With square dancing finished for the season, we drove to California to visit family and friends. Kids and grandkids were busy but we managed to see and visit with everyone. We saw Rico playing T-ball and Selina went to the Father-Daughter Dance. They are growing so fast. Selina is quite the young lady. Rico is still the sporting enthusiast and discusses various sporting events with Grandpa like a pro. Spent a few evenings with good friends enjoying each other’s company.
We visited my cousins first in Edmond (left) and in Tulsa, Oklahoma (right) but the hot weather was catching up with us. Spent an afternoon at a Pecan Festival and did some genealogy stuff in Okmulgee, nothing too exciting but every little bit helps.
MISSOURI - ILLINOIS
We stopped in Branson, Missouri and saw Andy Williams’ Show, and also, Glen Campbell. They had a excellent productions. We enjoyed the huge campground on the Branson “yellow” ring, with all its facilities where we have stayed before. The morning we were leaving, I thought the steering column in our RV was making too much noise and handling funny. I got Ray to drive it a bit, and he agreed. We called for a service location and were referred to a dealer in Springfield, Missouri, 50 miles away. We both decided we didn’t want to drive that far without knowing the problem. Subsequently, we were referred to Branson RV, which was just a mile away. They couldn’t take us for another day, so we extended our stay, only to learn a few days later the vehicle was safe to drive, and they couldn’t determine and/or fix whatever the problem was. So off we went.
Continuing north, we made stops in Missouri and Illinois. We visited the Illinois-Michigan Canal in Utica, Illinois. First proposed by Louis Jolliet and Father Marquette in 1673, the canal connecting Lake Michigan with the Illinois and Mississippi rivers was not pursued in earnest until 1836. Immigrants from Ireland, Sweden, Germany and Poland, some of whom had worked on the Erie Canal, were brought in to dig the canal. When the 96 mile canal was completed in 1848, goods could be transported between New York City and New Orleans. Within ten years, Chicago’s population rose 600%. The railroads came through shortly after completion of the canal, and it was unable to compete with this faster means of transportation, so traffic quickly declined. In Chicago, the Stevenson Expressway was built on the canal alignment. The Chicago Portage National Historic Site is located in Chicago at Harlem Avenue and the Stevenson Expressway. This was commissioned after we moved from Chicago in 1979 but is located just a short distance from where we lived for quite a while.
We spent an afternoon at Starved Rock State Park near Utica. I always feel at home there, since my parents and grandparents visited the park for outings and picnics. Here’s a photo of my mother, father and grandfather with some friends taken at Starved Rock on June 7, 1936. My father is seated in front, my mother is to the right in white holding Dad’s hat. My grandfather is the guy in the back hidden behind my mother and her friend, Bobbi. The woman behind my father with the headband is my step-grandmother. In the background to the left is the Illinois Waterway, and you can see the dam across it.
The next photo is one we took 71 years and 12 days later from almost the same place on June 19, 2007 with the same dam there. Kind of fun, isn’t it?
From Utica we drove to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to the AACE (Academy for Advanced and Challenge Enthusiasts) for three days of dancing. We danced till we were weary and visited with friends from California, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The calling was great, and the dancing level was high. The dance was at an airport hotel, and we were fortunate enough to find a place for the RV just five miles away, so we had a very easy commute. All in all, it was well worth the trip.
One afternoon Robyn and I were with Keegan at a little park where he enjoyed the playground equipment. There was a little farm area adjacent with a barn and pond, and animals roaming wherever. We visited with the horse and donkey, then followed Keegan through the barn with various chickens and ducks. He came out of the barn and exclaimed, “Whale!” I looked over at the pond where a little fountain was spurting water for aeration and realized he thought that was a whale!
After visiting with Paul and family, we stopped to visit square dance friends in Flint, and played marathon bridge for several days. We also square danced a couple of evenings with them. It was a nice visit, and while there we decided to attend the upcoming dance in York, Pennsylvania. So we shifted directions and headed that way.
A stay in Wapakoneta, Ohio put us in the hometown of Neil Armstrong, so we rushed (well maybe not rushed) to the local Armstrong Air and Space Museum. The museum was housed in a impressive structure built into a hill with a dome auditorium as its center. We were amazed at the number of astronauts who were from Ohio–twenty-seven were listed. I’m not sure how many in total there have been since the 1960's, but that seems like a large number to me.
Ray had never visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and it had been 33 years since I was there, so we put it on our itinerary. A huge new Visitor Center at this National Historic Site offers a host of services, including a narrated tour of the battlefield on CD’s. There were many other tours available, including buses, open air, and a private guide of your own. We chose the CDs and did it at our own pace.
The CD followed a marked auto route that took us through the four day battle. We stopped at monuments dedicated to the brigades, etc. that fought or camped there. The battle strategies and the battle itself were narrated in detail. Before the tour we thought the monuments were just scattered throughout the battlefield, but we learned that wasn’t the case at all.
