December 23, 2007 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Morocco | Leave a comment

Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to all of our friends and family!

Morocco Part 3

December 23, 2007 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Morocco | Leave a comment

(This is a sequel to Morocco Part 1 and 2)

We left Tamtatouche with sadness the next morning despite their urges that we stay for the next day of the wedding celebration. We paid them handsomely for the accommodations which consisted of two mattresses and a squat toilet. Their kind spirit was priceless. The boys were sad to leave Abdou who had taught them African board games and played Uno with them neither of which required language. Laura treasured the scarf given to her at the wedding as a gift which still had the aroma of the previous night’s fires. A sort of melancholy set in as we tried to silently make sense of how we live our life compared to how they live theirs.

We spent the next few days enjoying what remained of Morocco as we made our way towards Marrakesh. We are ashamed to say that we went running back to our creature comforts and stayed in a fancy suite at the next stop and enjoyed some Moroccan craft shopping and R&R with wireless internet access galore. We still hope that our inner axis permanently shifted a bit from our earlier experience and hope our worldview is changed for the better. The landscape to Marrakesh was beautiful as we passed kasbahs the size of palaces and serpentine roads that made our stomachs ache but our eyes dance. After such a peaceful and tranquil journey around Morocco, chaotic Marrakesh was jarring and difficult for us to navigate and we decided one evening on the town was sufficient. We left as quick as we came and settled for a few days in an oasis in the suburbs among the olive groves where we continued in our solitude. During the day we explored the valley and ventured into local huts to negotiate the price of carpets and went out at night to fabulous restaurants complete with traditional music, belly dancers and horse shows. We all fell in love with Morocco and felt very welcome there and hope to return someday. We are also learning that travelling without many plans and some of the stress, faith and hope that goes along with that often leads to sweeter surprises and unexpected delights.


Morocco Part 2 A Berber Tale

December 23, 2007 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Morocco | 1 Comment

(This is a sequel to Morocco Part 1)

Our next adventure was to ride the road along the foothills of the High Atlas mountains in a wide valley with our first stop being Todra Gorge. We passed sheep, goats, wild camels and scattered people simply walking in the middle of miles of terrain perhaps with a bundle of sticks on their back. Todra Gorge is known to be very scenic and we were lucky that its narrow road, which was mostly washed away durning floods last April was back in working order to carry us between the sheer red cliffs. We had no overnight reservations, again, so we just kept driving away from people until we found somewhere secluded. Our guidebook directed us to a small auberge which we had to drive over a stream to get to as it was built into the rocky hillside. It was across the road from a nomadic tent which we could faintly see up on the hanging rocks. The man was out tending his herds of goats while the woman was working over a steaming kettles and the children loitered around their small patch of flat land. Our innkeeper showed us to our room which was, surprisingly, a cave. A very nice cave. The room was literally carved into the rock and painted a lovely buttery yellow with enough beds for all and solar lights and candles. The boys thoroughly investigated all of the removables that can be toyed with and then ventured out into the streambed and hopped rocks until nightfall. Perfect. A herd of goats approached for the return home and surrounded the boys on all sides. They needed to wait patiently for the “locals” to pass. We went up to the main house for dinner and the entire room was swathed in candlelight while plates of salads and tagines were enthusiastically delivered. Both boys were worn down and fell asleep on the bench we were sitting at while Peter and I enjoyed another rare moment of “just us”. Up until now, the only private time we had was when the two boys sat in front of us on a bus and we sat behind them! We were able to finish more than 5 whole sentences uninterrupted by, “Mama, look how far back I can bend my finger!” or “Papa, what is the biggest thing in the world besides Mt. Everest?, or “What’s a jawbreaker?” The next day we left our cave, and hadn’t gotten more than 500 yards up the road when our adventure was to take a very interesting turn.

A group of Berber men were working to repair the washed out road and one slight, young man (about 25) with a fuscia-colored turban flagged us down with a smile wider than his thin face and asked if we could give him a ride so he could buy some cigarettes for his friends. We, feeling distrustful and generally not open to letting others into our car no matter how friendly-looking, offered instead to buy the cigarettes and drop them off on our return in a few hours. They considered this and decided to give us the money. This was very trusting on their part since they probably had very little money to risk. Then the discussion, in French, was about where to stop to buy them and what brand to get. Apparently you don’t buy packs, you buy individual cigarettes and he wanted 14. We cannot explain what changed our minds but a complete trust came over us and we decided to give him a lift instead. His skinny body easily fit between the boys carseats. Mustafa proceeded to tell us, in French, about himself and his family who ran a small inn up the mountain pass in the town we were headed for. He was down here visiting his friends who were repairing the damaged road. He also told us that there was excitement in the village because there was a wedding taking place in the hills between two Berber nomad families. We had read about Berber weddings and how they are a very unique experience and foreigners are lucky if they happened to come upon one as they would probably be enthusiastically invited to attend. He said that we should go to it. We were intrigued but didn’t know how to transition from picking up a total stranger to going to a wedding.

