Lebanon and Jordan – Ancient Lands in a Modern World

In the month of May,1999, I traveled to Lebanon and Jordan to attend the annual Esri Middle East and North Africa Users Conference being hosted in Beirut by our Lebanese office. In addition, I was scheduled to conduct software training classes in Beirut, as well as Amman, Jordan.

Map of Lebanon

As I checked in for the Delta and Austrian Airlines flights at Ontario airport, I was upgraded to business class all the way to Beirut – a welcome perk for being a Delta Airlines “Million Miler” and Platinum Medallion member! On the flight to Atlanta, I watched the Robin Williams film “Patch Adams”, a very emotional and inspiring story that touched many hearts on the plane. I had very little time to make the connection for the Delta flight to Vienna, but once on board I found the seats in the new Business Elite cabin to be very comfortable, with electronically controlled movement five ways – and with the very generous space and almost lie flat recline, I was assured of a very relaxing flight. Soon after takeoff, we were served cocktails and delicious hors-d-oeuvres of crab cakes and goat cheese on toasted crostini. Then came the main dish of spicy vegetarian pasta, topped with grilled chicken in an incredible sauce of four cheeses and diced potatoes. I finished dinner with a selection of French cheeses and dried fruits, along with a glass of Austrian Ice Wine – a memorable dinner in the sky! When I landed in Vienna the next morning, the weather was miserable and cold, but I was just there to transfer to the Austrian Airlines flight to Beirut. After spending an hour in the Business Class lounge, I headed to the gate, only to find the departure delayed by a “labor slowdown” of airport staff. Then, once on board the aircraft, there was another delay when two Swedish passengers failed to show up, so their luggage had to be located and removed! However, once we finally departed Vienna, the 3 ½ hour flight was very nice, especially with a delicious lunch featuring pan-seared Arctic Char. Upon arriving in Beirut, a driver from the local office met me and took me to the lovely, historic old Summerland Hotel. The resort was built on a steep slope rising above the Mediterranean Sea. My room on the “ground Floor” was actually five floors below the lobby, but it had a spectacular view of the Sea from the patio! Virtually all the rooms in the hotel had magnificent views.

Summerland Hotel patio
Mediterranean Sea coast – Beirut

Access to my room was rather strange, being down five levels from the lobby and via a narrow corridor through the bar! Later, I discovered a shortcut through the Terrace Garden, across a pathway of large cement steps, molded in the shape of a giant’s foot, and past a large aviary of beautiful tropical birds.

Terrace Garden

The next day, my training class at the Electricity Company of Lebanon was delayed as a result of having to “re-install” ALL the software. But the journey to the training site followed the coast, known as the “Corniche”, and it was beautiful, despite many old buildings that had been damaged in the Civil War. There was evidence of numerous bomb craters and countless bullet holes, yet there were signs of renovation and reconstruction everywhere!

Bombed out building – Beirut

And all along the route, Syrian Army troops patrolled the area and many large, faded photos of Syrian President Hafez Assad were posted. After class, I joined my colleague Jerry in the hotel bar for a couple of local “Almaza” beers, and then dinner outside on the terrace. We enjoyed several small plates of traditional Middle Eastern “mezzes”, followed by a large order of fresh local seafood, including tiny finger-sized fish deep fried and eaten whole, tasting almost like French fries. (they were 3 inch-long Red Mullet) The next morning, we began the training class at the headquarters of the Electricity Company, with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, dispensed from an automated machine. Nearby the company was the American University of Beirut, located on a hill overlooking the sea. The classic old yellow sandstone buildings, built in the late 1800’s, were gorgeous, especially as they were surrounded by tall, deep green Lebanese Cedars. As I walked around the campus during a break in the class, I came upon the haunting sounds of a concert of classical Czech music coming from the 100 year-old chapel. Among other recollections of my time in Beirut was the “First Call to Prayer” every morning at 4:30 am, “blasting” from a loudspeaker at the Mosque next door! (Jerry said he never heard it!) One day in the hotel, I had some serious problems connecting my laptop modem to the hotel phone system in order to download my email. (there was no internet at this time) The hotel switchboard operator claimed I could only make a “collect” call from Lebanon, which was insane since there was no way a computer modem could call “collect”! Finally, I was able to reach an AT&T support person who told me how to connect using my AT&T calling card. Though I was successful in making the email server connection, it was very expensive at $5.00 per minute! (in today’s money that would be almost $8.00) As I traveled back and forth each day to the training site, I saw a lot of reconstruction taking place, incorporating some exquisite architectural designs, combining traditional Arabic geometric patterns with sleek, elegant modern styles, all using the gorgeous local yellow sandstone and brilliant white marble.

Reconstruction

At the conclusion of the training class, I joined a tour to the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek and Anjar in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut. The route took us over the High Lebanon Mountains, following the main highway to Damascus. As our bus slowly climbed the steep, winding road into the mountains, there were beautiful views of the deep green forests and snow-capped peaks. Along the way, I spotted some interesting signs beside the road, including:

  • “We are on sale – so prices are breaking down”
  • “Foody-Goody Store”
  • “We sale Kodak film”
  • “One Way Shoes Store” (so do you have to turn them in and buy a new pair for the return home?)

We also passed several huge Mercedes trucks laboring up the steep slope with their loads of massive blocks of white marble, headed for Damascus. Near the top of the mountain pass, we came upon a strange structure beside the road. It was the “Monument to Peace” – a very large pillar with several full-size tanks, trucks, and artillery guns “encased” in concrete – very weird and a bit scary! On the far side of the mountains were old stone terraced fields, several centuries old, and lovely green meadows. But all over the region were lots of multi-story buildings built haphazardly among the beautiful old white stone farmhouses – probably the result of no government control during the 17 years of Civil War.

Descending the mountains into the Bekaa valley

Descending the mountains, we could see the rusting remains of an old dilapidated railway line, once part of the old Palestine Railways that connected Beirut with Damascus. Several sections of the railroad were covered by long, concrete snow sheds. (the High Lebanon Mountains sometimes get almost 20 feet of snow during a winter) At one point, there was an old railway bridge that had been destroyed during the Civil War, leaving the tracks hanging in mid-air! As we entered the Bekaa Valley, we could see many Bedouin camps, tents covered with animal hides and floors lined with oriental carpets. Beyond were lovely green fields of wheat, produce, and vineyards, surrounded by steep, rocky, mountains.

Bekaa Valley
Lebanon Mountains – Bekaa Valley

And far to the south we could see the snow-covered summit of Mount Hermon rising above the Golan Heights. (it was such a peaceful scene amidst a turbulent part of the world) After traversing the heart of the valley, we finally arrived at one of the largest ancient Roman ruins in the world – Baalbek. Walking around the site, we had beautiful views of tall carved stone columns and facades, including four massive stone blocks, each weighing well over 200 tons. They formed the foundation of a massive gate – such an incredible engineering challenge to cut and move the blocks from nearby quarries. The highlight of our tour by far was the immense “Temple of Bacchus”, dedicated to the Roman God of wine. Except for the Cedar roof, which hadn’t survived the centuries, the temple was almost completely preserved.

Temple of Bacchus
Inside the Temple of Bacchus
Entering the Temple of Bacchus

It was a joy to walk among the ancient ruins and imagine being a Roman citizen enjoying the fruit of the vine. Our guide told us some of the history of the region, which was first settled by the Phoenicians over 4,000 years ago, and later by the Greeks who named it “Heliopolis”, following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia in 330 BC. The site was later occupied by the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Romans around 15 BC. The Romans renamed it “Baalbek” – in both the Greek and Roman languages it meant the “City of the Sun”.

Approaching Baalbek
Baalbek

After several centuries of Roman occupation, during which most of the large temples were constructed, the site would fall to the Arabs and more recently the Ottoman Empire. So, there was layer upon layer of ancient history beneath our feet – extraordinary! The ancient site got its name from the fact that it lies in the rain shadow of the 10,000 foot high (3,000 meters) Lebanon Mountains and enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year. Before leaving Baalbek, we were invited to a small museum/visitor center/gift shop to see displays of artifacts recovered from Archeological excavations of the site. We were welcomed by the local Hezbollah Militia. It was very interesting to see the historical artifacts, but what struck me most were the items for sale in the gift shop, all of which required purchase with only US dollars! (not even the local currency of Lebanese Pounds was accepted!) And in the absurd irony of it all, the walls of the museum/visitor center were covered with anti-American posters and “Death to America” slogans!

