The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico is a popular cruise destination with many national historic sites as well as interesting architecture of the capital Old San Juan, which I call “Puerto Ricotecture”.
What most cruisers don’t realize is that the sites are quite accessible without boarding a large tour bus and elbowing your way amongst 50 other visitors struggling to get on and off and rush through according to a schedule. Delightfully, San Juan is an easy place to stroll around on your own and visit sites in your own time.
Mainly, I got news that my upcoming February assignment in Egypt has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. I heard from my colleague who described in great detail the ordeal they underwent getting out of Egypt mid-tour, and I count my blessings. But now it’s a few days later and things seem to be settling down over there. Call me crazy, but if I weren’t a mom, I’d probably still get on that plane. It is my nature to project positively – that there be a smooth transition, that there be peace on the streets and in the hearts of all Egyptians, and that soon we will again be visiting the land of the Pharoahs, welcomed with the gracious hospitality of the locals… Insha’Allah (God willing!) إن شاء الله.
This was my favorite picture, and favorite memory, of the entire journey – when watermelons became the favored source of drinkable water.
In the lower left of the photo is the top of a jar of TANG which we used to make the bottled water more palatable. I couldn’t tolerate it and was so grateful for watermelons, although watching the young boy wielding a machete to split them open was unnerving.
Remembering Egypt – (journal series, part III)
Hello Nile. Hello felucca. Here we go, sailing down the Nile.
Of course, the felucca we were shown yesterday was twice the size of this one that we are actually sailing on. I’m irritated, but I’m just too hot and relieved to be getting out of Aswan that I don’t even bother complaining. Good riddance. Of course, the dudes had to have their hooka smoke before we set off.
There were 8 of us total: Marie and myself, the two Danish dudes, two Swedish girls, our captain Kimo, and a small boy of about 7 or 8.
We headed out in a nice wind, but it was blowing up river, so we had to tack. This meant shifting from one side of the felucca to the other in order not to slide off. There was no getting used to this, especially having to hang on to all our belongings (cameras, backpacks) as well as keeping ourselves on the boat! But on we went in this manner – just as all 6 of us got comfortable on one side, we’d have to shift again, back and forth, from one side to the other, and try to get comfortable again. It was impossible to just lay down flat because then the blood would rush to your head (I tried this, just take my word for it).
We sailed down and I waved goodbye to that terrible place Aswan. I never want to go there again. It was such a relief to watch it grow smaller off in the distance. The lights of the city began to twinkle as the sun moved down over the desert-y west bank of the Nile. It was a beautiful sunset, the sun sat on the horizon as a big red ball.
As we drifted away from the city we began to hear many different noises coming from the banks of the river. The crickets were a constant buzz, and above their hum sounded the frogs. There must have been millions, big ones at that, as their croaks were most prominent! An occasional donkey cried, and the cows, bulls and camels could be heard settling into the night.
The moon was already high in the sky when the sun slipped over the horizon. The silhouettes of the palm trees against the orange sky were the only visible signs of life. But the air was full of sounds and noises, reflecting all sorts of life happening along the river banks. It seemed all the villages were alive with celebration. Drumbeats were faint in the distance, but as we sailed along the drumbeats grew louder and were accompanied by many chanting voices. “What’s going on?” we asked our captain. He told us they were celebrating because there was a sheik from the village who would be traveling to Mecca the next day.
We drifted ashore and tied feluccas together for the night. While the night was calm, the air was full of noise and it was hard to fall asleep. Or stay asleep. Or get comfortable.
This morning our felucca was joined by a New Zealander from the other boat. I was in a terribly crabby mood as I’d not slept well and I wanted only to stretch out flat. Any time I settled somewhere, it seemed everybody on the boat decided to crowd around me, Jeff in particular, with his bad snoring and bad breath. Then when I was finally in my own space, the little Egyptian boy decided to make house and had to rearrange all the blankets on the boat. Which meant I had to move. Again. I gave up sleeping at all and sat up writing in this here journal.
Today was a long, hot one. We had to drift a great deal because there was scarcely any wind worth putting up the sail. With their Third World tape player, the Egyptians played Arabic music nearly the whole day. At first it was bearable, almost interesting even, but then it quickly got irritating. Especially when the tape was ejected and turned over several times and the rhythms were forever scratched in our eardrums.
We seemed to stop at every shore for one reason or another, and some of us were getting impatient. Eventually we set sail, and did a few hours of the shifting routine throughout the afternoon.
Our Egyptian crew prepared us a meal. It was hardly edible for our systems, but we were soooo hungry and we needed to eat something. The utensils and vegetables were rinsed in the Nile river, and I kept thinking “if they can handle it, so can I, we’re all humans, right?” As for Marie and the Europeans, I think they preferred to stay in denial (de Nile…haha).