A few miles later as we wound through the spectacular mountain gorge, we arrived in the town of Tamtatouche. Mustafa led us to his “inn” which was on the side of the dusty road surrounded by fields, kasbah ruins and the red, rocky cliffs of the gorge. We pulled in, got out and looked around at the rustic surroundings and just followed him to his outdoor patio covered in a Berber tent as an awning. Then his brothers and sister came to greet us. Mohammed is the eldest at around 28 but looked 40, Abdou is 15 and Hassan, 13. Their sister, Fatima, about 27, waved from the kitchen. Without many words, it was just natural and assumed that we`d all relax and chat on the patio which is exactly what we did Mohammed brought tea and snacks as the siblings did their best to welcome us. We don`t know when it changed from simply giving Mustafa a lift to becoming their guests but we just went with it. Oliver and Henry played soccer with Abdou and became fast friends. Abdou only spoke Berber but Henry never left his side. Soon Abdou took Henry into the kitchen and showed him how to make french fries. Henry came leaping out of the kitchen in excitement when he realized that french fries are made from potatoes as he had just watched Abdou slice them and fry them up from scratch! Mustafa then invited us to go for a walk through the village. We walked through the fields towards the kasbah ruins and watched as women hauled tremendous bundles of corn stalks on their backs and Mustafa continued to tell us what people were doing and how they lived. The villagers literally gawked at us as we passed as though we were celebrities. A cluster of children gathered and were giddy at the chance to interact with us. We took their pictures and showed them the instant results which generated even more excitement. We went back to the inn and then the discussion about the wedding resumed. Mustafa explained that the wedding celebration takes place over 4 days with preparations tonight at the bride`s homestead and then at the groom`s homestead the next night when the actual ceremony would be held. Unlike weddings we know, folks in the surrounding towns simply go as it is a communal gathering and not an event with invitations. Everyone knows each other and even though the folks getting married were nomads who lived in tents in the hills, all the folks in the village know the nomads and they are all part of the same community. Now it was about 5:00pm and Mustafa’s friends came by in a van and decided they were all going to go to the wedding and that for only a few dirham, we could join them in the van instead of walking or taking donkeys. We still wanted to understand how we were going to be regarded, coming to this wedding uninvited and of course we didn’t want to detract from the event and cause a commotion. They tried to explain how the families would consider it an honor for visiting guests to attend. This was such a foreign concept to us to just show up, but we were intrigued and the boys were excited to go to a wedding even though they expected dancing, a large cake and a bride coming down an aisle. We agreed to go.

So, we only have our fleece pullovers and they advise us that it will be cool in the hills. Laura is given a traditional woolen blanket which is worn as a shawl and Mustafa gives Peter a woolen chelab, the traditional Moroccan hooded robe. We get in the old van with three men in front and four men in the back, all about 22-25, and the four of us in the middle seat. We drive about 1 mile up the road and then take a left literally off the road and over the landscape on what is called a piste, basically a dirt path often travelled on but in no way considered a road. We cannot believe the van will safely navigate this rocky terrain. It`s dark by now and there are no lights anywhere except for one distant twinkling light in the middle of the blackness as we`re heading into the High Atlas Mountains. Mustafa said that`s where we are heading. The young men seem genuinely excited for the celebration and they`re singing traditional Berber songs with a tamborine as we bump along wondering when the van will simply fall apart at the seams.

The chaotic thoughts running through our heads are so foreign to us. Are we really going to a wedding? We are in the middle of nowhere. We have two small children. These are complete strangers. We are so lucky to have met these people. We cannot believe we are part of this experience. This is not a tour so no one knows we`re here and we can`t send our family an e-mail at this point. Are these guys really this happy to be taking us to this celebration? Don’t they have something better to do? What are they singing? This is what our adventure is really all about.

About 45 minutes later, we stop at a ditch. The van cannot get passed it so we have to walk the rest of the way. The seven guys excitedly get out of the van and, without hesitation, one of them takes Oliver and another one takes Henry (who fell asleep 10 minutes after the van left the inn) onto their backs and carries them the short distance to the site. The blanket of stars in the sky are magical and seem ancient as does the muted landscape around us as we warily step over and around the rocks trying not to twist any ankles. We can hear distant rhythmic chanting and beating of instruments we`ve never heard before. Now we are thinking that perhaps we are the sacrificial family. Yet, we cannot explain why, we are also so excited to be here, in a scared, out-of-our-comfort-zone sort of way but also this-is-why-we-are-travelling-the-world kind of way. We are trying to read our instincts but none of our surroundings have ever been registered before and we don’t know what to make of this situation we are getting ourselves into. It is an incredible dilemma. However, the overriding instinct is trust. Throughout our day that we spent with Mustafa and his family and friends, the pure kindness, generosity, embracing nature and sweetness was permeating around us. We have very kind friends at home but this was something else. A kindness so pure and innocent and free of any evil, like the mind of a 2 year old child. You cannot get enough of it and you want to protect it and want to be a part of it and feel bad that you have bad thoughts. You want to desperately hope that this will not turn out bad – it is truly what it is – a wedding celebration and everyone is singing.