Hezbollah Gift Shop – Baalbek

Leaving Baalbek, we stopped at a new hotel in the village of Zahle for a delicious lunch of traditional Lebanese food, including Kafta (spicy meat balls). The hotel was designed and built in a traditional Arabic style, using the beautiful local white limestone and pink marble. We finished lunch by toasting with a small glass of Arak, a strong liquor that tastes very much like Greek Ouzo. After lunch there was a stop at the Kasara Winery, where the caves have been used by monks for generations to age their wine. As we toured the caves, we saw several very old bottles still in storage, covered with thick black fungus! Storage of wine in the caves date back to the early 1700’s, shortly after the vineyards were planted, and the process of wine making continues to flourish today.

Kasara Winery

As we tasted the wines, the French tourists were a bit “snobbish” about the Lebanese wines, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines. Our final stop, before returning to Beirut, was a tour of Anjar, another ancient Roman site near the Syrian border. It had been transformed into a fortress by the Umayyads after the first Arab invasion of the valley. The site had many beautifully restored ruins of Roman temples and palaces.

Approaching Anjar
Roman Temple – Anjar
Ancient Roman road – Anjar
View of Anjar

But of most interest was the ancient, yet sophisticated, Roman water and sewer system! It was very clear that the Roman engineers were incredibly talented. At one point, as I walked among the ruins, I came upon a long black line crossing the old Roman road, and the line was moving! Turned out to be thousands of harvester ants carrying tiny bundles of dry grass they had cut from the forest floor to take back to their nest. It was fascinating to watch them, totally oblivious to my presence. Meanwhile, no one else in the group even noticed them. After a wonderful trip to the Bekaa Valley, we returned to the Summerland Hotel just in time to board the bus that would take me to the conference Gala Dinner Party at an historic old palace in the small mountain village of “Beit-ed-Dine”, located on top of the mountain overlooking Beirut. It was built by the Emir Bashir II, ruler of the Mount Lebanon Emirate, between 1788 and 1818. From 1943 it became the summer residence of the Lebanese President, and part of the castle remains so today. The beautiful architecture of the castle features several arcades, fountains, elaborate facades carved from local cedar wood, intricate inlaid marble and fine mosaics, as well as unique mandaloun balconies (two arched openings in a stone wall with a colonette in the middle and a decorative motif on top). The journey up the steep, winding road was slow and not very comfortable, but we were welcomed in grand style by the local community. The evening began with a visit to the “Marie Baz Wax Museum”, a small but elegant display of some famous people.

Marie Baz Wax Museum

Then we walked down the road to “Moussa’s Castle”, a beautiful limestone structure built entirely by one man, Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, in the early 1960’s.

Moussa’s Castle

Unfortunately, the display of scenes depicting local village life were disappointing “fake” reproductions, even though they were constructed of beautiful yellow sandstone. The “scenes” were poorly represented, in addition to being very dirty and dusty. Despite having an impressive collection of very old weapons, including pistols, swords, rifles, and even an old “blunderbust”, they were all displayed in dingy, dirty glass cases. And worst of all, were the ragged, moth eaten stuffed animals in glass display cases filled with ants – disgusting to say the least! While I admired the family enterprise, the display was very poorly preserved and not cared for – so sad.

Beit-ed-Dine Palace courtyard

Back to the Beit-ed-Dine Palace, we all enjoyed an elaborate and scrumptious Middle Eastern buffet, accompanied by entertainment from a fantastic folklore dance company that included a display of ceremonial sword fighting. And of course, no Gala Party in the Middle East would be complete without a traditional Belly Dancer! Even though the evening was very enjoyable, it was VERY late by the time we arrived back at the hotel – well after 2 am! The next morning, I conducted a Presentation Skills Workshop for the Beirut office training staff. In the afternoon, I spent a quiet day around the hotel, catching up on my email and my travel journal, while a “bevy” of beautiful young girls in skimpy outfits paraded around the pool. For dinner that evening, I went to the hotel terrace café and enjoyed a fantastic “Escalope Viennese” (grilled chicken breast topped with spicy tomato-basil sauce and melted cheese) I ended the evening sitting on my patio with a glass of wine and listening to the soft sounds of waves crashing on the beach below. The next day, after successfully resolving a problem with my laptop (lost the driver for the mouse), it was time to head for the airport and my flight to Amman. The check-in process went very smoothly and soon I found myself relaxing in the “Cedars Lounge”, which was brand new and beautifully decorated with Persian carpets and traditional Arabic artwork. The short one-hour flight on Middle Eastern Airlines took an unusual route north to Tripoli, and then east across the Lebanon Mountains where large areas of winter snow remained on the 10,000 foot peaks. Finally, the plane turned south across western Syria and over the city of Damascus to Amman – a route designed to avoid Israeli airspace. Despite the short flight, a very tasty snack and drinks were served.

Map of Jordan

As we approached Amman, I could see a large cloud of yellow dust hanging over the city – the result of a huge sandstorm in Egypt. Munir, the head of the Jordanian office, was at the airport to meet me and take me into the city. Alongside the highway were countless small vendors brewing and selling thick, black Arabic coffee in traditional tall silver coffee pots – very similar to the espresso stands one finds throughout Europe. Arriving in downtown Amman, I checked in to the newly renovated SAS-Radisson Hotel, formerly the Holiday Inn. The new hotel was much more upscale and luxurious. (lots of dark tropical wood and brilliant white marble) As time for dinner rolled around, I discovered that it was “Gastronomic Week – A Taste of Belgium” in the restaurant. So, I felt compelled to order one of Belgium’s best beers, a pint of “Leffe”, brewed by monks in an old Abby since 1240! Dinner was superb, and I ended the meal with a strong cup of thick, black Arabic coffee, served “medium”, which referred to the amount of added sugar. The next morning, Munir picked me up and we drove north of Amman to the pine covered hills near the Syrian border, over looking the Jordan River Valley, nearly 4,000 feet below. On one of the highest summits was the historic Ajloun Castle – a 12th century Crusader -era fortress located on the site of an old monastery. It was renovated as a fort in 1184 by the commander of the army of Saladin (Salah-Ad-Din), first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The castle had a commanding view in all directions, which made it a very strategic location during the Crusades.

Approaching Ajloun Castle
View overlooking Jordan Valley from Ajloun Castle
Fortifications

It was later fortified by Saladin to counter further Crusader invasions. Over the following centuries, many additions and revisions were made as it changed hands between warring armies. From Ajloun Castle, we found a very nice restaurant at the base of the mountain for lunch, classic Lebanese food served by Egyptian waiters. And as always, Munir ordered enough food for a large family – such is the incredible hospitality of the Middle East! After lunch, we drove east toward Syria to visit Jerash, another very well preserved ancient Roman city. Among the ruins were several large temples dedicated to the Roman Gods Zeus, Jupiter, and Venus.

Entering Jerash on ancient Roman road
Ruins of Roman Temple
Roman Forum
Amphitheatre

Just beyond the temples was a huge circular forum and enormous Amphitheatre that seated over 3000 spectators and still in use today for summer performances by well known artists. Strangely, in one section of the old city was even a modern Byzantine cathedral, though it was still several centuries old! But something which struck me as most amazing was the old Roman road, paved with large stone blocks that still had the “ruts” worn in them from cart wheels over many centuries. And even more incredible were the stone “manholes” of the ancient water and sewer system – still functional even today, after more than 2000 years! Among some of the other ruins still very much intact, were the “Fountain of the Nymphs”, the four massive stone gates to the city, and the beautiful “Temple of Artemis”, where a massive stone column, weighing several hundred tons, was delicately balanced on its base.

