|After spending 3 weeks across 5 countries in the Middle East, Della and I find ourselves in the decidely non-Middle Eastern city of Budapest...AND IT'S AWESOME! (This is not to say that the time in the Middle East wasn't great, because it was, but there's just something about a good old European city.)
The city itself is a treasure enough. Like any guide book will tell you, there are beautiful buildings, the Danube River (and its spectacular bridges), statues, and of course the city's thermal springs fed baths. After a visit to these baths*, we could see why they are so popular, esp. after Della and I nearly froze our buns off sightseeing our way around town.
But what made our visit to Budapest so much better was having wonderful hosts, Horge and Isabel. They housed us, fed us*, showed us the city and taught us everything we could possibly want to know with one exception...
Me: Hey, do you know if there is a circus in town?
Isabel: Uh, I think there was an Italian circus that came through a while ago, but probably not currently.
Budapest International Circus Festival Poster: On now...and tomorrow's the last day!
Click, beep, boop, bop, click
Me: Arlight, Della, we've got tickets to a 3.5 hour awesome circus show tomorrow
So, on our last day of our whirlwind 10+ country semi-unsuccessful-but-still-totally-awesome-winter-dodging adventure, we unexpectedly found ourselves enjoying a world class circus show with full bellies and full hearts. (It served as a nice bookend together with the world class Big Apple Circus we saw on our very first day of this adventure.)
Our brief stop in Budapest was just what good travel should be: new sights and experiences, good good people, and a little bit of magic*. Super thanks to Horge and Isabel for making our time great (and for being the reason to stop through). And thanks to Lady Luck for providing excitement along the way!
|Thursday January 21 2016||File under: travel, Europe|
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|Wadi Rum in southern Jordan isn't an oasis by the "look at these date palms and bountiful spring in the middle of the desert" sense. It's dry like you would expect a desert to be dry. But after the less than stellar experiences in our short visit to Jordan, the serenity and comfort of Wadi Rum felt like an oasis to us.
For our visit, we booked a night at a Bedouin camp along with a 4x4 tour of the area, with all meals and transportation included*. Our goal for the trip was to just spend the night in the desert, so we were a hard sell on the 4x4 tour, but it turned out to be awesome. We rode around in the back of a pick-up from site to site. We stopped at sand dunes, Lawrence of Arabia's "house", great rock formations, and, in general, just enjoyed the beauty of it all.
Since we were there off season*, our camp was practically deserted*, just us and 1 other traveler. Our tents were super comfy and we spent the evening around a fire inside a communal tent listening to the desert silence. The evening treated us to a gorgeous sunset. We went to bed very happy.
They say the desert has healing properties and I can see why. The calmness and beauty helped us wash away (or at least get the larger chunks off) our other Jordan experiences. If time and budget permitted, I would have stayed another week, spending the days meandering around the rock outcroppings and sitting and listening to the natural world. But, alas, we had a plane to catch, so back to the real world it was (with a stop along the way to look at camels). But the short time out in the desert at Wadi Rum refilled my precipitously low traveler's tank with wonder and excitement readying me for the final leg of this epic adventure. Thank you Wadi Rum!
|Friday January 15 2016||File under: travel, Jordan|
|There's no doubt about it: Petra, that lost city in Jordan of buildings carved into stone amongst narrow picture-esque canyons, is amazing. It's beautiful, magical, breath taking, and one of a kind. You can't go and not come away with some amazing pictures (see below). And you'll probably remember your visit for the rest of your life. But despite all that, I can't say for certain that I'm glad I went. There were just too many downsides to the experience. In short, it was a bad value.
Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason. But it the most expensive UNESCO World Heritage by a long shot—more than the pyramids, Angkor Wat, and the Taj Mahal COMBINED! Sure it's just money, and if it were money that felt like it went to something good, it would be different. But the way it seems to me, Jordan just uses Petra as a built in ATM machine, gouging cash from tourists to be spent on anything but maintaining, preserving, and policing the site.
After our visit, Della and I made a list of grievances we plan to pass along to the park. It includes such things as poor treatment of animals, heavy [and rude] harassment by the vendors, extra charges for supposedly included features (bathrooms for example), lack of any sort of authoritative presence (to report abuses to), local hucksters running amok (playing their boom-boxes while donkey racing through the streets, climbing atop the priceless monuments), and, of course, the exorbitant fee.
