Teresa and I have decided to take the leap, or risk in this case, and travel. After moon-suiting up this morning and hailing an Uber to the airport, we have finally arrived at our destination in northern Arizona … Sedona. Now, at 5 in the evening, at an elevation of 5,000 feet, it’s a chilly 105 degrees after the earlier refreshing 109 degrees in Phoenix. Nice and mild for October. Fall is in the air. The leaves are changing color from soft greens to nuclear fireballs.
Earlier, our journey through the Atlanta Airport presented several surprises. Almost everyone wore a mask. The amount of traffic is about a quarter of normal so it’s not as stressful at the security checkpoints. Delta has rediscovered common sense and now boards from the rear of the plane forward. Every middle seat (in steerage) is empty. They don’t serve coffee for breakfast (which is a bag of Cheetos) but they do serve beer and wine. Passengers are still allowed to travel with emotional support animals which I discovered can be a gigantic Rottweiler who decides to place his head in your lap because you have an aisle seat and because the surprise, as you are looking out the window, will make you scream out loud. Gosh how we’ve missed the thrills of travel.
October 4, 2020
In the early morning cool air (it actually dropped 50 degrees after sunset), Teresa and I donned our containment suits and headed away from Sedona. Fearing that tourists would overwhelm the area, we set our sights on Arcosanti, an architectural experiment from the late 60s and bell foundry an hour and a half drive south. As a college student studying architecture in the early 70s, Arcosanti was frequently a topic of conversation. Its mission was the development of a new urban environment that blended architecture with ecology, hence “arcology”. Today it still struggles, mostly unnoticed, in creating its vision. Inhabited by less than a 100 architects it survives mostly on tours and bell sales.
After an enjoyable hour tour we headed onward to our next destination, a ghost town Teresa found on the maps called Jerome. Upon arriving we could see Jerome wasn’t yet a ghost town but was still actively turning into one. Built on the steep side of a mountain, the town was swamped with tourists and bikers, ass to elbow and most without masks. A Sturgis of idiocy but I repeat myself. We took off as quickly as we could (partly because we couldn’t find a place to park) and made our way back to Sedona, the streets likewise filled with tourists and the traffic bumper to bumper.
We made a quick stop at a Safeway for supplies which was crowded but at least most shoppers were masked. Making it back to our condo we unloaded our groceries (ok, technically liquor), lathered on hand sanitizer from head to toe and made plans for the next day’s dangerous sojourn.
October 5, 2020
Enjoyed a quieter and less tourist crushed day hiking in and around Sedona. Mask on. Mask off. The city of Sedona is more car friendly than pedestrian friendly. I was surprised to find out that the city itself is barely more than 100 years old thus explaining its lack of a city center and its inherent feel of being a tourist trap built on the shoulders of a busy highway. A tourist trap in an incredibly beautiful landscape but a tourist trap nonetheless in heart and soul. I mean, how many stores do you really need selling “aura photos”? But, hop in your car and a few minutes later you are in unexplored high desert wilderness. Barely a sign of civilization in sight.
We found a trail by a small flowing river and on approaching its banks, the air temperature dropped noticeably. The area is a hikers dreamscape with miles and miles of well marked trails winding through the mesas and buttes. And when you are done, head back to town to get your aura photographed. What’s not to like?
October 6, 2020
Today we got our kicks on route 66. Heading north from Sedona we set out on a road at the bottom of a canyon that followed a small creek. The deep canyon was still shaded in the early morning light but after a few miles a series of hairpin turns brought us to the top of the surrounding tablelands in the full sunlight. We found a vista point and as luck would have it, a jewelry festival was in full swing. After a brief but requisite visit and purchase of silver and turquoise bangles we continued on towards our first destination, Meteor Crater, an apparition seemingly appropriate for the year 2020.
As we scorched eastward along route 66 in our amazingly underpowered Nissan SUV rental, Teresa spotted a destination on the map that we would have to stop at on our return trip. The charmingly named “Apache Death Cave”. I assured her that we would stop there as I was certain the gift shop alone would make the stop well worthwhile. But first, a giant hole in the ground was our goal. Driving thru the now flat Marscape we arrived and paid our $20 (each) entrance fee, our hearts beating excitedly at the prospect of staring into an abyss. We climbed up the stairs (actually we took an elevator … DING second floor) to the rim of the crater and there it was. A hole in the ground!
Ten seconds later we were back in the SUV gliding eastward to Winslow, Arizona. And a flatbed Ford. And fortunately lunch. We found a spot across the street from our pilgrimage’s destination, the iconic Eagles “Standin’ on the Corner” corner, with outdoor seating and masked clientele. I ordered the Take It Greasy burger.
Following lunch and a few quick photos, we were on our way back, first stop – Apache Death Cave. In keeping with the spirit of 2020, Apache Death Cave was closed due to COVID-19. I mean, really? With broken hearts and in stunned silence we returned to our casita in Sedona. Pulling into the parking lot, we both looked at each other and suddenly realized, we forgot Winona!
October 7, 2020
Day 5 of Covidcation 2020 and we headed north to the Grand Canyon, or as they say in Spanish, El Grand Canyon. A two and a half hour drive north of Sedona that takes you thru Flagstaff and into forests of Ponderosa Pines, the theme song from Bonanza playing softly in the background. Not much traffic on the roads as we left early so that we could beat the crowds that would arrive by train at noon.
As we approached the entrance gates we could see a sign that said the daily car fee was $35. A young masked park ranger stood curbside collecting fees and handing out maps. We pulled up to the ranger and I lowered (does any “roll down” anymore) the window, masked, with credit card in hand. The ranger began to explain our options and then stopped and asked, “Are either of you senior citizens?” I blinked at her thru my dark sunglasses and said, “Excuse me you young whippersnapper but these old ears can’t hear you through that mask. Can you speak louder?” She waived us through, no charge. I took off and leaned over to Teresa and said, “I told you I would come in handy one of these days.”
October 8, 2020
On our last day in Sedona we decided to enjoy the local activities and sights. In the morning we headed out to hike in a state park nearby, Red Rock State Park. On the way, we stopped to view the architecturally notable Chapel of the Holy Cross. Built into the rocks of a mesa overlooking Sedona, it’s a great spot for panoramic views of the area. And not bad for 64. It was built in 1956. Doing better than me.
We continued on to the state park where I tried my “Grand Canyon Senior Citizen” routine but to no avail. The park ranger, an old masked codger, saw through the ruse. $14 later we parked and headed out on a hike. The “Rattlesnake Trail”. Three and a half miles long and climbing up and down a 600′ tall desert mesa. We both wondered about the significance of the trail’s name. We crossed a cool creek and saw two dark deer. We passed fields of cactus, some flowering, some dead. With a few detours we made it back down having failed in our hunt for rattlers.
It was now midday and time for lunch. We found a cafe offering all you can eat tacos. A couple of hours later we rolled back to the Nissan. Heading back to the casita for a siesta, I spotted a sign for free “chokra screenings”. Wow, I thought, now there’s something valuable. None of that “aura photography” BS. I whipsawwed the Nissan across two lanes, cutting off a swarm of Harley Davidson bikers, into the local “Swamis R’ Us” store and got my screening. Looking at the results now makes me think I shouldn’t have eaten the whole thing.