I began to take interest in the Kiwi dude, Joost. He was really quite nice, and funny too. He had a great way of making me laugh out loud even as I tried so hard to continue being p.o.’d at the whole situation. Yes, I really wanted to cling tenaciously to being irritable and moody, but he somehow got around that and broke through to the point where I was actually having FUN. I figured he’s nothing short of a magician, and I was intrigued by what might be up his sleeve.
We were talking a lot about people. And mosquitoes. And the fact that there were flocks of mosquitoes along the river just hovering and waiting to prey on sweet-blooded people like me. At one point Joost offered to share his sleeping bag so I wouldn’t get bitten (by the mozzies). It sounded like a good prospect because he was genuinely nice and didn’t seem the type to try anything (maybe even gay, not sure, but that would explain his ability to have me in stitches).
But as everyone on the felucca began to settle in, Marie and the tall Danish dude Henry rolled out their full length mat/bed around which the rest of us had to conform, and she kept bitching that there was no room on our boat even for a Kiwi (haha, but humorously rude). He heard her no doubt, and felt unwelcome enough that he went back to the other felucca to sleep. I was beyond upset, so angry I couldn’t even speak, and just had to sleep with only Marie’s skirt as a cover to protect me from mosquitoes.
When I woke in the early hours from a sound sleep, both my legs were numb. I had fallen asleep laid out flat, but I woke up with Marie and Henry sprawled out flat and and my legs squished and curled up tight with no room to stretch out. How did that happen? I swear Marie was next to me when I fell asleep, but I rolled over to find Jeff right next to me in my face breathing like a horse. Enough. I got up and moved to the front of the boat and just crashed out on the deck, no covers, nothing. Alas! I had discovered the most comfortable place to sleep on the entire felucca! Too bad everyone woke up only an hour later and we began to move.
This was our last day on the felucca. Eventually we reached Edfu, where we got off. We took a taxi to Luxor and immediately got sold by an Egyptian “friend” to stay at his brother’s hotel. I remember Marie saying the rooms were ok, but then later refusing the sheets. I was wishing we had just gone to stay where we planned, but everyone was tired and lazy and just slept from the moment we got there. I really wanted to go out and see some sights but no one else was interested. I listened to tapes on my Sony walkman (King’s “Alone Without You”, OMD, the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and some early U2).
Eventually our “lunch” was ready at 4:00pm, so up we went to the roof garden cafeteria and looked at the food in front of us. Ugh. I guess the felucca Nile meals did me in, as I had to force myself to eat something.
Days 8 – 12
We finally motivated ourselves to go somewhere, so we took the hotel’s “special service taxi” (which was, of course, another brother’s old car). We visited Luxor Temple, which I found extremely interesting.
Then we went to Karnak for a few hours, most of which were spent outside drinking cokes. I was never a coke drinker but in Egypt the glass bottled coke was safer than plastic bottled water, and ironically coke became the most nutricious meal I could swallow, and only one to stay down.
Editor’s Note: Yep, I was most definitely getting sick, and sicker with every day. I think the technical medical condition was “pharoah’s revenge”. In fact, my journal stopped blank after the above entry.
My ticket stubs and pictures remind me that we went to sites of Deir-el-Barhi (which I had really wanted to see based on a b/w picture in an ad), and the Valley of the Kings, where we wandered into a few tombs, one of which belonged to King Tut. It was anti-climatic. It was also hot and dry. I think my failure to appreciate the history stemmed from the bug wreaking havoc in my guts forcing me to always be here and now (and mindful of the nearest pitstop).
Eventually we got back to Cairo. I don’t remember how. But I remember staying in a hotel with several beds in a large room, and windows looking out over the square across from the Mohammed Ali Mosque.
I remember looking out the window after dark and watching a whole black market taking place right outside – men selling knock-off t-shirts and knives and other things that you don’t see by day. It looked extremely dangerous with lots of shady characters, and I understood why we were told not to leave the hotel after dark. Then in the early hours of the morning they disappear, and as the sun rose I would look down to see people waking from their slumber on rooftops and patches of grass. I remember the guy selling shoes never left, day or night. I remember staring out this window endlessly as I recovered from my bug. And I remember questioning religious faith – theirs, and my own.
I vaguely remember at one point (during daylight) I decided to venture out into the souks to try to shop, feeling dizzy and faint, and refusing beckons to “come inside to my store in back”. I was lost. It was hot, I was severely dehydrated, and only by a miracle did I somehow end up back at the hotel without any trouble. Beyond the gastrointestinal one.
The next journal entry is several days later:
Finally, back in Greece. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Athens! Now I’m back on Ios. The day is Tuesday the 22nd, and I somehow spent my 22nd birthday in Cairo, but it’s not even worth mentioning. So here I am, having walked across the beautiful Milopotas Beach to Dracos Taverna – my home sweet home away from home…away from home. Oh it’s good to be alive! How lucky am I.
This concludes my “Remembering Egypt” journal. Rather abruptly, I’m afraid, but there you have it. I did fully recover by the time I was back in Greece, and I’m certain the river water was at fault. The food itself in Egypt was excellent, and the entire experience was not so bad that I wouldn’t go back.