Jerash

Amazingly, the huge column “swayed” ever so slightly in the wind! And everywhere among the ancient stones were large black centipedes, going about their daily business. On our return journey to Amman, we passed a most unusual sight – a taxi packed with passengers, one of whom was riding in the trunk of the old car! Back in the hotel, I joined Munir in the lobby bar for a local “Philadelphia” beer. He told me that modern day Amman was built upon an ancient Roman city called Philadelphia, hence the name of the brewery today. Meanwhile, a large wedding party was celebrating in the lobby. The music and dancing were fascinating, especially the “shrill” vocals of the ladies, which is so typical throughout the Middle East. [On a sad note: In November of 2005, a terrorist suicide bomber exploded a device in the hotel ballroom where hundreds of guests were attending a wedding, killing 60 people.] Later in the evening, we were joined by our colleagues Mazen and Maroun for a spectacular Arabic dinner at a beautiful old restaurant by the name of “Fahr-Ak-Din”, located in the former residence of the Spanish ambassador. During dinner, we dined on lots of traditional Arabic mezzes, along with a delicious mixed grill of lamb, chicken, and Kafta, a spicy mixture of ground beef and lamb. The evening was wonderful, but another very late night, since dinner didn’t begin until after 10 pm! Early the following morning, Mazen picked me up at the hotel for a trip to the ancient archeological site of Petra, about 3 hours south of Amman through the southern desert of Jordan. Access to the ancient site was by way of a narrow gorge through the mountains of Jabal Al-Madbah that form the eastern slope of the Arabah Valley which runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra was first settled as early as 9,000 BC and established as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century BC. Over the millennia, Petra’s importance as a trade route declined, and after more than 300 earthquakes that destroyed many structures, it lay abandoned for several centuries, occupied by only a handful of nomads. It remained unknown to the rest of the world until 1812 when it was rediscovered by a passing Swiss traveler. In 1917, it became the site of battle against the Ottoman Empire, led by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In 1985 it was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site and gained popularity as a major tourist destination, which continues today. There were many huge temples and tombs carved from the stunning red sandstone, the largest and most impressive being the “Treasury”. Mazen insisted that we enter the site in the traditional manner, on horseback, through the narrow gorge. And as we emerged from the passageway, we had a spectacular view of the Treasury.

Petra Gorge
Riding into Petra
The Treasury

We spent the better part of the day roaming around the ruins and learning of the long history of the place. Despite having seen pictures of Petra, they did not prepare me for the experience of seeing it in person – it had a magical, mystical feeling about it that was hard to describe. At one point, we climbed a narrow staircase of 900 steps carved out of a narrow canyon to see the “Monastery”, another impressive building carved into the rock wall.

Staircase to the Monastery
The Monastery

From there we hiked a short distance to the highest point where we had a stunning view overlooking the Jordan Valley and the southern shore of the Dead Sea. Then, in the late afternoon, we stopped for a bite to eat at the “Al Khalil Tea House”, located inside an old Nabataean tomb!

Al Khalil Tea House
View from Al Khalil Tea House

As we enjoyed our cup of hot tea, gazing upon the beauty of the site, we agreed that it had been a wonderful day in one of the most incredible places on earth! The next morning, I joined Maroun for breakfast in the hotel, after checking my email once more and packing my bags. Then I enjoyed coffee around the pool, wrote some post cards, and caught up on my travel journal – very pleasant and relaxing. Munir picked me up around noon and we paid a visit to the Royal Jordanian Geographic Centre to discuss a potential GIS project. Then it was time to head to the airport for my flight to Vienna. It was a quick check-in process and only a short delay at Immigration. As I waited in the queue, I noticed a Saudi family where the wife was completely covered from head to toe in a black robe, even including black gloves! It begged the question; how does the Immigration officer verify her identity? As it turns out, her husband must vouch for her identity. After clearing Immigration, I spent some time relaxing in the Royal Jordanian Airlines “Jerash” First Class Lounge. Later, before going to the departure gate, I went looking for postage stamps, but both Post Offices were either closed or apparently open but not staffed. Either way, I was unable to buy any stamps or post my cards. So, I decided to buy some Arak liquor in a lovely crystal bottle instead. When I got to the gate, I was surprised to find that everyone was body searched, despite having walked through metal detectors! But once on board, the flight was excellent, especially the lunch of chicken Provençale and smoked trout, accompanied by a delicious wedge of Danish Bleu cheese and a glass of crisp Austrian white wine. After lunch, we were served chocolate eclairs, Arabic coffee, and a glass of Drambuie, to finish a fantastic meal. Meanwhile, there were great views of the Bosphorus Strait, the city of Istanbul, the Black Sea coast, and the mountains of Bulgaria. As we approached Vienna, we had a gorgeous view of Budapest, straddling both sides of the Danube River. Upon arrival in Vienna, I checked in to the Sofitel Airport Hotel and had a very classic Wiener Schnitzel in “Café Wien”. (the only place in the world to get a true Wiener Schnitzel is either Austria or Germany!) Later, in the hotel bar, the service was very slow, so I ended up drawing a second glass of beer on my own from behind the bar. When the bartender returned, we both had a good laugh! The following morning, I boarded the Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta and on to Los Angeles, and it was another great flight in Business Elite Class. I returned home with copious travel notes, lots of photos, and wonderful memories of a fascinating part of the world!

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Egypt – journey up the Nile and Valley of the Kings

In November of 1989, I traveled to Egypt to conduct a software training class for the Egyptian Survey Authority in Cairo. My journey began with an airport shuttle ride at 5:00am to LAX, amid horrendous freeway traffic. Then it was a United Airlines flight to New York JFK airport to connect with a flight to Belgrade, Yugoslavia aboard JAT Yugoslav Airlines. (Why Yugoslav Airlines you ask? Well, they had a special offer of Business Class for less than the cost of an economy class ticket on any other airline!) Meanwhile, my head cold was getting progressively worse, not something anyone wants while travelling, especially on long haul international flights! The 5 ½ hour flight to JFK was quite comfortable, but once I arrived in New York, I found a very crowded terminal and a very chaotic scene. And it didn’t help matters when I discovered that the JAT check-in counter was in the Pan Am terminal on the opposite side of the airport! And of course, being Friday evening, it was “curbside mayhem” outside the terminal, with massive traffic jams, blaring horns, cars double parked, stalled buses, as well as policemen blowing their whistles and shouting “get it outta here”! Although I had been told to take one of the yellow terminal transfer buses, they failed to show up. So, I decided to “hoof it”, since nothing was moving. My hike to the Pan Am terminal was pretty chilly and a bit dangerous – certainly not “pedestrian friendly”, having to avoid the heavy traffic! Finally, I arrived at the Pan Am terminal and found the JAT Yugoslav Airlines Business Class check-in counter, located between Saudi Airlines and Czechoslovak Airlines. But the counter turned out to be closed and everyone had to fight their way to the one and only Economy Class check-in. As I stood in the long line, I overheard the airline agent say to all of us, “this is just the way we do things here”! (the beginning of my JAT flight experience was not very promising!) But once on board the new DC-10 aircraft, I found the Business Class cabin to be more like First Class – a welcome sight indeed. Service began with a chilled glass of champagne, followed by a superb dinner of poached salmon, topped with crab and grilled shrimp. Later, French pastries, fruit, cheese, coffee, and brandy finished the dinner service very well. Early the next morning, after 9 hours, we landed in Belgrade and I spent several hours in the JAT Business Class Lounge before boarding the 3 ½ hour flight to Cairo, via Zagreb. A light supper of cold meats, cheeses, and salad was served, along with a nice Yugoslavian white wine, before landing in Cairo. (Before the flight was called in Belgrade I couldn’t help noticing an unusual looking woman boarding the flight carrying a cat in her bag. The cat was sticking its head out of the bag and watching everything that was going on!) Once I had passed through Egyptian immigration and customs, it was well after midnight. But a driver from Giza Systems Engineering, the company representing ESRI in Egypt and Libya, met me just outside the terminal. Then it was a wild ride through the streets of Cairo to the hotel – constant flashing of headlights, honking of horns, and dodging pedestrians madly dashing across the busy highway! Having finally arrived at the “Safir Etap Hotel”, I was most pleasantly surprised to find it was a beautiful 5-star property in a quiet residential neighborhood near the Botanical Gardens and the Zoo.

Safir Etap Hotel lobby

And at last I got to bed at 2:00am Sunday morning. (my training class was to begin in less than 6 hours, since Sunday was the beginning of the week in Egypt)

Over the next five days of teaching the class, there were some notable highlights that included:

  • Two students from Finland, in Egypt on a Finnish government aid project, created a clock with Arabic numbers on the computer by developing a program using the ESRI software. But, in order to advance the hands on the clock, the return key on the computer keyboard had to be pressed each time. So, their “low tech” solution was to place a book on the keyboard that kept the return key pressed!
  • Virtually everyone in the class understood my English quite well, but they had a very difficult time using the English language during the computer exercises – constantly making spelling mistakes, and it was almost impossible for them to see their mistake. I could only imagine how it might be for me to use the Arabic script – first and foremost, I would have to write “backwards”, and secondly, none of the characters would even remotely resemble anything in English. So, I really had to sympathize with the Egyptian students.
  • The Egyptian Survey Authority employed people to spend their entire working day serving coffee and tea for our training class, in addition to running errands for the students, such as going out to buy cigarettes. And it seemed that everyone in the class was a heavy smoker – by the end of the day, the classroom was filled with smoke and the floor littered with cigarette ashes!
  • Several times a day the electricity would go off, but luckily, the computer room was connected to an uninterruptable power supply – so although the lights would go off, my overhead projector was also connected to the computer power supply, and I was able to continue with my lectures.
  • Near the end of the training class, the government announced that the “weekend” would be changed from being Friday and Saturday to being Thursday and Friday! (the same as a majority of countries in the Middle East)

 

Finally, my last day of work came and I prepared to leave for a trip up the Nile River to visit the ancient sights of Luxor and Aswan, something I had really been looking forward to ever since I had arrived in Cairo.