October 9, 2020
Left Sedona in the morning on Friday and headed north to the land of the Utes or is it Utahns? Heading out of Flagstaff, we entered Navajo Nation. The two lane blacktop, freshly oiled, followed mile after mile along the base of a red mesa, part of the landscape that eventually descends into the Grand Canyon. Along the way we turned on the radio and found a Navajo language talk show. Sounding so much like Japanese, the only words we could decipher were “COVID” and “virus” used frequently and in close succession.
After a couple of hours we saw our first sign of civilization where the highway crossed the Colorado River just south of Glen Canyon, a relief as we needed gas plus. After filling up, I headed to the restroom to take care of the “plus”. Just my luck, the only restroom for hundreds of miles and it was “closed for cleaning”. Fortunately there was a laundromat next door where a solution was found.
October 10, 2020
We arrived late Friday to my sister’s desert house in southern Utah. The house, a modern adobe style design camouflaged to blend in, looks out over a canyon and red rock mountains in the near distance. A beautiful setting with quail and roadrunners scurrying around. The coyote curiously missing.
Saturday morning, Joanne and Gary drove Teresa and me to nearby Zion National Park for a day of hiking and exploring. Another all too common scene of incredible beauty for this part of the world. The park was unusually crowded as we drove through valleys that led to a mile long tunnel carved into the mountain. The tunnel’s side wall had portals carved out giving glimpses of the views outside. A Mormon cricket (great name for a sports team in Salt Lake, I thought) greeted us as we looked over flowering cactus. But, truth be known, the Mormon cricket is in fact not a cricket but a katydid. Another deception.
October 11, 2020
As if Las Vegas wasn’t strange enough, welcome to Pandemic Vegas. A barren and gaudy landscape filled with wandering zombies. Then again, maybe it’s really not that different after all. We left St. George this morning and headed down I-15. The freeway quickly descended back and forth through steep rocky canyons emptying into an apocalyptic flat plain filled with large electric pylons. Appearing like a cheesy colorless 50s science fiction film, the only thing missing, a 60 foot tarantula attacking RVs and cop cars. Once safely parked and checked in at our destination, we set out to explore the strange new world.
Everyone everywhere wore masks or what appeared to be plexiglass welding hoods. The casinos seemed crowded one moment and empty around the next turn. Blackjack tables were filled but plexiglass dividers separated all participants. Slot machines were empty yet loudly beckoned for your attention. Sitting down for lunch, with tables now spaced twice as far as usual, the waiter explained we would have to download an app to place our order since paper menus were verboten. Placemats were provided for our face masks when removed but were only to be used when eating or drinking. Wandering around the property, sections were closed, pathways barricaded.
Out on Las Vegas Boulevard, the sidewalks were lightly populated and traffic, while noisy, not what would be normally expected. Piped in music underscored the empty oddness. Stores were closed everywhere. A strange new mutation for Las Vegas as it continues to struggle to survive and suck all your money, and soul, out of your pockets. What’s caught in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas.
A real wow of a dinner fountain-side at the Bellagio. The fountain water show was something I’ve heard of but have never seen. Or heard! To shoot the geysers 200 feet or more in the air takes explosive charges of some kind. Likely compressed air charges. It was very surprising and loud. And the engineering horsepower and computer programming for the choreography is incredible. For the jaded traveler it is a real treat. And considering that I worked for three years as an engineer at a decorative fountain company while going to Georgia Tech made it even more impressive as I understood first hand some of the design challenges that were overcome. Also, too, the drive-by shooting across the street and subsequent police and helicopter chase just added to an evening of special effects. Viva Pandemic Vegas!
October 12, 2020
Our final day of SouthWestern CovidCation 2020 was spent seeing the sights of Sin City. We started at the top and worked our way down with a visit to the Stratosphere Tower which is normally packed with hundreds of sightseers. At a thousand feet tall, with exterior stomach churning rides (now closed), we were two of a dozen people we saw. The place was empty and many stores and attractions boarded up. The views still worked so we enjoyed that.
A quick Uber ride back to the Strip was provided by a young Iraqi driver who pointed out all the big name properties now closed like The Palms Casino, home of the Penn and Teller show. Now on foot we worked our way back through the shops and casinos stopping along the way to hail a now masked Caesar. “Et tu?”, I wondered aloud muffled by my own mask.
On board ship, the Royal Caribbean’s Empress Of The Seas, in Miami on our cruise to Anywhere But Cuba. Originally booked earlier this year, this ship was scheduled to sail to Havana. But then, 2016 happened and suddenly Americans were, once again, no longer free to travel. Build up that wall, Mr. Gorbachev! So we set sail in search of exotic unknown destinations and occasional passing sailboats to board and pirate. Yeeearrgh, me maties. Lost at sea, again.
November 8, 2019
Adrift in the Gulf of Mexico a dozen miles off the northwest coast of Cuba, the ship half full of reverse Cuban refugees. “Cuba libre”, we intone as we gaze wistfully to our south towards the still amazingly large and forbidden mountains of Vinales. In seconds, a smartly dressed waiter, named Kenneth, hailing from the Phillipines arrives, libation in hand. I ask him for the frequency. Courage!
November 9, 2019
Sailing through the night, we washed ashore on the rocks in George Town, Not Cuba, at sunrise. Here be trinkets. And jewelry. And cigars (Not Cuban). On shore was a den of pirate dogs and scurvy plagued privateers (AKA jewelers).
November 11, 2019
Spent the day at the incredible Lamanai Archaeological Reserve in northern Belize on the New River. We climbed to the top of the tallest Mayan temple and listened to the howler monkeys in the surrounding jungle canopy. Magical. The only thing missing was a sacrificial offering or three. Being back in Belize brings back fond memories of Jungle Jeannie and Tiger Tom and the time spent at their eco-jungle lodge in the southern mountains near Dangriga in the late 80s where Contras heading to Nicaragua would visit. And what a melting pot! All the different cultures. Mexican, Mayan, Mestizo, Chinese, Caribbe, Garifuna.
November 12, 2019
Spending the day boating and swimming in the “Listerine” colored waters of Laguna Bacalar. The lake, fresh water with a white sand bottom, is famed for the various blue hues that spring from the lake’s limestone bottom. They have a centuries old fort with cannons to protect against pirates on the western shore. Since this lake is 60 miles inland and fresh water, methinks this story is “muy loco”. But, hey, if it keeps the tourists coming, what’s the harm, right?
November 14, 2019
Sailed into Key West on our way back to Miami. Teresa and I, being the thrill seekers that we are, rented jet skis and jetted around the island of Key West, and like a ride in a one horse open sleigh, we were laughing all the way if you replace laughing with screaming. In terror. A 30 mile route took us from the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the rough seas of the Atlantic, passing under Highway 1. Reaching a top speed of 45 miles per hour, the jet skis launched into the air, much to our undelighted surprise, as they rocketed up the 4 foot waves of the Atlantic. Slamming back down (it probably looked great to the tourists watching from the Southernmost Point of the Continental US), I realized that this sort of thing is where the phrase “ridden hard and put up wet” was derived. After surviving the “adventure”, we headed back to the ship for a much needed nap, ummm, I mean drink.
November 15, 2019
Friday morning rush hour. In South Beach. Not a bad drive if you can get it. Back in the US.
“Where would you like to go for our 20th anniversary?”, Teresa said. “Someplace nice”, I said. So here we are on the way to Nice. France. On the rue again.
July 6, 2019
After sleeping for 20 minutes on the flights to Nice and spending an hour doing a walk around to document all the scratches and dents in our Super Sized SUV rental, Teresa and I headed to the north and bleary eyed up into the mountains. A couple of hundred round-abouts later, we decided to take a stop in a little village where absolutely nobody speaks English to have lunch. I think I just ordered pigs feet soup. Anticipation has perked me up.