We arrive and we can make out a cluster of Berber tents and different activities going on. All of the local men are sitting around a bonfire in a circular stone pen normally reserved for the animals. There are about 60 men and everyone is wrapped in traditional blankets and huddled together in small friendly groups sipping tea. They all watch us carry our two little boys wrapped in a bundle as we plop down on the ground and find a place among them. A few smile back at us – most just watch. The men are in charge of the keeping the fire going and are boiling water in one kettle for the tea and in another bucket for rinsing glasses. The fire is fueled by either wood or animal dung which gave off a distinct peaty amoma. A turbaned man comes over and offers us warm tea which we eagerly accept. Not only is it appropriate but it also gives us something to do. Mustafa sits with us as does Joadd and we hope they don’t leave our side, which they don’t. We are told that the women are in the tent. Seems the women stick together and the men do the same. Laura is the only woman in the pen. We drink our tea and wait.

Then a group of men approach us carrying the biggest wooden shallow bowl we have ever seen. The bowl is filled with a cornmeal mash that is a community platter and we, as the visiting guests, are the first ones to be served. We`re relieved when one of the servers pulls out regular metal spoons and hands one to each of us as well as to Mustafa and Joadd. Again, the myriad of emotions goes through our minds. How does one eat appropriately from a communal bowl exactly? Do we take a big spoonful or a small one? Do we double-dip? We cannot believe we have just arrived and now are being given special treatment by having the bowl presented to us first. How many bites do we take? What is it? We can’t decline. We dip our spoons in and take a bite. It is warm and delicious and tastes like melted cornbread with a salty, buttery flavor and it is the consistency of farina. We want to eat the whole bowl. We were prepared for the worst and it was great. We follow Mustafa’s lead and learn that it`s fine to double-dip (glad we were first!) and we had a few bites. Whew. Now what happens?

The singing gets louder and Mustafa and Joadd invite us to move over to the tent so we can see what is going on. The boys are carried into the tent and we plop into a space where we can watch. The girls and women sit across from the boys and men and they sing and chat in rotation with the men singing and the women responding, over and over again. It is too loud to try to have Mustafa translate so we just listen. The women are all ages and are interesting to look at. They are equally interested in us and gawk at us without smiling. It`s not because they`re disturbed by us, they simply don’t greet with a smile. Some women look ancient with deep wrinkles yet they have long, thick grey hair and sit cross-legged on the ground. Some women look like a cross between Asian and Eskimo with almond-shaped eyes and black hair and high cheekbones. One woman looks 50 yet she has one baby tied to her back with a blanket, another one nursing and a toddler rolled up in a blanket on the floor. The nomadic life appears to be harsh on the skin but is a wonderfully simple and time-honored traditional way of life.

While the singing and chanting continues, we are once again the first to be approached with another huge bowl. This time it`s couscous and again, thankfully, delicious. We have our obligatory bites and watch as the bowl makes its way around the tent and the small groups dig in. We are told that the bride is in an adjacent tent undergoing traditional preparations which, we think, included having her hands and feet decorated with elaborate henna designs. While we sit in our little heap underneath the huge goat-hair tent, we enjoy it when the younger boys and girls scoot over to sit near these white strangers and look at our sleeping boys and look at us and the strange safari pants we`re wearing and our Keen sandals while they prance around in their colorful layers of smocks and robes and slippers. It is a profound moment when a young boy sits near us and I ask Mustafa how old the boy is. Mustafa asks the boy but he doesn`t know. He looks about 9. They don`t measure time by age. It is irrelevant in their lives. We thought knowing one’s age was a common denominator across the human race.

Now a group is gathering outside for dancing. We pick up the boys, who have slept through the entire experience, and move them to a new place on the ground outside. The men and women form a circle in the firelight under the stars and stand alternating man and woman and sing new chants while swaying, squatting, bowing and stomping feet. We are the only ones sitting and as the group gets larger, they begin to encircle us. Again, the sacrificial thoughts resurface. The experience starts to become reminiscent of Native American culture- dancing in a circle by the firelight with chants that sometimes sound like howls, moans and screeches within a rhythmic haunting melody. But, alas, they only encircle us because we haven`t budged from a little heap on the ground and not because we are about to be sacrificied to the gods. Soon a band of young girls sit with us and want to know our names and they giggle with embarrassment when they can`t pronounce our names as their tongues will simply not form the sounds of the American alphabet. Nor can we pronounce their names that include sounds unfamiliar to us. It`s a funny moment.

We next move to the tent to see what is happening with the bride-to-be who has not yet made an appearance outside her tent. She sits with her face and hair veiled in red and she is covered in layers of fabrics. Her mother and a plethora of other women are tending to all sorts of fabrics and traditional clothing that she is adding to her layers all the while chanting and chanting. Laura is offerred a scarf by one of the attending women as our hair is not to be visible. A woman who looks 150 approaches to lovingly fix Laura’s hair as it fell out of its place under the scarf. It is now close to midnight and it seems this celebration is going to go on all night. We catch sight of the men skewering a newly skinned goat back in the pen and decide it`s time to leave but it we`re very reluctant because we know this will never happen to us again. Once we tell Mustafa we are ready to leave, the six other men who came in the van and who we haven’t seen since arriving, suddenly appear and without being asked, hoist our boys on their backs and head towards the van. We didn’t know who to say goodbye to and who the hosts actually are but a small band of people follow us a bit to see the celebrities go and then trail off and became part of that dim single light in the blackness of the hills. We go back to the inn and sleep in one of the rooms. There are two double mattresses on the floor covered with layers of tribal handmade blankets made by Fatima over the years. We all stay dressed and just hop on the mattresses and contemplate whether or not we have already dreamed or not.