The stunning bronze of North Carolina Soldiers is one of many Confederate monuments throughout the battlefield and concentrated along the Confederate lines. Most of the monuments were erected shortly after the Civil War, and because of the economic straits in the south, Army of the Potomac monuments far outnumber those of the Confederacy for this reason. Additionally, the battlefield was closer to the Northern states.
The enormity of this battle still astounds me. Fifty-one thousand soldiers died in the four day battle. The Civil War lasted four long years, and the total number of casualties was 1,100,392. The other four year war in our history was World War II, and total casualties in that were less than our Civil War - 1,076,245. Granted, there were some foreigners who fought in the Civil War, but still, most of the dead were Americans. What a tragic time in our history!
The Pennsylvania Monument is the grandest on the battlefield, and fittingly so. With the battle taking place on Pennsylvania soil, they supplied a disproportionate number of their young men in this battle. We took many photos of the battlefield monuments (click here for slideshow), and the National Park Service has photos online that employees have taken throughout various seasons, which we could not do..
The Eisenhower Farm at Gettysburg was still occupied by Mamie Eisenhower during my first visit there. Since her death in 1979 the farm has been administered by the National Park Service and is now a National Historic Site. Visits to the farm originate at the Gettysburg Visitor Center where a bus drives to the farm. Tours of the house with all its original furnishings are offered hourly and self guided tours of the rest of the farm are available. As a military family, the Eisenhowers resided at military locations and never owned any other home.
We arrived in York, Pennsylvania for a square dance with some great callers. The dance was downtown in an old hotel. The halls are tiny, so the number of dancers are limited. We danced in the C2 hall which held eight tight squares comfortably, but nine just about did us in. York, if you remember your American history, was the capital of our country for nine months from September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778. During this period of the Revolution the British occupied the capital of Philadelphia, and operations were moved to York. While in York, Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation and issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation. Today, York reminds me of a town lost in time somewhere in the 1950's.
From York to the City of Brotherly Love. Independence National Historical Park encompasses 45 acres in Philadelphia and includes 20 buildings of our colonial period. The Visitor Center alone is an imposing structure of 50,000 square feet which houses concierge services for Philadelphia visitors, historical exhibits, orientation films, tours and food. Free tickets to the Independence Hall enclave are obtained here. The tickets to this free area are to maintain a reasonable number of visitors to the site at one time.. View all of our Philadelphia photos here.
The Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House (known as Independence Hall) is where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were created and signed. Even if you are not an American History buff, you can’t help but be glad to be an American when visiting this site. There are a great number of foreign visitors to these sites, and I wonder what they think of us. Were we just rebels, or people who fought for freedom from an unjust ruler?
Carpenters’ Hall is just down the block from Independence Hall, and it was there that the First Continental Congress met in 1774. The Liberty Bell Center is an impressive building housing the Liberty Bell. Since the bell itself isn’t very large, the building consists primarily of information panels displaying the history and symbolism of the bell.
The Second Bank of the U.S. is a beautiful Greek Revival building modeled on the Parthenon. A plaque on the building describes its interesting history. The bank president and Henry Clay fought with President Andrew Jackson for control of the nation’s monetary system. As president, Jackson prevented the rechartering of the 2nd Bank in 1836, and the beautiful building served as the Philadelphia Custom House until 1934. Now it is a national portrait gallery with numerous late 18th and early 19th century portraits of important Americans.
Christ Church was the first parish of the Church of England in America. When America declared its independence, this church became the first American Episcopal Church. Built in 1727 its Georgian architecture features a steeple which was financed by a lottery organized by Benjamin Franklin. It was the tallest structure in the Colonies for 75 years. In addition to Franklin, George Washington, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Rush, Francis Hopkinson and many other Revolutionary leaders worshiped there. The pews of Franklin and Washington are marked with plaques commemorating their owners.
Christ Church Burial Ground contains the graves of five signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin.
Elfreth’s Alley is the country’s oldest residential street, and has been continuously occupied since 1713, and for the U.S., that’s a long time. The houses are well-maintained and seem minuscule compared to our homes of today. They are built adjacent to one another in what I could call row houses.
The entire historic section of Philadelphia is really quite tiny. We walked everywhere, and the distances were quite short. We stayed at an RV park in New Jersey and took a train right to downtown Philadelphia, thus avoiding the horrendous traffic of the city and the appalling price of parking. Our two round trip train tickets were far less than parking the car would have been. It was definitely the way to go.
Next stop, Valley Forge. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, the fighting with British troops was pretty dismal. The colonials had no army, and the British had the best one in the world. In December 1777 Washington decided to winter in Valley Forge, just a short distance from the British occupied Philadelphia. He brought 12,000 poorly trained soldiers to the site and had them build huts for their own shelter during the winter. Reconstructed huts show these living quarters of the soldiers, and volunteers demonstrate various aspects of their life there. Supplies for the troops were not steady, and the winter was a cold one. Two thousand men died from disease from supply shortages, exposure and poor sanitation.