We continued heading north into the mountains for a drive thru of what is referred to as the “French Grand Canyon”. Gorges du Verdon. The road winds along the edge of the canyon with steep rock walls, sometimes overhanging the road, and a sheer drop off without a guard rail on the other side. And narrow enough sometimes for only one vehicle. Apparently France must have a shortage of lawyers. The road finally climbs up out of the canyon into farm fields. Filled with tourists. Gawking at fields of lavender. I must say it is beautiful though. At least the lavender part is.
July 7, 2019
Spent the day visiting Provence. Visiting little villages built on hillsides and driving thru fields of sunflowers, lavender and wheat. Like being in a Van Gogh painting. And by “driving thru” I mean it. Literally. Since this is the 21st century, we use Google Maps to navigate. And by thru, I mean thru. Somehow Google prefers to direct you thru every 3 foot wide goat path and farm field to get you to your destination. Even when there is a major highway nearby. At least it makes for an interesting journey. And Google must get a kick out of this as well. But of course.
Lunch in Les Baux-de-Provence. Two shrimp, $40. Life in the good lane ain’t cheap.
July 8, 2019
So we finally made it to Millau, a center of manufacturing of leather goods in operation for 1,000 years. Located at the bottom of a large canyon/valley it is also home to one of the recent engineering wonders of the world, the Millau Viaduct completed in 2004. The surrounding terrain reminds me of central Texas … semi arid with scrub brush and cattle. Lots of cows and sheep. The home of French cowboys or in the lingua franca, “cou rouge”.
The city is filled with tourists seeking adventures like dirt bike riding, four wheeling, hang gliding, goofy golf, and, my favorite, zip lining on skate boards. I am not making that one up. Where Provence is all wine and cheese, Millau is beer and bread. At least it’s not Doritos. The only thing missing is gun shooting ranges and maybe we just haven’t stumbled across that yet.
After settling into our trailer (yes, we are in a trailer park) Teresa said we had to go to her favorite glove factory, Causse Gantier. After a little wallet lightening, we headed to the city center for libations at a sidewalk cafe. The oddballs that we are we ordered red wine. Everyone else, and I mean everyone, was drinking beer. We stood out like Provential Snobs. In the background could be heard the sounds of revving dirt bikes and squealing tires. I am on a mission now to learn how to say in French, “Hey y’all. Watch this!”
July 9, 2019
We left Millau and headed southwest towards our next destination, Andorra, the original chosen location for our European wedding vows one score of years ago. But, due to a number of un-annulleable Catholic crimes between us (both Teresa and I grew up Catholic), it turned out to be less than possible thus making Gibraltar, our number 3 pick, the lucky site of our blissful oaths.
The route took us out and over the viaduct and into verdant farm country filled with rolling fields of green and gold and camouflaged sheep pastures. This was clearly authentic French country and an area not frequented by tourists. Especially Catholic outlaw ones. After a couple of hours and an adventurous toilet break we made it to a freeway that would quickly take us the remaining distance. Wanting to avoid the customary two plus hour lunch ritual and in hopes of finding something other than duck and all of its associated parts to consume, we decided to give our familiar American chef, McDonald’s, a try after spotting a tiny army green sign with golden arches whiz by. We pulled over and parked with ease. They had a parking lot. A rare treat. Ordering was made easy by engaging with a wall sized touch sensitive flat screen menu filled with delicious looking pictographs. A quick swipe of a credit card and our order was placed. Printed instructions informed us we were number 34 and, after some mandatory confusion, figured out we were being instructed to sit at a booth where our order would be delivered. In a short amount of time (anything less than 2 hours in this country is considered brief) our familiar pictograph matching food arrived. The parent corporation would be happy to know that the food was consistent with our expectations and that the Big Mac (not actual French product name) did not taste like duck. However, the Coca-Cola did not at all taste like American Coke. It was way less sweet and almost bitter. Good for the French. Maybe they have rules limiting the amount of sugar that can be added. Nonetheless, the food was delicious, and let’s be honest, anytime your food is delivered with a French accent it’s just going to taste better anyways.
Back out on the freeway and up the mountains we continued our journey southward. We finally reached the border and were stopped, given a glance and waved on. One can never be too careful when Mexican illegal immigrants prowl our planet. We followed the heavy line of car and truck traffic further up the mountains of Andorra until, at a fork in the roundabout, Google commanded that we take the first exit. A road that no one else was on and that led to a brand new tunnel. We paid a toll, which must be steep since no one else was anywhere in sight, and entered the passage under the mountain. After several miles we emerged into a different landscape. Switzerland. Or at least what looked like it. A huge green valley with little chalets clutching the mountain sides. A surprising and stunning change of scenery. Now, to find the local Catholic constabulary and taunt them.
July 10, 2019
With only one night in Andorra, we headed out early towards Spain and our next destination, Pamplona, where the St. Fermin Festival and running of the bulls is taking place all week. The drive, at six hours, is our longest on this voyage.
At the Spanish border crossing Google commanded us to take the left lane. A little too late I realized we took the red lighted “frisk us” left lane and not the green lighted “just go” left lane. Google chuckled. The surly Spanish guard signaled us to roll down the window and step out of our vehicle with our hands up. From what I could tell he was telling me to open the trunk. “Where are you going?”, he asked. “Pamplona!”, I said while wildly gesticulating and making a running motion with the fingers of my right hand while forming bull horns with my left, crashing the two together and then making screaming sounds to add realism. Generally, I would characterize his reaction as “un-bemused”. “How much money are you carrying?”, he asked. Thinking he’s probably looking for a “donation” I said, “very little”. A few more questions about liquor and cigarettes and a quick grope thru our suitcases and he sent us on our way after muttering “stupido” which didn’t quite sound like “thank you”.
Down the mountains we wove into the dry and dusty plains north of Zaragoza. In a couple of hours we arrived at our freeway entrance and floored it, heading west thru landscapes that looked like American western movies with occasional rocky out croppings and ancient fortresses or churches atop.
By mid afternoon we arrived in Pamplona. It was easy driving. The streets were empty. Until two blocks from our hotel at the edge of the old city. Roadblocks. The roads were filled with people dressed in white with red sashes and neckerchiefs. They paid no attention to me and my giant Super Sized SUV. They may have escaped being gored by bulls but they would never fare as well with me. The only thing missing was a pair of bull horns strapped to the hood. Ole! After some creative maneuvering and cutting off two “filled to the brim with cops” police vans we made it to a security checkpoint. A quick review of our credentials and we were sent on our way sans the customary salutation of “stupido”. Tomorrow morning, at sunrise, we run.
July 11, 2019
The Saint Fermin Festival goes on all week in Pamplona. It’s the type of festival where drinking doesn’t start in the morning because drinking never stops. There is no beginning and there is no end. A combination of Mardi Gras and Carnivale that only the Spanish can perfect in all its chaos and fervor. The morning starts with the daily running of the bulls.
Followed by chaos and occasional light bouts of chaos. And of course drinking. Groups or clubs form spontaneously for all sorts of reasons and parade around the narrow streets. Singing groups. Tuba groups. Hopping trombone groups. Flag waving groups. Name it. I’m glad I don’t understand the language. To my ears it sounds like a bunch of sparrows chirping at the top of their lungs (do sparrows have lungs?) and being drunk on fermented berries. This goes on pretty much all day and night reaching its zenith near midnight. There seems to be no or little food available. Certainly no restaurants with table service. Tapas only. And very limited. Of course the Spaniards are notoriously rigid about their eating rituals and always seem to not be eating when I would like or expect to be eating. Same for sleeping which I am beginning to suspect is not done at all. They all seem to know the rules and for me it is endlessly baffling.