Map of Egypt and the Nile River

Before leaving Cairo, my colleague Khaled, took me on a tour of the old city, including President Mubarek’s Presidential Palace, a centuries old Islamic cemetery where people were living among the graves, and a neighborhood of many old, ornate stone houses of a strange, yet beautiful combination of Arabic, Indian, and Victorian architectural styles. Then we headed to Ramses train station in the center of Cairo, where I encountered the usual crowds and chaos, especially now since it was the beginning of the weekend. Upon entering the huge station, I saw no directional signs for the train to Aswan, but there was an information desk where I asked about the location of the 7pm train to Aswan. I was told it would be departing on platform 8. As I headed to the platform, there was a train standing on the track. But as I walked along the platform, passing crowds of people carrying bags, sacks, crates of chickens, etc., I could see no “sleeping cars” – rather mostly 3rd class carriages stuffed to overflowing with people. There were even people sitting on the roof, hanging on to the outside, and in between the carriages! They were going to be in for a very long, cold ride to somewhere up the Nile. Obviously, this was not my train – thank goodness! Later, another train arrived on platform 8, with several “Wagon-Lits” sleeping cars, the French equivalent of Pullman. But as I approached one of the train porters, he said this was not my train, which would arrive in about 30 minutes. I waited on the platform, along with the “masses of humanity”. Soon after the train departed, another train pulled into the station, and as I watched several other travelers attempting to board the train, they were told to wait for the next train.

Sleeper train to Aswan

So, as I also waited, I struck up a conversation with a young Frenchman who worked for the BNP Paribas bank in Paris. He told me about his experiences with the station porters and their demand for beaucoup “Baksheesh” (tips in Arabic). Just about that time, the train began to move slowly, and I said, “I wonder if this is my train?”, to which he replied, “are you on the 7:10pm train?” – “No, I’m on the 7pm train”. Suddenly, he said, “it’s 7pm and I think this is your train”! I turned around and quickly looked for an open door as the train slowly passed by me. Luckily, I spotted a single open door, and as I jumped aboard, the porter grabbed my bag. He asked to see my ticket and then directed me to my compartment in carriage number 5. I had come with a few seconds of missing the train, but I didn’t have a chance to thank the guy from Paris. Soon after leaving Cairo to follow the Nile River south to Aswan, the porter delivered dinner to my compartment, along with a couple of cold beers I had ordered earlier. Meals were included in the First-Class fare. After dinner, sleep came easily as the carriage rocked slowly back and forth, and the train sped into the dark night. The next morning, I awoke early to catch the sunrise over the river, as the train passed countless green fields of date palms, sugar cane, cotton, and all kinds of produce.

Green fields along the Nile River

Shortly before arriving in Aswan, after 12 hours aboard the sleeper train, breakfast was served, once again in my private compartment – certainly a luxury aboard the train. At the railway station I was met by a man from American Express Travel, who would be in charge of arrangements for my hotel accommodations and local tours. Meanwhile, a large group of tourists from Finland were gathering nearby, awaiting the arrival of their guide. As we left the station, my guide informed me there was a problem with my hotel accommodations. It seemed now my hotel would be some 26 km (16 miles) outside the city! When I expressed surprise and disappointment, I was told that maybe a closer hotel could be arranged, but that this time of year was a high season, and everything was fully booked. So, we went to the local American Express office in the elegant old “Cataract Hotel”. The hotel was a beautiful classic 19th century property, with a gorgeous terrace overlooking the 1st cataract (falls) on the Nile.

Cataract Hotel lobby
Cataract Hotel

Beyond, on the far shore, the endless, barren Western Desert loomed on the horizon.

The Western Desert

While I waited for the new hotel arrangements to be sorted out, I sat on the terrace with a cold Egyptian beer and took in the beautiful scenery. I watched the “Feluccas” (traditional Arabic sailboats) with their brilliant white sails as they plied the deep blue waters of the Nile River below, each boat being filled with a full load of tourists.

Cataract Hotel terrace
View from the terrace
Feluccas sailing on the Nile

It was a truly beautiful, warm day and a very peaceful, relaxing scene. I began to understand why the Pharaohs chose to spend their winters here – but now the tourists have replaced the Pharaohs! Finally, after much discussion, it was decided that I would stay at the Aswan Oberoi Hotel on Elephantine Island, located west of the city in the middle of the Nile.

Aswan Oberoi Hotel on Elephantine Island

Then I was driven by car to the dock where I boarded a small boat for the short ride to the island. As I went to check in at the hotel, I was told I would actually be staying in a room aboard the large “Nile River Cruise” boat docked beside the hotel. My room/cabin turned out to be clean, comfortable and quiet, although a bit small. After unloading my bags in the cabin, I decided to walk around the island and take photos under the bright, sunny skies. But quite unexpectedly, I found that my camera battery was dead! When I enquired at the hotel bookstore/gift shop as to where I could buy a new battery, I was pleasantly surprised to find they had two smaller batteries, that when put together did the job! (many beautiful photos were saved that day) Later in the afternoon, I explored the hotel grounds and discovered that the hotel had a high tower on one corner, that looked as if it had a restaurant on the top floor. As I got into the elevator, I pushed the button that I figured must be the top floor – “T2”. The elevator stopped at floor 3, two women entered, and then it went back down to the lobby! So where was “T2”? So, I pushed button 4, the highest number and got off on floor 4. Looking around, I spotted some stairs, so I started climbing, only to find a door with a lock that had been broken. Proceeding further, I passed an old mattress lying in the stairwell, and a pretty dirty one at that. I forged ahead, cautiously, only to find more dirty old mattresses and broken bottles. It became abundantly clear by now that many people had been living there. When at last I reached the top floor, 15 floors later, I came to a “construction area” littered with old broken furniture, piles of trash, unfinished walls, and an old sewing machine in one corner with a single, bare light bulb hanging above it! (very weird) The unfinished space looked like it might have been designed to be a penthouse suite, but anyone who was living there now was anyone but the “penthouse” type! Fortunately, I was able to take some beautiful panoramic photos of the Nile, the city of Aswan, and the ancient ruins atop the cliffs on the far shore.

View from Aswan Oberoi Hotel tower
View of the Nile river from the tower

As I returned to the 4th floor, another man with a camera was “eyeing” the stairs, and I couldn’t help wondering if he had also tried going up to “T2” like I did? That evening, I had a delicious dinner in the hotel, a dish called “chicken Korbashi”, cooked in earthenware with lots of Middle Eastern spices, especially coriander – it was excellent! I finished dinner with a cup of strong, thick Turkish coffee. Later, in the hotel bar, a band of “heavily” electrified and synthesized music played what I could only describe as “Italian Boss Nova”! It sounded like what one might hear on a soundtrack for a low budget film – the kind with bad “dubbing”. Virtually nobody in the bar was listening.

The next morning, I met up with the man from American Express for a tour of Aswan. It was a “private” tour with just two of us – me and a girl from Hong Kong. But we were to be in two separate cars – in effect, two different tours, which meant more “baksheesh” (tips in Arabic) for the drivers and guide! Our first stop was a view point overlooking the massive High Aswan Dam, one of the largest earthen dams in the world. It created Lake Nasser, the largest artificial lake in the world with an area of over 2,000 square miles. Then we boarded a small boat to visit the Temples on the island of Philae, where our guide told us of the many legends about the myriad of Egyptian Gods. (Isis, Osiris, Hather, Ra, Horis, among many others) I wasn’t able to keep all of them straight in my mind, and I’m pretty sure most Egyptians these days couldn’t either.

Temple of Philae
Temple of Philae

Once back on shore, we drove to the beautiful old Cataract Hotel for lunch outdoors on the terrace overlooking the Nile. After lunch, we joined another tour group of two people from Singapore – an English lady originally from Wimbledon and Mr. Randy Dillon, an Indian doctor of British citizenship residing in Washington, DC. (Both the English lady and Randy were high maintenance, requiring constant hand holding by the guide) That afternoon, I chose to take a ride to Elephantine Island aboard one of the Feluccas, classic old Arabic sailing boats, to visit the ornate mausoleum of the Aga Khan.

