A Cruise to Anywhere but Cuba

November 7, 2019

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.

Antiquities of Egypt and Jordan

February 17, 2017

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.

Both sides lined with tombs and caves built into the steep and colorfully striped cliffs. The trail turned into a wider dirt road, now lined with gift shops, a fortuitous coincidence for sure. Shops sold spices and incense, frankincense and myrrh, and free WIFI. Surely this was the spot some years ago three travelers stopped to grab a quick gift on their way west for a baby shower.

One of the highlights of Petra is the monastery located at the top of a mountain a few miles away accessible only by a climb up steep stairs carved into the cliff face. Our Bedouin knew a Bedouin who knew a Bedouin who owned some Uber Mules. Quicker than you can say “Holy Jehoshaphat” two Bedouins with three Uber Mules pulled up on the side of the road. Climbing on board, we headed to the foot of the stairs. By late afternoon we arrived at the monastery after hanging on our mules as they climbed the stairs, one misstep and a certain death plunge to the rocky floor far below. At the top, a view westward of the Jordan Valley and beyond, Israel v. Palestine.

March 1, 2017

Before heading back to Amman, we spent the morning shopping in Wadi Musa, the village located outside the entrance to Petra.

March 3, 2017

Early morning arrival in Paris for a change of planes back to Atlanta.

March 4, 2017

Back home and jet-lagged. Awake. Up at 5 AM. Make coffee. Sit at my desk. Turn on PC. What’s that? Live, from 250 miles up, is the Nile River flowing north and scrolling across the screen. A sharp contrast of green against gold in a cloudless sky. Home to incredible history and people.

And a real bargain now since their currency was devalued in November by the IMF. Another win for “austerity” but in reality a burden for the people of Egypt. The local currency went from 3 pounds per US dollar to 20 almost overnight. A deal for travelers and at a time when many travelers are not visiting. Egypt’s economy relies heavily on tourism. If you’ve ever thought of visiting, now is the time. We had the best guides, especially our new friend, Ibrahim Morgan. I would return in an instant if the instant was a 36 minute trip like the International Space Station takes and not the 36 hours it really does much closer to earth. And if you go, remember to tell them “Canada” sent you.

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Home sweet home. Or in this case, cave sweet cave. Recent squatters, Kurt and Cheryl, aka California Raisinette #12, are settling in for a nice snack while hoping the long term occupants, water buffaloes, decide to “stay gone”. Seeking shelter from the storm often requires squatting over. This picture was snapped on the trail to the curiously and coincidentally named Buffalo Camp.

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View from the Bristol Cottages in Moshi. That’s a church across the street and they are playing some sort of music non-stop. Must be competing against the mosque nearby. I don’t think there are any noise ordinances in town.

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The local Vodacom Cell Phone store. This is the place to get your M-Pesa enabled cell phone sim card/scratch-off lottery ticket. Goodluck, the hotel manager at the Lake Duluti Hotel seen in the orange shirt on the left, was kind enough to help me with the purchase since my Swahili skills are limited to “Mjinga!” that presumably would prove to be not productive.