I have, in fact, returned in recent years, and took my husband and daughter (who was almost 3 at the time) to see the Pyramids.
It was a very different experience, and too short, with time only to visit Cairo and Alexandria. My daughter still has memories of our trip, but not of the Pyramids or the Nile or the other amazing sights we saw.
What she remembers, with great vividness of senses, is nothing more than…the sounds of the burping camels!
We all still have the dream to return and cruise the Nile together in much better circumstances, and I am certain this won’t be the last of my Egypt blog posts. I will return. Some day.
Thank you for coming along on my journey through the archives of my travel journal. If you would like to share a link of your own travels to Egypt, I welcome you to do so in a comment below!
The meeting of the waters on the Amazon, as seen from the plane
Preface: I wrote this blog (as well as “The Pantanal” article) on a napkin in a brand new wine bar at the Tropical Hotel in Manaus, where I was entertained by a wide screen tv playing a DVD of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” concert live in Berlin. I must say it was a very surreal experience, made all the more wondrous by an endless stream of complimentary house drinks – the first because the wine bar was new so they offered a “welcome drink” for checking it out. The second came compliments of the front desk because I was ending a 2-week tour with my guests at the Tropical and had already seen them off at the airport – they knew I was finally off the 24/7 clock. And the third because I had simply made myself so comfortably engrossed in my napkin writing that the bartender thanked me for being the only one there most of the night. By that third drink, I was feeling like Joni Mitchell “…in the blue tv screen light….I drew a map of…”, so my table, and napkin, looked like this: Point being, the Tropical Hotel is simply the place to stay in Manaus. The heavy metal rock band Metallica just checked out, and now Prince Charles and Camilla were there; the staff were already buzzing about news of hosting Obama in the next month (has that happened yet?). Meanwhile, I was finally adjusting to working without my overheated mac, and here at last, I present the final publication of the Amazon napkin blogs. As hand-written.
Amazing Amazon So, if I lacked for rain in the Pantanal, the Amazon surely made up for it. Manaus is probably the rainiest city I have ever been (and I lived in Seattle for 3 years). Well, it is in the middle of the Amazon, which is a rainforest, afterall. And if nothing else, you can be sure of rain. Lots of rain.
I boarded the luxurious Iberostar Grand Amazon in the company of 30 fellow passengers, on a boat that accommodates 150! How lucky was that? It felt like a very exclusive cruise, like we were the personal guests of the Brazilian captain – who, as a matter of fact, had his family on board too! And the crew were no less attentive to the rest of us, they were positively welcoming. By the end of 3 days I felt I’d been adopted into a Brazilian family, with lots of brothers, cousins, and a few crazy aunties.
Our first outing by small boat expedition began with blue skies and warm temperatures. Forget about jackets and raingear, “it’s gonna be gorgeous” was the attitude everyone had as we left the Iberostar. The first 40 minutes were, then suddenly, out of nowhere, a massive tropical downpour. Rain so thick and dense it made for white out conditions! And there we were on an open-air excursion boat, no roof, no cover, nothing to protect us from the elements. It was a first for me to experience getting completely drenched – socks, knickers and all! Fortunately, I always carry a drysack for my camera and lens – a lesson I learned in the 90’s when I forded a river in Guatemala, and ended up treading across neck-deep with one arm while the other held my camera over my head. I’ve only used the drysack once since, in Costa Rica, but I always carry it, several in fact, when I am cruising. It’s the most valuable accessory in my photography travel bag by far. But you know what? Rain in the rainforest is good. It just feels so good, so pure, so real. Better than a hot shower after a cold surf…and that’s heavenly. So as long as I have my drysack with me, let it rain all it wants. Bring it on! There were certainly enough breaks in the clouds to pull the camera out and spot a few animals – here are some of the more exciting sightings: Three-toed Sloth Boto – Pink Amazon River Dolphin Green Iguana Squirrel Monkeys Caiman (immature) …and another Three-toed Sloth
This is not a showcase of amazing wildlife stock photography – consider this a very realistic Amazon wildlife portfolio for 3 days from a boat. If you go to experience a cruise on the Amazon, then you’ll love it – you’ll return home with lots of pictures of trees which you’ll share with friends explaining “there’s a bird or monkey there somewhere”, and the joy is in the story told. But if your intention is to get decent wildlife pictures, then head to the Pantanal, where you’ll find the same animals in more open areas and easier to see close up without neck strain. My advice? If you’re in Brazil, or planning to go, do BOTH.
The great thing about cruising the Iberostar Grand Amazon is that you always have a plenty of food to come back to. And it’s easier to photograph, too.
And now, a tribute to the Iberostar staff, particularly the bartender, and those fun-lovin Brazilian aunties of mine!
To put the Amazon experience into words is an intimidating task, but one that is overcome easily with a lens instead of a pen. So here is the first of two parts of my “Life on the Amazon” article, in which I’ll let pictures tell the story. Enjoy the journey!