Despite all this, a German officer, Baron von Steuben, trained the soldiers and brought a semblance of uniformity to the troops. So, by the time their six month encampment was finished, the Continental Army was a much more efficient fighting machine. Two “soldiers” demonstrated the method of loading and firing muskets that Von Steuben taught the soldiers. I have been reading John Jakes’ Bicentennial eight volume series on the Kent Family and enjoyed reading about Philip Kent as Jakes described him tearing open his paper cartridge and packing it into his musket in the exact same way the soldiers demonstrated. The rest of our Valley Forge photos are here.
When we left the Philadelphia area, we decided to spend some time in Delaware. We found an RV park and then drove to the Capital of Dover. The current capitol building is called Legislative Hall and was built in 1933. The earlier capitol, known as the Old State House, served as the capitol for 141 years. It was being renovated while we were there
Legislative Hall is a Georgian style building and pretty small by capitol building standards. Four security guards were at the screening entrance, and they dutifully searched our backpacks, etc. Since we were the only ones in the building, they were somewhat bored, and we chatted with them quite a bit. We had the run of the building and could go into the Senate and House chambers, as well as the governor’s office.
The Green or town square was the center of activity in this early American town, and it was here in the Golden Fleece Tavern on December 7, 1787 that Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution of the United States - hence its designation, The First State.
From Dover we returned to Pennsylvania and visited the legendary Poconos, the resort area just a two-hour drive from either New York City or Philadelphia. We stopped in a town called Milford and discovered not only the lovely scenery and ambience of the Poconos, but a National Historic Landmark run not by the National Park Service, but instead by the USDA Forest Service. Grey Towers was built in 1886 as a summer home by James Pinchot. James’ son, Gifford, studied forestry in college. Subsequently his friend, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him head of the newly created United States Forest Service. He worked to preserve the forests being devastated during this period and tripled the size of the national forests during his tenure. In 1963 Grey Towers was donated to the USDA Forest Service. It was used primarily for conferences and seminars for the forest service.
Gifford was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1922 and served two terms. During the depression many of the townsfolk were strapped financially. He knew people were too proud to accept charity, so Gifford offered $5.00 to anyone who brought a millstone from the town’s mill up to his estate. The millstones can be seen in multiple places as decorative items. See all of our Grey Towers photos here.
Another fascinating feature at Grey Towers is The Finger Bowl. This shallow raised pool is under a latticed roof and features a wide ledge around its edge. This was the dining table used by the Pinchots. Food was placed in wooden bowls in the pool and passed through the water by giving the bowls a little shove. It was a delightful place and must have been delightful for their guests.
Oh, and for those who have asked, I looked at the list of National Parks (Monuments, Landmarks, Sites, etc.) we have visited, and to date it is 63 in the U.S.
Continuing North, we stopped in New York at Seneca Falls and visited the Womenís Rights National Historical Park. In the block where the first convention took place in 1848, the visitor center commemorates the women who organized the convention and other women who engaged in the various movements for womenís rights. Established in 1980, this park is "one of the few national parks dedicated to a social reform movement." Only two walls of Wesleyan Chapel remain standing, and the homes of some of the organizers in both Seneca Falls and Waterloo are part of the park. Photos here.
After Seneca Falls we went on to Niagara where we celebrated our 49th anniversary having dinner at a lovely restaurant in Lewiston overlooking the Niagara River. It was rainy and nasty while we were there, so we didnít pay the falls a visit.
We left New York and traveled through Ontario into Michigan where we stopped for a couple of days for a quick visit with Paul’s family. On our way out of Michigan we stopped in the capital of Lansing to visit the Michigan State Capitol, a beautifully restored building which was originally built in 1879. The capitol was modeled after the United States Capitol with a cast iron dome which came to be the model for many state houses. Built shortly after the devastation of the Civil War, the architect found it necessary to do some cost cutting, but the design was not limited by this. Magnificent “marble” columns in the entrance echo the opulent Victorian age, but they are, in fact, cast iron columns hand painted to mimic marble. “Walnut” woodwork and wainscoting lining walls are actually pine transformed into walnut by skilled painting.
Twenty cast metal chandeliers hang throughout the capitol. They feature an elk and shield design inspired by the Michigan coat of arms. The chandeliers were originally gas, but now are electric and like all other fixtures in the building have no wall switches. With the full restoration of the building completed in 1992 everything in the building was computerized. Follow this link for the rest of our photos.