Steps leading to the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan
Mausoleum

It was built of gorgeous pink sandstone and covered with elaborate carvings of Arabic scriptures. Afterwards, we sailed to Kitchener’s Island, known locally as El Nabatat, as a beautiful sunset bathed the river.

Sunset on the Nile

The island was named for Lord Kitchener, who served as the British Consul-General in Egypt from 1911 until 1914. It was also home to the Aswan Botanical Garden, a collection of rare sub-tropical plants that Lord Kitchener established. Sailing quietly on the river was so peaceful – just the sound of the warm evening wind in the sails! Back at the hotel that evening, I joined the group again for an incredible sound and light show at the Temples of Philae. It was very impressive as we walked among the huge stone pillars and statues bathed in brilliant colors of light.

Sound and Light Show

At the same time, we were told the ancient stories of the Pharaohs. As we returned to the hotel, I was moved to a new room, one with a private terrace and a spectacular view overlooking the Nile!

View of the Nile from my balcony
View overlooking the Nile from my room

And for dinner in the hotel, I savored a delicious leg of lamb roasted with Middle Eastern spices, served with rice pilaf and a huge assortment of Arabic sweets.

The following day, I spent the morning exploring Elephantine Island before taking the little ferry to the old city of Aswan. I chose to have lunch at the elegant Oberoi Hotel overlooking the Nile. The restaurant was in a stunning setting, with elaborate wooden lattice work, tables set with brilliant, crisp white linen, sparkling silverware, and fresh roses! All the waiters were dressed in starched white tuxedos.

Lunch at the Oberoi Hotel

Lunch began with “Red Sea Gumbo” (spelled “Jumbo” on the menu), followed by grilled giant prawns marinated in Indian spices and served with a very spicy Indian vegetable curry, grilled onion, roasted potato, and Egyptian flat bread fresh from the oven. I finished lunch with a lovely creme caramel and a small cup of dark Turkish coffee. On another note, shortly after my food was served, the resident “hotel cat” came up to me and put her head in my lap, obviously asking for a handout.

“Hotel Cat”

Later in the day, I joined my guide again for a walking tour of the old city, especially the exotic old bazaar, where literally everything was for sale.

The Bazaar in the old city
Market in the Old City

As evening approached, we headed to the railway station for my short trip from Aswan to Luxor. I was about to board the train, when my guide, a Nubian from southern Egypt, invited me to stay with his family in their small village when I returned to Egypt the next time – such a kind gesture! As the train pulled out of the station, there was a gorgeous sunset that silhouetted the palm trees against the dark night sky, while a brilliant crescent moon and bright evening star shone above!

Night sky on the Nile

The slowly fading evening colors of orange and blue stretched upwards into the night sky. Along the way, as the train followed the Nile River, we passed a multitude of cooking fires glowing in the night alongside the railroad tracks. I was really surprised that all the announcements on board the train were in German, though I was seated in a compartment with Italian tourists – who knows how many different nationalities might be on board. I spent some of the time during the journey reading my copy of “Baedeker’s Guide to Egypt”, trying once again to sort out all the Gods! Upon arriving in Luxor, there was another man from American Express to meet me and he began to ask me for my tickets and tour vouchers, none of which I had been given at the start of the trip! Immediately, I felt a “snafu” was about to happen, but he didn’t seem to be bothered. However, I still didn’t know where I would be staying that night. Then we got into the car for a wild ride through dark, narrow crowded streets, barely missing all manner of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and even donkeys! As we drove past the Sheraton Hotel and the Winter Palace Hotel, I started to wonder where on earth I would be staying? On and on we drove into the dark night, and eventually we were driving out of the city – now I really began to get worried! Finally, we crossed over a narrow bridge and I saw an illuminated sign for the “Movenpick Hotel Jolie Ville on Crocodile Island”. Then suddenly the bright lights of the hotel lobby came into view, and as I entered the hotel, I found it to be a beautiful 5-star property, with individual bungalows arranged around the shore of the island. My bungalow was “J-1”, near the far corner of the property, surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation. In my room I found a copy of a guide book on the birds and plants of Crocodile Island, as well as a nature trail map. These were very nice accommodations, especially after so much anxiety about where I would stay. For dinner that evening, I enjoyed the huge buffet in the hotel restaurant – a delicious, grand affair of an amazing array of Middle Eastern and Western dishes. Dinner put to rest any lingering anxiety about hotel accommodations that night.

Movenpick Jolie Hotel on Crocodile Island
View from my bungalow

Early the next morning at sunrise, after a quick breakfast, I prepared to leave for a day trip to Abu Simbel Temple in southern Egypt on the Sudanese border. As I entered the hotel lobby to meet my guide, I encountered a large Japanese tour group, which I found out later was on the same itinerary as me. Joining my American Express driver/guide, we headed for the airport, up the hill and west across the High Aswan Dam, into the great Western Desert, which extended for over 2000 miles through the Sahara to the mountains of Morocco. Reaching the airport, I was given instructions by my guide about what to do upon arrival at Abu Simbel. (Abu Simbel Temple can only be reached now by plane. The Immense monument was moved piece by piece from the Nile River valley when the High Aswan Dam flooded the valley.) As usual, it was a scene of chaos during the boarding process, as there were many large groups trying to board at the same time. After passing through the security checkpoint, we all made a mad dash to the plane in hopes of getting the best seats on the left side, to catch a glimpse of the temples. As I boarded the plane, along with the Japanese contingent, I found it to be an aircraft from a Yugoslav company called “Aviogenex” and leased to EgyptAir. But to our dismay, as we boarded, most of the best seats had already been taken by people who had previously boarded the plane in Cairo! Luckily, I was able to find a seat on the left side at the very rear of the plane. The flight was fully booked, but during the short 30-minute flight I had some wonderful views of the High Aswan Dam and massive Lake Nasser that stretched all the way to the Sudan. The contrast between the deep blue water of the lake and the surrounding shifting sands of the desert, was dramatic. Just before the plane landed, we had a glimpse of the massive temples of Pharaoh Ramses II, and it was a magnificent sight to behold! The immense statues of Ramses were exceptionally clear, even from 3,000 feet above. They were on a totally different scale from the surrounding flat desert. As the plane slowly descended to the airport, my heart stirred with excitement, for in a few moments I would see them up close – almost hard to believe. Upon landing on the one and only runway, surrounded by shifting sand, it was a mad dash to the EgyptAir counter to check in for the return flight to Luxor, as I had been instructed to do by my guide upon leaving Luxor. I forced my way into the queue to get my boarding pass, amidst the many tourist guides who were getting them for their group. (the downside of being an independent traveler) With boarding pass in hand, I boarded the EgyptAir shuttle bus for the short 10-minute ride to the temples, together with a large group of Germans. Along the way we passed “Pharaoh’s Village”, a new tourist hotel, and the “New Tourist Supermarket”. Finally, the bus arrived at the temples, literally the end of the road. Once again, I had to stand in line with the tourist guides to buy a ticket to enter the temples. (at this point I began to wonder why American Express didn’t do this for me?) Then I joined the rest of the crowd as we followed a path down toward the edge of the cliff overlooking Lake Nasser, and suddenly, I found myself amongst a British tour group – luckily. Maybe it was the sound of the English voices that caught my ear, or maybe it was the cute girl wearing the “City of Oxford” sweatshirt? We approached the base of the temples from the east, where there were beautiful views of Lake Nasser stretching south into the Sudan – the land of Nubia. Our first sight of the colossal stone statues of Ramses was nothing short of unbelievable! And the closer we got to them, the more enormous they became, being at least 70 feet tall.

Abu Simbel – Temple of Ramses II
Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel
Inner Temple Statues

Inside the huge temple were eight more massive stone statues in a row, four on each side. In addition, the 20-foot-high stone walls inside the temple were covered from top to bottom with colorful hieroglyphics carved into the stone more than 3000 years ago. The inner chamber of the temple was equally impressive, especially considering the entire temple had been raised more than 200 feet up from the valley floor to the top of the cliff above the river before the High Aswan Dam was constructed and flooded the valley. The entire stone temple had been cut into small blocks, each numbered according to its position, transported to the top of the cliff and “reassembled” piece by piece! Even upon close examination, it was virtually impossible to see where the cuts in the stone had been made.