The afternoon activities, aka parading about like a bunch of drunk canaries, is highlighted by a bull fight to which Teresa managed to get tickets. I hear the toreador today is supposed to be one of their super stars. I am hoping for a Britney Spears on horseback.
July 12, 2019
We left the craziness of Pamplona this morning, or tried to, for Bilboa, home to the Guggenheim museum by architect Frank Gehry. A toll was required to enter the freeway. After paying the toll, everyone was required to pull over for a DUI check. Located just outside Spain’s largest drinking party it was easy pickings for our boys in green. Like bears in a salmon filled river. After several attempts (apparently I wasn’t blowing hard enough) we were sent on our way and given the DUI Blow Nipple as a lasting souvenir of our Pamplona partying.
As we got closer to Bilboa the scenery changed from the rolling yellow dry plains (where in Spain rain obviously DOESN’T fall mainly) to blue green fir tree covered mountains looking like somewhere west of Seattle. The freeway exited a few blocks from our hotel located on a large roundabout in the city center. And, true to form, Bilboa presented unique challenges for the foreign driver. In this case traffic lighted intersections. It turns out each intersection has two traffic lighted signals. One for entering the intersection and one for exiting the intersection. And these lights are timed only for mayhem. And as an inspiration for vigorous horn honking. Oh, and to make certain only the quick and nimble pedestrians survive. After several close calls of every kind, we arrived to the hotel only to find that there was no where to pull over for parking (even though reservations for parking were made and paid for in advance).
As we passed the hotel I spotted a no parking zone and converted it to one. I got out of the car, leaving Teresa on guard, and ran to the hotel entrance. “Wow. What a nice hotel lobby”, I said to myself. Quiet and mature. Classical wood paneling from floor to ceiling. Like a Ritz-Carlton without the Ritz. Smelling of magnolias and camellias. I caught the attention of one of the uniformed staff members and explained my situation. He seemed to indicate that I would have to circle around the block and drive up over a curb nearby, drive down the sidewalk (pedestrian filled of course) and squeeze the giant SUV between two columns at the lobby entrance slowly while preferably not yelling “Allahu Ackbar” whilst doing so. Upon the successful following of the directions and wedging the car into the hotel entrance blocking all passage, we checked in.
July 13, 2019
In the early morning we left Bilbao and headed out to the Basque coast straddled by the border of Spain and France. It is a short drive to San Sébastian, passing Guernica along the way. Guernica, the subject of one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, was the location of an aerial attack on civilians by the Fascists in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The painting served as inspiration for American liberals who volunteered to fight before the start of the world war.
The freeway wove down the mountains to the coast. When it wasn’t weaving it was turning. The speed limit changed every kilometer. One moment it was 120. The next 80. And signs everywhere indicated radar was used for enforcement. That seemed to have no effect on a subset of drivers who all passed me going easily 200. And mostly VWs and not the bug kind. Some sort of sleek and obnoxiously fast kind. Bugs with monster wheels.
We pulled off at the San Sébastian exit and headed to the city center where traffic at that hour of the morning was light. A sign for parking was spotted and we headed underground to find a spot. The giant SUV struggled to squeeze between the decks, easily only 6 feet tall, scraping it’s antenna along the way. We shoe-horned into the first parking space we found, accomplishing it with a graceful 20 point turn.
Popping up street side we headed out to find the local Le Waffle House. After a couple of donuts and coffee I was feeling like an American again. Chocolate covered and not a duck in sight. San Sébastian is supposed to be a hoity toity place but I found it to be a few shades short of chic. In need of a good street sweeping in the least. The city is built around an azure bay with hills on both sides of the harbor entrance looking like padded shoulders. A skulling race was underway. We stood on the seawall and watched.
In a while we decided to head on to our next seaside village, St. Jean de Luz, France’s answer to Panama City Beach. After 30 minutes of driving we came to a stop in bumper to bumper traffic. It’s the weekend. It’s vacation month for the entirety of France and it’s their 4th of July weekend, tomorrow being Bastille Day. We found an “above ground” parking lot but mercifully every spot was full. I did not want to reveal to Teresa that I have been lying to her all these years about my powers of levitation as that is the only way the SUV could have fit into an available space were one found. The idea of exploring the village was abandoned and we headed up the beach front road, our motel only 10 minutes away according to Google.
We arrived at our motel to find a parking LOT with a few open spaces. A short series of docking maneuvers later and we headed inside to check in. Outside in the back was a patio restaurant and a large beach, mildly inhabited. So, after a quick British lunch of fish and chips without the peas (everyone thinks we’re British because Americans never come here … or it could be our very white skin unblemished by sunlight) we prepare to head out to explore the beach and touch the water to see if it is above freezing. Tomorrow, heads roll.
July 14, 2019
It’s Bastille Day and we are heading to the large city of Bordeaux this morning. Happy July 4th, France! From my understanding (which is very limited … feel free to suggest revisions everywhere) this day is celebrated as the beginning of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille Prison in Paris. Marie Antoinette stopped eating cake somewhere along this historic time frame. Remember, one must keep one’s head to eat one’s cake. Anyhoo, the French Revolution rolled along after this event and is the source of many wonders and a few terrible blow backs. Cults (atheists, aka the Cult of Reason, converted the Notre Dame cathedral to a Temple of Reason … ha ha, good luck with that), Calendars (and I always thought Thermador was just a refrigerator brand name) and Clocks (decimal time sounding so much like Star Trek) all resulted from the creative minds that brought you the Gillette brand 5 blade guillotine for a closer shave (I think that one’s made up but it’s always hard to tell when it comes to the French Revolution). There’s only so much French history you can explore before feeling the need to close the book, it’s just that wild. Eventually, the French settled down and became a stable republic after a few bad bouts of Napoleonitis. It seems that all social advancements must suffer extreme setbacks occasionally. I’m looking at you, America.
After a Bastille Day lunch in Bordeaux, and an exciting call from someone in Arles who found Teresa’s wallet which went gone after visiting the Van Gogh Museum, we headed to St. Emilion that lies at the heart of the wine vinting region.
As we drove thru a vineyard and pulled up to the hotel we could see this was no ordinary French HoJo but a castle or, as they call it around here, a chateau. Appearing like a scene out of the Beverly Hillbillies we pulled up to the entrance in our big and dusty SUV with suitcases strapped to the top sans Granny in a rocking chair. Stepping out as the uniformed attendant opened the door, I let out an audible “HooWheee” as I surveyed the scene. The only thing missing was banjo music.
After settling into our suite, Teresa announced she was heading to the cement pond while I prepared for a nap. As I glanced out of our balcony window I spotted a large truck rumbling down the pea gravel driveway with a sign that read, “Guillotines ‘R Us”. “Hmmm”, I said to myself. I wonder what that could be about.
Late in the afternoon we decided to drive into nearby St. Emilion for a quick dinner (quick?). Yellow orange setting sun, perfect lighting. In the village center plaza. Surrounded by tables of loud and obnoxious Scots. Loud.