From New York we made our way to the Oregon coast where we spent time in Florence before joining our friends in Charleston for our annual holiday together. We all had a great time visiting, cooking, eating, fishing, and, of course, playing pinochle. Here we are at a dinner at the local restaurant
We departed Phoenix at a reasonable time on November 24th and flew to Dulles Airport in D.C. The flight was uneventful, and we arrived in time to make the change to our Trans-Atlantic one hour later with no difficulty. Ray always worries about close connections like that when we’re making necessary connections. The flight to Rome was long and cozy (or should I say cramped?) since we were traveling economy. But, we survived and were met at the airport by representatives from Oceania who were very helpful but didn’t have us on their list for the ship.
Rome & Sicily
But first, we were given one of those quickie tours of Rome. The plane arrived at 7:00 a.m. and we couldn’t get onboard until about three or whenever the rooms were ready. So we visited St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, then drove quickly through Rome. Yes, I did say quickly which for Rome is amazing, but since it was Sunday morning, the traffic wasn’t the usual horrendous snarl.
Once they killed enough time, we drove to the port at Citvitavecchia(?) to board the ship. Everything was in order, thankfully, and we had lunch while they were finishing up the staterooms. By the time we unpacked, it was dinner time, and the long flight was catching up with us. We made it through dinner and an introductory show, then collapsed.
Our first stop was Messina, Sicily. This is an old Roman town whose one redeeming feature seems to be the Norman cathedral from the 12th century. It has an astronomical clock that was built in Strasbourg and was unveiled in 1933, hence the familiar moving figures like Munich’s and other German clocks. Unfortunately, Messina was a typical Italian town complete with dirty streets and all sorts of beggars. One very persistent youngster had a toy accordion and came right up to your nose and played and sang Jingle Bells with his hips swiveling furiously.
This was our first visit to Sicily, and I was fascinated to learn that Sicily has been inhabited since the Ice Age. I guess I knew it has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Arabs and Byzantines. Messina is still a bustling city with its strategic location in the Mediterranean.
Ship entertainment that evening was a singer from London’s West End theater, Paul Baker, a little guy with a stupendous voice. He regaled us with show tunes from a wide range of productions. Great show.
Egypt - Port Said, Cairo, Giza
Next destination was Port Said, a relatively new town by Egyptian standards. The city was a working camp founded in 1859 to house men working on the Suez Canal. The wars of 1967 and 1973 heavily damaged the city, but it is now rebuilt and has a population of about 40,000. Mainly, it was our gateway to Cairo.
Cairo is about a three hour drive from Port Said, and all vehicles, public or private, must travel in a state convoy with a military escort. Our ship, Oceania’s Nautica, holds less than 700 passengers, so we used 20 buses for our excursion, but we were in port with the Star Princess, which required ninety buses. They stopped all traffic in Port Said when the convoy departed, and we made our way into the desert for the trip.
With a population of twenty million, Cairo is a logger jam of humanity and vehicles. Our Egyptian guide lived in Cairo. She said she had visited all over the world and had lived in Russia for three years. She felt Cairo was an exciting city and would never want to live anywhere else in the world. I thought she needed to expand her horizons, as it was a dirty, noisy, ugly place. But, that’s just my opinion. If you notice in the photo, every building has an array or satellite dishes on their roofs. The Egyptians apparently are addicted to television, especially American soaps and sitcoms. Our guide felt American shows have undermined the morality of the country as the number of rapes and violent crimes has increased in recent years. For this, American television seems to be the culprit. Could be, but ancient texts reported rapes and violence as far back as written history exists, so I’m not sure we can take the blame for all of that.
The necessary visit to the Cairo Museum was, of course, too short and too quick, but it was on my must see before I die list, so off we went. We have been in crowded museums before, but never anything like this. Our guide did the dutiful thing and brought us through the treasures of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, most of which we had seen when it was on tour in the U.S. in the 1970’s, but it was interesting to see it in the setting of the Cairo Museum. Of course, we saw the whole thing in a beautifully sterile and gleaming exhibit in Las Vegas at the Luxor Hotel. If you can’t make it to Egypt, you should at least visit the Luxor, as the presentation is much glitzier there, and you can have a great brunch while there.
Adjacent to Cairo and its twenty million people was our destination of Giza whose population was another five million. Same views and same traffic. BUT, Giza has the pyramids and the Sphinx, and they are the reason we are here. Ever since that stupid song in the 50’s – Far Away Places – with the admonition to “see the pyramids along the Nile,” I have been anxious to visit here. Ancient civilizations and places have fascinated me all my life, and this one remaining wonder of the ancient world did not disappoint.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza was built about 2566 B.C. as the tomb of Khufu (Cheops is the Greek name). This giant tomb was originally 146 meters high until it was stripped of its outer casing—now it is slightly shorter. The pyramid was the tallest man made structure on earth until the Eiffel Tower was built just before the turn of the 20th Century. That in itself is amazing. But the size of this tomb is what is mind boggling. Also, how these ancient architects, without benefit of modern measuring devises managed to build four equal triangles that met at the apex and formed a perfect pyramid is incredible.