As strange as it was, it was very special and we feel as though the stars aligned for us to have ended up there. It all started out with a drive through the mountain and happenstance. Mustafa could have stopped another car or none at all and we would have driven up the road, looked around and headed back toward another area of the gorge but instead we were exposed to what`s behind the mud and straw walls and beyond the dirt pathways that meander from the road in the darkness.

Morocco Part 1

December 23, 2007 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Morocco | Leave a comment

Morocco Part I October 12 – 28 17 days

Morocco was like a dream. Vivid colors, hypnotic music, bucolic landscapes, delicious foods, got-to-have-some-of-those handcrafts and the kindest, gentlest people on our adventure so far. We are finding it difficult to write just the highlights for the blog. There is so much to tell that we have divided Morocco into parts so you don`t get too overwhelmed by our ramblings.

Our adventure started when we flew from Egypt to Madrid, Spain where we planned to take a train to the southern coast and then a short ferry ride across the Gibraltar Strait into Morocco. We needed to fly to Madrid because our airline alliance did not fly direct from Egypt to Morocco. We arrived into Madrid on a sad note. We had been sleeping on the plane and the boys were sleeping with their blankets – the blankets they`ve had since they were babies and which have travelled everywhere with us for the past 8 years. When we awoke, Oliver’s blanket was mysteriously gone. We were rushed off the plane because it needed to stay on schedule so we had no time to figure out where it had gone. Oliver was too excited about our next destination to notice but Mom was going through a painful separation. We didn’t have time to stop and fill out “lost and found” paperwork because we wanted to try to catch the train to the coast. So, Mom attempted to deal with the loss while we rushed off to find a taxi.

It turned out that it was a public holiday in Spain and everyone was heading to the coast so the train was booked. We have been mentally prepared for things not going our way and we were able to easily change our plan. After storing our backpacks at the train station, we bought tickets for the afternoon train and learned from tourist information that Madrid was having a huge parade at 10:00am to celebrate their national independence day. We got to the parade shortly before it began. Calling this a parade was definitely an understatement – there were tanks, bands, cavalry and a dozen flyovers of different military aircraft. It was great for the boys and for us. After a tasty tapas lunch, we caught our train and six hours later arrived at our hotel by the pier. Early the next morning we ran to catch the ferry for the quick scenic ride over to Tangier, Morocco.

When we arrived we needed to get to a car rental agency and the only people to greet us at the dock were some hungry-for-business taxi drivers who advised us that Morocco was celebrating the first day after the end of Ramadan – the biggest holiday of the year. We were told that EVERYTHING would be closed for three days, maybe four, even the car rental places. Now Tangier was not on our itinerary due to its lack of touristic qualities, and to be stuck there for four days of our precious 14 would be a blow. One of the taxi drivers “called” some of the major rental agencies and said there was no answer. Interestingly, the taxi drivers had plenty of cousins and friends of friends who would rent us a car for “good price”. After getting some Moroccan dirham from a nearby ATM, Peter was smart to insist that the taxi driver first drive us to a car rental agency anyway. We drove through the empty streets wondering how we were going to spend four days here when we passed Avis whose door was partially open. With a glimmer of hope, we jumped out of the taxi and were pleased to find out that the robed, slippered, turbaned man was open for business and had a car available for us. What a rollercoaster of emotions the past 24 hours had put us on!

We sped out of town eastward toward Chefchouen which we`d read about in our guidebook. If this lovely town represented Morocco, we were in for a real treat! Everything was so colorful – even the whole town was painted a lovely ice blue. We walked through the labyrinth of alleyways filled with small shops all selling handcrafts. We hadn’t bought much up until now – we actually never considered ourselves shoppers nor did we ever think we would want to possess some of these unusual items yet the moment we arrived, we instinctively wanted to take some of this place for ourselves and try to be a part of it. Everything was different and special – the spices were shaped into tall cones with the earthtones of paprika and ginger glowing in the afternoon sun. The soft wool robes and delicate slippers worn by the Berber locals conveyed a feeling of peace, comfort and warmth. How could such a quiet, lovely, vibrant and welcoming place exist nestled beneath the mountains and not be full of tourists? It seemed like a Disney set up. And they speak French! The only language we can get around with. We passed ornately decorated restaurants with cumin and coriander wafting through the air. We indulged a man eager to sell us his woven carpets and spent a few hours with him as he fed us nuts and tea while the boys high-jumped the piles of carpets we had discarded while we selected our favorites. The boys eagerly stepped into each craft stall investigating all of the wares. They watched while a man sewed fabric into colorful jackets on his sewing machine and were fascinated by the wooden instruments and unusual candies being sold.