What does all this mean? I can't, in good conscience, recommend that you go out of your way to see Petra. If you do, you'll see some spectacular buildings carved into stone, bedrock of amazing colors, narrow canyons that were traversed for millennia, and bits of history that are better preserved than maybe anywhere else on earth. But you also might go away feeling like you've just supported something that you don't feel good about, and that's not fun.
|Wednesday January 13 2016||File under: travel, Jordan|
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|Any traveler worth his salt knows that international borders can be trouble spots. Being a bit of a salty traveler myself, I know this. That is why I do my research: online forums, official websites, travel guidebooks, and more. But, as it turns out, no matter how prepared you think you are, you can still get screwed.
See me in this picture? I'm smiling, ready for the next country on this grand adventure. An hour previous, we had just smoothly sailed through the Egypt/Israel border at Taba which was rumored to be a grueling one. All my research suggested that the Israel/Jordan border at Eilat was to be even easier. Aqaba is part of a free economic trade zone so visitors can enter without a visa provided they yada yada. We were fully yada yada compliant so I was looking forward to smiling "Welcome to Jordan" and being sent on our way. Alas, it was not to be.
Three days previous to our crossing, new border rules went into effect. No word was put out ahead of time of the upcoming rule changes. No contingency plans were put in place to help those travelers put in a pickle by the new rules. In what we sadly came to know as a typically Jordan way of doing things, it was just done willy nilly without much consideration towards the visitor.
As you might imagine, we weren't the only ones arriving at the border being told "Due to the new rules changes you couldn't have known about, you have to go back to Israel and apply for a visa that might get granted as early as tomorrow if you're lucky." If this had been said with an apologetic tone and a sincere attempt at trying everything they could, I might have considered complying. Instead, I suggested that I stay put, sleeping on the couch of the border office if necessary, until they could sort it out themselves. They didn't like this.
And so it escalated: trickery, lies, stern works, and even threats of imprisonment, first from the lowlies and then from the higher ups. And as this is all escalating, more would-be tourists are joining the fray, each attempting their own devices to secure entry: pleading, reasoning, appealing to compassion. Nothing seemed to be working. Until, in chatting with the border guy about how stupid this was, I learned that just yesterday, they let a couple in through a process of buying a Jordan Pass online, What's App-ing some files around, then paying a runner to get said files printed and delivered back to the border. "Hmmm....that would have been helpful to know...3 hours ago." Now we had a unified purpose.
So ensued a scramble to find a smart phone with local service to buy said Jordan Passes, credit cards that could be used for the extortive amount, coordination of passport numbers, currency exchanges, a runner to print stuff, etc. Being cell-phoneless and of the mind that too many cooks in the kitchen...I left Della with the passports and money and went off to breathe. Or, to be more specific, to juggle.
It turns out, the government populace of the Jordanian border crossing at Aqaba are really interested in juggling. It started with the lowlies coyly watching while smoking their 23rd cigarette of our saga. Then they gestured for tricks to be repeated, called their friends over, and tricks repeated again. Soon, the previously "I'll drag you off to jail" guy takes me and hauls me into the Major's office to show off my stuff. He is entertained and invites me to share tea. A conversation ensues (through interpretation of the once-gruff underling) where-in I explain the research I did, the trouble their rule change has caused, and some simple suggestions on how to fix it ("perhaps a sign on the Israel border to alert travelers to the new rules would save people having to pay $30 to exit Israel only to be returned 20 minutes later, not to mention the loss of a day or more").
At this point, Della comes looking for me partly for the need of more money and partly to make sure I wasn't being severely beaten. I used this as a graceful exit point from the Major's office (as the conversation had devolved into admiring the automatic dolma rolling machine that was being advertised on the TV in the corner). She informed me that project "Extortion via Jordan Pass" was proceeding well and we should be Jordan bound within 3 hours. To pass the time, I roped her into doing our juggling routine first for the guards and then for our fellow stranded travelers. It went over swimmingly.
After a time, the printed passes arrived and were slowly processed. The eight of us that stuck to our guns to find a way through finally filtered off into Jordan via over-priced taxis into the night. Della and I were forced to spend 2 days' budget (on top of all the border monies) to catch back up to our plan of making it to Wadi Musa to prepare for seeing Petra the following morning. But as the adrenaline subsided, the stewing anger grew. Never did anyone say "Sorry about this" or even "Welcome to Jordan". It was almost as if it were more of a "Well boys, let's fuck over some people again tomorrow".