July 15, 2019
Bastille Day night turned out to be a quiet affair. No fireworks or bottle rockets. Apparently celebrations for the holiday only happen in the big cities. In the morning we decided to drive around the area near St. Emilion to get an authentic taste of the French wine country. It was clear from the previous day’s visit that St. Emilion is a tourist trap. France’s imagining of Epcot’s imagining of France. Too idyllic and packed with tourists and trinket filled shops.
I laid out a route in Google Maps and let it do its thing, listening to the muted chuckles as Google calculated and schemed and found every deserted goat path for its plan. Soon we were sailing down rows of grape vines occasionally having to steer clear of the narrow farm tractors spraying the fields with fogs of chemicals. After passing a few villages we decided to try to find a place for coffee in the hope it would clear our heads from the Agent Orange haze we found ourselves in. We stopped at a deserted café and ordered a round. For me, espresso and for Teresa, Americano au lait.
Soon we were on our way again. Google’s route eventually took us back to St. Emilion where we wedged the boat into an alley and, from our experiences in Arles, found our expertise at purchasing parking tickets from overly obtuse vending machines helpful in assisting some confused Brits in line from Norwich, one of whom when told of our visit years ago to my father’s WW2 airfield there, asked incredulously as to which side he fought for. “The winning side”, I said, and left it at that.
We spent the remainder of the day doing tourist things. Shopping, buying swizzle sticks, wine tasting and visiting the central church built underground in the 12th century. Serving as the entrance to over 200 acres of caves that lie under the entire city and are today (still) used as wine cellars due to their perfect temperature and humidity. I knew the priests loved their wine but, boy, this must have been a sweet gig when one got assigned here. But, alas, the French Revolution arrived and shut all that down and converted the underground church to a weapons factory due to the presence of saltpeter in the walls of the caves. Another victim of the Cult of Reason.
July 16, 2019
For our 20th anniversary lunch we have headed to the islands. The islands of France. Isle de Re. An easy drive but expensive. 40 bucks to cross the bridge. Our hotel, which is the only one I selected before hand for this trip, had appeared to be on the beach. At least that is what the website showed. In this case “beach” is apparently French for “mud flats” . Stinky, smelly mud flats. But, at least it is in keeping with the spirit of our honeymoon night where we found ourselves in a trailer on the beach in Spain near Gibraltar where we married. Nice place if you could somehow remove the 100 yards of cactus and cow filled pasture that separated the trailer from the beach. And from Life’s Lesson Learned, Chapter 27, it is ill advised to try to take a midnight swim bare footed.
After checking in, we headed to a nearby village where a farmer’s market was set up. Teresa shopped around while I spoke to one of the carnies. A young man from Argentina who spoke English since I don’t speak Argentinish. The conversation quickly turned to Trump when he learned I was from the US. I explained that all great countries have their down turns occasionally, comparing Trump to Napoleon, who I view as a dictator historically. “Ixnay on the Rumptay thing”, he said warning me that everyone in the area considers Napoleon to be a great general who would be much welcomed today. So, for the moment, I shall keep my pie hole shut.
In the afternoon we headed back to the mainland to visit nearby La Rochelle. A city noted for fishing and built around a medieval harbor. We wandered around the streets and eventually (as always) found ourselves sitting in the late afternoon sun in an outdoor cafe drinking some local libations. From an adjoining table we could distinctly hear a conversation in a distinctly clear American dialect. The couple, now residents of France for 20 years working as teachers, asked us about life in America especially under the reign of Donald Trump. “Quelle horreur”, I muttered. “Quelle horreur”.
What a meal. For Teresa’s birthday we went to a three star Michelin restaurant on the bay front of La Rochelle. 13 courses later. Most interesting: the course served on the backs of our hands (invariably described by moi as; “The Slurpee,” or the “The Back Hander” or “How Cheap Do You Have To Be To Not Have Enough Plates?”) . Most courses tiny but made from local foods and seafood. It was the first time I’ve ever seen tweezers as an eating implement. Quite incredible.
July 17, 2019
We left Isle de Re in the morning heading north towards Paris where we will depart in a couple of days. Google’s route took us off the freeway and onto a 2 lane highway for 20 miles. The road, packed with truck traffic, passed thru heavy industrial zones and farms. A roundabout every mile or so. At one of the roundabouts a semi tractor trailer failed to yield and cut me off. I tried to stand my ground since I had the right of way until I looked up and saw it was carrying a giant steel box, windowless and covered with steel supporting ribs. “After you”, I politely said and let it along with a yellow van with flags and flashing lights cut in line. The truck, box and van exited the roundabout in the direction we were heading. The box was enormous, at least 30 feet wide by 15 feet high, and stretched wider than the two lane highway. The driver of the truck took off and sped up reaching speeds of 30, 40 and 50 miles per hour. Traffic coming from the opposite direction had to pull off the road into the grass shoulder and ditches. Cars, semi-tractor trailer rigs, RVs, bicyclists. The truck’s driver careened down the highway flattening signs or anything within the wide box’s reach. The yellow van, lights flashing, trailing behind driving in the opposite lane shielded by the megabox and impossible to see from the oncoming traffic’s panicked point of view. It was the most amazing scene of highway mayhem I’ve seen since driving the Mombasa Highway. After 15 minutes of this chaos the truck, megabox and trailing van found a place to pull over for us and the traffic behind us to pass. I was just glad I wasn’t traveling in the opposite direction necessitating a dive onto the grassy shoulder. We made it back to the freeway finally and in a couple of hours reached our next stop, medieval Mont St. Michel where we will stay overnight.
July 18, 2019
We awoke on the island to the sound of silence. No, not the Simon and Garfunkel version, but the real thing except with about a thousand seagulls sqounking loudly so not so silent after all really. Still, much quieter than after 9 in the morning when the first tourist trams arrive flooding the island with thousands of tourists seeking swizzle sticks. As hotel guests we are one of a very few residents overnight as the last tourist trams depart at sunset and the fortress gates are closed and the surrounding mud flats are flooded.
We got up and headed out to explore the briefly quiet medieval city. From the hotel’s third floor, a restored fisherman’s house, we found a wooden foot bridge 30 feet high that connected directly to the top of the stone rampart overlooking the sea. A secret door closed behind us, locking electronically.
Outside it was gray and misty. The sky matching the stone architecture. We had purchased tickets the previous night for a tour of the Abby and decided to hoof it to the entry gates before the ensuing hordes arrived. After a few thousand stone steps we arrived to the still locked doors, first in line. Teresa remembered something Ibrahim Morgan said to us during our visit to the Giza Pyramid where he secured our first in line position. “You’re first in line today and no one can ever take that away from you.” Seemed so profound then but not so much so now. Maybe it was the power of the pyramids. I know I haven’t had to change my razor blades since then.
Out of nowhere three French Firefighters wearing black boots with reflecting strips passed us on the steps and pounded on the massive wooden abbey doors. “Oh mon Dieu”, I thought out loud! They knocked again but no response. I sniffed the air for hints of fragrant smoke. A third pounding and the sounds of clanking could be heard as one of the doors opened. Apparently the night guard was asleep. The three firefighters slipped into the darkened interior and the door closed again with a much expected thud. Resoundingly. The crowd now forming two lines looked nervously around with some muffled laughs. After 15 minutes both doors were opened. The right door for the visitors needing tickets and our left door for those who planned ahead, of which Teresa and I led.
We entered the now well lit space with no hints of smoke or firefighters. A soft rain started to fall.