In 1954 archaeologists discovered four huge boats buried next to the base of the pyramid. They excavated one of them and rebuilt the boat. It is now housed in a boat-shaped building adjacent to the pyramid. They think they were meant to carry the treasurers of the tomb with the king to the underworld.
The Great Sphinx is the mysterious marvel of the ancient world. With the body of a lion and the head of a king or a god, the structure is certainly imposing. Unlike the pyramids, this was actually carved from the rock wherein it sits. The head is not in proportion to the body, so it actually looks better when you look it in the face. Either way, it is fascinating.
The hawkers at all the sights in and around Cairo were extremely persistent devils. And we were warned in advance about the camel drivers (we already knew about them from an earlier experience in the 1970’s, but that’s another story). If you take their picture, they hound you for payment. We managed to avoid them pretty well, but this one guy would come charging into the frame whenever you aimed your camera. Here he is in all his glory!
The Suez Canal
After all the magnificent sights and the tiring drive to and from Port Said we began our journey through the Suez Canal. The complete 100 mile (88 nautical miles) journey would take us about fifteen hours. It seems the engineering feat of the Suez was not the first canal to transverse the area. Evidence indicates an east-west canal joining the Nile with the Red Sea in the 13th century BC during the time of Ramesses II (you know him – Yul Brunner in The Ten Commandments). It fell into disrepair, then about 600 BC a re-excavation was undertaken but never completed. At the end of the 18th century Napoleon thought about building a lockless canal, but some French engineers told him the height of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were different, so he abandoned the project.
The Suez Canal Company was formed in 1858, and the canal was completed in 1869. Extravaganzas and celebrations ensued with heads of state from all over joining in the festivities. The Suez, I didn’t know, has no locks because there is no difference in sea level between the bodies of water, contrary to what the French engineers told Napoleon. So, the passage was quite different from passing through the Panama Canal. Ships enter the canal from both the North and South ends at the same time. They meet in the middle and anchor in the “Great Bitter Lake” until both ends have completed the passage into the lake, then each convoy proceeds into the newly vacated passage way. Since 1980 there has been a vehicular tunnel under the canal. Fourteen percent of world shipping passes through the canal each year, about 25,000 ships.
The ship docked in the port of Safaga, Egypt on December 1st all packed and ready to go on our overnight trip off the ship to the famed city of Luxor. This ancient city, more commonly known by its Greek name of Thebes, was one of the four capitals of Egypt during the period of the New Kingdom and flourished from 1540 to 1186 BC. Rameses II was one of its rulers, as was the boy-king Tutankhamen. After some delays docking and getting aboard our buses, we were finally on our way in yet another convoy for an even longer trip to our destination.
Entering Luxor, the first ancient sight you see is Luxor temple, and its mere size is overwhelming. But we soon learned it was miniscule, compared to Karnak Temple. Karnak temple is the largest “Hypostyle Hall” in the world. It has 134 columns and was built by King Seti I (1313-1292 BC) and completed by his son, Rameses II (1292-1225 BC). It is the largest temple ever built by man. The temple was dedicated to the god Amun who at one time was the most worshiped god of Egypt, as more than two-thirds of Egyptian temples were dedicated to him. The temple itself sits on 247 acres of land.
I think one of the most recognizable sites is this row of rams near the entrance. I photographed it from all angles.
The entire temple was once covered in brilliant colors. The Egyptians used various kinds of crushed stones to create the paint for their temples, so many of the colors still remain brilliant. The columns are faded, but the more protected ceilings and entrances still show enough color to give you an idea of what it must have looked like in its heyday.
You’d think after a while you’d quit saying ouwwww and ahhhh, but it couldn’t help myself. Everything we saw just took my breath away.
Next stop was the Temple of Luxor, which was the center of the most important festival celebrated in ancient Thebes, the Festival of Opet. Apparently it was built primarily to provide a suitable site for the festival—sort of like building a football stadium, I guess. Anyway, it was smaller than Karnak but no less impressive, we toured late in the day, so we were able to get some really nice photos of the sun setting behind the columns.
The trip to Luxor was an overnight off the ship, and we stayed at a lovely 5-star hotel overlooking the Nile. Our suite had a sitting room, and down a long hallway was the bath which led to the master bedroom. The thing I really liked after the long and dusty day was the Jacuzzi tub. I anchored the bottoms of my aching feet on some jets and let them massage away.
Our balcony not only looked out on the Nile but also on this lovely swimming pool. But there was no time for Nile gazing. We had to have our dinner and be off to the sound and light show at Karnak Temple. And what a show it was. The huge temple took on a life of its own under the spotlights with the stories of its history echoing in the dark of the night.