I'd like to say that some time in Jordan made up for the bad border experience. And maybe it will. But, as the saying goes, you never get a second change to make a first impression. And my first impression of Jordan couldn't be worse.
|Friday January 8 2016||File under: travel, jordan|
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|I'll be blunt: Egypt needs your tourist dollar. They've had a thriving tourist industry (for good reason!), one on which many people relied, for many many years*. Then, Arab Spring, the downing of that Russian passenger plane, and some pretty rough media coverage of isolated occurrences of violence and tourism all but dried up. That has left the country really hurting and many of the sites that tourist dollars go to help maintain, protect, and further uncover unfunded. In talking with folks here, they ask us, the few Americans they see, to tell people Egypt is worthwhile and good. And that's what I want to do.
Egypt is pretty awesome. Obviously the history can't be overlooked—pyramids, tombs, temples, hieroglyphs, artifacts, that crazy ancient Egyptian art where perspective is a little crazy but so recognizable. It's something we've all seen parodied or copied our whole lives, but this is the real stuff...and it's really really cool. But the history stuff is probably the first thing that people think of when they think of travel in Egypt*. But there's so much more.
There's diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea. There's gorgeous vistas over the River Nile(!). There's culture and food and desert and pleasant weather! And the people are so nice! On the street, it never fails if we have a map out or look confused, someone stops to ask us if we need help. Granted, occasionally it comes with a pitch to use their travel agency, have a look in their shop, or otherwise get an "appreciation". But often not. And even if, when you politely decline, they wish you a happy new year and you're on your way. Really, there's kind of a lot going for this place.
And guess what... it's cheap! Della and I will end up averaging about $30/day each (including meals, hotels, in-country travel, admission fees, etc.). And that's living pretty high. Our current hotel has a pool (Yasmina in Dahab, I highly recommend it!). We eat well. We see all the things we're supposed to see (and even more*). We even take the occasional taxi! All for about what life costs back home.
It feels good knowing that my tourist dollars are going to people that need them. In planning to come here, people warned us off and generally were aghast at the idea. I'm so glad we didn't listen* and came anyway. We've had a wonderful time. Egypt was happy to have us. It's win win! So please consider putting Egypt back on your travel horizon. They will thank you.
|Sunday January 3 2016||File under: travel, Egypt|
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Instead of booking a tour of the Giza pyramids (like we did for Luxor's Valley of the Kings and surrounding areas (which we were so glad we did!)), Della and I decided to metro*->bus->mini-bus out and spend the day being goofy. It was much better than the quick one hour "look at this, take a picture of this, here's a camel, let's go" we might have otherwise ended up with. And we got to hang out and just take dumb pictures however it struck our fancy. Yeehaw!
Speaking of photos, it turns out Americans, esp. stylish American women like Della are celebrities. We spent about the first hour getting mobbed by kids (and even their teachers!) wanting their picture with us, shaking our hands, and practicing their 2 or 3 English phrases. Della was the perfect ambassador for America, patiently posing and asking each of them their name in response (which can be hard when there are hoards of them). Sometimes the group of photo-seekers is smaller and we can even sit and attempt to chat for a minute.
And it wasn't just kids. Parents would prod their super shy 4-year old to go pose with the American. Or a group of twenty-somethings asking if Della is an actress and the women kissing* her on the cheek as a goodbye* after photos all around. I was roped into my fair share, but I tried to hang back when I could and watch the craziness.
The celebrity photo status thing hasn't just been at the pyramids. Pretty much every where we have gone in Egypt, it's been pointing then giggling then getting up the courage to gesture "Can I get a picture with you?". So crazy, but in a great, flattering way. When they aren't trying to sell you something*, we've found Egyptians to be so incredibly friendly!
We ended up spending over 4 hours wandering around the grounds of the Pyraminds, munching on snacks literally sitting on the immense steps of Khafre's pyramid, taking dumb photos of ourselves, and posing with locals. Afterwards, we relaxed at a restaurant across the street whose name I won't mention but it rhymes with Schmizza Nut. It did have a fabulous view, though. It was an experience that we could have never gotten from a guided tour and one to be remembered!
|Wednesday December 30 2015||File under: travel, egypt|
|Our last 2 cruise stops have been in the country of Oman, a sultanate situated on the SE tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It was neat to visit an obscure* country that I knew very little about before this trip. While we did little beside goofing around, searching for internet, and what Della has affectionately dubbed 'Death Marches'*, it was nice to get at least a little bit of a feel for the place.