Well, the island is now full bore ass to elbow with tourists. In an effort to escape the inescapable crowds, and probably as a result of too many crepes, Teresa suggested we visit a museum we were passing that, as far as our collective translation skills could carry us, was about the ecology of the Mont Saint Michel area. Of course, not thinking all the way thru our cunning plan and before you could say “sacre bleu”, we were whisked into a darkened movie theater where we realized too late that the narration was in French. Well, le duh! 30 minutes later and 20 bucks lighter the movie ended with neither of us wiser as to what the damned thing was about. It did have a nice paper mache model of the island that rose out of a bathtub and everything always sounds better in French but I have no idea what I just saw. I feel like a film critic at Cannes.
A final dinner on Mont Saint Michel before heading to Paris tomorrow to drop off the giant SUV and hopefully passing the dent/scratch inspection review. Football sized omelets at a local famous eatery (Michelin rated again) known for being a must stop for French presidential candidates was the plan. Apparently no one who has not eaten here has been elected since Napoleon. After looking at the size and cost of the omelets (a requirement for patrons to order) I decided to drop out of the race for the French presidency. “There’s still America”, I thought.
After dinner we wandered around in the fading light. We found a functioning chapel lit with devotional candles. We also found an ice cream store. Teresa got her favorite, chocolate, and for me, caramel. We headed to the ramparts to watch the sunset as the tide came in and the tourists went out. Having finished my ice cream cone Teresa made a comment that I ate it too quickly and that, since she loved chocolate more than life, she preferred to eat it slowly. It was just at that moment that I saw a suicidal sea gull dive between me and Teresa. In a split second nothing was left except for some gristle and a cloud of feathers. Teresa stood valient, blood dripping from her hand, chocolate ice cream cone still intact. Never get between a mama bear and her chocolate. I would have thought all seagulls knew that.
July 19, 2020
Having packed early, we caught the first tram off the island. Two days on Mont Saint Michel, we decided, was one day too much. The island is too small and easily seen and enjoyed in one day and night. (We thought maybe we should have spent an extra day or two at the Beverly Hillbillies Mansion in St. Emilion.) Our next destination, Paris. But on the way is Giverny, the village made famous by impressionistic painter Claude Monet located on the banks of the Seine River.
We arrived in the now hot mid day sun and found Giverny crowded with tourists. Lines were already formed with an hour long wait just to see some of the famed locations. Since we still had a few hours driving time ahead of us to get back to the airport to drop off the rental SUV, we decided to grab a quick lunch and walk around briefly to check out the sights.
In an hour we were back in the car heading eastward towards our drop off point. The route taking us from two lane roads to busy and crowded suburban freeways. Along the way we had to refuel and faced the difficulty of finding a gas station given the fact that France apparently does not allow billboards or advertisements along the highways. Taking an exit that seemed, by Google Maps at least, to have a gas station we found ourselves on the wrong side of the freeway with seemingly no way to get to the other side. With more guidance from Google Maps, we eventually found a route that wound us through several office parks and warehouse districts and finally thru a gauntlet of concrete bollards. Squeezing through with a millimeter to spare we reached our gas station, refueled and flew the rest of the way to De Gaulle Airport and the Hertz rental drop off. Relieved at successfully completing our mission, we only needed to find a taxi to take us into the city. Relax, I told myself. The worst of the driving experience is over.
We arrived in Paris. The three of us cursing like drunken sailors. Me and the driver in French, Teresa in English. Visions of Princess Diana danced in our heads. As we entered the eye of the hurricane known as the Arc de Triomphe roundabout it was becoming less certain we would survive the final four blocks to our hotel, a half block north of the Champs-Elysees necessitating a left turn, illegal for sure, against four lanes of oncoming traffic quickly heading out of town on a late Friday afternoon. The previous 30 minutes of riding in the taxi, where we had just dropped off the giant SUV at the airport, was as harrowing a drive as it gets. Tires squeeling as breaks were slammed; horns furiously honking as our taxi darted out into fast oncoming traffic; drivers being cut off in adjacent lanes; Teresa and me being thrown side to side when not slamming face forward into the seatbacks in front of us. The driver, an old man (“old man” now becoming an increasingly compromised pejorative given what I see in the mirror these days), jerked the steering wheel hard to the left in front of the quickly moving cars. The oncoming traffic nearly t-boning us as the aggrieved drivers slammed on their brakes and honked their horns. Out of nowhere, another car suddenly appeared to our left taking advantage of our driver’s suicidal maneuver to enter the side street, OUR TAXI DRIVER’S side street, shielded by HIS taxi. With no hesitation, our driver cut him off (“justifiably for once”, I thought) and cursed and honked like a madman which both of us were certain of now. Pulling up in front of our hotel, and not double parking but blocking the entire street, our driver turned around to face us saying, “cash only no card” (likely the only English he knew even though he picked up “gawdammit” from Teresa pretty quickly I have to say). I started to say we didn’t have any cash left on us but Teresa made some magically appear. We wobbled out of the back with the assistance of the hotel doorman and grabbed our bags. “Adios amigo”, I yelled back to the driver. “Go gettem!”
July 20, 2019
Early morning in Paris and time to get up and explore. The night before, Algeria won the African World Cup. We watched the competition on our wall mounted TV cleverly disguised as a mirror. With Algeria being a former French colony, the locals came out to celebrate. We could hear the cheers in our hotel from two blocks away and evidence of the night long celebration was everywhere along the Champs-Élysées.
Walking 4 blocks we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe. It was early and the Arc was still closed. Dozens of large packed tour busses orbited the roundabout. Teresa surveyed the scene and suggested we skidaddle and purchase entry tickets online. Brilliant! A quick search on the phone and half a dozen clicks later an email arrived bearing two bar codes, our passes to the front of the line when we return.
We headed south looking for the coffee shop we found. A couple of cuppas later (why is a simple gallon sized cup of coffee so difficult to find?) we were on our way southward again heading towards the Eiffel Tower. Having been here a couple of times before in the last four decades it’s sad to see what it has become today. Now ringed by bullet proof glass and artfully done barbed wire you can no longer just wander up and under the tower and gaze up in amazement at the structure from its dirt base. A monument designed to herald a technologically promising future swallowed by a monument to evil insanity. Such is human nature.
Continuing on we headed southward into the adjacent linear park and took some pictures and decided to turn east to visit the Rodin Museum. Along the way we passed the Hotel des Invalides. From my understanding, a retirement home for injured soldiers from some of France’s adventurous days in the 17 and 1800s as it tried and failed to build an empire. Imagine, a country paying for and helping its citizens who fought for its benefit.
The Rodin Museum was nice and quiet. No tourist hordes. Rodin’s work is beautiful and textured, matching the painting styles of the day, Pointillism and Impressionism. We found his famous “The Thinker” outside in a garden. After exiting the museum we decided to hop on the subway to head back to the Arc de Triomphe. Entering the passageway under the roundabout we could see a line of at least one hundred people waiting to buy tickets. Bar codes in hand we sailed to the front of the line and started our climb to the top up the never ending spiral stairs. Reaching the terrace on the top we enjoyed the views of Paris, seemingly clean and safe despite the endless police and ambulance sirens wailing below in the background.
Now exhausted, we headed back to our hotel a short distance away. In our room on the bed lay a package. Teresa’s wallet found by strangers in Arles who called upon its discovery and offered to return it by mail. An act of kindness from strangers. Such is humanity.