Abu Simbel – Inner Temple
Hieroglyphics – Inner Temple

As we stood in the innermost chamber, our guide told us the temple had been designed so that on just two days of the year, the rising sun reached the innermost sanctuary where the statues of Ramses II and three Egyptian Gods sat on thrones. (Ramses II had “made” himself a God as well) The sunlight reached only three of the four statues – the fourth, the God of Darkness, remained without illumination. The phenomenon occurs only on February 22, the birthday of Ramses II, and October 22, the date he ascended to the throne. Outside the temple, as I stood at the feet of Ramses II, I felt it to be a very humbling experience, and very likely that was his intent when he ordered the temple built. Up close one could see some names and dates of travelers, carved into the stone, who had passed this way long ago, such as “H.J. Clarke – 1837”. But our tour of the temple was not complete until we were ushered inside the enormous concrete dome that protected the inner temple – a very impressive feat of engineering that supported tons of rock on top, designed to make the structure look natural in the surrounding desert. As we entered the massive dome, I had the feeling of being “backstage”, or was it more a feeling of somehow being “inside a body”! It must have been a very exciting moment when the temple was “rediscovered” some 200 years ago, having been almost completely buried in the sand for thousands of years! Our tour also included a visit to the Summer Temple of Queen Nefertari, a smaller version of Ramses II temple nearby. She was the first of the “Great Royal Wives” of Rameses the Great, and her name means “beautiful companion” or “beloved”. Also, among the Great Royal Wives was the most famous and well-known Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra!

Summer Temple of Queen Nefertari
Summer Temple

In the late afternoon, we all boarded the shuttle busses for the return to the airport and the flight back to Luxor. Dinner that evening in the Movenpick Jolie Ville Hotel was delicious, and afterwards, I sat outside on my private terrace in the warm evening air, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation and the soothing sound of crickets.

I was up early the next morning to check out of the hotel and meet my tour guide for the days’ tour. I really hated to leave such a beautiful hotel. At the American Express office, we met up with Randy Dillon again and then boarded a ferry that took us across the river to the west bank for a tour of the “Valley of the Kings”.

Valley of the Kings

Our guide was a very pretty “Coptic” lady named Mrs. Selwa, and she was very knowledgeable of ancient Egyptian history. Our first stop was the “Colossi of Memnon” – two gigantic statues in the middle of the desert.

Colossi of Memnon

They stood over 60 feet high, representing Pharaoh Amenophis III seated on his throne and were once located at the entrance to the King’s temple. Then we walked a short distance to the “Valley of the Queens” and the “Temple of Hatshepsut”, the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (1507 – 1458 BC).

Temple of Hatshepsut

She was considered one of the most successful Pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman in Egyptian history. The temple was most famous for its impressive murals that were several thousand years old, and in the process of restoration by an archeological team from Poland. Mrs. Selwa also told us the story of Queen Hatshepsut, one of intrigue and scheming as she “ruled” her son, the young Pharaoh. With Mrs. Selwa pointing to the hieroglyphics on the wall of the temple, she showed us how the Queen had “invented” a story that she had been born of the Sun God Ra! From the Queen’s temple, we visited three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the first and most famous of which was the tomb of Tutankhamun. Though it was relatively small, because he had died suddenly at a young age, it had contained enormous treasures of gold and precious jewels, all of which were moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. At that point, I had to wonder just how incredible the treasures must have been in the tombs of the most important Pharaohs, before they were plundered by grave robbers? And then I began to wonder if succeeding Pharaohs had “orchestrated” the grave robbing to ensure wealth for their own tomb and the afterlife? That’s a question that is bound to remain unanswered. Our next stop on the tour was the elaborate tomb of Ramses VI, adorned with beautifully preserved, richly decorated paintings and hieroglyphics on the stone walls. Mrs. Selwa told us the story of the Pharaoh’s journey through the underworld, depicted in the paintings and hieroglyphics.

Hieroglyphics depicting the Pharaoh’s journey through the underworld

As we descended deeper into the tomb, we passed through 12 doors, each one representing a stage in the Pharaoh’s journey. It was as if we were taking the journey as well! Finally, we came to the burial chamber, carved deep inside the mountain, hewn out of solid rock. The enormous granite sarcophagus had been broken into several huge pieces and turned on its side. The grave robbers had stolen everything, even unwrapping the mummy of the king, leaving it lying beside the sarcophagus. Then Mrs. Selwa pointed to the ceiling of the chamber, a rounded arch with a gorgeous painting of two giant serpents, one carrying the sun on its back and the other serpent carrying the moon and stars. The colors of blue and gold were incredibly brilliant – even after 3000 years! But despite all the beauty and timelessness of the tomb, it did little to protect the Pharaoh, who now resides in the Egyptian Museum. From the tomb of Ramses VI, we walked up the hill to another lesser known tomb of Tuthmosis III, that Mrs. Selwa highly recommended for its unsusal design. The tomb was relatively small, but with a deep shaft that was crossed by a single wooden bridge, and then a steep sloping tunnel at a sharp right angle leading to the burial chamber. Apparently, this was intended to deter grave robbers, but once again had failed to prevent the loss of the Pharaoh’s treasures. As we made our way down the dark, narrow tunnel, I couldn’t help but recall scenes from “Indian Jones and the Lost Ark”! Upon reaching the burial chamber, we discovered several stunning deep blue murals covering the walls and ceiling, with bright white stars representing the celestial sky to guide the Pharaoh on his journey to the underworld. (if only I could have taken photos!) After Mrs. Selwa told us the story of the Pharaoh and his rule over Egypt almost 4000 years ago, we exited the tomb and walked down a dusty path to the “Rest House”, a small café/snack bar, before continuing down the valley to the main entrance gate.

Valley of the Kings

Just outside the gate, the usual flock of vendors were eagerly hawking their wares. Soon a very chaotic scene ensued as they all vied for the attention of the tourists, many of whom were trying desperately to avoid being trapped in the melee. One of the vendors even had an Italian woman by the arm, trying to drag her back into his shop to buy an alabaster statue in which she had undoubtedly expressed some interest in buying! But now, she and her friend were trying to discourage the guy, even as he kept following them, constantly yelling another lower price! In desperation, they broke into a “run”, with the shopkeeper in hot pursuit, waving the statue. He ran after them all the way to their bus! What a mad, hilarious scene – as the bus pulled away, he just turned around and threw up his hands in exasperation. At that moment, I wished I had a video camera! Thankfully, our tour group, led by Mrs. Selwa, was able to avert the vendors. Despite their efforts to “trap” the tourists, in all honesty, they were “well mannered” in comparison to my experience with vendors in Morocco. It was a short walk to the ferry landing for the journey back across the river to the East Bank, the side of the living. There I was met by my American Express guide and driven back to the hotel to check out before the afternoon tour, which began with lunch on the terrace of the beautiful and historic “Winter Palace Hotel”, the oldest in Luxor. It had the faded elegance of a grand old lady. I savored a delicious dish of lamb shish kabobs and a cold beer, as I watched the sailboats on the river below. As soon as my lunch arrived, I was “mobbed” by a group of “hotel cats” looking for a handout. After lunch, I sat on the terrace and caught up on my travel notes about the trip to Abu Simbel and the Valley of the Kings, before joining the tour to the Temple of Luxor and the Great Temple of Amun/Karnack.

Approach to the Temple of Luxor
Temple of Luxor

As we approached the temples, we were struck by the sight of tall, massive stone columns, some of which were topped with enormous pylons inscribed with hieroglyphics. The columns formed a gateway to the inner temples where giant stone statues of Ramses sat in silence.

Temple of Amun/Karnack
Columns at the Temple of Luxor
Obelisk
Statue of Ramses IV

Near the perimeter of the temples were several tall obelisks and the remnants of many ancient stone walls which had formed the foundation of a large village, long since passed into history. Strolling among the giant columns and statues was a humbling experience, as well as a testament to the exceptional building skills of the ancient Egyptians.

Temple of Luxor
Temple of Luxor
Giant Columns in the temple
Hieroglyphics carved in the stone 3000 years ago

As evening approached, it was time to head to the railway station for the journey back to Cairo, another 12-hour overnight trip. Once again, I had a very nice private compartment aboard the Pullman train, including a delicious dinner served by the car porter.

Train to Cairo

The train followed the Nile River north and rolled quietly into the night, passing numerous small villages and extensive fields. Sleep overtook me somewhere north of Asyut, and I awoke early the next morning as the train approached the outskirts of Cairo. While I enjoyed breakfast on the train, I reflected upon the amazing and spectacular ancient sights I had been fortunate to visit over the past three days. I knew for certain, from now on, I would have a much deeper knowledge and appreciation of ancient Egyptian history and culture – a truly remarkable time in the history of the world!

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Bermuda – A British Overseas Territory and A World Away

Over the years I’ve made three trips to Bermuda.