Fortunately we were wise enough to have eaten dinner before the show, because we were bushed by the time we arrived back at the hotel.
We hardly needed a room at all because we signed up for a balloon ride at dawn. The wake up call came at 4:30, and breakfast was to be served after our return at 8:00. We met in the lobby and were ushered outside by our guides. Somehow we all thought we would be getting on a bus, but, surprise, surprise, we were taken around the back of the hotel to the Nile. In we climbed to water taxis to cross the Nile in the still dark. It was kind of eerie and really scary. On the left bank vans were waiting for us and rushed us to a field where they were setting up the balloons.
This was our first balloon ride ever, and they gave us some quick instructions on how to get in and how to hold on for landing. Some burly Egyptian picked me up and put me into the balloon. They took this picture and soon we were off into the wild blue yonder. Only it wasn’t blue yet, the sun wasn’t quite up, which enabled us to get this picture of the sunrise—my second photo of a sunrise. I’m not big on sunrises, as they are too early in the morning for me. I have lots of photos of sunsets, though.
It was just like floating through the air, which is actually what we were doing, I guess. But everything took on a sort of ethereal quality.
We were very near the Valley of the Kings and could see the tombs in the nearby mountains. These tombs on the West Bank of the Nile were begun after the great pyramids were seen to draw tomb robbers to their sites. So it was that kings wanted the riches of their tombs hidden. They needed the things buried with them to carry them into the next world.
In fact, the tombs were incredibly well hidden. There are sixty tombs of pharaohs and noblemen in the valley, the most famous of which is possibly that of Tutankhamen, which was discovered undisturbed in 1922. With all the traffic for centuries in this area crowded with tombs, I was amazed to learn they had discovered a new one just last year, which is still being excavated. The Egyptians were apparently as good at subterfuge as they were at building incredible pyramids. In the photo you can see what looks like a modern three-story structure but is actually Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple.
Anyway, back to our balloon ride, which was the adventure of the day. We glided past the wonderful ancient sites, then recrossed the Nile back to the side of the hotel and soared above dwellings of local residents. The homes are much like the adobe homes of our Southwest, but they don’t have roofs. If they have one it is over one or two rooms. It seldom rains in Egypt, so they just bother with roofs. I guess they have one room covered in case it ever does rain. We were on our descent, so we were close enough to actually see into the homes. It was certainly an invasion of privacy on our part.
Farms and irrigation canals criss-crossed the area and balloons were landing in various fields everywhere. Trucks to pick up the balloons were rushing down the dirt roads in every which way as our balloon pilot called via cell phone to give directions to where we were going to land. The crew was waiting for us when we landed and eased us into another field, since the one we touched down in was muddy. The fields were roughly tilled, and no one landed on any crops. As we landed, farmers in flowing robes and flying turbans came into the field. They watched in silence as we scampered out of the balloon basket and onto a nearby road. The balloon crew started with the task of folding and rolling the balloon for transit back to wherever balloons come from. The little white vans we had been transported in were rushing every which way down roads to pick up their respective passengers.
But, we waited, and no vans appeared. There were twenty-eight of us in this largest balloon of the lot, but no vans appeared. After about half and hour, our pilot said the vans couldn’t find us and we could get into the lorry. We took one look at that flat bed truck with the 18 inch sides and unanimously said, “No way.” So the truck started to back down the little road leading to the balloon in the farmer’s field, but all of a sudden the farmer and possibly his sons were standing on the little road demanding payment for trespassing on their property. The shouting in Egyptian became very loud, but the farmers stood their ground. We all sort of shifted a safe distance away. We didn’t see any guns, but we had observed many civilians on corners with rifles hanging on their backs or sides in the last few days and as a body felt a little distance was in order.
Still no vans. The stated breakfast time at the hotel was past, and our little group would be on its way to the morning’s sights. With retrieval of the balloon at a standstill, they finally dispatched the truck to locate the vans and after an hour in the field, we were finally picked up. We met our buses at an intersection and boarded them without benefit of breakfast or bathroom break since 4:30 a.m. But, we had a story to tell!
In the Valley of the Kings we visited many of the tombs which were incredible. Since they were meant to be hidden, there was virtually nothing to photograph from the outside, and photos weren’t allowed inside, so I have nothing to show. The carvings and colors inside were incredible, as they were totally protected from exterior light and damage. We have postcards to remind us of the wonders therein.
Oman - Salalah and Muscat
From the dirt and grime of Egypt we traveled to the country of Oman where you get fined if your car is dirty. Our first stop was in the small port of Salalah. I believe the only reason for this stop was that we had been at sea for several days. Ray roamed around a bit and took this photo of a mausoleum near the port.