As evening approached we decided to find a local restaurant with the help of our reliable friend, Google Maps. Les 110 de Taillevent Paris. Franco-American Fusion. First time I’ve had a dessert that had to be melted before your eyes to reveal the one and only TRUE dessert. A real religious experience, chocolately speaking. As the waiter said, “Just wait.” Oh, mon Dieu!
July 21, 2019
Our last morning in Paris, we headed out early again with a full itinerary. Our first destination a bakery to the northeast and a section of Paris that neither Teresa or I had been to. Our first selection a recommendation from Tracey Anderson. Sadly closed on Sundays. Teresa found our second in the hotel magazine. The French Bastard (the name of the bakery, not our taxi driver) was located near the Bastille.
We hailed an Uber and enjoyed a quiet Sunday morning ride with a driver possessing a full bag of marbles. The neighborhood was far from tourists and was calm with local middle class folks taking care of business in an ordinary way. We proficiently ordered coffees and eclairs, the best ever, and were on our way shortly heading south towards the Bastille where I hoped light crowds would make ticket purchasing an easy task.
The route took us down a wide boulevard that is built over an underground canal. In the middle, parks with gardens and playgrounds. I told Teresa on our next Paris visit we should stay in a real Paris neighborhood like this one so as to avoid all the tourist trappings. Maybe an AirBnB.
In a couple of blocks the park in the road median was replaced by a busy market. It was packed. Everything was for sale here. Foods, clothes, records, shoes, spoons. The smells were incredible and good; fresh olives, meats grilling, fragrant flowers. This is the way to shop. Local business owners and no corporate chains.
Up ahead past the market was the Bastille. In excitement I rushed forward only to discover that the Bastille Prison (and its tours) is the same as the Alamo Basement (and its tours). Nada. As the suddenly being read guide explained, the prison was torn down during the French Revolution and “nothing remains”. This was my “Peewee Herman Goes to Paris” moment. I began singing, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. Quickly putting aside disappointment, we continued south and around the Bastille Monument, a column of stone with a gold statue on top that’s been closed for repairs since 1985. Just how long can it take to repair a stack of stones?
Continuing south of the Bastille, the road we were following opened to the underground canal filled with boats. I tried, successfully, to recover from my disappointment at not seeing the severed embalmed head of Marie Antoinette in a plastic cube. “There’s still the future and new opportunities”, I assured myself.
We continued to the river and crossed at a nearby bridge. At this point we decided to descend to the walkway that ran along the banks of the river. We headed west and followed the Seine to the Notre Dame Cathedral passing more open air markets along the way. Teresa bought spoons. 6 of them.
As we approached the cathedral, it was both sad and interesting to see it up close. Amazed that it stood, still, though now covered with plastic and braced by heavy timber supports as restoration starts and plans are made for its reconstruction. My hopes still in place that the French will provide a new layer of history that reflects our current time. Something maybe utilizing the latest technologies. From what I’ve read, though, it seems the conservatives of France will have their way and it will be rebuilt to the exact specifications from its last reincarnation following the French Revolution.
It was now early afternoon and time to find a Brasserie in the adjacent Latin Quarter. A grilled ham and cheese or at least the Parisienne’s interpretation of one. And a Coke with ice. 3 cubes. Following lunch we headed uphill to the Pantheon at the heart of the left bank and the University of Paris. A leftist’s dream come true. A quick reading of Trotsky and we headed back, via the (Socialist Funded) Metro, to our tourist arrondissement.
Such an amazing final event to the last two weeks of travels. At the Atelier des Lumieres, in my new favorite neighborhood … the 11th arrondissement, a 21st century exhibit of Van Gogh. Animated images of his artwork projected in various spaces on the walls, floors, mirrored rooms, water filled pools and bodies of hundreds of viewers (Parisiennes in this case … c’est bon!) accompanied by great soundtracks. Who knew Janice Joplin would be such a great paring with Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Sacre bleu et tres trippy!
Amazed by the experience of Atelier des Lumieres, we walked back to the Metro station taking the long route through the nearby neighborhoods. Spotting a few tables outside a corner bar, we sat down for a glass of wine and to reflect on all the incredible sights and experiences of the last two weeks. The 11th arrondissement is not a tourist zone. It was nice to feel the calm and natural flow of activities, authentic and not artificial.
Exiting the Metro station back at our destination, we walked a couple of blocks along the Champs-Élysées in the late afternoon, soft light reflecting off the sidewalk stone. Tomorrow, we return to Atlanta.
En route to Cairo on a 787 Dreamliner (with WIFI) that is in its second day of service. New features include passenger windows bigger than normal that can be electronically blacked out by the flight crew. They are currently set to a deep cobalt blue. Nice effect as the setting sun streams in. Kind of like stained glass windows. The plane still thinks it’s in Seattle where it was manufactured explaining why the location shows Paine Field.
February 18, 2017
In Paris. For 3 hours. It’s nice to be back in civil civilization. What’s not to like about a country that is better at making love than war. Viva la France.
February 19, 2017
An incredible introduction to Egypt and the pyramids. Teresa arranged for one of the top professional guides, Ibrahim Morgan, to provide private access to tombs unavailable to the public. We were the first of the day to enter and climb into the heart of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the early morning. Quiet, eerie, dark, hot and steep. And thrilling to be alone with no guides or anybody else in such a sacred and historical place. We gave our greetings to the vanished pharaoh and headed back down the steep and narrow tunnels.
Exiting out into the cold morning air, it was apparent why Ibrahim was in such a rush to get us into the site. In front of the pyramids were now hundreds of tourists all taking selfies. A strange setting and sight. Later, Ibrahim took us to one of the queen’s tombs excavated in the 1920s by a team from Harvard not open to the public. Inside were painted hieroglyphs detailing the life of this lucky sister wife. She was a big, big fan of her daughter apparently. And liked furniture. Her husband, the pharaoh, was a fatty. A sign of wealth and power of the times. Too much beer. Ibrahim, fluent in hieroglyphics, made the adventure even more awesome. The scene in the photo is the entrance to the queen’s tomb a short distance from the large pyramids.
February 20, 2017
Was picked up early in the morning by Ibrahim. The air was cold and thick with smoke and fog. We passed thru several security points on our way to the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo on Tahrir Square, the central location of the uprising in early 2011. At each check point the driver would say something sounding like “Kennedy” to the heavily armed police. Not having learned from cats, curiosity got the better of Teresa and she asked what they were saying. “Kennedy”, they explained, was Arabic for Canadian. They were telling everyone we were Canadians just so we could “stay out of trouble”. I quickly proceeded to learn how to say “I’m Canadian” in Arabic. “Ahna Kennedy, Ahna Kennedy, Ahna Kennedy” I repeated in the back seat.
We arrived at the museum and once again were first in line followed by a teaming mass of selfie stick holders. We entered and went thru security. “Ahna Kennedy”, I said to the guard. Smiles. Good.
The museum is huge and should take several days to really see. Ibrahim, an absolute expert, quickly guided us in to show us the highlights and explain the incredible history. Statues, chariots, furniture, papyrus scrolls thousands of years old flowed past us on our trek. Absolutely incredible and priceless treasures. Glass eyes hollowed out with accurately depicted pupils gazed at us from the statuary. Lifelike and untouched.
We finally reached the top floor, the home of King Tut, the boy king. Shiny golden funeral masks, gold sarcophagi, gold jewelry covered with lapis lazuli. Golden chariots, chairs, chess boards. Toys. Where was the golden Xbox? The museum was looted following the 2011 uprising. It’s incredible that the Tut treasures were not taken. I guess hauling out hundreds of pounds of gold is a bit much for looters.
