friends cabin and had some drinks. After a bit, the discussion turned to politics. This was troublesome and I won’t get into detail, but at one point they were drunkenly singing “We are red! We are white! We are Danish dynamite!”, and that should give you some idea of their ethnocentric view of the world. We woke up in Luxor, hungover and unmotivated to get off, so we decided to continue with the Danes all the way to Aswan. What a horrible mistake that was. What a horrible place.

The temperature was well over 110 degrees in the shade when we found a travel agent. We got a s#%& deal, but managed to visit the Aswan High Dam. It was so hot out there. I know this huge dam out in the middle of the desert is a remarkable modern feat of engineering, but it still looked grotty (is that a word?) and old, not at all what I pictured from Dr. Kim’s lectures. I took pictures for his sake anyway, after all he praises that dam for saving lower Egypt from constant flooding or something (I’m not in the mood to sound intellectual, sorry, it’s hot and I’m on vacation).

Anyway, from there we took a motor boat to an island of the Philae Temples where there stands a Temple of Isis (God of Evil), appropriately. It was really too hot to appreciate the 4000 BC temple.

And the people there – who were demanding us for some money even though we’d already paid the seedy agent – really put us on edge. So our unfinished tour ended at the unfinished obelisk, which closed at 4:00PM. We were really p.o.’d.

The rest of the day was S(expletive), but we managed to arrange a felucca for the next day. Wearily, we walked through the market streets busy with locals doing their shopping. It was so dirty and filthy…and smelly. I was sickened at the fact that we had to buy our food there. Oh, and conducting business transactions with children was most odd.

Our first hotel was horrific and frightening (and unsafe with broken locks and obvious signs of forced entry). I won’t even mention the toilet facility, if you can call it that. We left in darkness and found another hotel, more expensive and a slightly better quality, and we finally fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion and relief in knowing that tomorrow we would be leaving this dreadful place.

– to be continued –

Please return for the third and final Part III, when we cruise the Nile for 3 nights on a tiny open-air felucca, and I celebrate a most unmemorable birthday in Cairo with “Pharoah’s Revenge”.

Remembering Egypt – Part I

Preface: As I prepare to head to Egypt next month, I thought it would be an opportune time to reflect back upon my first trip to Egypt, over 25 years ago, and to share some of my early days of travel, writing and photography.

While many things have changed, and continue to do so on a daily basis – particularly in Egypt right now – much of what I read from the pages of my journal is a classic and universal “first time off the beaten path” perception of a 21-year-old backpacking penny-stretching college kid determined to see the world.

While other college kids were backpacking through Europe, that simply wasn’t exotic enough for me and my friend Marie. So when we’d had enough of sunning on the gorgeous beaches of Ios in the Greek Isles, we decided to get on a plane to Cairo and check out the Pyramids…in hottest July (what were we thinking?). With no return tickets and no set plans and no idea where we would stay, off we went with a “Let’s Go” guidebook, tiny backpacks slung on our backs with cheap straw beach mats we’d picked up in Greece, flip flops on feet, and cameras in hand. And journals, of course.

Remember, this was long before iphones, digital cameras, laptops and other tools of the modern-day blogging nomads. There were no ipod buds in my ears, rather, I wore the clunky headband of a Sony Walkman and carried a few cassette tapes in the backpack to remind me of home. I took pictures with this stuff called “film”, and composed on something known as a “notepaper” with an instrument called a “pen.” It is the pages of my handwritten journal that I have transcribed to share here.

The year is 1986. The U.S. had just retaliated against a Berlin discotheque bombing by conducting airstrikes over Tripoli in neighboring Lybia, and U.S. relations with Qadaffi and the Middle East were tense all over (sound familiar?). But at 21, we were convinced that our mere presence would constitute an international peace-keeping mission, and off we went.

REMEMBERING EGYPT (journal series, Part I)

Day 1
EGYPT??!! Oh my God (Allah?) I’m in (expletive) Egypt! Hello Third World. Hello Pyramids. Hello Arabs. Hello poverty. Hello camels. It’s all here! This is the place! The real deal!