After enjoying some of the best food we`d had so far on our world adventure and a good night sleep, we reluctantly left Chefchouen and headed south toward the Middle Atlas mountains. We noticed that people walk the landscape no matter where they are. By that we mean people walk where most Americans don’t such as along the major roadways and so many of them just sit under a lone shadetree or on a guardrail doing nothing. We were always wondering where these people came from and where they are going because there are usually no houses, towns, stores, shacks or other shelter for miles. They walk and live on the land.

We landed in Fes and luckily found a reasonably clean and reasonably priced hotel with parking right within the old district- very lucky. We indulged in a dinner show complete with belly dancers, traditional dancers and exotic instruments. The food kept coming. We were the only table that was not part of a tour. Henry got a lot of attention when he was called up to participate in a dance involving twisting single-handedly on the ground and turning out rightside up. The next day we shrewdly fended off the touts wanting to show us around the town for a small fee and we negotiated the ancient streets just fine by ourselves. We were prepared for a city full of opportunists as we had read about and instead, in part because of the children, found people eager to meet us and show us their world and wares and willingly share their time with us. One shopkeeper taught Henry how to play nearly every handmade instrument in his shop while another man gave each boy a bead necklace simply because. Once again, the children reign supreme in the countries we have visited as everyone lets their guard down and their hearts show through. We realize more each day that travelling with children was the most fortunate of circumstances for us.

Our circuit around Morocco was shaped like a giant “J”. We continued south through the mountains and visited small towns with the desert as our ultimate destination. Along the way we visited wild Barbary Apes and desolate landscapes where four-year-olds tend sheep and Berber nomads live in tents in the most obscure places among the rocky outcroppings. The landscape changed with each day and none of us grew weary of the 3-4 hour car rides each day. We had audiobooks (Arthur, Berenstain Bears, Frog & Toad, Hans Christian Anderson, Rabbit Ears Series – thanks Aunt Amy) and plenty of kids music to pass the time. Each new hotel was pure excitement for all of us especially when the hotels were Arabian kasbahs that erupt from the sand in seemingly the middle of nowhere. The kasbahs literally look like sand castles and inside they are decorated with mosaics and all of the scrumptious dishes are served in the ceramic or clay tagines – a conical-shaped casserole dish. One tagine has the meat which was usually slow cooked beef, like stew meat in its own gravy and covered with carmelized onions, garlic, prunes and apricots and melted in your mouth. Another tagine had the couscous in it infused with light spices and vegetables.

We made arrangements at the last kasbah to go into the desert and stop at another kasbah who would arrange for an overnight camel trek. We were nervous about possibly arranging something hokey – we wanted the real deal. We headed out across the barren landscape and were the only car travelling this grey rock-laden lunar wasteland towards the glistening golden mounds miles away. We pictured ourselves in a movie where an aerial camera looks down on our car and then pulls up higher to reveal the miles of emptiness in every direction as we innocently travelled further and further away from civilization while happily listening to ABBA on the i-Pod remaining naive to mysteries of the otherworldly land ahead. Is it safe to be out here alone? Are we putting our children in danger? What if we run out of gas? What is in the desert, actually? Who is in the desert?

We finally arrived at the kasbah and were greeted warmly by a group of robed young men running the massive place. They`d been expecting us and quickly escorted us to the giant dining room for our lunch. We were the only ones and it was strangely exciting. Behind the kasbah is the golden, yellow desert – an isolated patch of soft golden sand stretching for miles around and containing the highest sand dune in Morocco. It is as if someone poured the sand there because it is so different than the rest of the terrain. There were camels and a number of nomadic camel-drivers lounging around. At 4:00, after discussing whether or not the boys should ride their own camels, we decided on three camels and half way into the two hour trek the boys would switch and have a turn on their own camel but otherwise ride with one of us. Our driver’s name is Youssef and he told us, in french, that he was a nomad – a family who lives in a tent and moves from place to place. His family makes a living harvesting sealife fossils from the nearby mountains. We trekked two hours over the seemingly infinite sand dunes. The boys were so excited at the prospect of sleeping in the desert as were we. The shapes and colors of the dunes were mesmerizing and we could not understand how it was that it was just our little family setting out alone with Youssef. We were relieved because we thought we might be out there with a large, boisterous tour group and feel like outsiders but here we were, just the four of us, slowly and silently making our way across the desert taking in all of the nuances of this foreign landscape.