On our way out, we stopped by the mummy room and roamed thru the dark shriveled up bodies. Pharaoh Ramesses II stared at us with eyes stitched shut, arms folded against his tiny chest. “Ahna Kennedy”, I told him. Creepy, eh?!
Finished with our tour in downtown Cairo, we headed back to our hotel located at the entrance to the pyramids – the Mena House. We took time on our final night to tour the property. The historic Churchill Suite (where Winston Churchill stayed) is gorgeous. Feels like you can reach out and touch the Great Pyramid of Giza from the private balcony. Gilded glory throughout with 2 marbled bathrooms. Grand luxury in this historic palace!
A final dinner overlooking the great pyramids flooded by light in the chilled night air.
February 21, 2017
On the way to the airport, heading south to Luxor. The freeways, while technically 4 lanes in each direction, are in reality 12. Or 20. It just depends on how closely the Cairo drivers like to get to each other. It’s clear the Egyptians are good dancers. An interesting observation – this is where all the 1970s Chevy Vegas went to in their afterlife.
After checking in on board the Nile riverboat Oberai Zahra, we spent the afternoon exploring the luxurious Luxor Temple complex. The seat of power for thousands of years for the Pharaonic dynasties, the temple combined religious and governmental operations – a combination of New York and Washington for the times. Each Pharaoh added on layer after layer until the Egyptian empire died out as the Roman one rose. The Luxor Temple is on the east side of the Nile. The side for the living. The west side is reserved for the dead. Tomorrow, we head west.
February 22, 2017
In the early morning we headed out to the Valley of the Kings, nearby on the western side of the Nile, which in ancient Egypt was reserved only for the dead. The Valley of the Kings is home to 62 pharaoh tombs that have so far been discovered . The last was 100 years ago, the tomb of King Tut. The Great Pyramids are older but were difficult to guard against grave robbers. It was decided to move the capital of the kingdom south, up the Nile River, and to build the future tombs in a more discreet, less flashy style. You would think a 500 foot tall gold capped pyramid would just blend in. But the locals were a bit more observant. Anyhow, after much heated debate, the high priests and pharaoh club members came up with the plan to move to Luxor. Seen below is the entrance to King Tut’s tomb. His mummified body still inside, one of the smaller tombs given the short time he reigned.
Scenes from sailing on the River Nile.
February 23, 2017
The next day, we visited the Temple of Hapchepsut, the only female pharaoh in thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history. She apparently won the popular vote AND became the ruler. Talk about breaking through the stone ceiling. The temple was where she was embalmed, a process taking months, before she was transported to her burial tomb on the back side of the mountain in the Valley of the Kings, which we visited yesterday. Only males were allowed to be pharaohs. Hapchepsut, or “Happy” as she was known by her friends, decided she wanted to be a pharaoh. To get the part, she would dress like a man, walk like a man, talk like a man. She wore a fake beard and colored her skin orange, foreshadowing long future events. Her mummy oddly enough was found wearing a ring of keys and lace up boots. In her burial tomb could be heard the faint sounds of K. D. Lang.
After a long day, we stopped at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. Shouldn’t this be called Egyptian Fried Chicken? These things are everywhere.
February 24, 2017
We continued sailing south towards Aswan, the Nile wide and calm in the early morning haze. At breakfast on the lowest deck, the ever soothing spa music was interrupted by a loud metal clank and screaming. Surprisingly, outside the window, popped up two young Egyptians holding up table cloths. Like a Remora fish, their small wooden skiff had tied on to the side of our boat. I headed to the top deck to start negotiations.
After introductions, “Ahna Kennedy”, the product show began. There was a nice tablecloth with 10 napkins, handmade with Egyptian cotton … ignore the made in China label, a bright blue robe with hieroglyphics, a black thing covered in gold sequins … item unknown, a Third Reich swizzle stick. They had an extensive inventory and a very strong arms. Suddenly the items in plastic bags were getting cannon-balled onto the top deck 30 plus feet above the river surface. Other boats joined the sales melee. Shouts of “mister, mister” filled the air. We were approaching quickly a set of narrow locks; our boat squeezing into the tiny wooden boats attached 30 feet below. A minute or two away from our baseball armed salesmen being crushed. Fierce haggling began. “How much?”, I yelled out. “Egyptian pounds or dollars?” the local Sandy Koufax replied. Sixty seconds away from being crushed and we are now engaged in a conversation about currency exchange. “Dollars”, I yelled back. “For you, 100 dollars”, he replied. “No way. You are about to be crushed. I will give you 10 dollars.” There is no such thing as low balling when you are seconds away from being crushed. “80 dollars”, he replied, driving a hard bargain and a short life. “20”, I said. “60”, he yelled back. “No, 20. That’s all I’ve got.” “40.” “No, 20.” “OK. 20”, the very motivated seller answered. I put the money in a plastic bag of an unpurchased item and dropped it over board. Sudden death on the Nile leaves little room for lengthy negotiations.
Pulled ashore this afternoon in Edfu. Teresa and I got a taxi to take us to the local Waleedmart to pick up some supplies. Busy little town.
February 26, 2017
Made is back to Cairo to spend the night before heading to Amman in the morning. Took a trip into Old Cairo to visit the market, or bizarre as it’s more appropriately known. Sunday afternoon and busy, the market was very crowded with very pushy, and sometimes creative, salesmen. “Meowing” here … “How can I take your money?” there. While shopping, who should we see but Cheryl Davis. Shopping no less! Small world. Big bizarre.
February 27, 2017
Arrived in Amman, Jordan, and picked up a rental car. The car, a small Nissan SUV, looked like new luggage just arriving on the baggage carousel after its first trip. The body was covered with scratches, scrapes and dings. Driving looks like it’s going to be a contact sport here.
Headed south into the flat west Texas landscape on the aptly named Desert Highway. Of course, every road here is named Desert Highway much like all the Peachtree streets in Atlanta with one exception. There is actually desert here.
After an hour I got pulled over by heavily armed guards. I rolled down the window to give a cheerful greeting of “Ahna Kennedy”. The burly guard approached the car. After taking a quick look he scowled at me and went “Pffft” and with a flick of his hand, sent me on my way, ego intact but severely bruised. Little does he know how dangerous we Canadians can be, eh!
Spent the evening climbing a mile down the candle lighted canyon entrance of Petra to the Treasury, the scene of many movies, most notably Indiana Jones. Descending down, the canyon walls narrow until they are only 10 – 20 feet wide with canyon walls over 100 feet tall. The night sky bright with stars in the black slits overhead. On arrival to the Treasury, people seated themselves in the sand to listen to a concert of Arabic flute and string instruments. Magical … the only thing missing were djinnis.
Petra is an ancient city located on the Silk Road and is known for the temples carved into the rock walls that line the canyons. The entire ancient city once housed 40,000 people and had an advanced water utility system. We head back in the morning to look during the daylight and begin exploring other temples, canyons and sites. From start to finish, Petra is over six miles long and has many side trails and canyons, too much to see in one visit.
February 28, 2017
We spent the day in Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabataean kingdom. At the entrance canyon we hired a Bedouin tribesman with a thick Australian accent as a guide named Abdullah. Riding horses, Abdullah took us down describing the various tombs and elaborate system of pipes and flood controls that were built to protect the city. At the bottom we entered at the Treasury where the previous night we enjoyed a concert in the dark. After a brief stop we continued down the canyon toward the city center.