In Salalah, we took a very expensive* cab into town only to find, well, not much. I did find the prevalence of American chain restaurants with the names in Arabic to be rather interesting. At the McDonald's, Della snapped this photo of a bunch of fully covered ladies waiting in the "Ladies Only" line. What a clash of cultures!
In Salalah, we also go to go for a swim in the Arabian Sea. I was excited. At first Della, only dipped her feet in the sand. But in the end, she succumbed to the opportunity.
We found Muscat more amenable with clean streets, helpful signs, and a few neat things to see. The king's palace was nice. And I was able to complete my collection of Omani money* which has been a project of mine in each country we visit.
Who knows, someday I might it back to Oman. I know there is still a lot to see and I know it would be a pleasant time. But for now, I have a little bit more knowledge about a corner of the world I hardly imagined going to, and for me, that's pretty neat.
|Wednesday December 23 2015||File under: travel, cruise|
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|The day we transitted the Suez canal was very hazy. I can't say if it was smog, fog, or some desert version of thick-air that I've never heard of. But luckily, the Canal from edge to edge was easily visible and from the brief glimpses we got, there mostly wasn't much to see beyond besides random outpost and lots of desert.
Luckily, diminished visibilty did little to hamper the impression the canal made on me. It is another one of those places that I've heard about and known the general significance of forever, but to see it really makes it come alive. So all morning, I stood on the foredeck scurrying from one side to the other just taking it in. Occasionally there were fisherman or the lolling guard(?) on shore waving. And once there was a town more than just a conglomeration of concrete apartment buildings. But mostly, it was just a strip of ocean through the desert, made by untold amounts of labor and easing the transit of people and stuff unknown.
Now we're on the other side, in the Red Sea. While geographically not far from our last port, it feels further away, like by passing through the Suez canal we're on the other side of the world. For me, it represents new territory, not only the furthest east I've ever been, but to a whole new culture. And I'm excited.
|Saturday December 19 2015||File under: travel, cruise|
|Here are some photos from our last 3 ports of call. Della is a wizard with the instagram, so most of the shots are hers. (If you want to read what she has to say about the trip, check out here blog here.) We enjoy taking the photos. Hopefully you'll enjoy looking at them. (Captions giving context to each photo should appear when a photo is enlarged.)
|Sunday December 13 2015||File under: travel, Italy|
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|A Nice Day in Nice|
Transatlantic travel can plum tucker a person out, esp. when flying on the world's most budget transatlantic carrier*. So I was expecting our brief overnight layover in Nice, France to be spent recuperating at the hotel and little more. But as happens when adventure is afoot, we found the energy to get out and explore and I'm glad we did.
Nice has a lovely promenade along the Mediterranean on which we stretched our legs. I can tell why the French Riviera is such a thing. Being beckoned by the giant Ferris Wheel, we found our way a square being done up wonderfully for Christmas. The public fountain was turned into a giant snow globe, there were nativities and Christmas trees everywhere, and lots of joyous people about. Seeing folks out and about after the tragedy so reently befell the country was warming.
In the morning, Della got to experience French coffee and a croissant as a nice "welcome to Europe". Then we packed our bags to catch a train to Italy where our cruise ship awaited, ending our short nice stay in Nice. Hopefully someday I will be back with more than an evening to spend and significantly less jet leg.
Roaming Around Rome
About 12 years ago, I spent 2 or 3 nights in Rome. I remember it fondly, both the great monuments and museums, but also meandering around narrow streets and bumbling into public squares with random fountains. Having the opportunity to roam Rome again, albeit more abbreviated, proved to be awesome.
We saw the Colluseum and the Forum. We fought our way through the crowds at Trevi Fountain to toss our coin*. The Pantheon was again the highlight of my visit where we scored these awesome panoramas. St. Peter's Basilica had a line much to long to get into, but we sat in the Square and basked in the Vatican vibe. And between it all, we stumbled on random fountains, roamed back alley squares, and poked our head into little shops, and even found a penny smasher!
Six hours is hardly enough time to see all there is to see in Rome. We didn't even get to all the things I was hoping to see. And in our roaming, we stumbled on another handful of things I'll be excited to check out next time I'm in town*. But there is something about the place which makes anytime spend in Rome good time. And Della and I sure had a good time. We came. We saw. We roamed.
|Monday December 7 2015||File under: travel, Italy|
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