We stopped to watch the sunset and dismounted our camels somewhat gracefully as we were getting used to the jolting experience of a camel`s awkward efforts to lay down and stand up. While we rested, the boys made a beeline for the nearest dune and rolled and slid in a flurry of laughs and giggles. They couldn’t wait to bathe in the golden suds and splash around. Peter and I enjoyed a quiet moment on a nearby dune watching the sun go down and anxiously awaiting the starlight extravaganza. We remounted our camels after the boys were sufficiently covered with sand in all of their nooks and crannies and were told that we`d be staying in a traditional bivouac. A BIV-OO-ACK is a small group of tents. The tents are sewn by hand from goat hair and decorated with colorful fabrics. After the sunset, we made it to our specific dunes – it was fascinating that Youseff knew his way with seemingly no landmarks. In the distance we would occasionally see another small group trekking or hear the sound of a distant dune buggy. We were happily greeted by yet another group of men who live and work in the bivouac. Some spoke only Arabic while some spoke French. We were shown to our tent and then enjoyed a lovely lantern-lit dinner of roast chicken and couscous and a bowl of fresh fruit. After dinner we stargazed and listened to the nomads play their traditional music. The nomads told us how they work and live there together for about a month at a time and only travel home to see their family for a day or two before coming back One man had 7 children. At home, their families either farm or dig for fossils to make a living. There was one other family from France staying at the bivouac that night and we sang some songs from our respective countries. We were only allowed to bring a small bag so we visited the nearby outhouse and and made our way to our goat-hair tents outfitted with mattresses covered in a myriad of colored blankets. Since we were behind a large dune, we were protected from the wind and the silence around us was deafening. It was so comforting surrounded by these mounds of soft, golden hills like a blanket – sort of like when you are surrounded by a new fluffy snowfall. Everything is quiet, blanketed and comforting and you just want to wrap a wool blanket around you and sit and ponder. We were very proud of ourselves for getting to this point and it continued to build our confidence in travelling independently. We have found that when the travelling becomes stressful and we`re not sure of our choices and wonder whether we should turn back or be accompanied by others, our perseverence has always been sweetly rewarded well beyond our expectations. It may not always end up that way, but this time it had.

We fell asleep to the distance chants and drumming as the men went about their duties and we didn’t wake until the 5:30 wakeup call to see the sunrise. We had slept in our clothes and simply got up and climbed to the top of the nearest dune as is the custom to take in the full impact of the morning’s sunrise magic. It is quite a workout to the climb a dune but Henry went to the top of the tallest one and Oliver followed. Peter and I stayed halfway down as we watched a sandboarder ride the waves down the dune. Without a chairlift it is hard to imagine that the trek up the hill is outweighed by the thrill of the ride but there is nothing else to do, so why not. Shortly after some tea and biscuits, we reluctantly made our way back to the kasbah with a stop or two for sandsliding. The trek truly epitomized adventure for us as we are pretty conservative when it comes to trying true adventures that involve endurance, bravery and will. We tend to spectate more than participate so this was great for us. One might say that going out into the world with backpacks epitomizes adventuring but you can still travel around the world and not inject yourself into the world. We felt we did that here. We arrived safely back at the kasbah and bought some of Youseff’s fossils and headed back to the road that would take us along what’s known as the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs.

(click photo for slideshow)


December 10, 2007 at 5:22 pm | Posted in Egypt | 1 Comment

Egypt October 2-11

We left Bucharest, Romania via train at 6:00pm for our 15 hour train ride back to Budapest, Hungary. The train ride was lovely again and we slept comfortably (much more comfortable than a plane) and awoke in Budapest. Our plane to Cairo wasn’t until midnight so we spent the day in Budapest. At the train station, there was a convenient luggage storage facility so we packed our daily essentials into one daypack and left the rest. We take a deep breath every time we leave our stuff. We had a lovely breakfast and strolled the city. We were lucky that the Titanic exhibit was in town so we were able to take that in. Oliver had taken a keen interest in the Titanic before we left so it was especially fascinating for him. We made our way back to the train station, picked up our luggage and took a taxi to the airport. With only a catnap on the three hour flight, we arrived at 3:00am. In Budapest, we had called and made reservations at a Cairo hotel and they picked us up at the airport. The boys easily adjusted to sleeping and waking at odd times as the excitement of the adventure outweighed the inconvenience, just like the adults – plus they love shuttle vans! In retrospect, it was a blessing to arrive in the middle of the night when the roads were clear so we would not be immediately exposed to the death-defying chaotic driving that takes place in Egypt.

We arrived at the Windsor hotel in an “interesting” part of Cairo. Later we would label it the “real” Cairo and be glad we experienced it but, at first, it was jolting. Because we just wanted to get to bed, we put our blinders on and headed for the room. The Windsor is a hotel that has been featured in many classic movies for its British decor as though it has stood still in time from the earlier part of the 20th century. The small reception area was equipped with an authentic telephone operator’s switchbox which the host used to route the incoming calls while a hand-operated elevator awaited us. This was juxtaposed with the metal detector at the entrance and the armed guard which we concluded seemed unnecessary based upon our experience (but comforting, sort of). After we finished our interrupted sleep, we ventured out towards what was considered Islamic Cairo – full of market streets, mosques and outdoor restaurants. Our hotel was not situated in the tourist section of Cairo along the Nile with lights, clean streets, restaurants and museums. It was surrounded by dirty streets, whizzing cars, pandemonium and people, people and more people. We had not experienced anything like this to date and although it was chaotic, it was still exciting.