Our flight from Athens was something else, if that didn’t frighten us, nothing will! The people crammed on to the Egypt Air plane as if it were a Stones concert or something – there was no specific seating, no non-smoking section, just take what you can get. The landing was more like being flung down a bowling alley, but we made it. We headed to a good, reasonable hotel in Heliopolis where we met some travel buddies – two guys from Denmark, who invited us to share the cost of their Cairo taxi tour the next day. Cool.

Our first adventure in Cairo is the TRAFFIC. No lights, no signs, no lines, and apparently no laws! Just lots of horns. That’s how it’s done in Cairo, you just beep your way through the streets and intersections, and our taxi driver played his horn in the orchestra of Cairo like a skilled musician.

When we first began driving I kept thinking to myself “this must just be the bad part of town” and waited for the nicer parts of town to appear. As the day went on I realized this IS Cairo. This IS the way they live. It’s ALL like this. Half-finished housing, broken windows, dirty dirty streets, and poverty everywhere – there IS no nice part of town!

The most fascinating observation about the people is that wherever they are at the time of prayer, they stop everything, throw down their rugs, and pray. In the streets, in the train stations, in the markets and the cafes. You can hear the call to prayers over loudspeakers throughout the entire city. Five times a day. Every day.

We went first to see the Muhammed Ali Mosque – we had to remove our shoes and cover our shoulders and legs. In every part of the mosque there was always someone to tell you about the room then ask for your money. We so wanted to learn everything we could, but we’d never have lasted beyond the first day if we kept this up! So we learned instead to be politely rude and to refrain from smiles and eye contact or appearing even remotely interested because then you get hooked in to listen and it costs ya!

From the citadel there was quite a view – but as far as the eye could see was nothing but pollution, crowded streets, traffic, dirty buildings, dotted with colorful garments of clothing hanging outside windows to dry. Miles and miles, endlessly, this is Cairo. This is how it really is.

We drove on beeping our way through traffic to “Old Cairo”, which quite frankly doesn’t appear any older than the rest of the city. We walked down the market streets (souks). So many things to see, so many things to resist temptation to buy. (Darn! Why didn’t I save more money?!). We sat and had a drink at a café on the street. Our (taxi driver) guide smoked from a giant pipe about 4 feet high. After a rest we moved on to the Egyptian Museum for a quick browse,

then off to a restaurant to eat….

Real authentic Egyptian food! This place was cool and interesting. The floor was laid with large rocks lined with smaller pebbles (I was barefoot so I noticed these things). The roof was thatched up with some sort of palm fronds, and the walls of opaque glass were painted with scenes of Egyptian customs.

Ah, the menu! Finally, a real authentic meal of pita bread and those other foods I usually make from a box mix at home. First came the light salad and dips – tahini sauce, and a hummus flavored with mint leaves. I ordered falafel and rolled vine leaves and Marie had foul with sesame. All of it was sooo good!

After lunch we beeped our way through the city to the Pyramids. You could see them right there beyond the dirty city buildings, as if they were in the center of a downtown street. But as we got closer, we saw that they stood on the city outskirts and on the edge of the desert. THE DESERT! The Lybian Desert, which forms the edge of the Sahara Desert stretching across all of northern Africa! Wow. Just think, this sand I step on is the same body of sand that Qadaffi hangs out in. I’m cool with that.

There was no way we were going to visit the Pyramids without riding a camel. So we found ourselves 4 camels and a little boy to guide (?) our caravan. I got along really well with my camel, which I named “Filter”.

We wandered up to the Pyramids, past the Sphinx (or “swings” as our Danish buddies pronounced it), and took pictures on our camels, with our camels, off our camels. I really enjoyed it – my camel was pleasant (as far as camels go) and comfortable.

However, the exciting part was taking off and landing. Yes, I’m referring to the camel! Like any mammal, a camel has four legs. But the camel can only bend two at a time to sit down, and the front ones go first! This is when you realize that the camel is a really tall animal with really LONG legs! Try to stay on a camel when he is kneeling without sliding down his neck. Fun stuff.