Muscat is the capital of Oman and has been an important port in the Middle East since the 2nd century AD. It was the center of the frankincense trade. The sultan’s main palace is located in Muscat as is the third largest mosque in the world, which houses the largest woven Persian carpet in the world. While I admit to being apprehensive about visiting my first Muslim Mosque and adhering to the dress code required, I must admit that it was an impressive structure. It was completed in 2001 and has magnificent Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Here is Ray on the carpet with some of the smaller chandeliers in the background. And here is a picture of me complete with headscarf, long sleeves and long pants (head, arms and ankles had to be covered).
We took our shoes off before entering the mosque. There were little shoe cubbies outside the mosque for our shoes, and we were assured they would be safe from shoe thieves, since Oman is a perfectly safe country.
The entire country is spotless. The streets and buildings sparkle. We assumed some of the buildings in Egypt had been white at one time, but here in Oman you needed sunglasses when looking at the white buildings. As I mentioned, people can be fined for having a dirty car and/or dirty house. I didn’t see anyone or anyplace that would have merited even a warning. Also, there were no old (3-4 years) cars. I asked where they all went, and the guide said they sent them to Egypt and other parts of Africa. Nuf said!
We shopped the Mutrah Souq, which is the oldest marketplace in Muscat. It was quite interesting, and we bought some saffron there.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
We continued North along the coast of until we reached the Strait of Hormuz where we crossed into the Persian Gulf and landed in the fabled Dubai City. The attention of the world has been drawn to this rapidly growing, glitzy city, and with good reason. This is truly the playground of the rich and famous. All other cities need not apply. Oil money flowed into this Emirate in the 1960’s and transformed a desert of Bedouins into this amazing city. This shows just what money can actually do. We learned back in high school that the most efficient form of government was a benevolent dictatorship, and the Dubai emirate proves this. Natives of the emirate enjoy excellent free health coverage, interest free home loans, free education in the emirate or abroad, and guaranteed employment. Like Oman, the emirate is spotlessly clean and extremely safe to live in. There is no tax, and many imported items are cheaper here than in their countries of origin. Foreigners are welcomed and treated royally.
When the ship docked we took a free shuttle bus to one of the numerous malls and were treated to our first Christmas decorations of the season. I’m not much of a shopper, but this mall made Rodeo Drive look like a swap meet. Only top designers were represented, and the décor was ultra-posh!
We were going to take the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus there at the mall, but it was quite pricy, and we decided to investigate other tours. We arranged one and were picked up at the mall by a driver in our own private car and were given a four-hour tour of the city to all the sights listed on the ship’s two tours. Our tour included admission to the museum and an art museum, plus our driver acted as our photographer. The total cost for this fabulous tour was about $36 or half of what one of the ship’s tours would have cost us.
This photo of us was taken at the famous Burj Al Arab, which is the island hotel shaped like a sailboat. You can get in if you have a reservation, and some folks were desperate enough to see it that they were willing to pay $300 for brunch or $1500 for dinner. We just took a bunch of photos and were content with that.
Dubai is separated by a body of water called the Creek. Here we are standing on the shore of Deira looking at some of the skyscrapers (or towers as they are known here). Other amazing sights were the yachts parked along the Creek. They weren’t little klunkers but huge luxury ships. Ah, money!
The Dubai Museum is in Fahidi Fort which in 1799 defended the city from invasion. The museum gives an interesting history of the emirate with life size galleries depicting life throughout their history.
We visited the city’s largest mosque, the Jumeirah Mosque. Like the one in Oman, this is a modern mosque. It was located in a middle class neighborhood in the city, so we got to see some of the less prestigious housing, but it was still a nice area.
The ship stayed an extra half day in Dubai because we were waiting for a re-fueling barge which was stuck in a storm in the sea, so we had some time to visit yet another souq.
India - Mumbai to Agra
Our next stop was India. We docked in Bombay and were whisked to the airport for our chartered flight to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal. Only the “whisking” part was pretty slow. Like Cairo, Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now known) has 20 million residents. Jobs are plentiful but housing is scarce. People live in cardboard hovels and others sleep on the streets. While not as dirty as Cairo, Bombay is still not somewhere I would want to spend much time. The 23 kilometer trip to the airport took well over an hour. Once there we waited an additional four hours for a crew to arrive to fly our chartered flight. We were very fortunate to have won first class seats in a lottery held before our departure, so our three hour flight was quite comfortable.
Agra and the Taj Mahal
We arrived in Agra after dark, so no sightseeing was done that day. We arose before dawn (again) to arrive at the Taj Mahal in time for the sunrise. The white marble of the monument changes throughout the day as the light changes. This was the early morning view we had of this majestic monument. All of the postcards and photos you have seen of the Taj don’t do it justice. Most of them look phony, but that is exactly how it looks.