Everyone was very friendly towards us and could see us coming a mile away and would yell “Welcome”, “Go Yankees”, and, of course, “Come…I make good price for you.” They wanted us to take their picture or buy their wares. They wanted to talk to us or pinch the boys’ cheeks. We were not only the only Americans, we were the only white people that we saw for hours. People were jammed into buses, jammed on the sidewalks, and you needed a masters degree in the art of street crossing to get anywhere. Folks carried such large bundles on their heads that you could barely see their heads at all. The smiles and gentle bantering kept us moving forward. We headed up the crowded Muski Street which was a dirt lane lined with everything you could ever want to buy. Not only souvenirs, this was where the locals shopped – you could buy dresses, umbrellas, scarves, razors, oranges, toys, and pyramid paperweights. It seemed a mile long and it took us a few hours to get from one end to the other. The later it got, the more people started to fill the streets. During Ramadan, folks are quiet and contemplative during the day then they come out in droves at night in Cairo. Some of the stores stay open all night for shopping. As we approached the end of Muski Street at sundown, it became silent as store owners and shoppers all settled down in either a restaurant chair or on a mat on the ground to end their daily fast for Ramadan and eat. Suddenly the large square outside of the mosque filled with hundreds of people at once. Persuasive restauranteurs stand vigil along the sidewalks coaxing people into their eatery. We hesitantly took a seat not knowing what we were going to be served in Egypt for dinner. As we ate kebabs and pizza (phew), children and mothers approached our table offering popcorn, bracelets, songs and other useful things in hopes of a small payment. The restauranteur kept an eye to ensure no one was too insistent with us or he would shoo them away. The boys were playing with their army men on the table while we awaited our food and that attracted some young vendors who were temporarily distracted from their task of selling cigarettes. The boys wondered why children were selling cigarettes.

Traffic lights are disregarded in Cairo. It took at least 5 minutes of standing on the sidewalk to gain the courage and opportunity to dart in between the cars to cross the street. Some streets were four lanes across. Traffic lights were apparantly installed within the past decade or so and their purpose still has not yet been fully accepted. The other “interesting” traffic fact is that at night, cars do not drive with their headlights on because they believe it makes it difficult for other cars to see well from the glare. We regarded these differences with complete shock! How can a major city conduct itself this way! Sometimes we try to imagine what America was like before traffic lights and Cairo gave us a glimpse of what it might have been like.

So far on our travels, we have seen very few homeless on the streets or sidewalk. There were more in Cairo but less proportional to the number of people that filled the streets. The boys were attentive and concerned about someone on the street and always very generous to either the homeless or a talented street performer by donating any coins they had in their pocket.

Interestingly enough, where we should have been shocked and frightened of the crowds, litter, grime and dust, there was a constant reminder that this land and culture preexists our culture by thousands of years and even though they do things differently than us, their way is just as valid and appropriate as ours. Even the driving – we could not believe the chances that drivers took driving towards a group of people crossing the street but somehow they are able to successfully predict the actions of others where we would never attempt. It is an interesting dilemma to decide when you are putting your family at a real risk versus accepting the judgements of a different culture that you are unable to understand fully.

We ventured over towards the Egyptian Museum where the streets were clean and the Hilton and the Four Seasons hotels overlook the Nile. There are mostly tourists and fewer locals. It was a different world from where we were staying. The Egyptian Museum was fascinating even for novice Egyptologists like us. Most of the second floor is dedicated to the treasures found in King Tutankamen’s tomb. It is hard to describe the sheer volume of things that were stuffed into the tomb, each item painstakingly created to celebrate the King’s life and ensure a successful afterlife. The children were very intrigued with everything the museum had to offer. We had to make it a bit more motivating by asking them to find certain pieces in each room. At one point Henry’s actions afforded him a time-out behind one of the many sarcophagus relics. As he was standing there pondering his misdeeds, a group of Egyptian girls clambered around him admiring his golden hair and American looks. Two kissed him on the cheek (a common practice even between strangers when one of them is especially cute looking) and took his picture hardly acknowledging his mother’s presence. With that, it was difficult to continue with the time-out so we resumed our tour of the museum.

The next day we toured a papyrus institute and learned how papyrus can be made into paper. Oliver successfully wove papyrus strips into a paper and was very proud. We were gently but persistently reminded of all of the lovely artwork we could buy but had settled on some artwork of King Tut that included the boys’ names in both arabic and hieroglyphics. We toured an Islamic mosque and climbed to the top of its minaret to overlook the city aptly called the City of A Thousand Minarets and learned how to distinquish an ornate Egyptian styled minaret from a simple Turkish minaret. Then it was onto the Great Pyramids of Giza. We could hardly maintain our composure. The Pyramids, the only remaining one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, rose faintly beyond the haze and sad pollution strangely adjacent to the urban streets. One side of the road were houses and stores and across the street was the desert upon which the pyramids were built. We were glad to have survived the drive there and were happily greeted by a group of men and their willing camels. The boys were unaware of our prior arrangements to take camels out to the pyramids instead of the more typical drop-off area where you walk to them with the hoards of tourists. Each boy rode with one of us on a camel and we were escorted by a young man who pulled each camel by foot and by two men on horses. Mounting the camels was a trick in that first you get on when the camel is resting on the ground. Then he straightens his back legs so you are leaning forward so far that your head was about 45 degrees lower than your rear-end and then you have to hold on for dear life when he straightens his front legs and you are catapulted up from your formerly awkward position to the now not so much more comfortable position of strattling a camel`s hump. We didn’t anticipate that we would first have to ride these lumbering creatures through a small Giza tenement community so that we could enter the pyramids from a back gate and avoid the crowds. This was very strange especially when we were seeing other locals riding camels as a normal form of transportation. Not only that but they were chatting on their cell phones while doing so. This definitely wasn’t Kansas anymore.