Map of Bermuda

[June 1985]  My first trip was in June of 1985 at the conclusion of my first software training class for Esri in Washington, DC. Having spent two long, exhausting weeks conducting training for the US Geological Survey, I was really looking forward to a short vacation. Back in 1975, when Marion and I arrived in the States from England, we spent a few days in New York with her long-time family friends Rolf and Vickie. They had invited us to visit them at their summer home in Bermuda, and at last, I had the opportunity to accept their invitation, although it was ten years later. An invitation to stay with a resident of Bermuda is very special, since accommodations on the island are quite limited. The day after my training class ended, I was up early at 5am for the flight to Boston and on to Bermuda. That afternoon, I arrived in Bermuda to find hot, sunny, humid weather, typical for the island in the summer. After passing through Customs and Immigration, I was met outside the terminal by Rolf, dressed in a white linen suit and tropical pith helmet – looking very “official”! We drove to his home, at the island wide speed limit of 25mph, and arrived at “Fiddler’s Roost”, the name given to the estate by Rolf. It was a gorgeous white washed Spanish Colonial style house located near the summit of Knapton Hill overlooking the sea – with spectacular views! It had thick stone walls, marble floors, lots of French doors opening on to several terraces and patios, and high ceilings of beautiful Cedar beams. It surrounded a lovely pool and colorful tropical garden – such a marvelous, peaceful, and relaxed setting, almost idyllic!

“Fiddler’s Roost”
“Fiddler’s Roost”

Later in the day I joined Vickie as she took her daughter to the airport for the return flight to New York. On the way back to Fiddler’s Roost, we took a short tour of St. George’s, a classic English style village, established in 1609 as Bermuda’s first capitol. Most of the buildings in the old village were painted beautiful pastel colors, with white washed roofs, on narrow cobble stone streets having curious old English names, like “Auntie Peggy’s Lane” and “Needle and Thread Alley”. The town square had been restored to its original condition when whalers had visited the island in the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition, St. Catherine’s Fort and St. David’s Lighthouse were preserved  from the same era. Touring the old village was like stepping back in time!

St. George’s
Town Square in St. George’s
St. Catherine’s Fort

Then we picked up Rolf’s nephew Oliver and his Irish girlfriend “George” (Georgina) at the Club Med. As we drove back home, we passed countless mopeds and bicycles, but few cars, primarily because the number of cars allowed on the is strictly regulated. According to Vickie, it could take 2 – 3 years to obtain a permit for a car. Needless to say, there were no rental car companies on the island, but plenty of places to rent mopeds and bicycles. Along the way, we also passed a large US Naval Air Station – must be a pretty tough duty station! (Although locals refer to the “island”, Bermuda is actually a collection of several small ancient volcanic islands connected by causeways, enabling one to drive the entire “country”) Late in the afternoon, there were a few tropical showers, but by evening, the cool air from the ocean was perfect for a leisurely supper of cold meats, fresh fruit, and warm crusty French bread. As we sat on the terrace overlooking the sea, the sweet fragrance of Honeysuckle and Jasmine drifted around us on a gentle breeze. Such a peaceful, relaxed feeling surrounded us in the garden, under the light of a full moon. That night, I lay in bed listening to the soft chirping of the tree frogs and the rush of wind in the trees – a timeless moment!

The Terrace

The next morning, I awoke to a beautiful, sunny day and joined everyone for breakfast beside the pool. Later, Rolf drove me down to “Devil’s Hole Cycles” to rent a moped so I could explore the island on my own. Driving on the left was a bit scary for the first 20 minutes or so, but with everyone going only 25 mph, it soon became easy and enjoyable. In the afternoon, I drove into Hamilton, the main town of Bermuda, bustling with activity. There were hundreds of mopeds, and a lot of businessmen dressed in coat, tie and “Bermuda shorts” – so classic and very British. Moored in the harbor were two huge cruise ships, preparing to “unleash” their cargo of thousands of tourists upon the town. I did some shopping among the mostly British stores and stopped in a local pub for a cold Ginger beer. Then I boarded the ferry for a short trip across the bay to the small town of Somerset. The journey followed a scenic route through several small islands, on some of which were beautiful homes overlooking the bay. Once I arrived in Somerset village, I decided to have lunch at the “Country Squire”, a lovely outdoor café on the shore of the bay. Scores of multi-colored sailboats and yachts were anchored in the bay, shimmering in the warm mid-day sunshine, surrounded by clear, aquamarine water.

The Ferry from Hamilton
Islands in the bay on the way to Somerset Village
The “Country Squire Pub”
Boats anchored in the bay

After lunch, I walked to Cambridge Beach, a gorgeous arc of pink sand and crystal clear blue water. Beautiful tropical flowers of red, purple, and yellow lined the edge of the beach.

Cambridge Beach – Somerset Parish

Back in the village, I stopped at a small shop called “Trimingham’s” to purchase a gift for Rolf and Vickie, a replica of the “Sea Venture” – a ship that was bound for Jamestown, Virginia in 1609. However, it encountered a severe storm at sea and wrecked on the coast of St. George’s Island, and from this accident came the first European settlement of Bermuda. On my way back to Hamilton, I took the “back roads” for mopeds only. The route passed many beautiful bays and beaches along the south shore of the island, where waves of brilliant aquamarine water crashed upon soft pink sand beaches, in long, frothy white crests – some of the most beautiful beaches as I’ve seen anywhere! I stopped to visit “Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse”, located on the highest point of the island. I climbed the 189 steps of the old spiral staircase to the top, where I met the lighthouse keeper. As I walked around the narrow catwalk, the views of the entire island (aka country) were spectacular.

Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse
View from the lighthouse

Upon returning to Knapton Estate, I joined Oliver and Georgina in the pool, to cool off in the hot, humid weather. Later, as evening approached, Rolf invited Oliver and me to join him in his study as he listened to the daily financial report on BBC World Service radio. The world’s metal prices were of particular interest to Rolf and Oliver, as they trade in concentrated ore futures. Afterwards, with cold drinks in hand, we all sat down to dinner, a local chicken and rice dish that was a specialty of Bermuda. Dinner was a special affair as we sat around the table, overlooking the ocean, sharing stories and adventures. With the sun slowly setting and a cool evening breeze softly brushing past us, it was a most relaxing dinner. And as the evening progressed, we all moved out to the terrace for coffee and dessert by candlelight. Looking upon the sea, the moonlight “shimmered” across the water, and the little tree frogs kept us company as we talked about many current topics – everything from world politics and the arms race to life’s most embarrassing moments. Finally, the gentle evening breeze from the moonlit sea, rocked me to sleep in my room.

The following morning, I awoke to sunshine streaming through the open bedroom window, along with a fresh ocean breeze. Breakfast was fresh papaya and lime beside the pool with Rolf and Vickie. As we basked in the warm tropical sun, little multi-colored lizards scampered among the plants in the garden. Finally, it came the time to pack my bags and reluctantly take a long, last look at the brilliant blue sea and the beautiful tropical flowers. I said my farewells to Oliver and Georgina , as they lay on their air mattresses in the pool.

Georgina and Oliver in the pool

Vickie drove me to the airport, past a stunning landscape of deep blue lagoons and bright pastel pink houses. All too soon, I was aboard a new Delta Airlines L1011 aircraft bound for Atlanta. As the huge jet lifted off and I gazed upon the islands, surrounded by the azure blue sea, I knew would return someday soon.

[May 1988]  My second trip to Bermuda came in 1988 after a hectic business trip to Huntsville, Alabama. Early in the morning, after returning home from Huntsville the day before, I was aboard a Delta flight to Boston. Since I arrived after the only daily flight from Boston to Bermuda, I spent the night at the Logan Airport Hilton Hotel. The next morning, I boarded the Delta flight to Bermuda, not yet having heard from Rolf or Vickie. I suspected they were still at their home in Scarsdale, New York. When I arrived in Bermuda, I called their home and received the message that they indeed were in New York and not expected to be in Bermuda until the day after my departure from the island – unfortunately bad timing! So I checked with the “Accommodations Bureau” at the airport and was able to book a nice room at the “Serenity Guest House” in the village of Paget, on one of the south shore beaches. After a short taxi ride, I checked into the guest house and then grabbed my camera for a day of exploring the island. I soon discovered a beautiful, lonely trail that followed the path of the old, abandoned “Bermuda Railway”. It originally ran from one end of the country to the other, some 50 years ago. Hiking along the trail, I was able to see some of the more remote parts of the island that tourists rarely see.