As you probably know, the Taj Mahal was built 350 years ago by Emperor Shah Jahan, a grieving king for his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She was one of four wives, but his favorite. It took 22,000 artisans 20 years to complete the mausoleum, and India is taking care to preserve it for the ages. They have no vehicles with emissions near the monument. They use natural gas powered vehicles as transports up to the Taj. Now, if they could do something about the aggressive vendors, that would be really good. The Egyptians at the Pyramids were minor leaguers compared to these folks.
We spent about an hour there. The crowds were light at this time of day, so we went inside the mausoleum to visit the tombs of the king and his wife. The king’s tomb is the only unsymmetrical element in the Taj because it was added after the completion of the monument.
We did some additional sighting seeing during the day, and then returned at sunset to see it in an entirely different light. As you can see in the photo of Ray, the color at sunset is entirely different--more of a pink cast. We have oodles of pictures that I will get up once we return home. The inlays in the marble are really beautiful. They are copied all over the area and sold as trays and tables and coasters. Sadly several photos we took in the morning were overexposed. Not sure what happened, but I’m glad we took plenty.
India - Fatehpur-Sikri
After our morning visit to the Taj we visited the complex known as Fatehpur-Sikri (the City of Victory) . Built during the second half of the 16th century by the Emperor Akbar, Fatehpur-Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire for 10 years. It is now a World Heritage Site. The construction is a red sandstone native to the area with some very ornate engravings. The Mughal king or Sheik had three wives—a Hindu, a Muslim, and one other. He built elaborate residences for each in their own style, plus a very nice one for his harem. Busy guy that Sheik.
The following morning we had an early departure in order to visit Agra Fort, another 16th century sandstone structure. This one is a massive fortification with three entrances: the first one is surrounded by a moat; the second has a wall for pouring hot oil on any intruders; the last one has a drawbridge type gate. It was in this structure that the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, was imprisoned by his son in the last years of his life. The prison was really a palace, but Jahan was not free to leave. From the roomsin the photo, he was able to look across the river into Agra at the Taj Mahal and the final resting place of his beloved. The son at least was compassionate enough to bury the father had imprisoned next to his wife in the Taj.
India - Cochin
We caught the plane back to the coast and landed in the Indian seaport of Cochin. We had a tour where we saw the first burial site of Vasco de Gama and then took a boat ride on the famous backwaters. Cochin was a refreshing place. It was clean and rather serene, or at least much more so than any other part of India we had seen.
Here is an incredible photo of the Chinese Fishing nets on the backwater of Cochin. It is believed that traders from the court of Kubla Khan introduced these nets. We just caught it as the sun was going down in Cochin.
After three days cruising the Bay of Bengal we finally arrived at the Thailand island of Phuket, ledgendary for its resorts and beaches. The ship docked at 9:00 am. and the vendor shops along the dock were ready and waiting. There were some tours available through the ship, but the island didn't seem that big, so we opted to go on our own. We were told the taxis inside the port were more expensive than those outside. You could bargain, but the prices seemed high for a little island, like $50 just to the temple, so we walked to the edge of the port property. At the gate exiting the port were about 20 taxi drivers all shouting out prices and tours. We settled on one guy who would take us anywhere for however long we wanted for $10 each. So off we went to visit Wat Chalong Temple, the largest temple on the island.
The temple dates back to 1876 when miracles were performed during fighting between Chinese secret societies for dominance of the island's new found wealth from tin mining.. Statues of Buddah, Luang Poh Cham and countless other figures are throughout the temple. A splinter of Budda's bone is contained in the Grand Pagoda. We took off our shoes outside each of the structures and reclaimed them when we exited. The floors weren't as clean as those in Oman.
Our next stop was at one of the famous beaches. We chose the one where Club Med is, Kata Beach. We needed to gather some sand for our daughter's science classes, and Ray always enjoys those foreign beaches - you know, the topless ones. That entire beach and buildings were washed away by the tsunami of December 2005, but everything was rebuilt quickly, as the island's main industry is tourism.
Then, somehow, our unassuming little taxi driver convinced us we had to go for an elephant ride. "It's good luck to ride an elephant in Thailand," he said quietly. And all of a sudden we were at the Elephant Camp climbing atop that big animal. First a balloon and now an elephant! Its amazing what crazy old folks will do on vacation. Seriously, it was great fun. The little guy in the hat told us he was from just outside Bangkok. He lives in a lean-to at the elephant camp where he shares one room with two other workers. Their only form of entertainment seems to be cock fighting on Sundays. He showed us the home of the number ONE cock as we rode past the hovels where they live. He gets to go home every six months where he has a wife and a son.
Then on the way back to the ship our ever helpful driver said he would take us to a center where we could "look around." We didn't need to buy anything. Famous last words. Put it this way, Ray doesn't have to scurry around at the last minute looking for something to give me for our 50th Anniversary this summer. Our little taxi driver can possibly take the month off on his commission. But it is beautiful!
And suddenly it was time to leave this gorgeous island. So, if you can stand one more sunset,