So we watched the sunset from the Pyramids and then went to a shop and paid a ridiculous fee to see the “Sound and Light Show” at the Pyramids, what a rip off! But there we sat like tourists listening to the voice of the English-speaking Sphinx and getting eaten alive by mosquitos.

Finally back to the hotel after a long day. Tired, hungry, and a headache to boot. Watched a bit of Arabic tellie to get an idea of the media here – just as crazy as the traffic! Too weird. I really wonder what they’re saying. I really wonder….

– to be continued –

(Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to break this out into a series of several posts, given my tendency for wordiness and an admitted lack of skill at editing my own journals. Hey, it’s a journal, not a 1500 word article feature that anyone has hired me for. And this is my personal blog!)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this enough to return for Part II, when we ride horseback through the desert to Sakkara, visit a train station and splurge on a First Class overnight train cabin to Aswan! In Part III, I chronicle our felucca cruise on the Nile and visits to Edfu, Luxor, and Karnak. And hey, if you happen to have a blog of your first trip to Egypt, are a 20-something modern day backpacker, or are currently blogging from Egypt, I welcome you to share your link in the comments!

Travels by Textiles – My Guatemalan Sleeping Bag

I learned a long time ago that the best souvenirs to bring home were things that were easy to pack, wouldn’t break, and didn’t weigh too much. In my shopping abroad, my further requirement was that souvenirs be specific to the country where obtained, and ideally handmade as opposed to factory produced in China (unless I am, in fact, at a factory in China). It was during a solo backpacking trip through Central America, many passports ago, that I discovered and purchased my first such souvenir. A textile.

With this blog as my loom, please join me as I thread the writer’s needle and weave some travel tales around images of textiles. I’ll start where my collection officially began, Guatemala. I hope you enjoy.


When I stumbled off the bus at Chichicastenango in the highlands of Guatemala, all I could think about was getting to the market to take pictures. I was wandering with all my senses, seeking faces to immortalize, moments to freeze, and scenes to turn into art. I was fully absorbed in my mission when, through my lens, I noticed a color – a green unlike any green I had seen before. A green that even the Velvia film in my camera could not do justice. A green that simply had to be touched to prove its existence.

I approached the green object billowing in the gentle breeze. Nearer inspection revealed that it was a quilt of sorts, a bedspread or blanket, and the closer I looked, the more enchanted I became. The green I saw from a distance was in fact comprised of several small multi-colored scraps – “pixels” of fabrics – each in itself providing a different tone and texture which, sewn together, harmonized with the others and orchestrated this incredible magnificent green.

My eyes still questioned it all, so I explored it by hand. I shut my eyes, and felt my way along a row of “pixels”. Sure enough, each color and each fabric scrap had it’s own feel, and no two were alike.

“Te gusta? Tengo otros colores…”

I was seeing colors, touching colors, and now, I was hearing colors too.


I glanced at the others, all beautiful and unique, but none moved me like this palette of green.

“Quando cuesta?” I asked, ready to sulk away at the cost of such an extravagance. As it so happened, I really needed to replace my sleeping bag, but I didn’t want to be spending my travel budget on an item I could easily buy at home. I had put it off for days, but now here I was about to blow my sleeping bag budget on some fancy bedspre…BUT OF COURSE!!

I did my bartering, claimed my souvenir, rolled it up and stashed it in my backpack – using it as necessary, though sparingly, during my journey. Together we shared crowded bumpy overnight buses from the capital, Guate. We lazed in hammocks on the Caribbean coast in Livingston. We absorbed the smells of home cooked Guatemalan meals in Panajachel. We fended off throngs of ferocious mosquitos in the jungles of Tikal. By the end of my travels, every patch on that bedspread represented another experience, and together symbolized the whole of my Guatemalan adventure.

When I got home, I hand washed it in cold salt water (as advised to preserve color), and transformed my simple bed into a cultural exhibit and conversation starter. I’d backpacked through Guatemala. And this textile tells the tale.

This post is part of Photo Friday at Delicious Baby, check it out!

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