Bermuda Railway Trail

At one point I left the trail and walked down to Warwick Long Bay Beach, the longest, and regarded by many, as the most beautiful beach. I took off my hiking boots and strolled along the beach, the warm sand and cool water making for a very pleasant experience. Later, as evening approached, I went for dinner at the “Sea Horse Grill” in the nearby “Elbow Beach Hotel”. The fresh grilled shrimp salad was delicious as I sat on the terrace overlooking the ocean and the beach below. The hotel was among the earliest to be built in Bermuda, and remains a stunning structure of old local limestone, atop the cliff above Elbow Beach. After dinner, I went to the “Sea Horse Pub” in the hotel for a cold gin tonic and listened to a very funny British performer singing “rude” songs that delighted the older folks in the audience. On the way back to the guest house, I picked a few flowers to freshen up my room.

Warwick Long Bay Beach
Elbow Beach Hotel

The next morning, I arose rather late, most likely due to my biological clock being 4 hours behind the Atlantic time zone. I spent most of the day in Hamilton, exploring the shops and galleries. For lunch, I stopped at the “Cock and Feather Pub”, where I enjoyed a delicious local, spicy fish stew, as I sat at a table overlooking Hamilton’s main street.

Main Street in Hamilton
Hamilton Harbor

Meanwhile, several colorfully decorated horse-drawn carriages passed by, carrying their tourist guests from the huge cruise ships docked in the harbor. Returning to the guest house that evening, I walked over to the Elbow Beach Hotel for another delicious dinner of fresh grilled fish, followed by a drink in the Sea Horse Bar. Early the next morning, I hiked another section of the Railway Trail to Hodson’s Ferry, by way of Tribe Road #4 and Chapel Road. Along the trail I passed through large expanses of gorgeous blue Morning Glory and bright red Oleander blossoms. In Many places, the trail became a narrow lane, framed on both sides by old rock walls – very quaint.

Bermuda Railway Trail

When I reached Hodson’s Ferry landing, I boarded the small ferry for a short journey to Hamilton town, by way of Salt Kettle. After some shopping in Hamilton, I took the number 11 bus to St. George’s, an hour’s ride along the north shore. At one of the bus stops, a small group of Rastafarians were gathered. As the bus pulled to a stop, a guy in the back of the bus leaned out of the window and yelled “Hey Bro – hit me with a lick”! He was handed a cold beer as the bus pulled away. All along the journey, passengers were constantly leaning out the window and shouting greetings to people on the street as the bus passed – the very epitome of a “local” bus! At one point, the bus made a stop at the American Naval Air Station, where the main gate was guarded by two young Marines – what a tough duty station they must have! At last we arrived in the old village of St. George’s, where two huge cruise ships were docked. The village center was crawling with thousands of pink pastel pants and flowered shirts (aka tourists). In an effort to escape the crowd, I spotted the historic “White Horse Tavern” on the waterfront, where I enjoyed a delicious lunch, while overlooking St. George’s harbor.

St. George’s Harbor

After lunch, as the crowd headed back to their ships, I explored the old town and passed many small, interesting shops, such a “Cow Molly” and “Mama Angie’s”. The narrow, quaint cobble stone streets had curious names, like “Shinbone Alley”, Printer’s Lane”, and “Old Maid’s Row”. On a small hill overlooking the village was an old abandoned church – walking among the ruins of the church was a bit of a strange feeling.

Old abandoned church

Nearby was old Fort William, also known as Fort Victoria, where the gunpowder magazine had once been used to store ammunition for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Now it’s a trendy pub, deep under the massive rock walls. Later in the afternoon, I visited the “Confederate States Museum” housed in the historic Old Globe Hotel, an important headquarters for the Confederate States during the Civil War. From here, the Confederates managed the shipment of cotton to England and war materials to the South. It was a fascinating look at a part of little known American history, of which few Americans are aware.

Old Fort William
Ethiopian Orthodox Church – St. George’s Parish

I returned to the White Horse Tavern for a pint of traditional English bitters, before boarding the bus back to Hamilton and the ferry to Hodson’s. That evening I returned to the Elbow Beach Hotel for a superb dinner of fresh, local broiled grouper. Afterwards, I went to the bar and caught the “naughty” songs show again – still very funny! On my walk back to the Serenity Guest House, the tree frogs serenaded me under a dark sky filled with millions of bright stars.

The following morning, I did some last minute shopping in Hamilton to find a wedding gift for my sister. As I strolled around the town, I hated to leave Bermuda and such a beautiful relaxed pace, knowing that I would be returning to a hectic pace of life at work back home. However, as the Delta flight departed the island, I once again felt that I would return someday!

[July 1991]  On my third trip to Bermuda, I was fortunate to be able to invite my dear friend Leslie to accompany me on a complimentary Delta Airlines First Class ticket. And this time we would be staying with Rolf and Vickie at “Fiddler’s Roost”. Our flight to Bermuda included a stopover in Boston again, where we stayed at the Logan Airport Hilton Hotel. As we were leaving the hotel the next morning, we encountered members of the heavy metal band “Poison” in the elevator. They had been hired to play for a large wedding the night before, and as we all stood in the elevator, the contrast in cultures was dramatically apparent – but everyone took it in stride! After having coffee and pastries in the Delta Airlines Crown Room, we boarded the L1011 aircraft for the flight to Bermuda. Rolf met us upon arrival, still looking “chipper” at age 79, dressed in his signature white linen suit and pith helmet. We chatted all the way home, and Vickie welcomed us with open arms. She showed us to the flat (apartment) downstairs, a lovely place where we could be alone to come and go as we pleased.

The “apartment”
The Pool – Fiddler’s Roost

We spent the afternoon lying around the pool, catching up on reading and napping as a result of the 4 hour time change. The weather absolutely perfect, with lots of sunshine and a gentle ocean breeze. That evening, Vickie prepared a delicious dinner and we chatted on the terrace as we enjoyed the beautiful views of the ocean and gorgeous sunset.

The next morning, as we enjoyed breakfast beside the pool, Rolf reminded us of the need to conserve water, due to a severe shortage across the country. Bermuda depends almost entirely upon rainfall for its fresh water supply, and in fact, every house is designed so as to capture rain on a limestone roof and store it in cisterns beneath the house. We spent another leisurely day around the estate before joining Rolf and Vickie for another fantastic dinner on the terrace overlooking the ocean. The usual evening “routine” was to “freshen up”, have drinks, watch the BBC evening news, and then sit down for dinner by candlelight on the terrace, as a gentle evening breeze from the ocean surrounded us. Coffee, liqueurs, and stories rounded out the evening. Leslie and I usually stayed up late, sitting on our patio, watching the stars, listening to the surf crashing on the beach below, and enjoying the caress of a warm ocean breeze – pure bliss!

On the patio

The following day, Rolf had arranged for a moped to be delivered for us, and I was given detailed operating instructions by Rolf. It was a two-seater model so that Leslie and I could “motor” around the island together. It took me a bit of time to get my “sea legs”, and Leslie was very patient about not being a “back seat driver”. In the afternoon, we drove to the Elbow Beach Hotel for a drink and then on to Horseshoe Bay Beach for a leisurely stroll in the surf along the gorgeous pink coral sand beach!

Horseshoe Bay Beach – Southampton Parish
Horseshoe Bay Beach

From there, we went via the ferry to Somerset Village and the Royal Navy Dockyards, at the far west of the island, to visit the Maritime Museum. It occupied a large portion of the old stone fort known as “The Keep”, and included the historic “Casemate Barracks”, once used as a prison in the 19th century. The “Citadel” still had old naval guns from the 19th century, mounted on massive ramparts to protect the harbor and docklands.

Old Naval Guns mounted on the ramparts

The interior of the museum preserved the huge gunpowder magazines, with their high arched red brick walls and ceilings, where ammunition had been stored. Today, fascinating historical displays and exhibits line their walls. We spent a couple of hours exploring the museum and just scratched the surface of Bermuda history. Originally, we had planned to take the 6:35pm ferry back to Hamilton, but since the museum closed at 5pm, we decided to take the 5:15pm ferry instead. And it was a good thing we did so, because it was the Queen’s birthday and the ferries were running on a holiday schedule. Had we waited until 6:35pm, we would have missed the last ferry of the day! That evening, we joined Rolf and Vickie for dinner on the terrace, as the sound of the surf played in the background, and a gentle breeze surrounded us. Leslie and I spent the rest of the evening chatting on our patio, serenaded by the tree frogs. The next morning began with a lovely breakfast beside the pool, after which, we packed our bags for the return to California. As Rolf drove us to the airport, we felt sad to leave the beautiful, private world of Bermuda. But we had many wonderful memories and lovely pictures to take home with us! (I’m sure another trip to Bermuda awaits us)

 

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