When we finally reached the sands of the Pyramids, it was what fantasies are made of – endless sand in the distances, lonely caravans plodding between them, three pyramids graduating in size and a sunny day with no wind which is helpful in this environment. Were it not for the constant “Giddyup” and “Yahoo” and “Look Dad, yours is pooping!”, we would have felt like we were in the movies. We toured the Pyramids in a perfect way and even went inside one of them and avoided the crowds the entire time.

Our next adventure was to take an overnight train south to Luxor which involved negotiating the streets to get to one train station to buy the tickets, buying some flashlights from the street vendors (because they say you need them to visit the tombs in the Valley of the Kings) and hanging out at the Windsor Hotel the rest of the afternoon because they had internet access and we needed to upload our photos and make hotel reservations. After saying good-bye to the extra friendly staff who had helped us clean and hang our laundry and even sewed Oliver’s pants for us, we made our way to Luxor. We survived the ride to the train station and chatted with a couple of policemen from Australia who were also on a round-the-world trip (albeit in six weeks). They had just come from Rwanda where they viewed the mountain gorillas and showed us their pictures and gave us some tips for when we visit Australia. The most travelers we have met have been from Australia. We woke up on the train to view all of the Egyptians tending to their crops along the railway and living in small square mud homes with a donkey out back and a bright white satellite dish on top. This was the land that truly looked like the Egypt of your dreams (except for the satellite dishes). Papyrus fields stretching out from a gently rolling Nile river compared to the Nile in Cairo could have been the East River in Manhattan it was so busy with lights and commerce.

The ambitious taxi drivers practically knock on your cabin door upon arrival and after checking to see what the appropriate price was for getting into town, we took the short cab ride to the luxurious St George Hotel. It was an oasis from all of the chaos of Cairo – marble floors, swimming pool overlooking the Nile, and a bathroom that supplied soap and shampoo. Ah, yes, how quickly we run back to our creature comforts after suffering from a mere four days of “old world” living, and then some. Yes, the swim-up bar and the four international restaurants should do the trick. We suddenly decided that we were going to enjoy Egypt as vacationers rather than nomads. We hit the swimming pool for hours and sat on the floating deck on the Nile and had drinks and then sat beneath the stars and had a perfect dinner while listening to a zither player play classic Egyptian tunes.

The next day, we headed over to the famous Luxor Temple and had to constantly reject offers to get there by horse-and-carriage which we eventually succumbed to when we realized you could talk them down from $20.00 to about $2.00 for the ride for all of us. We hired a private guide for about $6.00 to show us around the temple and he had small children of his own so he was quite adept at explaining things in “kid-talk”. Most of all of the Egyptians spoke English so it was easy to travel and communicate. Despite the warnings against the intense heat, the next day we ventured to the Valley of the Kings where the great kings of Egypt are buried deep within the dry desert sands in hidden tombs. We had to negotiate the price for the horse and carriage, then for a taxi to transport us all day, and we even had to bargain for water and ice pops! We were experts at the end of our stay! The heat was very intense – like an oven – but the excitement of our surroundings outweighed the temperature. Even the children held up like champs.

We learned a lot about Egyptian history and hieroglyphics while in Luxor. Even without the benefits of tour guides, we were so impacted by the sheer undertaking of transporting all of the treasures we saw in the Egyptian Museum to a secret location in the heat of the desert into tombs only accessible by small passageways with no light. And the extent of the engravings along the miles of passageways forever celebrating the life of the king and ensuring his successful afterlife was mindblowing. We are sure the organized tour groups learned a lot more than we did about all of the sights and all of the tombs and sometimes we would try to eavesdrop on their lectures but tours were expensive and we would not be able to participate with the children and we enjoyed going at our own pace. We started to take pride in our ability to independently get our way from the hotel to a place like the Valley of the Kings for the cheapest price and navigate the horses, ferries, taxis and trams to get there which was part of the adventure rather than being whisked there on an air-conditioned coach. It is because of the gift of time that has allowed us to take our preferred way to get anywhere and has allowed us to interact with Egyptians at all levels and thus has been a sweeter experience, albeit sometimes requiring a lot more patience.

We were encouraged to travel further down the Nile via cruise to lovely Aswan but we didn’t want to change our flights to stay longer in Egypt because we didn`t want to have a long visit in some places and spread ourselves thin. Even though independent travel is sweeter, it takes a lot of energy to actually travel and we are still training ourselves to not try to see everything. We are finding that a place impacts our memories more if we perhaps walk the same path many times and pass by familiar sights more than once, especially for the children. We are taking our time – or at least trying to. It is a constant balancing act. So, we sat on the floating deck of our hotel, once again, and watched the Egyptian feluccas sail up and down the Nile at sunset and, once again, listened to the zither player who had shown the boys how to play, and sipped our last cup of fragrant tea before we caught our night train back to Cairo where we would catch a flight to our next destination.

click photo for slideshow)

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